Jaime Cortez: Universal Remote

Essay by Jessica Tully

Jaime Cortez’s SoEx solo send-up is a complicated and exquisite examination of a great American tragic hero: Michael Jackson. Like a critical new EP, Cortez’s latest offering unfurls with a cohesion and introspection that defies the intangibility of their subject matter. His sculptures, drawings and photo collages deftly reify the static noise funneling around Michael Jackson’s lore. With Cortez’s poly-syncopated visual treatment, the self-described King of Pop falls away as a man. Nobody has access to that. Cortez takes hold of the deafening cacophony of scandal and sadness surrounding the child genius and creates a suite of systems that purposely re-scramble the applets, the sequins, the court appearances and surgeries into a self-guided tour of Michael Jackson’s own private minefield. Cortez’s works ultimately recast Jackson’s particularly fluid self-representations of race, gender and sexuality as the moving tableau of a tender grotesque.

Cortez is a conceptual artist and writer known for his large-scale pencil drawings of average men as superheroes in their underwear, Neo-Benshi filmic voiceover performances and children’s stories. His new series combines these distinct, highly-developed sensibilities to create points of entry and greater understanding along Jackson’s lethal celebrity spectrum.

In one stand-out piece, Cortez weaves together two regal publicity posters from Jackson’s memorial insert in Word Up! Magazine. This homage to Dinh Q. Lê’s photo collages - also about memory and loss - points inward towards Jackson’s own double consciousness. Once Corctez capsizes and intersplices the images the profound loneliness reflected in Jackson’s post-plastic surgery face lines up perfectly with the positioning of the gold lamé jock flap to his pop-nobility formalwear. The resulting image suggests the viewer has just pulled the regal duke from a haunted tarot deck, and, the card is inverted. Through desecration, re-orientation, and chance alignments, Cortez’s Jackson evokes visions of a hollow zombie, whose curse is to live on eternally in a shallow pop-bardo state. It is a juxtaposition that, through defilement, arrives at the core of the Michael Jackson tragedy.

Cortez’s huge hands go on to bring the Michael Jackson universe down to miniature. In one soft clay sculpture, he positions an adolescent Michael at the final stage of his naturally beautiful human form, when he was still black and broad featured. An outsized Afro comprised of wire antennae extends endlessly in all directions from his soft head. This nubile figure references the very best of early gay erotic drawings. Cortez depicts a shirtless Michael whose 1970’s era bell-bottoms seamlessly merge with his skin at a hyper-fay, heart-buckled waist belt. He surrounds the whole figure in large glass dome, eternally freezing this pivotal moment.

Here is a Jackson before he begins his surgical self-mutilation. Cortez posits that Jackson’s answer to his father’s racial insults and abuse was to become a mutilated, whitened grotesque. This small sensitive figure’s tender form is at once a lighting rod and Voudon doll for all the world’s projected desire, hermetically sealed in a translucent bubble which stunts further development.

Michael Jackson’s self-mythology is so strong that Cortez ultimately submits, re-imagining him as the hero in a children’s story. He tells it through a series of twirling shadow lamps depicting key moments in a tragic ballad about a young boy with a heartless and ambitious father. Cortez’s tight illustrations show a child Michael whose father makes a deal with a magical bird, the Lord of Song. In exchange for a beautiful falsetto voice, the boy must give up his testicles. The bird graphically extracts his payment and then fills the boy with the life force of art and song. Like the royal castrati of 17th century Italy, an innocent is mutilated and then elevated while his father remains focused only on the great wealth this will bring him. The child’s resulting voice is so beautiful that the price he paid does not become apparent until his early death.

In Cortez’s contemplative depiction, the still-smoldering wreckage of the Michael Jackson phenomena has the stench of burnt hair and the luminous refraction of eternal gold. Although it gets no closer to the man, the work precisely captures the coronation of a super nova in our midst.

Jaime Cortez's Universal Remote

Southern Exposure Catalog Text