Exploring Identity Through Abstraction

Previous Story
Article Image

Ann Hamilton Makes a Condition

Next Story
Article Image

Nufonia is “No Fun” Spelled Backwards

FATHOM: Identity in Abstraction at the Creative Alliance: Photo Essay by Rob Clatterbuck

The exhibition comes from the minds of Creative Alliance’s resident artist Alfonso Fernandez and sculptor Rachel Rotenberg, and derives inspiration from each artist’s distinctive history in abstraction. With subject matter ranging from cultural assimilation to muscle memory, FATHOM is a unique experience for audiences to engage with abstract work “as more than just the sum of its formal qualities.” 

Fernandez comes to Baltimore from Mexico by way of Minneapolis. Rotenberg was born in Toronto, Canada, and moved to Baltimore in the mid-‘90s after she lived both in Jerusalem and Brooklyn, New York.

In their enveloping and iconic works, identity is both alluded to and allowed to remain a mystery. Whether conveying the journey of cultural assimilation in Fernandez’s large scale paintings, or the muscle memories of intimate friendships in Rotenberg’s wooden constructs, each artist unites elegant shapes and forms with muted colors to share their lives in the form of metaphoric objects.

Alfonso Fernandez’s paintings are social, psychological, and personal investigations. Each of these investigations is grounded in his experience immigrating from Mexico to the United States as a teenager. The use of abstraction reflects his efforts at balancing different cultures and languages, in the most immediate sense, while simultaneously handling contested spaces of ethnography and assimilation. His massive paintings incorporate traditional Latin American motifs and suggest that borders can be blurred and overlapped and ask viewers to reconsider the labels we assign to both art and society. Since moving to Baltimore in 2014, his work has evolved in response to living and working in a new, unfamiliar city, taking on abstraction in the wake of the unrest, representation of societal memory, and figuration through the loss of identity.

In his previous paintings, Fernandez found expression through the use of materials. His new work illustrates his growth as a painter who pushes beyond material to provide insight to the inner conflict of living with the duality of cultures, all the while searching for a true identity that’s within him, yet still somehow lost.

Rachel Rotenberg creates an amorphous world of wood sculpture populated by dramatic curving surfaces, intriguingly formed negative spaces, and forceful volumes. “My sculptures are muscular movements with intimate, provocative, mysterious, sensuous and even humorous moments. A single piece represents an amalgam of [these] relationships.”  Less concerned with cultural identity than Fernandez, her sculptures speak to identity formed through relationships, association and metaphor; “identity” that is the result of the awakening and stimulation of both the artist’s and viewer’s imagination. Though wholly abstract, these works narrate Rotenberg’s interior dialogue and thus express a normally hidden sense of identity. Similar to Fernandez, surface and color are high-ranking priorities in her artwork, each in service to drawing the viewer closer.

Whether exploring subjects as broad as cultural assimilation or as specific as muscle memory, FATHOM: Identity in Abstraction is an opportunity for audiences to understand abstract work as more than just the sum of its formal qualities. Both Fernandez and Rotenberg demonstrate in their breathtaking works the depth of personal meaning and intimate stories that lay behind even the most seemingly opaque works of art.

Fathom, Creative Alliance



All photos by Rob Clatterbuck, courtesy of Creative Alliance

FATHOM: Identity in Abstraction is on exhibit at the Creative Alliance through April 8th.


Originally from Mexico City, Alfonso Fernandez attended the University of Minnesota College of Liberal Arts in Minneapolis, where he earned his BFA in Painting and Printmaking in 2013. In 2016, Fernandez earned his MFA from the LeRoy E. Hoffberger School of Painting at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), where he was an apprentice to artist Director of the Hoffberger School at MICA, Joan Waltemath. His work has been exhibited throughout the United States, most recently at the Katzen Art Center at American University in Washington, DC, the Circa Gallery in Minneapolis, and the C. Grimaldis Gallery in Baltimore, where he is represented. Alfonso Fernandez currently a resident artist at Creative Alliance.

Rachel Rotenberg was born in Toronto, Canada. She attended University in Toronto, Jerusalem and New York City receiving her BFA from York University in 1981. In 1984 she moved to a studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and chose wood as her primary medium. Rotenberg moved to Baltimore with her family in 1994. Rotenberg has exhibited her sculpture in the Baltimore Museum of Art. The Delaware Art Museum, University Gallery at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, Hillyer Arts Gallery in Washington DC and many area galleries, including the Montpelier Arts Center, Fredrick’s Deplaine Visual Arts Center, Atkins Arboretum Gallery, the Decker Gallery at the Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore’s Creative Alliance at the Patterson and the Greater Reston Arts Center, Reston, Virginia. In 2012 she received a grant from the Pollock-Krasner Foundation. She has also received a 2009 Creative Baltimore Individual Artist Award, and grants from the Art Bank of Canada and the E.D. Foundation.

Related Stories
On the fickle nature of creativity and the desire to be the kind of person your dog thinks you are

There is more than the single story of the material; there is usually a personal tie-in, a cultural or historical reference the viewer can also pick up on if they engage with it.

Brown’s staged photographs reflect a lineage of Black beauty culture and rituals that are shared throughout the diaspora.

Black pop art iconography, like Jet magazine’s coverage and advertisements reflecting the 1960s Black is Beautiful movement and the Natural Hair Movement of the 2000s, are all influential to Brown’s photographs.

Finalists Maren Henson, Megan Koeppel, and James Williams II exhibit at the Walters through Sept. 28

A smaller sampling of Baltimore area artists still offers a compelling temperature check on subjects of contemporary artistic concern.

Baltimore creative powerhouse Landis Expandis virtually reinvents himself as a power trio 

In a town full of creatives who might claim the title of “hardest working artist in town,” Landis “Expandis” McCord is arguably among those with a real shot at that crown.