Jacques Bautista: Almost famous

An artist who doesn’t exist is the star of a show by artists who do.

If you’re out and about in downtown St. Petersburg this week, you might catch a glimpse of a new artist in town. This dapper gent could make himself known as a silhouette in a mirror or a top hat peeking out from behind a potted plant. Or you might hear a fragment of conversation that bears his name.

Jacques Bautista.

If the moniker doesn’t exactly ring a bell, that’s because Bautista is a figment of the imagination of another artist: painter Thomas Murray, a longtime St. Pete resident who moved to Texas in 2007 after he and his wife, sculptor and jewelry designer Donna Sweigart, landed teaching jobs there.

About a year ago, Murray and Sweigart were on a date with another couple in Texas when two of the four started comparing notes on music and throwing out names obscure to their spouses, who sought mock revenge by making up artist names and pretending to discuss imaginary works and careers.

A light bulb went off in Murray’s head: Why not have a show devoted to work by and about an artist who doesn’t really exist but who’s on the tip of everyone’s tongue?

“Everybody knows somebody that everybody else should know, whether this person should be famous or infamous,” Murray says.

Hoping that such an unusual exhibit would find welcome at St. Pete’s Studio@620, Murray opted to stage it in Florida rather than Texas. And then he contacted 50-something of his artist friends.

This week, 25 of them show off their contributions to the idea of Jacques Bautista with a show that closes on Saturday following an evening reception and live performance. For though Jacques has been conjured up by the show’s participants primarily as a visual artist, he may also have been a musician. Saturday’s event will mark the public debut of one of Bautista’s compositions, conceived by Murray and written and performed by musicians Roger and Bryan Sullins (guitar and bass) and Jonathan Thomas (percussion).

Other Bautista-inspired creations include a series of fictional vignettes by writer Gina Vivinetto, digital photo collages by Britzel Vasquez and Yoko Nogami, a sculpture by New York-based artist Lorenzo Pace and a painting by Marcus Farris, a Texas-based artist who co-curated the show with Murray — who himself made several pieces including a four-panel oil painting of Adam, Eve, Lilith (Adam’s alleged first wife) and Jacques in a Garden of Eden-like setting. Per their adventurous imaginings, Bautista is alternately an anonymous American who lives near the Texas-Mexico border, a sculptor of African heritage, a Parisian gentleman with a sassy Latina half-sister, a Japanese transvestite geisha, and someone fervently devoted to the joys of oral sex.

Vivinetto pled ignorance when I called to ask about her contribution, claiming to have found a book online called Jacques Bautista: In New Light, an Oral History. The passages she extracted from it (ahem, wrote) take the form of mini-interviews with people who knew Bautista throughout his life — friends, rivals, former lovers. One salacious tidbit relays the story of a schoolteacher who takes pity on Jacques for his disobedient behavior as a boy because of rumors in their small French town that Jacques’ mother had cuckolded his father with a lesbian painter. This explains his lifelong ambivalence toward women, Vivinetto says.

Murray’s cryptic invite, which included sending a friend request from the fictitious Jacques on Facebook, sparked her curiosity.

“I actually have the flimsiest grasp of what Tom is doing, and I think that’s the fun,” Vivinetto says. “Everybody’s gonna show up and say what the hell did we just participate in?”

For her, inventing Bautista has proved to be its own reward.

“I’m nowhere near done — this is too much fun,” Vivinetto says. “I don’t even know if I’m going to stop when the show happens.”

Yoko Nogami, who used digital photography to create a self-portrait of Jacques as a Japanese-born transvestite geisha turned Brazilian acai berry farmer, tells a similar story.

“[Tom] didn’t tell me anything. He just said look at this Dropbox,” which contained other artworks (a fake birth certificate, a mugshot) about Bautista. “I realized that I’m supposed to create this character,” she says.

Nogami borrowed a theme from her own work of the past several years, which has included developing a series of paintings about a Japanese-American girl named Toko who is on a perpetual journey away from or toward home. Recast as Jacques, Toko became a right-wing patriot enraged by rejection from the Japanese Imperial Army who takes up the professions of geisha and spy. Late in life, he moves to Brazil and retires as an acai berry farmer.

Nogami concocted campy transvestite farmer garb — rolled-up jeans and a rising-sun tank top — and photographed herself for the portrait. (She also shot the background imagery of tropical foliage outside her St. Pete apartment.) Underneath the fabulously bizarre narrative of political and sexual intrigue, she sees a reflection of her own sense of estrangement from and longing for the Japan of her childhood.

“I don’t know what I’m missing because it’s not there anymore,” Nogami says.

Like Bautista, it might not be real but it thrives in the imagination.

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