Chicago-based artist José Lerma is best known for his playful and intricately rendered portraits of longlost historical figures. For his BMO Harris Bank Chicago Works exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) Chicago, Lerma presents a new, large-scale body of work that incorporates non-traditional materials and found objects – such as commercial carpet, electric keyboards, and military parachutes – that he uses to explore painting’s relationship to history. The exhibition is on view from July 2 to December 3, 2013 and is curated by Kristin Korolowicz, Marjorie Susman Curatorial Fellow at the MCA Chicago.

Lerma’s installation presents new work inspired in part by the 18th-century Italian artist Pietro Antonio Martini’s iconic engraving the Exhibition at the Salon du Louvre in 1787. The print depicts the public onlookers at the Salon without any context or artworks in the background. In this project, Lerma investigates the shifting relationships among the public, artists, and patrons, “creating one of his most ambitious paintings to date.”

In Parterre, named after the open space near the front of the stage where half the audience stood during a theater production, Lerma takes the figures from Martini’s print and compresses them to create his own “audience” within the work. Made with a fine-point airbrush technique that resembles a ballpoint pen, the monumentally scaled canvas rests on two electric keyboards, which produces a droning soundtrack. This, in turn, forms a tongue-in-cheek reference to the metaphoric weight of painting’s history on contemporary artists.

Continuing his tradition of creating artworks with whatever he finds at a particular site, the artist has created a series of portraits for this exhibition based on the patron or sponsor of each of the three discrete areas in the BMO Harris Bank Chicago Works galleries. This includes sculptural busts made of photography backdrop paper, massive carpet paintings, and experimental keyboard paintings on mylar.

Building on his previous work on the subject of monetary iconography and bankers, he has created an ambitious gallery-size carpet painting of the founders and first presidents of the merger (Bank of Montréal and N. W. Harris & Co., the predecessor of Harris Bank) that now comprise BMO Harris Bank. For Portrait of Norman and John, the artist carefully painted sections of carpet that he assembled to create an enormous portrait on the floor. Continuing to use context as content, Lerma reflects upon the complex relationship between artist, patron, public, and site.

Born in Spain and raised in Puerto Rico, Lerma received his MFA in painting from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He has held residencies at the CORE Residency Program; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; and the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine. Lerma is currently an Assistant Professor of Drawing and Painting at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

The BMO Harris Bank Chicago Works exhibition series showcases the best new work being made in Chicago, regardless of the status of the artist’s career -- whether emerging or established, mid-career or undergoing reinvention.