The New Orleans Art Review | Spring 2016
VOL. 33, NOS. 3-4
By Kathy Rodriguez, via neworleansartreview.org
WE ARE CONSTANTLY moving. Perhaps this lesson is taken for granted in the contemporary elementary classroom, and it’s easily proven with a simple astronomical observation exercise. I clearly remember the excitement of the discovery of my own perpetual motion despite my feeling of conscious stillness, found with a few evenings of sky mapping mandated by a physics class. It was a marvel to consider even the tiniest particle of matter is struck with consistent energy, and that energy is reiterated in the patterns and rhythm of the surrounding world.
Painting, by comparison, can be read as an illusion of stasis. Though the index of the painter’s gesture reveals the energy and action of the movement of the brush, it is deceptively still upon the substrate. The viewer is then kinetically responsive to the stillness, as the eyes move upon and throughout the composition. Even in the most modern canvases, this is the case; often, the reality of flatness contrasts with the fantasy of depth even in the flattest surfaces. Layers of paint or blocks of color shift our vision and dazzle the eyes in their thin space on the frankly painted surface, as in a Rothko or a Hoffman.
The expressive mode of painting taken by Wayne Gonzales in Forest, the large-scale achromatic acrylic on canvas painting now at Arthur Roger Gallery, parallels the movement of matter and the painter/viewer in his characteristic economic and gestural strokes. As in his paintings of crowds, his marks beg not only the kinesthetic response of the viewer, but also a response in actual spatial depth. As the marks lay flat on the surface, they invite close inspection of their abstractness and simplicity, and distanced observation to marvel at the phenomenon of their gestalt, melding into legible representation.
The subject matter of this painting is especially riddled with the paradox of simultaneous movement and stillness. The representation of a tangle of leaves and branches from a near vantage point, as though from a nest caught in this weave, is photographically still. Whether it’s a cliché or not, a forest breathes – the stillness of a scene like this opens an opportunity for mindfulness toward the action of creatures, plant life, air, and moisture, which move, fill, and vacate the space.
The horror vacui of this scene mimics the space filled by Gonzales’ crowds – instead of figures, this Romantically-scaled painting is populated with dense organic material. Each mark of the paint serves as an individual figure, much like the figures in his crowd scenes can be deconstructed into single positive value shapes traced across the surface. Negative spaces in Forest glow with deep light, as values heighten towards the background. Harder contrasts of high- and low-key values define the textures and shallow space of the foreground. Everything is densely packed within the containment of the canvas stretcher, evoking, by this constriction, the true scale of the subject. The forest stretches beyond these boundaries, and is hard-kept within their confines.
Perhaps the containment of the subject matter has ecological connotations, and the palette may also point this way; again, Gonzales’ crowd scenes – even if small scale – suggest sardine packing in the closeness of figures and density of marks. The sublime largeness of this kind of landscape is threatened, and containing it pictorially may point to the preciousness of the resource. The achromatic palette suggests documentation, or memory. The cool and warm blacks, whites, and grays recall Guernica, and its journalistic references.
That content seems too loaded, however, as Gonzales’ intent appears to be far more formal. Variations in value tensely stretch between closeness to the surface of the picture plane and spatial exploration because of color temperature, like the modernist color fields of Josef Albers and Hans Hoffman. The density of the painted surface states it flat intentions plainly – that stasis of the space of the modern painted surface – at the same time as inviting moving exploration of the illusion of depth, marrying various modes of historical approaches to the medium.
Gonzales earned a B.A. in Fine Arts from the program at the University of New Orleans in 1985, during the tenure of Jim Richard. Richard retired from his position as Research Professor at UNO in December 2012, but throughout his career, he has promoted the work of his students at Arthur Roger. In 2011, a group show he organized titled “Common Ground” featured Gonzales’ iconic crowds. Richard again curated Gonzales and several other artists in exhibitions accompanying his solo show at the gallery. Richard’s one-person exhibition “Darn That Dream” features works that demonstrate his influence on the development of Gonzales’ style.
The perpetual movement of Gonzales’ marks is rooted in Richard’s own gestural application of flat paint. Throughout much of his career, Richard has favored Flashe, a graphic paint that flattens into a matte surface more consistent than gouache. He uses gouache in small-scale framed works on paper, which fracture planes and spatial depth into flat, consistent areas of color. The palettes range from wildly polychromatic to insistently monochromatic, varying the opacity of a single color to achieve a variety of value. Various iterations of his iconic and autographic subject matter – Richard fills his modern interiors with delightfully kitschy decorations, highly contrasting patterns and textures, and oddly engaging arrangements of modern art objects – in turn fill the walls of the gallery in different scales and arrangements, from salon style to single-spacing.
Sticks and Globe, both from 2015, translate architectural space into flat surfaces. Richard’s interiors are densely packed, as Gonzales’ exterior scenes. In these two paintings, the texture of the painted mark enhances the quirks of the subject matter. The transparency and opacity of the gouache creates a consistent and jerky rhythm in the compositions that evokes a kinetic response in the viewer. The intensity of the dense space combined with the gestural texture of the mark making evokes an anxious hum, a frequency of wavelength in the composition. Though still and frozen, it appears to move, and begs movement. The same effect can be found in Gonzales’ work on display.
Richard’s collages are steeped in the content of time and motion. Synthetic cubism elevated this craft practice to the level of fine art more than a hundred years ago. This method of constructing images embraced visual puns and games, utilizing trompe l’oeil in the painted versus collaged surfaces of the compositions. Richard plays with our perception, locating cut and collaged materials in paintings (or vice versa), as in Gallery Moment. The cubist fracturing of the subject matter allows for simultaneous multiple viewpoints, again uniting stillness and motion. The thick space of Richard’s interiors, punctuated with monumental, floating, or awkward objects and paintings-within-paintings, poses questions about simultaneous moments. The space and the objects seem anachronistic, or plopped in a place where they both belong and do not belong.
Influence passes fluidly between students and teachers and artist to artist. That perpetual motion is constant and understood. Motion happens in unconsidered territory as well. Even within the stillness of a given subject in a series – crowds, or interiors, for instance – movement and change happen with growth and process. Gonzales, on whose work Richard’s influence seems apparent, comments on the persistence of movement. Even as one stands silently and still in front of his monumental canvas, the heart beats, the lungs expand and contract, and the eyes blink and twitch over the surface of the painting. Gonzales encourages mindfulness in this work, which is reflected in the meditative subject matter as well as the techniques with which it is painted. The lineage of this skill is apparent in the adjoining room of the gallery, where the viewer is able to observe Gonzales’ Forest from a distance at the same time as being surrounded by Richard’s evolving world in painting.