Artist Mariano Gonzales, Paradoxically not in Shadows

The Anchorage Museum exhibition Mariano Gonzales A Man in the Shadows (thru April 19) is as complicated and complex as it is formally beautiful and entertaining. The show is predominately made of metal murals about the size of full plywood sheets. When Gonzales bangs out sheets of aluminum, geometric ‘-agons’ emerge. These metal skins become large dimpled-esque tessellations resembling stacked ice cube trays. Digital printing somehow neatly appears on these dented skins.

Dream of Mortality (2012)
Dream of Mortality (2012) (1)

According to Gonzales, “What if one could seamlessly meld digital tools (those that extend the brain capabilities) with shop and studio tools (those that extend the hand’s capabilities) to create art?” Gonzales continues, “The printed image becomes a surface that mimics three-dimensionality in the mind of the observer. The surface is an object that in conjunction with content is designed to resonate with the viewer’s own abilities to observe, to remember, to reason.”

Gonzales, a graduate of The Rhode Island School of Design, has been a professor/art instructor at the University of Alaska for decades– one of the best Postmodernists in Alaska. Sadly, I never took his classes. He was a good friend of my painting/illustration instructor, Joan Kimura, and would often visit her classrooms. Gonzales was innovative in pushing computer graphics into the UAA curriculum; remember when making black/white stick figures viewed on a television monitor was considered an achievement? Many artists who come to Alaska hope to fool an unsuspecting public by copying from magazine gloss or lower forty-eight gallery releases—Gonzales doesn’t do any of this! He has a keen sense of art history and updates past and present themes, Marxian ideology using unusual materials.

And whether carving bone, jig-sawing wood, or shaping metal, his process/production omits the ‘messiness’ that has often been rationalized as an acceptable trope of Postmodernism.

While engaging the viewer with Form as well as the Contextual found in his art, Gonzales is interested in pushing the human brain’s idea of a picture beyond the three-dimensionality already perceived when looking at computer spatiality. Spectators move beyond processing the human brain’s visual perceptions, thus morphing concepts with what Gonzales has contrived in his aluminum canvases– a Heideggerean with snippers and pixels. While Gonzales insists he will ‘‘leave it to the viewer to parse the meaning and content,” he isn’t hiding in shadows as the title of his show specifies.

Gonzales paradoxically bursts out of his picture planes and stand-alone sculptures. Political sarcasm, dramatic irony, mythological allegory can all be found in this exhibition whether he is reproducing ancient cave paintings, contemplating Native American beliefs in his gigantic ‘Ojo de Dios’ or merely enjoying the innocence of sea otters at play. However, themes of FEAR permeate this show.

Gonzales’ self-portrait, Dream of Mortality (2012) hides behind half-opened hinged louvers. The left shutter has a full body x-ray which could be his? The right shutter pictures late fall foliage. Gonzales is playing on the unimaginable fleeting fame of the artist versus some hopeful immortality of his work. Curio cabinets or large curtains have been used by artists to give intrigue, to spatially separate different ideas or to express the passage of time. Duchamp’s famous Peephole (1946) found in a beat-up door reveals a deceased woman spread-eagled in dead grasses. Gonzales’ version places the mysteries of life/death onto himself instead of using a female nude but the voyeurism remains.

Oh Say, Can't You See (2014)
Oh Say, Can’t You See (2014)

Gonzales’ Oh Say, Can’t You See? (2014) immediately calls to mind convoluted patriotism as he tampers with the first line of The Star Spangled Banner. He has digitized a faded American flag as background for tanks, Hummers, missiles, fighter jets, machine weaponry along with explosions. The image of the Gonzales flag evokes the 2008 restoration project for the flag that flew over Fort McHenry during the 1814 British attack. This flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the national anthem can be found in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Washington DC–it cost millions to restore and millions to guarantee its security. It also costs billions to maintain our military presence that Gonzales references with his version of a digitized faded flag, backdrop for pixilated imagery of mint condition equipment and perfectly executed pyrotechnics.

In the sixties, Jasper Johns played with the fallacies of the Vietnam conflict by distorting ‘Old Glory.’ And James Rosenquist created large murals juxtaposing post-World War II escalated manufacturing of consumer goods with fears of the Cold War. Again, Gonzales beautifully/aesthetically updates past themes for the spectator to contemplate: misspending, and the sometimes mystical components of patriotism.

Don't Touch My Cheese (2015)
Don’t Touch My Cheese (2015)

Gonzales’ sculpture American Samurai (2008) is a mannequin constumed in Japanese armor with a new twist. This faux-warrior is wearing camo and draped in both the American flag as well as the flag of the Confederacy (some still consider it the true flag of the South). Iraqi and American paper money replace epaulettes. Politicians that were media stars at the time this piece was constructed: Rumsfeld, Bush, Cheney, Hussein, are layered into the face of this unknown warrior. The leaders are also found on playing cards, positioned like a magician would hold them, thus pretending the answer to a trick was sheer accident and not contrived. The body of the Samurai consists of multiple mug shots of American soldiers, perhaps dead, certainly insignificant and nameless. Gonzales made this piece during the ’08 economic collapse caused in part by military overspending and political/financial misrepresentations but certainly not bravery.

Gonzales’ Don’t Touch My Cheese (2015) is perhaps the most controversial piece in this show (title may come from Spencer Johnson’s bestseller, Who Moved my Cheese? about co-survival in a commodity driven economy). Gonzales’ silhouette of a 2-D person who has a 3-D robotic arm points a real gun at a fake pistol, a bible and a folded American flag: what loved ones could receive after a soldier falls.

If a visitor touches the thought-bubble that says ‘Don’t Touch My CHEESE!’ the arm rotates and points the bullet-free real gun at the viewer. But wait, apparently there was controversy when this piece was installed. In order for the work to be shown, the rotating arm was deactivated; a museum guard must always be present.

American Samurai (2008)
American Samurai (2008)

In an opposite corner of the gallery there is a full size photo (2014) of an actual Anchorage Museum guard, Sone. He also must be present as he is part of the show—besides, the actual guard must protect the faux guard. Similarly, the artist Duane Hanson created mannequins whose body positioning and props make passersby think twice about what’s real and what’s fictitious.

Why is the votive gun fake and the fake man’s gun real?–oops, bullet-free, but cautiously guarded? The American gun culture can’t resolve boundaries between recreational gun use and the ‘evil empire’ trading in weaponry resulting in horrific tragedy to the innocent. The Anchorage Museum allegedly was coerced into guarding a gun, sans bullets. Yet we allow guns outside this institution to roam free and unguarded. What is really real?

While I was sitting on a gallery bench quietly note-taking for this essay, using a sketchbook and a marker, the guard began chatting with me about possible themes found in the Gonzales show. Suddenly she grabbed her radio and phoned museum security, quite agitated that a person was writing at this exhibition. After several minutes the radio banter ceased; the guard ended the call and calmly returned to chatting with me about the show’s content. She didn’t seem to worry that I could do quite a lot of damage with my Sharpie. FEAR is contagious and dangerous.

Information on Mariano Gonzales can be found at the Anchorage Museum of History and Art or on the University of Alaska, Anchorage website.