Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Exhibit highlights border violence

Jeanne Claire Van Ryzin, Seeing Things

Staff Writer
Austin 360
Artist Rigoberto Gonzalez with his painting 'On the 17th of February of 2009 in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, Mexico' at the Mexican-American Cultural Center on Friday June 29, 2012.

Rigoberto Gonzalez is keenly aware that he works outside current art world trends.

"Being a figurative narrative painter isn't very popular nowadays," he says, glancing around the high-ceilinged gallery at the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center, where a solo exhibit of his work is on view through Sept. 1.

Gonzalez's observation is spot on.

These days, so many emerging artists — along with their young curator peers — remain besotted with conceptual art and its variants.

And yet Gonzalez's subject matter is by a vast stretch more timely and urgent than many a conceptualist's navel-gazing, blinkered focus.

Bearing Baroque histrionics and rendered with exquisite technique, the tableaux Gonzalez creates in oil paint depict the drug-related violence that's escalated along the Texas-Mexico border in the past decade.

Standing as centerpiece to Gonzalez's current exhibit is a 10-foot by 20-foot three-part mural-sized painting revealing a tumultuous scene with a few dozen people: Masked Mexican federal police pin a man to the ground while women wail over a gun-downed — and gun-toting — man. Far off to the right, two musicians seem to be offering a musical narrative of the scene.

Other pictures depict a beheading and a kidnapping. And four small paintings each show a decapitated head rendered with the exaggerated, dramatic lighting so characteristic of Baroque painting. But for their contemporary hairstyles and the duct tape wrapped around their mouths, any of these heads could be from a Baroque scene of St. John the Baptist presented, sans body, to Salome.

Gonzalez is nothing if not deliberate about his aesthetic choices.

"I'm appropriating an old visual language to express current events," Gonzalez says. "Border violence lends itself to be painted in the Baroque style."

Baroque artists aimed to provoke overhwhelming emotion and incite awe via portrayals of violent scenes that were nevertheless rendered beautifully. Contrast reigned: light versus shadow, violence versus beauty, movement versus stillness, horror versus grandeur. Faces reveal pained and dramatic emotion; details inject a realism that makes it easy to establish an empathetic connection with the characters or find familiarity in a scene no matter the violence shown.

All of that, Gonzalez employs in his own paintings with considered consciousness. And a spoonful of very self-conscious irony, too.

After all, Baroque was at its height at the time Spanish conquistadors vanquished the Americas. The histrionic tableaux in Baroque paintings, with their visual manipulation of emotions and fear, worked wonders for the Roman Catholic Church and the Spanish crown when it came time for both to reinforce their religious and political ideologies.

Gonzalez knows that, though his propagandist tactics are artistic, not political.

"Yeah, I'm appropriating the visual vernacular of the conqueror, of a European culture," he says. "But I don't have an agenda other than to bring awareness to the violence."

Born in the Mexican border town of Reynosa, Tamaulipas, Gonzalez, 39, has spent his life on the border — a region that both encompasses the stark differences of both nations while also very much existing as its own place with its own singular identity.

He spent two years at the New York Academy of Art, getting a master's degree and spending hours in the Metropolitan Museum of Art copying Old Master drawings and etchings.

If an attentive conversationalist, Gonzalez is little formal in a small-town kind of manner, though his dialogue is urbane and stretches far during a gallery visit: the recent Mexican presidential election, the ideology of abstract expressionism, Lady Gaga and the art of appropriation.

Gonzalez completed much of the work in the current exhibit during a yearlong residency in Roswell, N.M. He currently teaches art and art history at a public high school in Harlingen and paints in a studio not far from the house in which he lives with his wife and young son.

Gonzalez's painting "Contrabando y traicion (Contraband and treason)" was included in the 2011 Texas Biennial. The current show was exhibited by the Art League of Houston earlier this year, and it will travel to San Antonio after its Austin display.

Gonzalez lacks many regular patrons as well as gallery representation.

He shrugs. Perhaps that's from living in the Rio Grande Valley, far from any art world center. Perhaps it's the violent nature of what he paints.

"Lots of people are shocked when they first see them," he says of his paintings. "But my paintings aren't prose, they're verse — a story, not a journalistic account."

"Barroco en la Frontera/Baroque on the Border"