George Gonzalez | Calling on the Muses

Caravaggio Trompe, oil, 24 x 18.

By Bonnie Gangelhoff

Inventive still-life tableaux by George Gonzalez pay homage to masters like Caravaggio and Magritte

One of the first things George Gonzalez says about himself is that he may not have much to say. “I’m just a blue-collar artist,” he explains modestly. It’s a picture-perfect sunny day in Carmel, CA, a tony coastal community that on this particular day brims with art aficionados in town for the annual Carmel Art Festival. Gonzalez participated in the show last year and won a top award. This year, however, he’s here for a one-man show and demonstration at Gibson Galleries.

While throngs of landscape painters fan out across town to capture the hills and valleys, Gonzalez is tucked inside the gallery—bent over a small canvas, delicately placing a ring of orange paint on a persimmon. “Do you want to see a dewdrop?” he asks several folks gathered around him. Within a few minutes, he fashions a speck of moisture on the lusciously painted fruit.

The Texas artist is known for painstakingly rendered still-life works—gatherings of peppers, pears, eggs, spoons, feathers, umbrellas, hammers, apples, and more. Some objects sit in antique silver bowls; others float in space amid puffy white clouds and azure skies. Gonzalez moves back and forth between traditional realism and mysterious surrealism with ease. His muses are many and disparate, but three from art history best reflect his genre-bending oeuvre. For inspiration Gonzalez looks to the Renaissance master of chiaroscuro, Caravaggio, as well as newer legends like American William Harnett, who skillfully practiced the art of trompe l’oeil (French for “trick the eye”). He is equally at home in the artistic domain of his primary muse, Rene Magritte, the esteemed Belgian surrealist.

In the past several years Gonzalez has shared his evocative still-life visions at a number of prestigious shows across the country, including the Salon International at Greenhouse Gallery of Fine Art in San Antonio, TX; the annual Oil Painters of America National Juried Exhibition; and Epic Still Lifes, a show at John Pence Gallery in San Francisco, CA. His paintings, kudos, and awards belie his shy, effacing demeanor.

Spend some time with Gonzalez, though, and it’s apparent that when the subject relates to art, the man actually has plenty to say—whether sipping a cup of joe at a Carmel café or pointing out his favorite Magritte pieces at the Menil Collection back home in Houston. His years of poring over art history books, visiting museums, and working in the studio have obviously shaped his artistic vision and viewpoints. He can recall the first time he saw a Caravaggio painting—it was in 1989 on a visit to the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, TX. He stood and stared at the cardsharps, he says, awed as much by the painting itself as by the experience of standing in front of an original piece painted in 1594 by the artist he admired most in the world.

Early in his career, Gonzalez thought the style of the old masters was the only way to paint. But that was before he discovered works by Magritte. “He and a few other surrealists slowly opened my mind to new ideas,” Gonzalez says. “I had been closed-minded. But when I saw Magritte’s works, I fell in love with them and the idea that you could go beyond realism and think a little crazy.”

Over the years Gonzalez has paid many visits to Houston’s Menil Collection, as one of his favorite Magrittes, dominion of light, hangs there. Again he can recollect his first glimpse of the piece. It was 1988, and he was on his first date with the woman he would later marry, artist Judith Mroski. Gonzalez chose the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston as the location of their rendezvous. She then led him to the treasure trove of surrealistic works at the nearby Menil.

Bird Bath, oil, 40 x 30.In several of his recent works, Gonzalez pays homage to Magritte. In bird bath, for example, an umbrella hangs upside down, floating against a blue sky sprinkled with clouds, and a bird perches on the edge of the open umbrella. The artist combines a surrealist’s sense of dreamlike worlds with his own sly sense of humor—but Gonzalez, of course, downplays his effort. “It’s nothing more than a simple take on Magritte’s umbrella pieces, like the one where it’s only raining inside the umbrella,” he says. “I thought about having the umbrella rest on the ground, but suddenly I thought the painting would be more interesting if I could paint it upside down to catch water like a bird bath.”

The idea for hot pepper, which depicts a green pepper stretched between two twigs and roasting over a matchstick flame, came to him while he was at a restaurant. He was munching on salsa and chips and perusing the label on a bottle of hot sauce. A cartoon-like image of a red pepper with arms and legs stared back at him, and he quickly grabbed a napkin and sketched a pepper roasting over a campfire. Back in the studio, the campfire evolved into a matchstick.

Caravaggio comes into play when Gonzalez turns his attention to traditional still lifes such as towering pears and persimmons & pitcher. Although he once painted such pieces in highly contrasting light and shadows in the manner of the old masters, a fellow still-life artist suggested he try using more contemporary lighting. Gonzalez liked the results. So these days he employs natural lighting from his studio windows, which creates a softer feel with more subtle shadows and highlights.

Gonzalez is fond of scouring flea markets and antiques stores to find intriguing bowls, pots, pitchers, and utensils for his paintings. He thumbs through magazines such as Architectural Digest to find interesting tables or buffets with plenty of character, preferring worn and used to shiny and new. Still-life painting is his genre of choice because it offers him control over the subject matter, the ability to arrange and rearrange his actors on an ever-changing stage.

It’s a good thing he fell in love with art at an early age, because as a youngster not much else interested him, Gonzalez says. His parents came to Texas from Mexico a few months before he was born in 1966, seeking a better life for their children. The first time he remembers drawing a picture, he was 6 years old and staying with a babysitter. A wall calendar with a Norman Rockwell-type image of a boy fishing caught the budding artist’s eye, and he reached for a pencil to re-create the scene.

School bored the young Gonzalez, and he didn’t care much for sports, either, although he did play on his high school football team. On the weekends he preferred staying home to draw over socializing with friends, and on the weeknights he’d begin painting or drawing by about 7 o’clock and stay up until his mother forced him to turn out the light.

His parents worried about him, but at the same time they were pleased to see him committed to something. So when he asked for money to buy paints, they acquiesced, even though money was tight. By the time Gonzalez graduated from high school he still wasn’t sure about his future, but his father issued ultimatums: Go to college, get a job, or join the U.S. Army. He chose the Army and was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division. “In the Army, I went from being 18 to 30 in three years,” he says. Basic training taught him patience, which comes in handy in his art career when it takes him two days to prepare the Masonite he uses—12 layers of cross-hatched gesso interspersed with a sanding process.

In 1987, Gonzalez returned to civilian life and to drawing and painting in his spare time while working at a graphics firm. He sold his first painting in June of that year, and five years later he had a one-man show at a gallery in Galveston, TX. Before the show even opened he sold his first trompe l’oeil piece, which featured an apple hanging on a string against a board. The gallery paid him $125.

This moment is immortalized in his recent work apple pi. The piece makes reference to the sale with a piece of a dollar bill, and the apple represents the painting. Written on the blackboard is his wife’s name as well as a depiction of a mean school teacher. An Uncle Sam stamp represents his time in the Army, and a report card is hidden behind the board so that the grades aren’t visible. “I wanted that painting to be my life during the ’80s,” he says. “The little pi sign on the blackboard is my love for plays on words.”

In Gonzalez’s studio there’s a 16-foot-long board nailed to the wall. At any particular time, about 10 paintings rest on the ledge—surrealistic, traditional and trompe l’oeil still-life pieces. He hopes someday to bring together all three styles of painting in a tour de force series. He continues to keep what he calls “vampire hours,” teaching art classes in the mornings, sleeping in the afternoons, and painting all through the nights. Nowadays, no one tells him to turn out the light.

Gonzalez is represented by Wendt Gallery, Laguna Beach, CA; Gibson Galleries, Carmel, CA; DeVorzon Gallery, Los Angeles, CA; S R Brennen Galleries, Palm Desert, CA, and Scottsdale, AZ; J. Todd Galleries, Wellesley, MA; and Broden Gallery, Madison, WI.

Featured in August 2005