By Rosemary Carstens
Some artists paint what they see; others paint what they dream. Edward Gonzales paints visions of what it means to be Hispanic in America.
I PLEDGE ALLEGIANCE, OIL, 34 X 31
Gonzales grew up beneath the hot New Mexico sun, shaped by poverty and surrounded by the richness of his Mexican American heritage. His four decades of painting and printmaking reveal an artistic direction and vision inspired by these cultural roots. This month collectors and appreciators of Latin American art can see Gonzales’ artwork at the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque, NM, through August 10. The exhibit, Caminos Distintos, features 32 of his prints and paintings, many of which are done in grisaille, a style of monochromatic painting in shades of gray to which Gonzales adds the slightest bit of color.
The majority of his works in the exhibit were influenced by early 20th-century historical photographs of village life. They represent Gonzales’ reaction to what he considered the “sugar-coated,” overly bright Southwestern art so common in the 1990s. He felt that images of traditional village life, presented in subtler hues, would speak volumes to people of Hispanic descent. This direction proved pivotal to Gonzales’ ongoing work depicting themes of family, education, and literacy. His artwork illustrating these and other related themes will be on view at Weems Gallery in Albuquerque and Casa Contemporary Fine Art in Santa Fe in the coming months.
Though Gonzales’ primary medium is oils, he is also a master printmaker and has his own printing press. In the ’90s he worked hand-in-hand with author Rudolfo Anaya to create two popular children’s books, but it is Gonzales’ fine art portraits and posters that continue to travel far and influence many. I PLEDGE ALLEGIANCE, an oil painting also reproduced as a poster, was exhibited in the White House and used for the president’s invitation to Hispanic Heritage Month events. Perhaps even more personally meaningful to the artist, in 2004 the Albuquerque public school system named the state’s largest elementary school after him to honor his contribution to art, education, and culture.
Gonzales’ landscapes and figurative works are inspired not only by scenes of home and Hispanic culture of the past and present; they are also interpretive, filled with symbolism and dream fragments. He sees his work as Jungian, about archetypes and his own connection to his feminine side, rather than ego-driven. He feels many artists’ work is self-centered, proclaiming too loudly, “Here is what I do.” When Gonzales feels himself moving into that territory, he says he simply “has a glass of sherry and waits for it to go away.” He strives for centeredness in his work, a feeling of emotional or intuitive “rightness.” As he expresses it, “Art has its own life, each piece its individual story.”
LA NUEVA MEXICANA, OIL, 30 X 40
Gonzales was born in Los Angeles right after World War II drew to a close. His family soon returned to his father’s birthplace in New Mexico, where they had extended family. His parents struggled to make ends meet, living in a small house with no indoor plumbing. Yet, in spite of the hardships, Gonzales and his four siblings were enveloped in the warmth and comfort of their Hispanic heritage. It is from the well of these deeply embedded notions of committed family that he draws in his art.
Gonzales also credits books, magazines, and reading as an essential part of his inspiration. From an early age he read everything about art that he could lay his hands on. He frequently walked the four-mile round trip to the public library, where he gravitated toward books showing the works of such masters as Michelangelo, Caravaggio, and Rembrandt. His father brought home magazines featuring American art—art that, for the young Gonzales, defined what it was to live in America. He poured over the illustrations, absorbing color, style, and content. While still in elementary school, he was already questioning why Mexican Americans weren’t in them. Where did his people stand in the spectrum of “being American”?
After high school, Gonzales entered the University of New Mexico’s fine arts program. It was the ’60s and conceptual art dominated—a far cry from the classical work that spoke to him. “It was an important art experience because it gave me something to rebel against,” he says today. “I realized I needed to define art for myself.” Fortunately, he found mentors in artists Maria Nordman and Newt Harrison, and he did well. He was 20 years old, ready to launch his career, when his draft orders arrived for Vietnam.
Hailing from a three-generation tradition of military service, Gonzales felt obligated to serve, simply because he was an American. “Being American” is a strong component of his identity; it has constantly informed both his life and his art. Returning from his tour of duty, Gonzales determined to focus his career on Chicano identity, portraying it in a way that countered the prevalent negative stereotypes of Mexican culture. He wanted to create images to serve as positive guides.
Community, close-knit families, and positive role models, especially of fathers, feature prominently in Gonzales’ paintings and posters. While recognizing that Chicano art is often more strident, expressing anger and angst, Gonzales believes a quieter voice may more clearly be heard. His themes transcend class boundaries and ethnic labels and zero in on the heart of people’s concerns—daily life, peace, and genuine caring. They invite participation in a vision of unity and dare to propose dreams of a better life. Gonzales’ work has an emotional, reflective quality that expresses the artist’s belief that “my art is there to touch the soul.”
According to Gonzales, his most important series focuses on literacy and learning. Each painting in the series promotes the theme that education is paramount. Poster reproductions of these works are used in classrooms and school districts across the nation and introduce young people to broader ideas of diversity. As Gonzales says, “We should not fear other cultures; we should embrace them, and that’s why my art shows the beauty of my people.”
Featured in August 2008