|La Guia ("The Guide") by Rigoberto A. Gonzalez (National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.)|
If you go to the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., you will see the expected portraits of the presidents: Gilbert Stewart's clench-mouthed George Washington, waiting for his rendezvous with a dollar bill; Lincoln, looking almost handsome, sitting pensively in a chair.
But half the building is the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and there you will find both various art work, with an emphasis on the Victorian, as well as large temporary shows.
When I was there, they were showing examples of outstanding contemporary portraiture, including the above, by Rigoberto Gonzalez.
I liked it for its drama, the old-fashioned skill in rendering the human figure. It had the story-telling quality of paintings before television, and we wonder what is going on. Are they caught—they seem to be raising their hands. What are they looking at?
Gonzalez was born in Reynosa, Mexico in 1973, and came to this country when he was 9 years old. He graduated from the University of Texas in 1999 and received his MFA from the New York Academy of Art in 2004.
A fan of baroque artwork, he wants his paintings to tell stories, although of course the stories the painting tell in part depend on the viewer. The "guide" in this painting is the teenage girl at left, by the way, helping two older immigrants through a river toward their new home.
What story they are telling depends, in part, maybe in large part, in who is looking at the painting. How do you feel about these people? Concern? Contempt?
They are of course the newest American citizens, or would, if we let them. That many would look at the above with only scorn and rejection—there is a lot of that going around—seems reason enough to post it here. Your grandparents might have come here through Ellis Island, but Ellis Island closed in 1954.
I looked into Gonzalez's work. He often uses violence in Mexico as a theme, such as, below, in the enormous 2011 canvas, "Shootout in the Border City of Juarez." Twenty-feet wide and nine feet high, he based it on renaissance crucifixion paintings. I'm only showing part of the painting, to see the detail.
"I've always had this interest in doing things that are terrible and beautiful," Gonzalez once said. "My hope is that it has a cathartic quality to it. You can't keep suppressing it. I want you to talk about it, show the work, engage the public, start a discussion."
Okay, I'll begin. Above the portrait of Lincoln is this quote from the 16th president:
"The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation."
He was referring to the Civil War. Now we are engaged in a struggle equally divided, though not as bloody. Where are we heading as a country and in what light, when we turn around and view this era, 2018, will we think of ourselves, how we behaved, what we did and did not do?
|"Shootout on the Border City of Juarez."|