Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Contemporary Caravaggio

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."


  1. In the letter published by the NY Times, Trump and his enablers argue that Trump has the powers of a king. The silence from Ryan, Pence, McConnell is deafening.

    "will we think of ourselves, how we behaved, what we did and did not do" indeed.

  2. He thinks he's a Divine Right King but by his own divinity. Louis XIV has nothing on him.

  3. This guy makes me think a bit of Diego Rivera. Also, just a tiny bit, of Norman Rockwell, although he thankfully doesn't have Rockwell's tendency to clobber you over the head with his message.

  4. Will we even be able to look back? If we don't get smart as a nation, and put an end to Trumpism, history will be repressed. If we don't change course, democracy will fail. Our freedoms are already on shaky ground. They'll fall like dominoes.

    1. The outrageous assertions made recently by Trump and Giuliani concerning presidential powers are scary indeed. And even after all these months, Trump's disdain for the truth continues to amaze me.


    2. Wouldn't you think that our Congress would be apoplectic right now? I suppose the GOP wants to milk this administration for all the federal judges it can get before they run Trump out of town on a rail.

  5. Among the countless signs in downtown Cleveland during Circus Week (the GOP convention) was an image of His Orangeness with a crown on his head. Underneath his face were two words: "KING ME!"

    I thought it was laugh-out-loud funny then. I'm not laughing now.

    And I doubt if he'd get the joke. Probably never played a game of checkers in his whole life. Too cerebral for Unca Donald.

    1. Every Republican office holder needs to be asked if they think that Trump holds absolute power. Every one of them all the time.

  6. Senate Republicans are starting to openly oppose Trumps demeanor, if not his policies. Whether it is the gerrymandered or more localized nature of the House, Republican congressmen have shown no willingness to stand up to him. Perhaps they are betting that the 40% Trump base will hold and keep them safe for another election cycle. They could share my feeling that an uneducated, unmotivated electorate will fail to hold Trump accountable for his unprecedented mendacity. The man never makes an argument with facts, only bluster and insults. Ad hominem attacks his preferred weapon when his lies are exposed, yet a substantial number of Americans blindly believe his every word. If the GOP maintains power after the midterms, I fear the damage will not be repaired in the life of this Boomer. JP

    1. I remember my kid sister predicting it would take twenty years to recover from the damage being done by Reagan. She said that in 1986. It has yet to happen.

      My sister and I are Early Boomers, born on either side of 1950. Even if we both make it into our nineties, as our mother did, the damage being done today will affect this country far into the future, perhaps fatally. For once, I'm relieved I'm a geezer. Will we miss Shit vs. Fan? It's a toss-up.


Comments are vetted and posted at the discretion of the proprietor.