“What if Arneson were brown like me?”
On the tenth of June in 2017 I took the train from Oakland to Sacramento, a longtime favorite route for me. Rain was falling, an unusual event lately, as we wound through the marshlands and behind the sugar cane factory. The cars were full, and people were talkative, laughing and joking with strangers. I recognized five spoken languages, received a gift of tacos and some cookies, and had ample time to think about the way common struggle in California has shaped our recent history. It is important, essential, that we stand together. For this to have lasting results, we first need to understand our history, and the work of artist Ray Gonzales is a torch held high for that understanding.
Ray Gonzales’ solo exhibition, ‘Telling’ Stories gives us powerful images, beautifully executed work and a strong personal narrative, that is as long as the artist’s own rich history. The artwork was accompanied by a booklet of stories about each piece written by the artist. Generally, the narrative quality of sculpture does not require didactic materials, but here, the personal reflections and philosophy of the artist are written in a strongly individual, mature voice, a full partner to the exhibition. I have included his critical insights in my review.
In his title, Gonzales puts quotes around ‘Telling’ which he explains is to isolate and emphasize the words meaning. I am reminded that writer Ursula le Guin called her epic book about social justice The Telling. In it, an interstellar diplomat uncovers the lies that oppressors have used to subjugate the people. Here we think about the word, not as the act of telling a story but as an identifying adjective, as in: ‘Telling: adjective. 1.having force or effect; striking. 2.revealing; indicative of much otherwise unnoticed’. The artwork does the telling, says the artist, who further defines ‘Telling’ as “significant; it describes and reveals.”
The qualities that Gonzales employs so effectively as an artist are scale, color, texture—especially fine detail—and impressive mastery of ceramic materials, developed over a lifetime. Personal history and Mexican-American culture inform and illuminate the sculptural works. Audiences are drawn to closer examination and it is here, with subtle force, that we apprehend the depth of ‘Telling’ Stories. There is indeed much otherwise unnoticed in the life of an American of Mexican heritage in California. The small town of Lincoln, California, northeast of Sacramento, is home to the Gladding, McBean terracotta factory, founded in 1875; a company which has contributed immeasurably to the state's industrialization. Skilled Mexican workers in the town were employed to bring this about; many families depended upon the factory for their living, and over the next 150 years, Mexican-American families sent five generations to work in the pottery. Gladding, McBean thus ‘dominated the industry in California and the Far West’ by relying upon the town to provide skilled workers, from 1875 till present day.
The historic factory, the northern California terrain, dare-devil older siblings, and all the rich, bustling events in the life of a younger child in a big family, shaped Gonzales’ art making, long before he realized he had been provided such a deep well of experiences to draw from.
We know because police did raid the family home, storming the door and rounding up two grandparents and a child in the front yard.
He says, “The colors, textures, aromas and events of all around me became a part of an unspoken vocabulary that, at the time, I didn’t even realize I was building. This exhibit is but a small cache of that storehouse.”
Ray Gonzales characterizes himself, early on, as “a ceramic student torturing clay,” and some of the balance in his mature work comes from an art education that encouraged both functional pottery and clay sculpture. American studio ceramics since 1950 has developed a new tradition of sculptors raised on the potters’ wheel; such rigorous classical training is evident in the hollow forms, balance, gesture and color in the exhibition. A life-long artist and accomplished teacher, Gonzales is also a master in kiln-firing and glazing his work.
Axis Gallery has a wide, long space which afforded Gonzales, a nationally known curator, both generous wall space and open areas for sculpture and installation. From the entrance, the composition had a formal effect. Viewers spent time reading the information and moved thoughtfully from piece to piece.
Gonzales’ iconography is personal and literal. Abundant bunches of chili peppers appear in several works in the show, vivid red, curling and robust. The artist addresses his iconography in discussing Middle School Machismo and Typewriter:
MIDDLE SCHOOL MACHISMO
This piece is set with a table and chair from Gonzales’ grandfather’s home, and a bowl on the table holds bright ceramic chilis. This artist deeply honors his matriarchal line. Mother and son were close, lifelong friends, and he led the family in celebrating her, maintaining her home and repairing it after an enormous tree crashed down in a storm.
For the child growing up, heroes were up-close and personal in the form of his older siblings. Gonzales cast them as the heroic characters of Meso-American and Hispanic legend. He says:
Gonzales describes how this epic contest played out one afternoon in his home; as the two heroes of swagger traded chili for chili, “no water, no bread” he got a new perspective.
“It was a sort of game of chicken to see who would quit first. Neither quit. They ate all the chilis. My heroes were sweating, teary-eyed and had a high-pitched voice if a sound came out at all. They seemed to get physically smaller and more compact with each chili. Neither ever admitting to defeat.” He adds, “Machismo isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I went back to making things out of mud and clay.”