‘Telling’ Stories: Ray Gonzales at Axis Gallery

“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.