In exhibitions at the Park Life and Meridian galleries this year, Matt Gonzalez’ art has evidenced a maturity that warrants a revaluation of his practice in light of his comments on record. Indeed, these new works possess an economy of means and a concise statement-like quality that viewers find newly satisfying, and that, taken together as an oeuvre, conserve a portion of our inherited tradition which seems worth putting into words. What is the background of this change that’s so surprising, but that strikes us as inevitable?
Having made significant theoretical contributions to our understanding of several issues in the area of jurisprudence – including a timely article on Eminent Domain – Gonzalez nevertheless has the percipience to agree with Percy Shelley that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the human race. He collaborated with his friend Jack Hirschman on a biographical sketch of the poet, who in turn wrote a poem called “The Matt Gonzalez Arcane.” He struck up a camaraderie with Jack Micheline, and when it came time to edit and publish 67 Poems for Downtrodden Saints, a posthumous collection of his friend’s work, he expressed a balanced view of Micheline both as a person and as an author, writing of their working relationship: “Often I think Micheline disliked or criticized a poem merely because I expressed satisfaction with it,” meanwhile devotedly stating on the other hand that “Jack Micheline inspired people because he was not confined by social conventions. He was never embarrassed by the man he once had been.” Gonzalez’ own poems convey the sense of someone who occupies a unique position inside the agora where we all must stand if we want to address each other; his collection The Violet Suitcase evokes an interplay and a contrast between perception and inspiration: “When I spoke to you, leaves were coming out of your mouth.”
As Gonzalez practices it, the art of collage implies an interesting perspective on political economy. He reminds us that the works of German collagist Kurt Schwitters represent “a reaction to the chaos and inhumanity of WWI.” In that conflict, a cabal of superpowers financed four years of trench warfare and outsourced the conscripts they needed to fight it: “‘Everything had broken down and new things had to be made out of the fragments.’” Gonzalez’ art quietly invites us to recognize similar tendencies here and now. If you think of the contemporary USA as a source of chaos and inhumanity, the bits of paper that make up these collages start to look like more than mere refuse. Gonzalez often criticizes the foreign and domestic policies of the current American presidency, writing for example that “Since taking office in January 2005 [Obama] has voted to approve every war appropriation the Republicans have put forward, totaling over $300 billion…. And though he often cites his background as a civil rights lawyer, Obama voted to reauthorize the Patriot Act in July 2005, easily the worst attack on civil liberties in the last half-century.” When we see Gonzalez’ collages in this light, a certain disdain for the consumerist appurtenances of empire starts to reveal itself, and these discarded and ignored scraps that he has retrieved and trimmed and glued together take on a defiant beauty.
A Mexican current flows through Gonzalez’ work. His mother is a native of Jalisco, and his parents started an import/export medical equipment business in the US that primarily dealt with Mexican companies, and he spent much of his youth in the city of McAllen, Texas just nine miles north of the US-Mexican border. His cosmopolitan perspective on the present global financial crisis is particularly Mexican-American in character; he sees with unusual clarity the ways in which late capitalism positions modern nation states at various stages in the development of mechanized industry, and he sees this development in terms of Mexico’s recorded past. Gonzalez writes: “The Mexicans of the 19th century fought against what many developing nations face today – mounting debt and IMF / World Bank policies that constrain their ability to properly care for their citizens. As these countries struggle to make payments on debt, or just cover interest payments, their internal economic problems are exacerbated rather than relieved…. More than anything, Cinco de Mayo commemorates a developing nation’s resistance to the lending practices of wealthier foreign nations.” This Mexican current carries with it not only history but aesthetics as well; in a piece he wrote about the painter Gustavo Ramos Rivera, Gonzalez articulates by the way his own feeling for figuration, medium, palette and contrast – again non-provincial and openly international in its leanings: “Most art critics have noted Rivera’s Mexican or Latin American palette and place him in a lineage of painters whose work tries to approximate the Mexican landscape, meaning that it is dominated by bright primary colors, particularly reds and yellows. But Rivera’s abstract work also belongs to a tradition of Bay Area painting among artists … all of whom adhered to formal elements and whose use of color emphasized subtle contrasts.” An analogous system of fine gradation illuminates our experience when we view Gonzalez’ recent collages.
The pieces look rectilinear and monochromatic until you get close to them, and when you do, they’re anything but. The angles are slightly “off,” and the colors shade over into each other in ways that soothe the eye and invite the mind to repose. There’s no straining after antique effects, no finicky arrangements; instead everything has been cut and glued quickly and as-is, which gives the whole series an aura of immediacy in more senses than one. Additionally, each of these panels embodies an implicit critique of screen technologies and the bogus aesthetic they promulgate. Stand where you will on our planet at present, representatives of the ultramodern clockwork psyche are sure to go traipsing into view sooner or later, arrayed in privilege and crammed with aggression, the jargon of Windows and Clouds and Streams ever on their lips, letting fall the byproducts of a collective Fuck You they’ve just delivered to the cosmos with a hot pout and a heavy sigh. Cleaning up after such morbid tendencies, while stationing itself over against them, Gonzalez’ collage work invokes our common antiquity by way of the art of the mosaic. It’s also important to note how this artist’s sensibility and sense of humor are on show in the textual dimension of the salvaged trash. A collage is the picture of a philosophy, and when you read these pieces, you’re aware that the artist is communicating a peculiar preoccupation with enjoyment on one hand, and hygiene on the other. In a manner that could accurately be called “classical,” therefore, Gonzalez’ recent work reminds us of the Epicurean proposition that pleasure and ethics are as one.
Artworks require no justification but their own form, and in this they distinguish themselves from the remainder of human activity. Matt Gonzalez is an attorney, businessman and politician. Individuals who distinguish themselves both by worldly pursuits and by art have acted variously as stimulants and irritants in both realms of life; but despite the dismissive epithets that come on the heels of real achievement, these exceptional persons continue to grace their fellow human beings as examples that others from either world might well follow. On the strength of his new collage works, Gonzalez proves to be just such an example.