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Catacomb, 1998
75 figures: rusted plaster,
animal bones, teeth, wax, wire,
carbon over welded steel
© Ronald Gonzalez 1998

Works by Ronald Gonzalez
and Sally Thomas

January 19 - March 9, 2001
Mon-Thu: 11 AM-5 PM;
Fri: 11 AM-7 PM;
Sat & Sun: 12-5 PM.

DePaul University Art Gallery
2350 North Kenmore Avenue
Chicago, Illinois 60614
Telephone: 773/ 325-7506

Ronald Gonzalez

Here, Death stands at attention as if called by the living into martial review and to account. 'Where is your flesh? Long boiled away. And where the muscles and the sinews of which you once boasted?' In fact, there would seem to be still bits of desiccated flesh, a bit of skin, a peeling crust of meat. And, perhaps, for one who has never seen a theatre of death, one might indeed feel a touch of Morbid Curiosity...

Seventy-five human forms, upright and rigid, arrayed as an uncanny platoon within a solid plot of bones. In walking the perimeter, one feels much like a harvester who returns among the empty rows of stalks after all the corn is gathered in. The gallery lighting creates a diffuse and cloudy radiance, the kind that follows after lively storms. "MORBID CURIOSITY: Works by Ronald Gonzalez and Sally Thomas" is a distinct encounter, one which the gallery visitor can experience until March 9, 2001 at the DePaul University Art Gallery, 2350 North Kenmore, Chicago. Here, there is a cleanliness; and uneasiness...

It is easy to forget, that until recent centuries, Death was not symbolized by a clean and simple skeleton. Earlier generations were far more savvy -- Death was seen as a decaying corpse, a blend of bones and putrefying flesh. And that Death was rarely feared, but rather met with acquiescence and even with acceptance: a natural destiny, a familiar friend. An artificial age of 'Mother Hubbard' hospitals, of 'final managements' and of dying 'tote-aways,' have since transfigured Death and purified the thought of it. Ironically, these have all added to our fears.

"I don't mind skulls and bones," said Marie. "There's nothing even vaguely human to them. I'm not scared of skulls and bones. They're like something insectile. If a child was raised and didn't know he had a skeleton in him, he wouldn't think anything of bones, would he? That's how it is with me. Everything human has been scraped off these. There's nothing familiar left to be horrible. In order for a thing to be horrible it has to suffer a change you can recognize. This isn't changed. They're still skeletons, like they always were. The part that changed is gone, and so there's nothing to show for it. Isn't that interesting?

Ray Bradbury in The Mummies of Guanajuato.

Study for Catacomb, 1998
© Ronald Gonzalez 1998

The artist is skillful at suggesting flesh in decay. Equally, his incorporation of wire and similar armature, often used with little attempt at concealment, signals to a viewer that the intent is not to merely reproduce or image any specific actuality, but, as art, to suggest and, further, to investigate expectations, concepts and imaginings.

Part of the fascination of Gonzalez's art lies in just such a sensibility. The decaying -- and medievally authentic -- corpse at first seems horrific, because it is like us, and yet unfamiliar, alien. But with repeated acquaintance, an acceptance forms; there is even a pleasant joy, a naturalness to death faced and familiarized. And, indeed, what is more inevitable and therefore more natural?

This is a predominant response, one widely felt among gallery visitors at the opening. Not horror, nor even revulsion, but a quietude... a naturalness. One walks around the 75 forms erect, as if walking a harvested cornfield. A naturalness. A certain peace.

Be so kind as to note the eye-sockets of the skull; so deep and rounded, somber, quiet pools, all-knowing, eternal. Gaze deep and you never touch the bottom of their dark understanding. All irony, all life, all everything is there in the cupped darkness. Compare. Compare. Compare. He raged for hours. And the skeleton, ever the frail and solemn philosopher, hung quietly inside, saying not a word, suspended like a delicate insect within a chrysalis, waiting and waiting.

"Skeleton" by Ray Bradbury

Ronald Gonzalez's contribution to the DePaul University exhibition is twofold: his final installation, and three preliminary studies toward that totality. This installation -- Gonzalez's Catacomb (1998): 75 figures of rusted plaster, animal bones, teeth, wax, wire, carbon over welded steel -- has been exhibited en route to this university's gallery. The figures do indeed stand rigid and upright, a stance untypical for death. That, in itself, takes a away a bit of the edge of sheer morbidity: neither the withered and aromatic mummies of Saints in the Lavre-Pechersk Monastery of Kiev, Ukraine, nor the exhumed indigents of Guanajuato, Mexico, display such martial discipline of posture. It echoes to works like The Dance of Death by Hans Holbein the Younger: Death as counselor, guide, and, ultimately, judge. St. Augustine noted:

...This does not mean that death, which before was an evil, has now become something good. But it means that God has rewarded faith with so much grace that death, which seems to be the enemy of life, becomes an ally that helps man enter into life. (In The City of God).

Detail of Catacomb, 1998
© Ronald Gonzalez 1998

Gonzalez's figures approach near human size (30"x12"x6'), and the installation site allows a visitor to walk about its entire circumference -- to 'be within it.' The subtle lighting arrangements contribute to that effect. The ground for this ensemble is composed of bones, gathered from various dumping sites and similar sources, wherever the artist happened upon them. And here, a subtle sorting is in evidence: shoulder blades to shoulder blades; ribs to ribs; and further, vertebrae with vertebrae; all against a ground of a mixed and unassorted omnium gatherum. Ribs and fibulae, femurs, tarsi and assorted tibiae; all seem like fallen stems and leaves. In a sense -- and it did occur to several gallery visitors -- one feels a mastery beyond and over death -- as if the living were given a scythe; and impunity. But still one hesitates....

...Simply -- waiting. And all over the world thousands more just like them, victims of accidents, fires, disease, suicide, waited, slept just like Molly and her children slept. Not able to die, not able to live. All because a man was afraid of harvesting the ripe grain. All because one man thought he could stop working with a scythe and never work with that scythe again.

"The Scythe" by Ray Bradbury

Ronald Gonzalez's art restores a balance in his viewers, a healthy, welcoming sense of life. Directly facing the visitor, just upon entering, are the three studies for Catacomb. And Gonzalez has done skeletons before. The artist stated for an earlier, kindred piece (Death Figures): "The hand of death is our hand. Everything made is an extension of our bodies relying on embodiment to transform the world into ourselves. Some say the body is just a shell; this is also part of the human condition."

Intentionally and intuitively, this artist of "Morbid Curiosity" confirms the American philosopher, George Santayana:

...[Art] prepares the world in some sense to receive the soul, and the soul to master the world; It disentangles those threads in each that can be woven into the other. ... An artist's business is not really to cut fantastical capers or be licensed to play the fool. His business is simply that of every keen soul to build well when it builds, and to speak well when it speaks, giving practice everywhere the greatest possible affinity to the situation, the most delicate adjustment to every faculty it affects.

Reason in Art

But in our deepest feelings, there still resides a common epitaph: 'As you now are, so I once was/ As I am now, so you shall be.' And, as human souls, in our deepest gut, we as much play with our mortality, as we fear its final act. In the installation art of Ronald Gonzalez, the deepest fears are thrown away, and once again, as in many ages past, a viewer comes to terms with physical reality, and even finds a fleeting moment still to smile and feel superior, for, after all, we are alive.

For now, we are indeed alive.

Bradbury, among the more poetic of prose writers, frequently treated the livings' experience with death. And St. Augustine recognized that the human soul, possessing a body, is in the world, but not of it. Philosopher Santayana asserted that a potential in art was to reconcile the soul with that world. The art of Ronald Gonzalez does all that.

In a society which has sanitized reality -- where death is whisked away to hospitals, never to return -- the art of Ronald Gonzalez returns the visitor to an all too mortal humanity. "Morbid Curiosity" fascinates, provokes and questions. In its final impressions, however, it is not truly morbid curiosity. And it is well worth one's time to see.

Gonzalez received his B.A. in 1982 from the State University of N.Y./Binghamton, where he is currently Assistant Professor of Sculpture. Additional work by Ronald Gonzalez may be seen at http://www.salinaartcenter.org/gonz.htm.


Sally Thomas

"I don't like white paper.... I feel intimidated by it...I prefer to dump coffee on it, or step on it with my foot." Sally Thomas, also currently at this gallery, is another artist who is very much involved with spent and odd materials. Thomas's Of Another World (2000-2001) offers mixed media works on paper, and sculptural constructions fashioned from what the artist describes as a 'pack-ratting' of materials.

A persistent motif in many of her works centers on birds, which she describes as "both very cruel or else very benevolent." Here, stork-like images are drawn on salvaged pages from a mid-nineteenth century edition of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," as if to insinuate alternatives to that tragedy. And birds again appear on outdated music sheets: the remnants of a once popular course in music.

Mother and Child, 2000-01
Mixed media
© Sally Thomas 2001

Many of Thomas's pieces are whimsical and even familial. Birds, each harnessed by their wire bodices, congregate in flocks, strike personalities in pose, and hunt for artificial fruit. Eggs, often of a quite unnatural form, sport antennae-like berries on a stalk, and marshall ranks like soldiers in review. All this beneath seeming ornaments composed of twig supports in which more berries hang.

Thomas's displayed work includes a series of womens' slips: undergarments reduced to their reenforcing hems and edgings, and suspended on bare, outline forms composed from twigs, discarded electrical insulators, and the like. At first, each construction recalls a shamanistic totem. In all her work, abandoned artifacts with an individual past are given an often clever new identity.

Sally Thomas received her BFA in 1984, and her MFA in 1992, from Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kansas.

"MORBID CURIOSITY: Works by Ronald Gonzalez and Sally Thomas" is open to the gallery visitor until March 9, 2001 at the DePaul University Art Gallery, 2350 North Kenmore, Chicago. The DePaul University Art Gallery has issued a four-page color illustrated catalogue of this showing. It is available from the gallery.

--G. Jurek Polanski

Jurek Polanski has previously written and art edited for Strong Coffee in Chicago. He's also well known and respected among the Chicago museums and galleries. Jurek is currently a Visual Arts Correspondent for ArtScope.net.

Editorial Note: Ray Bradbury's The Mummies of Guanajuato is published by Harry N. Abrams (1978). Ray Bradbury's "Skeleton" and "The Scythe" are quoted from The October Country (Ballantine: 1996). St. Augustine is quoted from his City of God (Image Books/Doubleday: 1958).

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