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DePaul University Art Gallery
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.
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.
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:
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....
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:
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.
"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.
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
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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