Ken Gonzales-Day has a unique approach to art in that he doesn’t simply create works of art; he creates a body of work. His works are separate pieces that can certainly stand for themselves, but they are all part of the same train of thought. Each photograph is a sentence and each of his projects tells a different story. The exhibition at Luis de Jesus, Profiled |Hang Trees |Portraits, brings together three series into a single comprehensive narrative for the first time. With a degree in Art History as well as an MFA, the artist takes a very academic and research-based approach to his art-making. He uses history, archives, and traditional art conventions such as portraiture, landscapes, or documentation to create his conceptually heavy pieces. Seeing them all under the same context we realize that the artist’s art practice blurs the line between separate art objects and we come to understand his oeuvre as a holistic life project.
In the first room we see excerpts from Searching for California’s Hang Trees, which consists of large format photographs of trees that carry with them the dark and forgotten past of our state. Lynching is typically associated with the South and not the West. However this project stems from the artist’s research into the history of lynching. He found that there were hundreds more cases of the gross act than previously recorded by historians. These somber photos depict trees that were the scene of the crime for these acts and are the lingering remnants of such atrocities.
Juxtaposed in the same space are photos from the artist’s Portraits series. These pictures all depict young modern-day Latino men. The portraits are very simple yet very stylistic compositions of semi-nude models against a black background. Unlike Hang Trees which is nostalgic with its sometimes grainy or greyscale images, Portraits is clean and crisp with very vibrant colors. During his research Gonzales-Day found that Latinos were much more likely to be targeted for lynching than other ethnicities between 1850and 1935. By depicting contemporary youth he brings his historical project to the present.
The mainstay of the exhibition was Profiled which had an entire room to itself and contained more pieces than the other projects. Here the artist digs deep into archives of several museums and presents us with photographs of sculptures, arranged to bring into question where our notions of beauty come from. One piece showed a wooden statue of a Native American aggressively standing against a white marble European sculpture. Others simply present us with African American or Asian sculptural portraits. The artist has taken these artifacts out of the basement and shows them here as if to say that they too are beautiful and worthy of admiration. It tells us that we need not only look at Western art historical canon to form our identity, but should instead look at all cultures.
These three projects are separate but connected. Under the same context they examine the racial dynamics between different cultures. If the goal of Profiled is a critique of aesthetics, similarly the men in Portraits are representing the aesthetics of the Latino. The photographs of trees are no longer mere nature shots, but portraits as well. Gonzales-Day is concerned in the history of Latinos not only in 19th century California, but their history in ancient Greek and Roman times as well. How have the standards of beauty created over thousands of years affect the way we see each other today? How does it affect the way we treat each other? What is or is not aesthetically pleasing could mean the difference between being glorified and given a place in history with prestigious art, or being put to death in a spectacle around a hang tree.
Words and images by Noé Gaytán.