Onloaded: Frank Gonzales, on view at the phICA shipping containers through May 15th, is comprised of eight colorful acrylic paintings, all depicting animal, plant, and insect life of the Sonoran desert. Birds perched on a cholla skeleton, bats pollinating cactus flowers, a wren nestled into a prickly pear cactus – all of these moments are painted with beautiful attention to detail in exciting color palettes and high-gloss glory.
While Gonzales’ technical ability is on display, his paintings also contain an interplay of representation and abstraction that offers an element of surprise. Even highly rendered areas, like the spines on a prickly pear cactus, could begin to read as abstract pattern when distilled into shape and color. Detailed illustration is complemented by vertical drips and stripes of color, bringing the viewer out of the world created by the painting, and back to the surface of the panel or canvas, to the world we exist in. I even enjoyed the rare pencil line that showed through the paint. This could be harnessed to add yet another layer to the work – something that hints at the hand of the artist/draftsman, which the smooth, high-gloss brushstrokes hide more than reveal. The best moments in the exhibition occur when the push and pull between representation and abstraction is heightened; when the worlds melt together to create a metaphorical gray area where the feathers of a bird could be lost among brushstrokes. Such moments are found in “Nueva Luna”, and this painting seems to require closer looking.
The strongest statement in Gonzales’ work is found in the choice to paint these Sonoran desert scenes. Perhaps they come together to form a collective portrait of a place, but there seems to be much more room for a statement or narrative here, for this technical ability to assert further conceptual development. I want to have something else to chew on and wonder about while I admire the technical prowess of the paintings.
The most exciting thread in Gonzales’ work is the apparent interest in control and randomness. Hyper-controlled brushstrokes depict the birds and plants, and the colorful verticals at times interrupt our view of the subject and remind us that this is paint on a surface. This move seems like a hint at randomness, but these marks are still very much the decision of the artist and maintain a feeling of control. These surface brushstrokes could open up an entirely new level of play in the work. Consider the introduction of a truly random element that the artist would have to grapple with through his application of paint. What if the artist had to make a painting under conditions out of his control, much like the subjects of his paintings exist in a world where they are not in control?
I find much to appreciate in Gonzales’ work, particularly his crisp style, enviable color palettes, and bold application of paint. These paintings are on the verge of something that pushes the boundaries of the marriage of abstraction and representation, but I would love to see what happens if those boundaries are blasted away. This investigation is both relevant to the conversation surrounding contemporary painting as well as the possible conceptual connections to Gonzales’ subject matter. “Nueva Luna”, the painting pushes these boundaries the furthest, is one of the most recent paintings in the exhibition, and I’ll be excited to see how Gonzales’ next body of work evolves.