Character Development: A Q&A with Raul Gonzalez

Raul Gonzalez, Alarums!!, 2010 | Ink and acrylic, 41.75 x 41.75 inches. Courtesy the artist and Carroll & Sons Gallery, Boston.

Somerville, Massachusetts-based artist Raul Gonzalez has just installed And Their Families, part of the 2011 Community Arts Initiative at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. He is a 2009 Artadia award winner, has recently had solo exhibitions at the New England Gallery for Latin American Art (NEGLAA) and Carroll and Sons Gallery, Boston, and is a founding member of The Miracle Five artist collective. Gonzalez is currently preparing for exhibitions at the Boston Center for the Arts and the San Francisco Art Institute.

I spoke with Gonzalez on a rainy day in the South End about living in Boston, family, fatherhood, comics, and the violent situation in the border town of Juarez, near the artist's native home of El Paso, Texas. Our conversation, and images of Raul's work, after the jump.  —A.D. Jacobson, Boston contributor

Installation views. Raul Gonzalez, And Their Families, 2011, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Courtesy the artist and Carroll & Sons Gallery, Boston.

ADJ: I wonder how your recent fatherhood fits into what you've been doing lately?
RG: Well, especially with the family project at the MFA Boston, that really came about because of the birth of my son, and my wife, and thinking about family. I think about the importance of walking down the street with my son. You know, I've lived in Somerville for so many years, it's so great to walk down the street and know almost every other person. I thought, "This is such an important thing for my son, to have people who know me get to know him." This got me thinking about the importance of not only my immediate family, but also the community that I live in. The MFA project was a way to express gratitude towards that and to think about it as an artist as well.

Raul Gonzalez, Sapo, 2011 | Coffee, pen, acrylic and red Bic, 9.5 x 13 inches. Courtesy the artist and Carroll & Sons Gallery, Boston.

It's inevitable to connect this kind of work to childhood, and a way of picturing as a child, because you're working in this very particular sort of comic book style.
My mom just recently sent me a bunch of drawings that I created when I was three years old up until high school, and while my technical ability has improved immensely, the same kind of charge and spirit is there... I think as artists, we're defined early on. It was my dream as a boy to become a comic book artist, and I think I've really lived my life serendipitously in terms of how I've allowed things to happen to me. I really never in my life considered being... um…I don't even know what you call this type of artist—

—Me either!
I was born and raised in El Paso, TX, but I had a very close connection to Juarez, Mexico, which is just a hop, skip, and a jump away from my hometown, so I had the fortune of coming from the best of both worlds, going over there and then coming back. I had this interesting removal, where my cousins had to remain in Juarez.

When I was a teenager, I didn't know what an art gallery was and I really had never even visited a museum, so my "museum of fine arts" at the time were the magazine stands in Juarez or the spinner rack of comics at the 7/11... My dad would send me out to buy his Sunday paper, and it was a thick paper, [so] I would sneak two or three comic books in there and take them home and draw every single page that would interest me. I got so good that I could emulate a wide variety of comic book styles.

Raul Gonzalez, Cascabel, 2011 | Coffee, pen, Acrylic and red Bic, 9.5 x 13 inches. Courtesy the artist and Carroll & Sons Gallery, Boston.

Was there a single point where you broke out of the narrative structure of comics and decided that you could just make drawings for themselves? Was there an epiphany?
Yeah, at first it was incredibly difficult. Fortunately, I helped start an artist collective named The Miracle Five, and we each worked under the persona of a superhero character. I was able to kind of play around with the narrative, but on the wall.

The real push for me came when I exhibited my first solo show, which was at the New England Gallery for Latin American Art [in East Boston], which was called Chingasos. That was when I first realized that I had something to say; my own vision. Before, with my collective, I was working with their imagery, and we were working collaboratively, but I realized that I had my own stories and my own approach to artwork that I can continue with.

Do you think you can put a finger on what that is?
Well, for one I've been making images since I was a young boy. But, of course, the process has changed. What I love about living in Boston is that it's filled with history and storytelling. The stories can be quite dark and I think that the weather really lends itself to dark stories. You have writers like H. P. Lovecraft, you have Edward Gorey, you even have Edgar Allan Poe born in the area. There's something very sinister here and I really have fed off of that, but I've infused it with my own Southwestern, Mexican imagery.

Why I'm doing it? I think it's nice to get a wide range of stories told through art. I really dislike it when I go somewhere and see only one type of one type of culture represented and I would love to see more stories being told, because that just means more shared experiences. When you're looking at more experiences, you're opening your eyes to different ways that people live and I think it makes us a more caring society.

Raul Gonzalez, Wake up Call (On My Last Nerve), 2011 | Ink and Bic pen, 45 by 65 inches acrylic. Courtesy the artist and Carroll & Sons Gallery, Boston.

How do you develop a character?
When I was a kid, I would always get upset because I was in high school and the top shows were Beverly Hills 90210 and Friends. I would look at these shows and think, "You know, there's nothing about me or my friends that's being represented in these shows." I would go to a movie and the only Latino character would be a maid or a gangbanger, and it really upset me. Iit made me feel like I wasn't a complete human being. A while ago, my brother wrote a comic book called, The Pretend Humans, and I worked on the illustrations for it.

So when I started working on this series here with the Indian heads and the buffalo and all of that, I based it on how illustrators since the 1800s and into the 1900s would draw those people who were considered to be less than human: Black people, Native Americans, Mexican-Americans. Just a simple circle, bulging eyes—that's what those characters are. If you look at them one next to another, they're all basically copies of each other, and that's how I developed it.

Raul Gonzalez, Solamente en Tinta Gritan los Gallos, 2010 | Acrylic and ink on paper, 22 x 17.25 inches. Collection of Karen Moss.

What about the gold-plated dust clouds here? Can you talk about those?
One thing I've really been affected by recently is all of the violence in the town I used to hang out in, Juarez, Mexico. There's been a bunch of beheadings and drug wars, and as a result I started thinking about these animated dust clouds. These, specifically, are just one person surrounded by a maelstrom of sorts. I thought it was a very interesting way to tell within a static image a lot of different stories, because I can throw in all sorts of imagery and icons.

Can you imagine what you're going to be doing in a couple years? Do you have a goal in mind? A pinnacle?
I kind of like to leave it up to chance, I work better that way. I really like working with community and to balance this with my own personal projects, and I hope it continues being that…yeah…more kids.

More kids?
Yeah, they're inspiring.

You want more children?
No, not my own! My little dude is more than enough.

Do you think you guys are going to become a father/son tag team?
That's the idea.

Raul Gonzalez: And Their Families, 2011, part of the 2011 Community Arts Initiative at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, will be on view through November 27, 2011. 

A.D. Jacobson is an artist and curator living in Boston.

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