By John Held, Jr.
Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque are normally cited as the originators of collage in modern art, a term deriving from the French “coller,” meaning “glue.” But it is the German artist Kurt Schwitters, who developed the technique as an essential working ingredient of the contemporary artist; one that allows for the fabric of everyday life to be woven into other more technical considerations. In conjunction with the 2011 exhibition of Schwitter’s “Color and Collage” exhibition, the Berkeley Art Museum asked Matt Gonzalez, politician and artist, to give a gallery talk and workshop on the medium, an inspired choice given that the art of collage and the realities of modern living are rightly intertwined in the creation of strung together bits and pieces of the real world.
In a city rife with hipsters, I would be pressed to name one with better credentials than Matt Gonzalez. This is a guy who grew up in McAllen, Texas, was educated at Columbia and Stanford Universities, landed in San Francisco, was elected to the Board of Supervisors (2000), eventually rising to the post of President of the Board of Supervisors (2003), coming this close to defeating Gavin Newsome for Mayor (2003), and becoming the running mate of Ralph Nader in a presidential bid (2008). All the while, he has shown in some of the most progressive galleries in The City, including Abobe Books (2007), Johansson Projects (2008), 111 Minna (2009), Triple Base (2010), Guerrero and Luggage Store galleries (2011), Fecal Face Dot Gallery (2012), and Meridian and Park Life in the current year. Makes me dizzy (and extremely unworthy by comparison).
His meld of politics and art has not gone unnoticed. He has taught a course on the subject at the San Francisco Art Institute (2004), conversed with Lawrence Ferlinghetti on the intersection of the two fields (2006), and took part in the group exhibition, “Art for Change,” at the Graduate Theological Union Library, UC Berkeley, featuring Ferlinghetti, Shepard Fairey, Rigo and others (2012).
All this has relevance in light of the current Park Life exhibition. Gonzalez cites several social concerns in presenting “the detritus found on the city streets,” including environmental waste and its disposal, capitalist commentary, and “cognitive liberty” in light of pervasive bombardment of consumer messaging. What other politician do you know, never mind an artist, who cites Russian Futurism and Zaum poetry, as an anecdote to “the battle over influence and forced ideas,” and uses collage as a “liberated reminder.”
The elegance of Gonzalez’s thought and phrasing is matched by the techniques in which his collages are manifested. Schwitters, sometimes politically naïve (the more radical Berlin Dadaists scorned his bourgeois lifestyle, causing him to formulate his own movement – Merz), was nevertheless in tune with the era’s changing currents of artistic experimentation, and became a devotee of Constructivism and De Stijl. There are hints that Gonzalez has trodden a similar path.
His collage technique is composed of a rigid adherence to abstraction stripped to the essentials of form and color, with attention given to primary colors, including black and white, in verticals and horizontals. A Guggenheim article on De Stijl cited on Wikipedia aptly describes Gonzalez’s similar approach. “It [DeStijl] was posited on the fundamental principle of the geometry of the straight line, the square, and the rectangle, combined with a strong asymmetrically; the predominant use of pure primary colors with black and white; and the relationship between positive and negative elements in an arrangement of non-objective forms and lines.”
DeStijl also incorporated a component of utopian thought, which later influenced the Bauhaus artists, many of whom, including Josef Albers, came to the United States and exerted a profound influence on the course of American post-war art. Gonzalez follows in this tradition of Utopian vision coupled with a formulated abstraction resonating across various cultures through the use of universal essentials.
Favoring paper support with a thicker quality than newsprint, Gonzalez seeks out sturdier fare found in such everyday castaways as claim checks, cigar and cigarette packaging, tea bag labels, cereal boxes, film packaging, gallery invitations, ticket stubs, condom wrapping, playing cards, envelopes, matchbooks, candy wrappers, and other cast offs from the everyday. After their retrieval, they are grouped by primary colors, be it green, red, yellow or blue. Just as effective are the white and black collages bearing little textual identification and used solely for their surface qualities. In some ways, the non-textual black and white collages are the most satisfying, stressing as they do constructive and tactile qualities, as well as the artistic craftsmanship that has gone into the work.
Having established a firm working method in the construction of paper collage, Gonzalez has recently began constructing works in wood, following principles previously time proven – the use of primary colors in squares and rectangles. One of these works, “#6” (2013), is noticeably larger than the other paper collages in the show and points towards a future course of action. In a conversation with the artist, he hints at this newly found direction. “The wood pieces started last year. The idea was to take it to a larger format. I have a couple of panels home now, where I’m working bringing in canvas elements. So it’s wood and canvas on board. It’s going to allow me to paint the canvas and cut the canvas as if it’s paper. But I haven’t done that yet.”
It’s no wonder that Gonzalez is headed in a new direction. The existing paper collages have a decidedly mature feel to them, as if they have been explored of their possibilities, establishing the goals that the artist had for them in their infancy. He’s been at it for some time, and they are reaching a climax.
“I started in late 2005,” he related in our conversation. “I got serious in early 2006. I had experimented with painting, doing geometric abstraction. The idea being, if I push paint around, I’d have a better appreciation at looking at art, looking at paintings. In that process, I started adding found elements and cutting up the little paintings I was doing on paper…I probably worked a lot more spontaneously at first, now I’m more deliberative, so I make less of them, and they’re much more involved.”
The Park Life exhibition is both a summing up and a hint of things to come, and there is amble evidence that Gonzalez’s plan of “pushing and pulling” the materials at hand has led to a greater appreciation of the creative process and its practical application in any number of mediums.
Kudos also to Park Life in the consistency of its artistic program bringing variety and the best The City has to offer to the Inner Richmond, a district sorely in need of additional showplaces to placate the influx of creatives swelling its shores.
This exhibition is open until July 28, 2013. Find some time to visit Park Life and visit the show and their store.
For more information visit here.