El Paso — Dark colors and shadows transform the canvas into excruciatingly vivid scenes – a severed head laying on the ground, soldiers restraining an angry man in front of a crowd – of the bloody drug war raging along the U.S.-Mexico border, illustrating every disturbing emotion on the faces of the subjects while employing the classic beauty of 17th century Baroque-style paintings.
Rigoberto A. Gonzalez (http://rigobertogonzalezalonso.com/home) 37, the artist of these deeply disturbing and meticulously painted images, is bringing his exhibition, titled Baroque on the Border/Barocco en la Frontera, to The University of Texas at El Paso at the Stanlee & Gerald Rubin Center for the Visual Art of from May 26 to September 24, 2011.
He was born in Reynosa, in the border state of Tamaulipas, Mexico and moved with his family to the border city of San Juan, TX when he was 9 years old.
As a child, his mother and older brother inspired him to become an artist. This inspiration led him to obtain a bachelor’s degree in art from The University of Texas-Pan American in 1999 and a Master of Fine Arts degree in painting from the New York Academy of Art in 2004.
When Gonzalez returned to Reynosa after completing his studies in New York City, he discovered that his once-peaceful hometown had turned into complete chaos because of fighting between competing drug gangs. Between 2007 and 2010, Mexico authorities estimate that nearly 35,000 persons have died in drug-related violence.
“Things that you had always read about, that there was drug trafficking going on, that there were private armies or all these guns coming in… when I came back all this came to light,” remembered Gonzalez. “It became something that no longer could be hidden.”
Rather than move elsewhere, Gonzalez decided to use his painter’s brush to capture this violent new reality.
To illustrate this controversial subject, Gonzalez chose to paint in the Baroque style originally used by the Roman Catholic Church during the 17th century to communicate religious themes in a way that would appeal directly to viewers’ emotions.
“I started to see in the newspapers all these stories about beheadings and executions and when I would look at the photos in the newspapers those beheadings reminded me of the paintings of Caravaggio or the head of John the Baptist or David with the head of Goliath. That’s how I saw it,” said Gonzalez.
Drawing on his bicultural roots, Gonzalez also found that Baroque art shares common ground with the art of Corridos Mexicanos, narrative songs that tell stories or legends of importance to a community, and incorporated this into his art by titling one painting, Contrabando y Traición, after a popular corrido.
“Growing up in the border region, I grew up listening to corridos. I was always interested on how the song writers would be able to take an incident that was violent and make it pleasing to listen to. Baroque painting, I think, does the same but visually,” said Gonzalez.
Today’s most popular corridos are about drug traffickers and are commonly known as narcocorridos. The popular songs appeal to a broad group of people and that’s exactly what Gonzalez wants to achieve with his paintings.
“I’ve always been fascinated with people and the stories that they tell. For me it’s always been about trying to tell and exposing the stories of the everyday common folk and trying to take the stories out to a wider audience,” he said.
His interest in the subject led him to listen to the stories of those who at some point had been involved in incidents related to the drug war and recreate their tragic memories.
“Some of people in the paintings were people from Ciudad Juarez who posed for me and had gone through those experiences,” said Gonzalez.
The images in Gonzalez’ life-size paintings reflect the emotions of those portrayed in them with graphic torture and shooting scenes to appeal to the emotions of his audience.
“A painter as myself by what I know about composition, lighting or shadow, I can turn something that was horrible to look at into something pleasant to look at,” said Gonzalez.
Although the vivid images might be hard to digest by those residents of the border community who have been directly affected by the violence, Gonzalez believes this will only intensify the connection between them and his art.
“When you see in the news some Muslim extremist being arrested it’s somebody from another part of the world, but when you see a Cartel member being arrested it’s somebody that can remind you of your cousin or your uncle,” said Gonzalez. “That’s something that got me very much into it – that the people involved were people that look like me, people that look like my relatives.”
Gonzalez hopes to translate a message of awareness to all of those from the U.S. side of the border who ignore the increasingly prevalent violence from the drug war across the Rio Grande in Mexico.
“The thing that holds Mexico together is the love of the people,” said Gonzalez. “I want the recreational drug users of the U.S. to be aware of what their need for having fun is causing, and what kind of effect it’s having a few yards away in Mexico.”