LOS ANGELES — Created almost entirely during the 1990s, Ken Gonzales-Day’s exhibition Bone-Grass Boy: The Secret Banks of the Conejos River is historical, yet urgently timely. Using methods of appropriation and costumed self-portraiture associated with the Pictures Generation, Gonzales-Day was busy in the close of the 20th century stacking dynamite at the door of the white art canon. Exemplary of this effort is the photograph “Untitled #27” (1996), in which he poses wearing pearls and a wig, one nipple exposed, in a blue dress reminiscent of Ingres’s portrait of Princesse Albert de Broglie (1853) — one of several references to the French master in this show. Other pictures echo Goya’s Black Paintings, such as “Untitled #31” and “Untitled #30” (both works 1996), and Cezanne, and Caravaggio as well. Gonzales-Day came out as gay amidst the devastation wrought by AIDS, referenced by his version of Cezanne’s bather who stands before an adobe hut, torso covered in Kaposi sarcoma lesions: “Untitled #13,” (1994). The sepia-hued images have a seductively funky quality owing to their construction with the now archaic Photoshop 2.5 and Quark image manipulation software, and despite this primitive technology, they harbor a reticent beauty.
The linchpin of the show is a fictional text Gonzales-Day created from 1993 to 1996 but revisited in 2017. It traces the life of Ramoncita, a two-spirit person, from her early life as a naive indentured servant, all the way to old age as a self-actualized artist. The story is set during the Mexican-American War and involves one other central character, Nepomuceno, a New Mexican who fights on the Mexican side and is forced to secret himself home after the U.S. victory. The book is presented as an historical artifact, with a selection of pages available for reading in the form of framed photographs filling an entire wall of the back room. Many images in the gallery’s front were originally made as illustrations for the book, in which they also appear.
The power of this work lies in its ghostly sensuality. But what separates it from the mass of artwork addressing the politics of representation is its investment in intimate autobiography. The fictional characters are linked to the artist’s actual ancestors — Gonzales-Day researched his family back to 1599, revealing the tangled ethno-cultural mix from which he descends. The blending of his actual roots with an invented narrative yields moving specificity. Half the front room is hung salon style, like a family portrait wall, prominently featuring Ramoncita. Around the corner, the drawing “Family Tree” (2017) is just what it sounds like: a traditional rendering of Gonzales-Day’s genealogy, containing fascinating details. Among the oldest names listed is Luis de Carvajal, the Younger, who in 1596 was burned at the stake in Mexico City with nine family members for practicing Judaism.
This exhibit is Luis De Jesus’s contribution to Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA, and it comes as America’s president takes aim at the fundamental liberties of transgender people and immigrants. Soon After Gonzales-Day began working on “Bone-Grass Boy,” Californians passed Proposition 187, limiting state-
funded services for undocumented people, and today the entire country faces a nativist clamor. America was founded on slavery and genocide — twin dimensions of the white supremacism openly surging through our 50 states — yet paradoxically, this nation has always subscribed to principles of freedom and self-determination. Gonzales-Day’s larger project is to broaden the established canon of art, and U.S. history more generally, to recognize not just Latinx people but all those whose ethnicities and sexualities are so mixed as to be beyond meaningful categorization. And when you think about our country’s greatest qualities, what could be more American than that?
Ken Gonzales-Day’s exhibition Bone-Grass Boy: The Secret Banks of the Conejos River continues at Luis De Jesus gallery (2685 S La Cienega Blvd. Los Angeles, California) until October 28.