On Tour: The Outwin 2016 in Texas with Finalist Rigoberto A. Gonzalez

Three people standing in front of a painting of people escaping form a river
Adina Gonzalez (wife), Rigoberto Gonzalez (artist) and Dorothy Moss (director of the competition and curator of painting and sculpture) in front of La Guia (The Guide) at the Art Museum of South Texas.

Rigoberto A. Gonzalez, a finalist in the 2016 Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, went to the Art Museum of South Texas in Corpus Christi for the opening of the exhibition The Outwin 2016: American Portraiture Today, which is making its second stop on a national tour. Dorothy Moss, the director of the competition and a curator of painting and sculpture at the National Portrait Gallery, presented a lecture in conjunction with the opening. Afterward, she asked Gonzalez, to speak about his work.

Here are excerpts from Rigoberto A. Gonzalez’s account of the talk:

I was born in the border town of Reynosa in Tamaulipas, Mexico, across from McAllen, Texas. I have spent most of my adult life in South Texas. The border, in Spanish, is called la frontera, which is more similar in meaning and in spirit to the word “frontier”—it even sounds like it. It evokes the imagery of the word frontier: adventure, the West, wild and untamed, the unknown.

People see [the border] on a map and think a river divides it. America to the north, where everyone speaks English, and Mexico to the south, where Spanish is spoken. But it’s a region where you have the confluence of two cultures. Along both sides of the river, from Matamoros/Brownsville all the way to Tijuana/San Diego, you have a land with its own culture. It is a land that is not Mexico or the U.S. Growing up in a border town, I thought hamburgers and hot dogs were Mexican street food.

I decided to pursue graduate studies at the New York Academy of Art. I spent two years intensively immersed in study, however, as an artist it often happens that no one really teaches you what you want to learn, you have to learn it yourself. I gained this knowledge from frequent visits to the city’s great museums. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I had direct access to the painters I admired, especially artists from the Baroque period: Caravaggio, Massimo Stanzione, Rembrandt, Peter Paul Rubens, and my favorite, Jusepe de Ribera.

In my second year at the Academy, a friend recommended the novels by Cormac McCarthy because his work deals with the Texas-Mexican border. I immediately felt a connection with McCarthy’s descriptions of landscapes, border towns, and the characters who populate his settings. Being from the border, I had always felt there was great subject matter in the culture to be explored in works of art. Reading an acclaimed author such as McCarthy who treated “La Frontera” with sensitivity, evocative themes, biblical and mythological references made me realize the border could be a relevant subject for my painting.

In the painting La Guia (The Guide), I depict a scene that itself plays out regularly along the border. It shows a couple being guided from Ciudad Juárez in Mexico to El Paso, Texas, by a teenage girl. The story was told to me by a friend who confided in me that from age ten until her late teens she helped her father who was a “coyote” (human smuggler) in guiding people from Mexico into the U.S. She said, “It’s what we would do for a living . . . We crossed people from all over the world, Hindus, Chinese, Romanians, Nigerians. . . .” In the center of the composition, I placed the most important character, Maria Villa, now in her fifties. On the left edge of the canvas, her daughter (who at the time was a teenager) posed as Maria to recreate a crossing. The male figure is Maria’s father (posed by Maria’s husband). They are dramatically lit in the style of the Baroque masters I try to emulate. The source of light is not revealed, it could be benevolent or malevolent. In looking closely on the banks of the river, you see the same three figures as they prepare to make the crossing, adding an element of “continuous narrative” which Renaissance and Baroque artists used to show different sequences of a story on the same canvas.  

Behind the human drama you have the modern Western landscape. It is not the idealized landscape of past American landscape painters. The mountains behind Ciudad Juárez have become populated by “colonias” or shanty towns. In the mid-sixties, Mexico launched a program of lower taxes and relaxed environmental and labor laws to draw foreign companies to build assembly plants along the Mexican-U.S. border. It created sprawling shanty towns that lack many of the basic necessities for people to live a decent life. With the closing of many of these plants, which have moved to China, these places were once home to promising job opportunities but are now areas of high unemployment. In these “colonias,” young men are drawn into the drug trade to work as hitmen or smugglers.

Gonzalez, who was one of the competition’s four finalists from Texas, will return to the Art Museum of South Texas in Corpus Christi on September 8 for the public program ArtWalk/ArtTalk, which, by design, coincides with the closing of the exhibition there.