Riot Material: Ken Gonzales-Day’s Bone-Grass Boy

at Luis De Jesus Los Angeles, and BRIC House, Brooklyn
by

Ellen C. Caldwell

 

Excerpt:

In Bone-Grass Boy: The Secret Banks of the Conejos River, Ken Gonzales-Day brings his ongoing inquiry of erasure, history, and the history-making process itself full circle. First shown in 1993-96, the updated Bone-Grass Boy made its debut at Luis De Jesus Los Angeles in 2017 and now shows at BRIC House in Brooklyn, NY as part of Reenactment, a group show curated by Jenny Gerow. This updated version of Bone-Grass Boy features Gonzales-Day’s original show, with the addition of new work, reflections, and introductions.

Courtesy of the artist and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles.
 

Upon entering the gallery space, viewers feel immediately that they are entering a place of rich narratives and storytelling. The large entryway wall features a neutral terracotta palette, depicting a hand-painted, colonial map of Nuevo Mexico and El Paso: the future states of New Mexico and Texas resulting from the U.S.-Mexican War (1846-48). Upon this wall, photographs of Ramoncita and Nepomuceno, the two key figures of the show’s narrative, invite the viewer to delve into both the map and their unfolding story.

There are a number of complicated themes and processes underlying this show and all are key to fully understanding and appreciating the experience that Gonzales-Day’s art provides.

First, Gonzales-Day is both an artist and historian. This is apparent in the research he has done for this show (and for others of his hallmark projects including his Erased Lynching series and his subsequent history book Lynchings in the West, featuring the groundbreaking archival research he did to ground such series as Erased Lynchings, Hang Trees, and Portraits). In Bone-Grass Boy, Gonzales-Day’s historical research is both deeply personal and intimate, as well as public. All photographs in the show are theatrical self-portraits played by the artist himself, as he embodies all of the characters in his narrative.

Untitled #28 (1996). Courtesy of the artist and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles.
 

But they are even more personal, as the characters he plays are an exploration of Gonzales-Day’s own family tree. Ramoncita is described as a Native and Latina “two spirit person,” while Nepomuceno is a New Mexican soldier, who has been fighting on the side of Mexico and finds himself ousted from his homeland. Bone-Grass Boy follows Ramoncita as she works as an indentured servant and eventually kills her rancher, and it follows Nepomuceno as he attempts to sneak back into his original homeland that has become an American territory.

This portion of the story is of course extremely timely. Drawing obvious comparisons to ongoing immigration struggles and relationships between the U.S. and Mexico, its complicated border history underlies the exhibit. And because of its relevance when the show first opened over two decades ago, Bone-Grass Boy also points to the ongoing ebbs, flows, and ongoing relevance in the debates, media, and national conscience surrounding the U.S.-Mexico Border and Mexican immigration.

Family Tree (2017). Courtesy of the artist and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles.
 

Gonzales-Day researched his family tree and found these ancestral names and personages he wanted to flesh out, explain, and explore visually and dramatically through self-portraiture, narrative writing, and an amazingly delicate and intricate family tree: a striking new addition featured in the updated show. Both the tree and the show’s narrative trace his family’s Mexican, Aztec, Spanish, and Native American roots and their movements between changing cultural and territorial landscapes, at times divided and split arbitrarily between borders.

Second, Bone-Grass Boy both in the 90s and in the present seeks to intervene in the artworld and with history-writing itself. Gonzales-Day set out to create what he termed a “nevermade,” to spark a direct conversation with Marcel Duchamp’s iconic conception of the “readymade.” As the press release explains, “[t]he reversal of the readymade – that is to say, the creation of an object that was never made, but that is given the appearance of a historical document – offers a subtle and humorous critique of the avant-garde appropriation of the everyday object.” In creating physical histories, documents, narratives, maps, and even aged books to tell his family’s imagined story, he seeks not only to explore, but also to challenge this historical erasure at the same time.

Installation views. Courtesy of the artist and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles.

For instance, the back room at Luis De Jesus featured an entire wall of framed images of what appear to be aged books. Here, Ramoncita and Nepomuceno’s stories are clarified, as is Gonzales-Day’s. Two thirds of the pages were included in the original 90s show, along with an introduction and origin story of the book from then “Kenny” Gonzales-Day. In 2017, he added a new introduction and frame through which to view and think about the exhibit — again offering viewers both a personal, intimate invitation inward, while challenging us to also look publically outward to our conception of historiocity, as it has been traditionally privileged in the West.

In Bone-Grass Boy, Gonzales-Day created and plays out the missing bodies, stories, and histories of his imagined family. He overlays his familial history with historical narrative and creative storytelling, exploring and performing through Ramoncita, the queer brown body that was missing from the canonical and photographic record.

Untitled #34 (1996). Courtesy of the artist and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles.
 

Third, technically and technologically speaking, Gonzales-Day presents viewers with a time capsule of changing mixed media from the 90s through the present. In his earlier version of the show, he used a then-cutting-edge technology, a very early version of PhotoShop, to manipulate and collage his self-portraits. The exhibit features these, as relics of an earlier time in technological and photographic history that many will be eager to see in vintage C-prints. The images do not feel dated, but in fact have an eerie feeling of being simultaneously past and futuristic (much like HBO’s Westworld has the strange capacity to elicit in viewers).

Untitled #1 (Portrait of Nepomuceno). Courtesy of the artist and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles.
 

In an artist’s talk at Luis De Jesus, Gonzales-Day explained that with Bone-Grass Boy, his work had “come full circle,” with a story from the historical and familial past that was made in the 90s and then brought into the future almost three decades later. He noted that with the original series, he was trying to construct or imagine a future—one where people would not have to go through these struggles, so that in his art, he was creating a body of work to speak to future generations.

Given that this revisited version of Bone-Grass Boy is traversing the U.S. right now, that desire for it to speak to future generations feels particularly prescient in asserting its ongoing relevance and broadcasting its resonating voice.

~

An LA-born and -based art historian, writer, and educator, Ellen C. Caldwell reflects upon art, visual culture, identity, memory, and history for JSTOR Daily and New American Paintings. To see more of her work, visit eclaire.me.

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