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In the Studio: Ken Gonzales-Day

History and behavior fascinate him. For his latest, he photographed sculptures as a way of capturing what they say about the time in which they were made.

February 13, 2011|By Holly Myers, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Artist Ken Gonzales-Day stands in front of his artwork at his home in Silver Lake.
Artist Ken Gonzales-Day stands in front of his artwork at his home in Silver… (Wally Skalij, Los Angeles…)

Ken Gonzales-Day, a visual artist with a master's degree in art history, loves to research. For his latest project, "Profiled," begun while an artist in residence at the Getty Research Institute in 2008, he was interested in the origin of the modern concept of race and immersed himself in the Enlightenment. He looked to philosophers and writers, to pseudo-sciences such as physiognomy and mesmerism, to ethnological representations and methods of artistic instruction as well as to the history of sculptural portraiture. Using PowerPoint as a digital sketchbook, he assembled long documents as he went along, filled with quotations, diagrams, notes and images from a variety of sources. When he speaks of what he uncovered along the way, it is with the zeal of an enthusiastic professor, which he is, in fact — at Scripps College.

"There were all these crazy systems," he says, "ranging from [Swiss physiognomist Johann Kaspar] Lavater and [Franz Anton] Mesmer to Descartes and the idea of the body as machine, notions of the eye as a machine, and all these ideas about the body and difference. Voltaire writing 'Candide,' using racial others to sort of caricaturize contemporary issues of his day. All of those issues were interesting to me. And within that, I was also looking at the formation of whiteness, because when they begin to construct the colonial other they're also constructing the white center."

He photographed portrait busts and other figurative sculptures in the collections of museums around the world — first the Getty, then the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-arts in Paris, several museums in Germany, and the San Diego Museum of Man. Some of the sculptures he photographed in isolation, floating against a solid background. Others he depicted on display in museum galleries. Others he found in storage, lined up on shelves with tags or brusquely corralled into warehouse-like rooms. Some — perhaps the most poignant images — were mere fragments: a pile of disembodied arms, for instance, or a crumbling leg, bound up in wood and foam.

"My hope," he says of the project, which will be shown for the first time in its entirety at La Cienega Projects in March, "is that it would open up the possibility of thinking about what signifies race, what signifies difference, what signifies whiteness. In many of these sculptures we presume that they have a race, right? When they're just marble or terracotta or clay. The relationship between resemblance and reality can be deceptive."

Born in Santa Clara, Calif., to parents of mixed ethnicity — his mother is white, his father of Mexican descent, from a New Mexico family that dates back well before statehood — Gonzales-Day, 46, lived in Northern California and Idaho as a child and New York in early adulthood (attending Pratt Institute and Hunter College) before coming to UC Irvine for his MFA in the mid-'80s.

"I've tried to make work that responds to the Mexican American experience in this country on some level," he says. "That could be an aesthetic experience. It could be about pleasure and about playfulness and all kinds of things. I don't mean to suggest that it's bound specifically to the civil rights movement. But there is a relationship between my experiences in the world and my search for aesthetic pleasure. Those nuanced sensitivities are the things that interest me, and if I can interest other people in some of those then I think that that's a good thing."

Before "Profiled," Gonzales-Day spent years immersed in a far more gruesome history, scouring archival records and documents to produce what remains his best-known body of work, a multifaceted exploration of lynching across the West.

"The lynching project started with the idea of looking at Latino portraiture," he says. "I spent a lot of time going from archive to archive, looking at images, and ultimately uncovered this other history, which became the subject of the project. The Getty started the same way: looking at the collection, looking at materials. Obviously it was a lot less emotional in the sense that there is really very little to do with the Mexican American experience in the Getty collection per se. You have a number of amazing early colonial maps and texts, but it's not the same emotional trauma of looking at the lynching history."

Several works from the series are set out in a small viewing room adjacent to Gonzales-Day's studio, on the lower floor of the hilltop Silver Lake home he shares with his partner, Gary Wolf: reproductions of vintage lynching photographs from which he's digitally removed the hanging bodies, leaving only the gallows and a leering crowd. It is a sign of the images' effect that, having seen them installed in 2008, in LACMA's "Phantom Sightings," I recalled them being much bigger — poster- or even wall-sized. In fact, they are the size of postcards.

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