John C. Gonzalez

The following is our second interview pulled from the archives and early days of Temporary Land Bridge.
John C. Gonzalez, "Self-Portrait Project", 2009 - 2011 (Anonymous artists working within a painting manufacturing company in Dafen, China were hired to paint an image of him or herself. I also painted a self-portrait of myself and sent it to the company. The photograph within the frame shows the manager holding this painting.) oil paintings on canvas each varying in size, photographic digital print, wooden frame

John C. Gonzalez, Self-Portrait Project, 2009 – 2011 (Anonymous artists working within a painting manufacturing company in Dafen, China were hired to paint an image of him or herself. I also painted a self-portrait of myself and sent it to the company. The photograph within the frame shows the manager holding this painting.) oil paintings on canvas each varying in size, photographic digital print, wooden frame

In mid-March [of 2011], I sat down with artists Daniel Cevallos, John C. Gonzalez, Garett Yahn, and Kirk Amaral Snow during their group graduate thesis show at Lufthansa Studios, an artist-run exhibition and studio space in Dorchester, MA.  As of the publishing of this interview, the four have now graduated from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston & Tufts University.  We discussed the collaborative process of putting together their exhibition at Lufthansa and each of their individual art practices and thesis projects. This is the second installment of our interviews.

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John C. Gonzalez (b. 1980, Providence, RI) earned his BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design and MFA from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston/Tufts University.  His work has been exhibited at locations including Arthouse at the Jones Center in Austin, TX, Australia National University, Boston Center for the Arts, Boston University’s 808 Gallery, Emerson College, the Museum School, RISD, and the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln, MA.  Gonzalez has been an artist in residence at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture (Skowhegan, ME), Jentel Artist Residency (Banner, WY), the MacDowell Colony (Peterborough, NH), and subSamson at Samson Projects (Boston, MA).

John C. Gonzalez and "Self-Portrait Project", 2009-2011.

John C. Gonzalez and Self-Portrait Project, 2009-2011.

Andrea Evans:  To start, could you describe your project?

John C. Gonzalez:  I found out about these painting companies in China a couple years ago.  They manufacture oil paintings.  There is one village, called Dafen, in Mainland China.  Dafen village manufactures oil paintings, but there are other villages that specialize in lampshades and ironing boards and so forth.  And these are all made for export, obviously.

So as someone who is trained as a commercial illustrator, deciding to come into a grad program, I wanted to question a lot of things about industry in art, and my role in those things.  So this piece here is 52 oil paintings that are made as a response to my question.  I contacted an oil painting company in Dafen–the general manager is named Yu Lin–and I asked him if his workers could make a self-portrait of themselves.  So each worker would make one self-portrait of him or herself, and then I could then collect and display them as images of each and every one of the artists that work as part of his studio.  So there are 52 paintings, one from the boss, and 51 for the rest of the workers.

I also made a self-portrait of myself and mailed it to [Yu Lin], as a gift. [There is] a photo of the manager holding the self-portrait that I made, and that is also in the exhibit as well.

Kirk Amaral Snow:  You’ve done some other projects with this factory too.

JG:  Yes, I did a few other projects where I had them all paint for me their favorite color, their happiest memories, rooms that they are in, and so forth. I guess really what I am interested in is this mediation: this mediated gap that happens between the producers of the consumable goods that we use in the United States, and the human visibility that we usually don’t get to see.  I don’t get to see the person who made my computer or my clothes, or my car.  And I don’t think the person who made my computer and my car and everything really gets to see me. But we have a relationship based on our stuff.   I wanted to make that stuff to expose the people behind it.

John C. Gonzalez, Self-Portrait Project (detail): Portrait #1 (Part of a series collectively titled, Self-Portrait Project. The image was made by an anonymous mail-order painting artist who was hired to create an image of him or herself.) oil on canvas, 12”x16”, 2009.

AE:  I think it brings up so many different questions.  On one hand, I do think it’s a lot about making these people visible, these people you don’t even know exist otherwise, and we see them.   We see their hand in making the paintings, we see their representation of themselves, and I think that’s really interesting.  It also sort of calls into question what “art” is.  It puts art in the same category as any other consumable good.  You are sort of saying, “Well, it’s a painting, it’s a computer, or it’s a pen or a TV or whatever—it’s all sort of the same thing. “

JG:  One thing that was really articulated for me in the paintings was their technical skill.  Whether you are a watchmaker or a cabinetmaker, you can learn how to do this.  And you can sell it.  That was really a kind of eye opener for me.

AE:  You are a painter too.  A lot of other bodies of work you have made have been paintings you have done with your own hand.  I’m wondering how it feels to make work that is removed from your own hand.  It’s certainly not unusual, there’s a long tradition of other people making artists’ paintings, having apprentices or whatever.

JG:  That’s a very good question.  So like I said before I was trained as a commercial illustrator, and I worked for a brief time for an advertising agency in Providence.  I realized to make artwork that is [meant] to fit into an industry that is not my own was compromising to my motivations.  I wasn’t motivated to have my things fit into someone else’s conceptual framework.  So that’s why I decided to come and try other projects that were maybe motivated by profit, or economic concerns.  So using this framework of a corporation, I wanted to also use it to liberate myself, like I became my own corporation.  I could call the shots, so if I wanted to make paintings that were not done with my own hand, that were utilizing someone else’s skills, I really would like their subjectivity to come in and also influence that story.  It was integral to have their subjectivity, their decisions, to be on the very front, not on the back.  I wanted that to be very physical at the very beginning.

AE:  Do you miss painting?

JG:  No, I react to that in a different way now.  The paintings with the Iraq war images [New Wars], I consider those paintings, but they are made in a very different way. And I have another body of work that I am beginning where I am painting on mirrors.  I just find different reasons to paint.  It’s not like a thing where I can’t do it anymore.

John C. Gonzalez, Untitled (Iraq 3), oil on canvas, 48″ x 48″, 2008.

Daniel Cevallos:  I saw the picture of the owner of the factory with the self-portrait you sent, and I see that technically, it is not your best.  I know that you paint better than that, and I wonder why you took the decision of making a really fast painting.

JG:  For one thing, the technical prowess of the paintings that were produced for me in China was not the criteria for a successful work for me, if that makes sense.  If they look kind of crummy or not well painted, I still value them as highly as some of them that are really beautiful.  So how the paintings reflect traditional aesthetics is low on the criteria for me.  What is most important is that this person references, or is a symbol, of someone. Whether or not say, five guys did this whole thing, that’s ok for me.  What I’m really attracted to is that this references a person, fictitious or real, that I have some sort of relationship to, based on this object here.  So for me to make a painting, I was interested in having Yu Lin know that this means “me.”  It doesn’t have to be utilizing all of my skills in terms of laboring over this for hours and hours.  Also, I was on a deadline.  My friend Winnie Wong went over to deliver the work and we only had a couple weeks, so I was like, “I’m just going to paint this out real quick, and it’s ok, because this means ‘me’.”

John C. Gonzalez, Yu Lin holding a self-portrait of me (Gonzalez made a self-portrait painting and sent it to Yu Lin as a thank you. This is a photo of him holding the painting Gonzalez made.) photographic digital print, 11” x 9”, 2011.

AE:  I know you have been having email correspondence [with the factory]: have you had any conversations with the boss or any of the worker artists about what you are doing, and have you gotten any feedback about their feelings about their experience?

JG:  An interesting thing about the emails is, for me, they are kind of a performance between the boss and me.  So it’s hard to assess the genuine ideas that are being conveyed through this.  What I mean by that is, when I send him an email, sometimes it’s to ask for a lower price or bargain with him, and he’s on the other side, reassuring me that everything’s going to be great.  So for us to get into some real talk is very impossible, because both of us are not really revealing who we are. I didn’t tell him I was an artist until probably about the last email.  I only wanted to give him info when it was necessary, because I didn’t want the paintings to be tailored for an American exhibition.  But after the project has been finished, when I received the final painting, that’s when I really started talking with him about, “How did these guys feel about this?”  He didn’t really elaborate too much about it, he just said how they thought it was really interesting and funny, but nothing really more than that.  We didn’t get into a critical dialogue about it; it was very superficial.  The money was our contract really.  I pay you–you do this, and that’s it really.  Whether it’s a picture of my dog or a picture of you.

Garett Yahn:  I have a question for you John.  You have lately had to answer some tough questions about you projecting your subjectivity onto these paintings, taking liberties in interpreting what you see as this raw data.  It occurs to me that there might be a relationship to your tendency to do that with this project and your previous work with the Iraq war paintings, and the Black Boys paintings.  I’m just curious if you identify a thread there, when you compare those three bodies of work?

JG:  When I look at those projects in retrospect, I talk about these a lot with my wife; my wife has really interesting observations.  She said something that made a lot of sense, “Well you know honey, what you are doing, you are always trying to give a voice to the underdog.  That’s what you’re trying to do.”  I thought about that, “Yeah, I kind of am.”  Why do I want to do that? What does it mean for me to give a voice to the underdog?  But at the same time I’m not really giving a voice to the underdog, I’m giving my interpretation.

KAS:  You’re speaking for the underdog.

JG:  Yeah, there are more questions with that.  I know I am dealing with the underdog, but the underdog is somehow relating to part of me.  And I think what I’m doing here is beginning to articulate aspects within part of my identity, or how I perceive the identity of the other, and sort of deal with that in a way.   But I don’t know if I have any answers from that [yet].

GY:  It’s a lot to think about, to think about the threads between your works; it’s a hard question for me to answer about my work.

JG:  I feel like it has something to do with the fact that there is a bit about the underdog that represents me.    And there is a bit of me that represents these underdogs.

John G. Gonzalez, Role Model, oil on panel, 24″ x 24″, 2007.

GY:  Just think about the ways you had to defend the Black Boys in your [grad school] interview.  And the way you have had to defend the Iraq paintings in critiques, and how you’ve had to defend this work.  The one thing that is really obvious is that the work is really flagrant; it’s provocative on purpose.

JG:  I’m fondling controversy.  I’m kind of like playing around in this controversial pool.

GY:  But in big ones, like identity politics.

JG:  It’s difficult because I fear these things.  When I get confronted and have to defend my work, I meet a hard wall and that part can derail me sometimes.  But it’s interesting because in the work I try to attempt to articulate some of my observations with these things.  And I think that that’s kind of a way for me to deal with these other controversial things that maybe I don’t feel comfortable with speaking about, lecturing about, or writing a letter to congress or boycotting certain companies…. I feel like if I can make work that might address this, it allows me to bend.

AE:  And that’s interesting because I feel, what it sounds like is that you get a lot of pressure to take a stance on things. I wonder if that sort of becomes really didactic if you are like, “This is what it’s about.  This is what it means.”

JG:  Well, it’s interesting because I feel like if I had a stance, I wouldn’t be making this artwork.  I would just have a stance.  This artwork is [intended] to entice a stance from me, and from other people.

GY:  It seems like it really gets a stance from other people.  It’s almost, as your friend, it’s almost masochistic.  You have this need to get people pissed off at you.

JG:  Well, it’s weird that its masochistic, and maybe that’s part of my naïveté, but I think it’s issues that I find myself orbiting around, and they are issues I feel I want to talk about.  I am simultaneously afraid to speak of it but at the same time I’m also like, “Well, why not speak of it then?”  They are interesting to me.


John C. Gonzalez, Self-Portrait Project, 2009 – 2011 (Anonymous artists working within a painting manufacturing company in Dafen, China were hired to paint an image of him or herself. Gonzalez also painted a self-portrait of himself and sent it to the company. The photograph within the frame shows the manager holding this painting.) oil paintings on canvas each varying in size, photographic digital print, wooden frame

GY:  The work is interesting because of that I think.

AE:  It opens the door to conversation and discussion.

GY: It more than opens the door to the conversation, it straight up forces the conversation.  It’s really confrontational.

JG:  Another desire I have is, I sometimes kind of wish my artwork could be out there, and not have to relate itself to me.  I know that is almost impossible because we all are authors, but at the same time, I think of it like: say I graffiti under a bridge, and no one knows who did it; it’s there for society.  Like the readers can read this and deal with it that way.  So I almost want my artwork to be an event that affects all of us.  And I find it somehow frustrating when the conversation becomes centered on myself.  But again, that’s a very contradictory stance, as someone who is making artwork, but I don’t want to talk about it.

GY:  It’s like people are going, “You brought it up John.” And I can see what you are saying.  You don’t want to have to stand behind it because really, you didn’t bring it up.

KAS:  All these things are like different methods and different approaches to the same problem of you being interested in images of people.   And what that says about the person being depicted.  It’s sort of over these series, the methodology of how that is accomplished maybe become inconsequential, like, they were just different ways of depicting the same problem.  And you are trying to pick a specific methodology for the group you are depicting.  Like I think your choice of imagery for the Iraq paintings is really interesting, because it really talks so much about mediation, and in relation to those people.  These talk a lot about labor in our relationship to these people.  But in essence, it’s imagery of specific people, no matter whether the actual technique is specific or not.

John C. Gonzalez, Self-Portrait Project (detail): Portrait #36 (Part of a series collectively titled, Self-Portrait Project.  The image was made by an anonymous mail-order painting artist who was hired to paint an image of him or herself.) oil on canvas, 16” x 12”, 2011.

GY:  The technique is in service of delivering the meaning.  The technique almost becomes the thing that is able to pull out the meaning.   It’s like having to have a special fork to eat escargot.  It’s like you are giving the audience the only tool they could use, the exact tool they need, to excavate the meaning out of the pieces.

KAS:  But I think that may become difficult when [the different bodies of work] aren’t necessary in the presence of each other.  Because there are 52 paintings in here, it seems like regardless of whether or not it is a unified piece, there’s this tradition of work where 52 paintings is a series of something.  And it feels like maybe it works itself out over time, but really it’s a momentary thing, the idea behind the methodology was conceived in basically one gesture.  It becomes complicated.

JG:  The beef I have with accountability is the idea that the artist is somehow an important viewer of their work.  Like, artist talks for example.  When you hear an artist talk about their work, why do we invest so much of our meaning into their meaning?  Like I kind of feel like my meaning is the most important [to me], or Garett’s meaning is the most important to him.  My work does not need my opinion for you to understand it.  I think it’s interesting how we still care so much about the artist’s opinion about their own work.

AE:  But I think that you have to take into account the individual, and your own experiences; all the things that come together to make you who you are, that makes you interested in these things; there’s no removing the artist from it.

KS:  Yeah, it comes to that question of how archaeology functions.  We look at these artifacts, not in appreciation of these artifacts, but to find and create a narrative of something we desire to know about.

JG:  I know, but I feel like the reader just does that.  It’s kind of like when you watch a movie–you don’t see the script.  Well, some people watch the movie with the director over it, but I don’t know, I never liked that.  I just want to watch ET for me.

For more information: 

This interview transcript has been edited for length and content.

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