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Baroque on the Border

Images depicting the violence on the U.S.-Mexico border seem to be on either end of two extremes. The violence is represented through documentary style photographs or films, leaving nothing to the imagination---so horrific that the average human cannot stand to look at it. In Mexican tabloids, the blood, torture, and murder are depicted so graphically, to the point that the violence almost becomes a parody of itself.

On the other extreme, many contemporary young artists have been moved to illustrate violence through abstract visual imagery, using a variety of modern mixed media, merely suggesting the ideas of violence and death. Almost everything is left to our imagination, and we don’t get a clear sense of how we should feel.

During a time when many young artists seem intent on inventing new genres and breaking ties with tradition, Rigoberto A. Gonzalez has created a striking juxtaposition between the early 17th-century Baroque style of art and the present-day turmoil and violence permeating the border. He masterfully blends a genre that is centuries old with a theme constantly evolving in a region that seems to be neither here nor there. His solo exhibition at the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center in Austin, Barroco en la Frontera/Baroque on the Border, featured sixteen paintings including an awe-inspiring triptych nine feet tall by twenty feet wide.

Born in 1973 in Tamaulipas, Gonzalez has lived his life on both sides of the Rio Grande. After earning a BFA from UT- Pan American in 1999 and an MFA from the New York Academy of Art in 2004, he returned to his hometown. Gonzalez remembered Tamaulipas as being peaceful, calm, even boring. Now he saw stories in the newspapers about beheadings and executions. The photos reminded him of those in Baroque paintings from the 17th century, such as the Beheading of St. John the Baptist and David with the Head of Goliath by Caravaggio, as well as similar works of art by Jusepe de Ribera.

“You could say that the theme of violence has always been present in art, especially in the art of the Baroque period,” said Gonzalez in a video interview with the Visual Arts Network. “Their artwork is giving you a very aesthetic version of violence. It’s not a documentary depiction of violence.”

Gonzalez is also inspired by the Mexican corrido, a popular narrative song or ballad, about the history, oppression, and daily lives of people, which emerged during the Mexican War of Independence and flourished during the Mexican Revolution. Corridos are now heard along the U.S.-Mexico border region, particularly in the variation known as the narcocorrido, which focuses on the lives of the people involved with the drug cartels.

“Growing up on the border region, I grew up listening to corridos and stories, and usually the stories [would be] about a violent event,” said Gonzalez in a interview. “I was always interested in how the songwriters, by using their knowledge of rhyme and verse, were able to take an incident that was violent and make it pleasing to listen to.”

Following in the footsteps of the great Baroque masters and the legendary corrido songwriters, Gonzalez has taken the concept of turning something dark and morbid into something poetic and even spectacular. Gonzalez’ works of art serve as portals to a community of people who struggle to balance and make sense of the beauty and violence of daily reality.

Gonzalez’ paintings place the viewer in the middle of the action---a man and woman being kidnapped, a man about to be tortured, or men being killed and arrested during the infamous shootout on February 17, 2009 in Reynosa. The expressions on their faces, whether they’re the perpetrators of the violence or the victims, convey a range of emotions---fear, anger, doubt, and hope.

“Despite what you hear, what I find interesting is all the love that people have for this land, and the love they have for each other,” said Gonzalez. “I think that is one thing people should be aware of: [the border] is populated by a group of very caring individuals. That is what is holding those communities together.” For more information about Rigoberto A. Gonzalez and his art, visit