New York

Wayne Gonzales

Paula Cooper Gallery | 529 West 21st Street

By addressing the complex relation between photography and the construction and dissemination of history, Wayne Gonzales’s new work inserts itself in what appears to be a burgeoning genre: post-photographic history painting. Taking the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy as their point of departure, these photo-derived acrylics (all 2001) recall other recent art that has tackled politically weighty subject matter—Gerhard Richter’s 18. Oktober 1977 paintings, Luc Tuymans’s Belgian Congo series, and, perhaps most pointedly, Andy Warhol’s own chronicles of the Kennedy assassination. Like these narrative cycles, Gonzales’s work demonstrates the unavoidable contingency of representations of history. In an era in which photography’s truth-value has been destabilized, painting—wearing its fictiveness on its sleeve—reemerges as a viable vehicle for examining the past.

Here Gonzales enlists painting to highlight photography’s malleability. He provides a virtual compendium of the medium’s varied styles, as practically every canvas borrows a different photographic language. The raster, the pixel, and a softened photorealism put in appearances, and by deftly riffing on photography’s many guises, Gonzales undermines the medium’s inherent claim to truthful representation. He emphasizes this point by often working from overtly dubious source images. By re-presenting the well-known doctored photo of Lee Harvey Oswald holding a rifle, as well as the Warren Commission’s infamous “magic bullet” diagram, Gonzales hints at the myriad ways in which photography can be mobilized and manipulated in the service of an argument.

As much as these works dissemble photography, however, they ultimately attest to the medium’s staying power. Gonzales clearly recognizes that painting cannot retreat into a prelapsarian world in which it has not bitten the photographic apple. Indeed, photographs have become so integral to our visual culture that vision itself might now arguably be considered “photographic.” Like Richter, Tuymans, and Warhol before him, Gonzales recognizes the impossibility of separating experience from its representation. Only six years old when Kennedy was assassinated, he dearly has drawn as much on already digested images from coverage of the event as on his own lived memory.

Gonzales’s work addresses a second kind of mediation as well: that of a strong artistic patrimony, and Warhol seems to be the primary touchstone here. Gonzales’s large diagram of JFK’s wounds recalls Warhol’s Before and After paintings, both showing a doubled profile subjected to unnatural manipulation. The three large pieces based on graphics for Jack Ruby’s nightclub bring Warhol’s early advertising paintings to mind, as much for their attention to the tactics of self-promotion as for their striking formal kinship. Even the Texas Book Depository boxes, which Gonzales has hauntingly situated near the gallery’s front window. recall the famous Brillo box stacks. This is not only art about history but art about art about history.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Gonzales’s voice is most clearly heard in those works that nod less overtly to his artistic predecessors. The large pink portrait of Oswald is a standout, and it resonates uncomfortably with Gonzales’s Self-Portrait in Green hanging to its right. Perhaps the most memorable painting in the show is Zupruder Frame 313. An irregular grid of Technicolor squares, this modestly sized piece is reminiscent of the geometric abstractions Gonzales has shown in previous exhibitions. Here one senses a human subject lurking behind the pixelated rainbow, but as the image approaches pure illegibility there is an ecstatic moment of rapturous fracture. Even if you don’t know that Zapruder’s frame 313 captures that instant when Kennedy’s head is blown apart, the painting delivers an optical analogue of an endorphin rush before death. When painting can do something like that, who needs photography?

Jordan Kantor