Dennis Gonzalez is better known for being a free jazz trumpet player and educator, but he is also an artist. Saturday night he will have his first exhibit in a decade, a one-night-only pop show that will also feature music from his longtime band, Yells At Eels. The several large works on paper convey the agony of health issues he has faced in recent years, but also the joy of the relationship he has with his young granddaughter. It is a visual counterpart to his music.
“After all these years, and finally coming out of my medical funk, I was able to finish this series,” Gonzalez says. He recently retired from his longtime position as a high school teacher and spent months completing work he started a decade ago. After exhibiting his art internationally for several years, he was tired of pursuing galleries and decided to focus on music.
But after an operation five months ago, Gonzalez spent a great deal of time figuring out what to do with his visual art. “I started working on the last pieces and upgrading some of them I hadn’t finished,” he says. One of the pieces hung on the wall behind his desk at Woodrow Wilson High School for two years. He would look at it every day and add something to it.
Soon after returning home from the hospital, Gonzalez began finishing this series. He starts with the foreground and the background is always black. Early on, his two-year-old granddaughter started drawing on one of the paintings. Going around the details to create the dark backdrop is particularly time consuming. “All the little squiggles she did on that,” Gonzalez says, with a smile. “That took me about a month to fill in. But it’s our first collaboration.” He is currently working on two new paintings with his granddaughter.
Gonzalez originally started with oil paintings, portraits of people on large canvases. But now he mostly uses markers, and occasionally colored charcoal. For a canvas, Gonzalez creates collages and has them printed and stretched out onto thin paper. The works are sprinkled with his childhood interests in hieroglyphics, astronomy, studying Arabic and Hebrew, collecting fossils and bugs.
“I was very interested in insects as a kid,” Gonzalez says. “I used to sit in the middle of an ant pile and they would actually crawl all over me. I never got stung. I was very interested in how shiny they were and how they were segmented. Can they think?”
Some of the art focuses on specific fascinations, like mandrakes. “They say this is a plant that when you pull it out of the ground it looks a lot like a human being and that it screams,” Gonzalez says. “They used to use it as a narcotic when they were doing surgery back in the Middle Ages.” Gonzalez only recently learned about this plant and became fascinated with stories about it.
Gonzalez has a piece that focuses on “a goldfish pushing through the barrier of time. As he pushes through this barrier of time, he has this explosion of energy.” Regardless, if a painting centers around one object or uses symbols, bugs and bones to have many themes, all of the works tell a story. “It’s just like my music,” Gonzalez says. “I can tell you what a particular song means to me.” But he understands that the listener is usually going to have a different interpretation.
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Being a trumpet player and an artist also gives Gonzalez unique insight about the improvisation of jazz inspiring the work of painters. “In my music you start with a form,” he says. But the other musicians have different responses to it and make new references. In his paintings, you typically see a bone, a bug, a geometrical shape or symbol that multiplies, shooting out in different directions or swirling. There is an explosion of color that eventually gravitates back to its starting point, much like a song ending by returning to the opening theme.
And like his music, Gonzalez’s artwork is improvised. He colors a cicada, tears off part of its wing, and defines it with certain colors without giving it any thought. By creating art he seems to contain something that cannot be contained. “Death has touched my life,” Gonzalez says. “My health has depended on what my bones and organs are doing.” A nasty bone infection inspired Gonzalez’s homage to bones, which are scattered throughout the series. Feathers are also used as symbols of healing.
As hallucinatory as these works on paper are, they never seem to approach psychedelic imagery. Serious themes are addressed, but Gonzalez’s art never seems unsettling. The works are undeniably spiritual. But using childhood fascinations to address adult issues gives this show an innocence that makes it endearing.
The Doctrine of Heiromancy: Works on Paper featuring art by Dennis Gonzalez and music by Yells At Eels takes place from 6 to 10 p.m. Saturday, October 24, at Mighty Fine Arts, 409 N. Tyler. St.