Being walked through artist Loretta Gonzalez's new series of paintings is like exchanging introductions at a dinner party for savages. "This is Dena Schlosser from Plano. She cut the arms off her baby," says Gonzalez, expanding a photo of the painting on her iPad. Next we meet Gilberta from Hudson Oaks, who hanged her four children in a trailer park closet. Then Deanna Laney, from New Chapel Hill, who stoned her two sons. And Angela Camacho, from Brownsville, who opted to decapitate her offspring.
This gritty lesson in filicide would be unbearable if Gonzalez's paintings weren't so damn charming. Frosted full of pastel tones and well-appointed dollhouse interiors, these are still shots of playful, domestic moments. Each stars a young girl, clad in mary janes, hair bows and fluffy, crinolined dresses, and aside from the harm she's doing to her collection of teddy bears, everything here seems to be in order. Go ahead and chalk those misdeeds up to precocious innocence. Never mind the girls' vacant eyes.
Those haunting tells are made clearer through each picture's back story. As you read it, the mood shifts. Told primarily through oils, Gonzalez uses her pigtailed protagonists to recount actual homicide cases -- many out of Texas -- in which mothers snapped and murdered their kids. It's called I Love You to Death, and it opens this Friday at ATAMA.
When Gonzalez began this project two years ago, a compulsion took hold. Unable to understand the cause of her obsession, she stayed up all night questioning her need to make peace with this particular avenue of violence. "I realized it's because my mother's bipolar, and she could have snapped at any moment," she says.
Gonzalez's mom cut her dad with a kitchen knife during a Thanksgiving dinner, and nobody was terribly shocked. It happened in front of Loretta's entire extended family, who were seated around the table, held as a captive audience, as they had been at every other doomed seasonal meal. "She was big on the holidays," explains Gonzalez. "This whole thing of making it seem so normal to everybody. She would always dress us up and invite all of our relatives -- and they would all come, knowing that it would turn out exactly the same way. Her getting drunk and everybody leaving."
As an adult, she revisited the knifing in a sketch. She drew her mother seated at the head of a table, surrounded by all of the holiday mascots. The whole team was accounted for: The New Year's Baby, that bunny, Kringle and the rest. "She's stabbing the turkey and there's blood spurting everywhere and they all have this look of surprise," she says sweetly.
The Thanksgiving disaster was just another highlight of an active, manic bipolar cycle smothered in alcohol. Her mother's mental disorder wouldn't be diagnosed until much later, when Gonzalez was grown with a teenager of her own. So she spent her own upbringing watching those panics build. Suppers wound up "everywhere." There were weekly arrests for disturbing the peace, and physical warring between her parents. During especially aggressive parental bouts her siblings would try to run interference, but Gonzalez, the eldest of the children, felt differently. "We'd be so much better off if they just killed each other," she remembers explaining.
The younger Gonzalezes would eventually escape that house unharmed, but with hindsight Gonzalez understands fully the parallels between her series' muses and her mother's behavior. She could have been any of these children. In fact, many of us could.
The National Institute of Health says that about 5.6 million Americans are diagnosed bipolar. This form of depression is the sixth leading cause of disability worldwide, and one in five diagnosed completes suicide. Despite its prevalence, misdiagnosis in women is still extremely common. Erratic behaviors are attributed to dramatic flair or other female-centric deficiencies.
The topic grows more gruesome when children are involved. Between 15 and 30 percent of kids born into bipolar households wind up injured, or worse, meet endings like the subjects of Gonzalez's series.
One of the most alarming things Gonzalez discovered in her research was that nearly all of the women who followed through with these deeds exhibited warning signs. Most even sought help, reaching out to their husbands or pastors for guidance. "They're trying to figure it all out, like a child who has a problem," Gonzales says. "And their husbands are always busy. ... Later they say, 'I saw this coming, but now I can't do anything about it.'"
Falsified notions of safety are a recurring theme in Loretta's body of work. Back in college she made the local news for hanging a giant mural listing 30 names and addresses of local pedophiles. She installed it directly across the street from her daughter's elementary school. "It started a traffic jam," she says. She also built a piñata of her parents as a sculptural assignment. Her continued reach into a compartmentalized childhood was too dark for one of her UTA professors, who told her during a peer critique that not everyone else is "as fucked up as she is." Gonzalez replied, "That's true, but a lot of people are. And this is for them."
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While portions of I Love You To Death have shown in Los Angeles and the United Kingdom, Gonzalez has met a slower reception here in Dallas. That's odd, considering that the majority of maternal crimes happen in Texas, a geographic phenomenon Gonzalez pins on a mix of religious fervor and drought of financial resources. She had a sold-out solo show at the now-defunct Gallery Bomb two years back and has had her work hanging at pop culture oasis ATAMA for the last three months, but aside from those rooms this city has yet to be exposed to Loretta Gonzalez. That will all change soon enough.
There's a vinyl toy in the works, a three-dimensional rendering of her Kewpie doll Andrea Yates, the Texas mom who drowned her children, one by one, in the bathtub. Kiddie Yates is standing in a clear blue puddle with soap bubbles clinging to her hair; she's holding a teddy bear in each outstretched hand. There's also a book in the pipeline -- a bound collection of these "ugly pretty" deeds -- that will unite each print with its story. Gonzalez hopes to have both out around Valentine's Day.
"As an artist you have a platform," Gonzalez says. "I think it's our job to draw attention to things that are important."