Living and working in the arts, so much of what we experience is premised on a deeper understanding of “form” and “value.” One begins to consider these attributes from disciplinary perspectives. I often think of form from a design perspective, premised in functionalism or from a Gestalt perspective, linking it to the field of psychology. When these “forms” come into relationship with “time,” we discover each artwork lives in relation to the past, present and future; the simultaneity of which lies with both the viewer and the maker. In the crosshairs of this moment is where the viewer draws judgment, or a critical evaluation of the “value” of an artwork. In “Deeper and Deeper,” Devin Balara and Bobby Gonzales masterfully throw this time-based synchronicity in a loop, presenting an aesthetic debate, a revisionist contemporary reality that breaks past the assumptions of heterosexual knowledge economies.
The idea that each artist’s practice stems from the analog nature of drawing, doodling, painting and sculpture is just one methodological approach to the exhibition. On entering, Balara’s linear steel forms appear to be steps strewn with pops of fluid yellow forms. These smooth Post-it-like elements float freely in composition, descending and ascending as rocks native to the eastern banks of Lake Michigan, seeming to hold the sculpture in place. In this interdimensional composition, one can’t resist parsing through the perceptual process of visually resolving a material hierarchy at play. How deeply are our perceptual processes superseded by the material world? Gonzales’ painting “French Rain” accompanies the sculptures. It bears a material likeness to Balara’s yellow forms, yet it is firmer. “French Rain” is composed of screenprints and acrylic paint, a stirring puzzle of Madonna’s recognizable lips and eyes, the painting lined with a delicate edge of green glitter. The visual conundrum of Gonzales’ piece being print, painting, collage and wall-mounted sculpture find their unity in the consciousness and cognition that this is, to some degree, an homage to Madonna.
For those growing up in the nineties, Madonna’s album “Erotica” provided us with a long-time release. With songs that embraced taboo topics like sex, lust, female desire and the orgasm, it also shed light on America’s drug addiction problems, and advocated for a fight against homophobia (in her track “Why’s It So Hard”), in a way that—for a mixed-race child like me, at the cusp of the eighties and nineties—it was an initiation into the idea of sexual emancipation and what female empowerment could look like. With a voracious appetite for MTV, I recall the release of “Rain,” where Madonna could be seen unabashedly soaked in the purity of her sexuality, her thirsting desire to be loved, and hated, and celebrated for her libidinal genius. This, for me, lies at the heart of queer identity.
Gonzales’ use of stills from “Rain” repeat and rehash throughout the exhibition. Fragmenting pop cultural references of the nineties, we get as close as possible as the montages allow us to. Using the dots-per-inch associated with screenprinting, Gonzales reconstructs and misaligns an otherwise pristine journalistic image of sexuality. The fragmented paintings, which are part print, point to the nuanced nature of fluid sexuality, while more intensely operating as aesthetically intimate and inquisitive objects.
Balara’s sculptures, which she categorically explains originate from her penchant for doodling, mindfully hold the gallery floor. Over the course of the pandemic, taking interest in rocks found in the region she currently inhabits, Balara consciously integrates her study of geology with her adept understanding of metal and sculpture. Line forms rise and collapse into themselves, a magnifying glass, an opal tagged shell-like form, different angles of the rotation of the earth and a rock-filled multi-pocketed vest, reside as individual components and a collective body of work leading us from one conclusion to another. What parts form the aesthetic of a geologist, what ideas do we associate with the gendered divisions of labor, knowledge and skill?
Obeying the line determined by an original doodle, she says, her drawings translate themselves through power tools and weighted, large-scale metal. Largely two-dimensional, they are articulated in depth and space, standing confidently in their knowing that they lie outside the norm of femme metalsmithery.
Both Balara and Gonzales’ pieces cut and reassemble the image. Seeking refuge (and partly showing patriarchal, misogynist systems of knowing a big Madonna-esque middle finger), they challenge how visual and social culture are constructed. Pooling resources, desires, access to tools at their common home at Ox-Bow, their works point to the possibility of gender queer academia, while referencing and not replicating existing academic knowledge. All in all their collective presentation in “Deeper & Deeper” is a meaningful whole, as they resist the division of subject and object, creating an infinite continuum of planar, mental processes. It is in this interplay between disciplines, between science and art, between truth and fiction, psychology and neuroscience, that Balara and Gonzales suggest the mutual capacity of art to transform all those involved in receiving it. (Pia Singh)
“Deeper and Deeper: Devin Balara & Bobby Gonzales,” at Roots & Culture, 1041 North Milwaukee, through June 19.