A Salvo Against War, Torture, and Racism: The Art of Mariano Gonzales

When we think of Alaska, we usually imagine large open spaces, beautiful scenery, breathtaking glaciers, glorious mountains, fantastic wildlife, and virtually unlimited opportunities for outdoors activities like fishing, hunting, dog sledding, and skiing. And when we think of Alaska’s politics, we imagine a conservative, highly individualistic state that in recent years produced Sarah Palin, perhaps the most ludicrous political figure to appear on the national scene in many decades. Rarely do we imagine Alaska as a major center of art and culture, save for its well-recognized tradition of exceptional Native sculpture, painting, and printmaking.

“Five Flags and One Question” by Mariano Gonzales.

These generalizations are largely accurate but incomplete. Alaska is also the residence of a major socially conscious artist whose works would be far more visible if he resided in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, or indeed, in any major urban center in the “lower 48,” especially one with a substantial Latino population. Mariano Gonzales, currently Art Department Chair at the University of Alaska in Anchorage, has spent much of his artistic career expressing progressive, provocative visions in his works. His cumulative efforts place him the front ranks of contemporary artists who combine high quality technical skill with trenchant social and political criticism and commentary.

A Texan by birth with long Latino roots, Gonzales has resided in Alaska since 1959. Trained professionally at the Rhode Island School of Design, he was originally a metal artist, and has continued producing sculptural works as well as prints in multiple, highly imaginative formats. He has exhibited widely throughout Alaska and his works are in several permanent Alaskan public collections, including the prestigious Anchorage Museum of History and Art. His theater graphics contribute to his output; they add a vibrant public dimension to his overall work, enabling theatergoers to include a visual dimension to their creative experience. In recent years, Gonzales has excelled in digital imaging techniques, the primary focus of his university teaching. He appropriates images from the Internet, skillfully blends them into the political and social compositions he creates, and prints them on a dazzling array of materials, including metal, paper, and even tortillas.

He acknowledges his good fortune in having a secure faculty position that allows him the freedom to produce art that would be scarcely marketable, especially in the conservative Alaskan environment. He creates his works because he wants to disseminate the messages to encourage viewers to reflect seriously on issues that are vital to discourse in a democratic society. The mainstream media, in Alaska and elsewhere, rarely promote the kind of critical vision that Gonzales’s art reveals. In the venues where his works have been shown, audiences have been exposed, perhaps for the first time, to perspectives radically different from those that are usually expressed throughout the state in most print and electronic sources.

An Artistic Condemnation of U.S. Foreign Policy

One of his iconic political works is his 2008 inkjet print on aluminum construction entitled “American Samurai.” This remarkable life sized, richly detailed assemblage is a devastating critique of recent American foreign policy—a recurring feature of Mariano Gonzales’s visual criticism. The face fuses three malevolent figures: the eyes of former Vice President Dick Cheney; the smile of former President George W. Bush; and the beard of Osama bin Laden. The deeper, unnerving point is obvious: all three men, in their own perverse ways, reflected a powerful fanaticism, which, when combined with extensive power, caused the deaths of thousands of innocent lives.

"American Samurai" by Mariano Gonzales.

The other details are similarly revealing and similarly disconcerting. At the sides of the helmet atop the synthetic head are two cards with photos. At the viewer’s left is the famous 1983 picture of former defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld shaking hands with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Rumsfeld was serving as President Ronald Reagan’s special representative, courting favor with the dictator because of his war with Iran. The photo at the right is the moment before Saddam Hussein’s execution by hanging following his capture and trial. Then, of course, he had become America’s archenemy, the new Hitler, the focus of the most grotesque United States foreign policy misadventure since the war in Vietnam.

The arms of “American Samurai” extend from a Confederate flag, itself a pointed reminder of the racist attitudes and practices of the Bush administration, most terribly felt during the 2005 Hurricane Katrina debacle in New Orleans. At the left are Bush regime officials and media cheerleaders for the Iraq war disaster and at the right are examples of Saudi Arabian currency, the dual signifier of foreign capital and American imperial ambition. But the most poignant details in this artwork dominate the main body of the figure. These photos are images of dead U.S. service personnel, whose lives were lost while millions of Americans were falsely led to believe that the war somehow had something to do with the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The dollar signs and American flag superimposed on the images of the fallen soldiers reinforce Gonzales’s sharp critique of this disastrous war, while suggesting the underlying rationale. And audiences, as for all anti-war art from Goya to the present, are encouraged to understand that these dead men and women were not mere statistics, but human beings with hopes, dreams, and aspirations for a future cut short by irrational and inhumane policies that will take decades from which to recover.

Gonzales continued his artistic assault on the deadly impact of American foreign policy in his 2009 exhibition at Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage. Entitled “Five Flags and One Question,” this ambitious installation invited audiences to ponder one of the most pressing issues of the early twenty-first century. By presenting three flag-draped objects, fastened over plastic plumbing pipe that created a shape the size and proportions of a military casket, and placing two other flags on the wall, the artist extended his concrete vision of the catastrophic human toll of American military policy that the Bush administration initiated. These flag-draped objects again demanded a powerful viewer response. These coffin-like objects were unnerving to an audience that was forbidden by the government and the media from even looking at actual photographs of military coffins. To encourage viewer involvement, Gonzales added sheets of paper on the walls for personal comments. Socially engaged artists often employ this strategy to promote active interaction, an especially appropriate objective when the artworks themselves are controversial statements about public issues.

Responses varied from heartfelt opposition to American war efforts to marginally relevant comments to observations laced with profanity. Such responses are not unusual and rarely evoke much concern or controversy; they are similar, in fact, to the comments regularly found on the Internet after news and other items. In this case, however, Gonzales’s exhibition led to an egregious case of artistic censorship.

Facing Censorship

An early warning of things to come occurred when the President of Alaska Pacific University, Doug North, added his personal comment on official university letterhead. His language was revealing:

This exhibition was not reviewed as all exhibitions usually are. That is our fault. However I do believe in free speech and the freedom of art to make a statement. I am glad that this statement board was provided and that I can say:

I think this is more a facile piece of guerilla theater than art, although I have only seen a photograph of it. It is provocative, and it does ask for reminders. My own comment is that I can quickly think of 2977 reminders.

President North’s comment revealed his bias and, indeed, his profound ignorance. The Iraq War in particular had absolutely nothing to do with the barbarous attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, despite the initially successful attempts by George Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, Paul Wolfowitz and others to mislead and even deceive the American public. Equally insidiously, the president’s comment presaged his subsequent attempt to remove “Five Flags and One Question” from his campus venue.

The official rationale was that profane language on the message boards would be offensive and damaging to children, especially the word “fuck.” Whatever one thinks of the pervasive inclusion of such language into daily speech (and the media), the realty is clear: very few children are shielded from four-letter words in the new century. They are commonplace in everyday speech, including in elementary and middle school playgrounds and even school hallways. President North’s “fear” was no more than a cover for conservative displeasure with Mariano Gonzales’s political artwork. Although he was offered another campus venue, the artist determined that it was unsatisfactory and removed his work prematurely, completing another chapter to the sorry history of American artistic censorship.

Making Sense of Abu Ghraib

In 2004, the world gasped at the revelations of American torture at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Many artists decided to depict these grisly events in their work; most were cartoons or poster efforts, produced for rapid dissemination, although renowned Columbian artist Fernando Botero also created a large series of powerful paintings about these disgraceful incidents. Mariano Gonzales also used his talent as a digital artist to add to this theme in contemporary socially conscious art. He produced a series of works entitled “A Soldier’s Tale,” which addressed some of the issues underlying the dramatic physical and sexual abuse images that circulated throughout the world when the scandal broke.

A collage-like portrait of Lynndie England by Mariano Gonzales.

One example is a collage-like effort that highlights one of the central figures, Lynndie England, in the now infamous photograph of her holding a leash attached to a prisoner on the prison floor. Directly next to her is another, more benign portrait of England, who despite receiving a three-year prison sentence and a dishonorable discharge for conspiracy, maltreating detainees, and committing an indecent act, is also another victim of this entire tragedy.

There is no doubt about England’s role in the abuse of Iraqi prisoners and no justification for her actions. But as this scandal unfolded, readers and viewers also learned about her marginal working class background. After a failed marriage and various low-income jobs, she enlisted in the Reserves and was deployed to Iraq in 2003. This is an all too common story of how working class Americans are recruited—“manipulated” would not be an overly harsh term here–– to military service because they have few alternatives.

In Iraq, Lynndie England became engaged to fellow reservist Charles Graner, pictured at the upper left of the composition beneath a pile of naked Iraqi prisoners. She later gave birth to a son he fathered. Graner, the malevolent ringleader of the abuse, was convicted on all charges and sentenced to ten years in military prison. A prison guard in civilian life, Graner was a master predator, who justly received ten years in prison for his criminal acts at Abu Ghraib. As the artist’s text at the bottom bluntly reveals, England was incapable of understanding that the man she “loved” was actually a brutal “motherfucker.” And as the text likewise suggests, Graner’s country, the United States of America, must share that searing condemnation.

“Another Painter and His Devil” adds to Gonzales’s body of agitprop imagery. Deliberately unsubtle, the work depicts President Bush and his second Attorney General, Alberto Gonzales, by many accounts one of the most undistinguished persons ever to hold that position. The message is unambiguous: Bush and Gonzales made a mockery of the Bill of Rights, using the fear of Islamic terrorists to trample on some of historic civil liberties that distinguishes the United States from most other nations in the world.

“Another Painter and His Devil” by Mariano Gonzales.

Much of the assault began in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, when unconstitutional detentions and harassments of Arabs, Iranians, and others from that region were ubiquitous. Above all, the passage of the notorious Patriot Act, which President Bush signed on October 26, 2001 and which Alberto Gonzales vigorously supported, cast a huge pall over the American civil liberties tradition, bringing the nation ever closer to a police state environment more akin to the former Soviet Union. More perniciously, Bush and Gonzales conspired to authorize torture, established the infamous detention facility in Guantanamo, Cuba, sponsored “extraordinary rendition” that allowed the apprehension and transfer of suspected terrorists from one country to another, and promoted torture procedures like waterboarding that were condemned throughout the civilized world. The Barack Obama Administration, while reducing some of the most egregious features of its predecessor, has nevertheless substantially continued the assault on civil liberties, making Mariano Gonzales’s work entirely relevant well past the time frame of its production.

Alaska’s English-Only Movement

The artist also draws on his own Chicano origins and on iconic Alaskan symbols to provide artistic social commentary. “English Only” is a humorous but effective critique of Alaska’s attempt to implement an “English Only” law, which voters passed in 1998. The image of puffins is actually printed on a tortilla, a familiar staple of the Mexican diet both in Mexico itself and in Chicano communities throughout the U.S. Puffins, in turn, are beloved sea birds in Alaska and are widely featured in wildlife tours and pitched regularly to tourists.

“English Only” by Mariano Gonzales.

The imaginative use of materials and the work’s witty perspective should not conceal its extremely serious message. The “English Only” movement reflects a pernicious nativism that reflects and encourages hostility against the “others,” especially those who are foreign born and, in recent years, people of Latino origin who have served as convenient scapegoats for economic distress during the “Great Recession.” This movement is at bottom profoundly racist. It also flies in the face of several constitutional guarantees, including due process, equal protection, and free expression. Above all, it is a mean-spirited attempt to demonize some of the most marginal members of society by labeling the use of other languages as somehow un-American and reprehensible.

Gonzales reveals his artistic distaste of the English only through his squawking puffins. His ersatz Spanish term “El Squawko,” uttered by the “un-American” puffin, and his use of the tortilla underscore the chief Latino targets of this insidious movement. But in Alaska itself, the English Only drive is especially ironic because there are at least twenty indigenous languages in that state that have been spoken long before the arrival of people of European background. The English Only law, which was partly struck down by the Alaska Supreme Court, was a gratuitous denigration of Native life and culture by the majority population.

Racist Standards of Beauty

Another commentary on race and ethnicity, expressed more obliquely, appears in his 2007 satirical work entitled “Britney, Our Love.” Beyond Ms. Spears’s emotional meltdowns and publicity blips (like those of other publicity hounds Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan), the depressing reality is that she and others like her represent the ideal of feminine beauty and attractiveness in contemporary America. Thousands of American teenage girls (and many others) see Spears as the embodiment of beauty, reflecting a media and male generated vision of blond, large breasted female celebrities serving as public sex symbols.

“Britney, Our Love” by Mariano Gonzales.

This artwork highlights that depressing reality. Whatever her musical and performing talents, Ms. Spears should not be the model of female attractiveness. By superimposing the U.S. flag over her face, Gonzales invites his viewers to ponder the American fetish for such conventional standards. It is useful to consider the implications of young white blonds as the female standard. Excluded are most women of color, including African Americans, Latinas, and Asian Americans, middle-aged and older women of all races, disabled women, overweight women, which includes anyone “failing” to meet absurd media thinness requirements, and just about all the other 99 percent of the American female population.

This work is the pictorial counterpart to Naomi Wolf’s 1991 powerful critique in The Beauty Myth, which exposed the socially constructed standards of feminine physical beauty. Implicit in “Britney, Our Love” is a deeper critique of these standards. Millions of American women, especially younger women, suffer emotional turmoil because they do not and cannot ever look like Britney Spears. More fundamentally, the focus on any physical standards misses the point. If the feminist movement proved anything, it is that women should be considered on their character, moral integrity, personal achievement, and a multitude of other criteria far beyond superficial and transitory appearance. Gonzales’s effort joins a long tradition of visual artworks that express and reinforce this central principle.

Gun Proliferation

In recent years, Mariano Gonzales has turned his artistic attention to the controversial issue of guns in America. His position is unambiguous; he views the proliferation of firearms as extremely dangerous, a view that assumes an unusual relevance in the summer of 2012 following the mass murders in Colorado and Wisconsin. His anti-gun artistic vision is not always well received, perhaps especially in gun happy Alaska. In one exhibition at the University of Alaska, Anchorage, the student newspaper, in a particularly puerile review, decried his work as an assault on the Second Amendment and its purported value in preserving American freedom.

"From My Cold Dead Fingers" by Mariano Gonzales.

The National Rifle Association, various “patriot” groups, and others have been successful in making America arguably the highest private gun ownership nation in the world, with approximately 200 million firearms in private hands. The United States Supreme Court, with its activist conservative majority, has given constitutional cover for this frightening arrangement. In 2008, in its 5-4 District of Columbia v. Heller decision, the Court held that the Second Amendment protects the individual right to own a firearm. Two years later, in McDowell v. Chicago, the same conservative majority extended that principle to the states, retarding efforts for sensible gun control legislation throughout the country.

“From My Cold Dead Fingers” features a gun-toting Jesus atop a quotation taken from the late Charlton Heston, the NRA president and spokesman who in 2000 declared that Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore would take away his Second Amendment rights “from my cold dead hands.” Once again, the artist uses a blunt style to address a pressing social topic. The provocative image of Jesus Christ, with a NRA emblem heart across his chest and a gun in his hand may well offend the most rabid gun owners, but the work also expresses a powerful reality. Many gun advocates approach their weapons with a religious zeal and proselytize for their cause with missionary passion.

The visual analogy here is not misplaced. Indeed, gun advocacy is strongly, even inextricably linked to the broader political agenda of the Christian Right in America. The NRA routinely bankrolls conservative political candidates and even progressive elected officials are fearful of encountering the wrath of this powerful interest group. “From My Cold Dead Fingers” is a chilling warning and a reminder of the pervasive irrationality of America’s gun culture––a reality widely noted and decried throughout much of the world.

The Killing of Trayvon Martin

Gonzales underscored his gun-related art with an image that addresses one of the most inflammatory racial killings of recent times, the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman on February 26, 2012 in Sanford, Florida. “Skittles,” which refers to the candy that 17-year old Martin was carrying when Zimmerman shot him, depicts an ominous Zimmerman speaking on his cell phone call to the police. His cell number appears at the left and his racist quotation from that conversation appears at the top and right of the artwork.

"Skittles" by Mariano Gonzales.

In referring to “these assholes,” it is clear that Zimmerman meant young criminals, and most likely, African American males. “Skittles” also depicts him with his neighborhood watch signifier, his pistol, an NRA insignia, and American flag colors on his face. All these visual details reveal the continuing obsession with security and protecting property against intrusion from the perceived threats of invading hoards of young black and brown thugs.

There is no doubt, to be sure, that some neighborhood watch programs are useful expressions of community concern and that many, even most participants are well-meaning men and women legitimately concerned about their community welfare and safety. At the same time, these programs regularly attract men with violent tendencies and with racist inclinations and attitudes. So too, unfortunately, do some law enforcement and military entities, as recent history has dramatically revealed. Whatever the final disposition of the criminal charges against George Zimmerman, there is little doubt about his deeper motivations and his long record of racial animosity.

Working in political isolation from most of his artistic colleagues in Alaska, Mariano Gonzales continues a noble tradition of critical visual consciousness that goes back many centuries and that thrives in the early decades of the twenty-first century. His politically and socially charged images challenge his audiences to think about the major issues of their times; this is what critical artists, especially historical and contemporary satirists like Honore Daumier, George Grosz, John Heartfield, William Gropper, Charles Bragg, Fernando Botero, Erika Rothenberg, and hundreds of others, have done for their entire careers. Gonzales’s work adds distinction to that tradition. His extensive output should encourage viewers to look to other locales where other socially conscious artists work, with perhaps less recognition than their work merits. In the perilous days of the century’s second decade, America and the world need as much critical conscious in every form as possible.


5 thoughts on “A Salvo Against War, Torture, and Racism: The Art of Mariano Gonzales

  1. Thank you for this piece! As an Alaskan and university colleague I’ve been lucky to know Mariano’s work for many years now. I’ve even taken his digital art class, I know him as a dedicated artist and teacher who does almost little to promote his amazing work. As these examples show, his images expose beautifully, yet brutally, the truths we don’t want to see.

    Let me add to the layers of meaning of “English Only.” The image of one of Alaska’s iconic birds – the puffin – with the red circle and bar is commonly used here as a no smoking sign.

  2. As a former fine art student and Art Dept. staff member at UAA, my fondest memories are of chats with Mariano, whom I consider the most influential mentor I have ever known. This is a wonderful article that barely scratchs the surface of who Mariano is as an artist, an educator and a man.

  3. Thanks for this look at Mariano’s fascinating art. Like Tikkun, has asks questions that probe our assumptions, our comfort levels, our fake assertions, our shortcuts, our clinging to myths ancient and recent. I’m proud to have collaborated with him, even though in minor ways.

  4. Mariano has always lead at the uncomfortable edge of political commentary masterfully depicted in his art.