An imposing, highly polished, ebony concert grand piano confronts all visitors to Ruth Gonzales’ workshop. Consuming a third of the available space, the piano would make more sense in a music conservatory than an abstract painter’s studio space.
However, a quick look at the remaining space shouts: An artist works here! Palette knives, brushes, mortars-and-pestles, paints and other tools of her craft populate the atelier. All of remaining spaces are lined with large, partly completed canvases. One yet-to-be stretched painting can be found flat on the floor, just a few steps from the front door.
Gonzales was born, raised and trained as a classical figurative artist in Hermosillo, Sonora, Mexico, three hours south of the Arizona/Mexico border. The artist worked as a missionary in Southern Mexico and spent time in Tijuana before moving to this desert in 1990.
The artist’s classical training presents itself in her abstractions: forms are suggested, not obvious. Her deconstruction process produces a tremendous sense of depth.
“It is her understanding of form,” said Jorge Mendez, of Jorge Mendez Gallery, “that allows her to retain its essence while creating an abstract painting. Her finished pieces contain a unique tension.”
Gonzales told me she finds painting on a flat, two-dimensional surface not to be limiting, but to be “freeing.” Her freedom is likely furthered by the fact that the natural and reflected light in her studio produces an ethereal, almost otherworldly aura that is inviting yet mysterious.
When first moving to the desert, Gonzales took a series of classes, including art classes, at the College of the Desert. “The desert became my inspiration as a painter,” she said. “I find the sand, the blue-black, starry nights, the purplish-brown mountains and our blue skies totally engaging.”
Gonzales said she realized she needed to expand the type and range of materials she applies. The artist still uses traditional oil paints (from the tube). “However,” she said, “those materials limit me. I am increasingly drawn to raw pigments that I can mix with linseed oil or apply directly to the canvas.”
Gonzales’ use of these pigments expands her ability to enhance the textural elements of her finished works. At times, she will also prep her canvas with unexpected materials, like sand.
The artist credits the late Mexican painter Rufino Tamayo as a major influence. Both rely heavily upon raw pigments, and both artists employ a limited number of colors. There is a difference: Tamayo chose distinctly different and contrasting colors. Gonzales realizes a world built from multiple layers of melded colors, nuanced shading, refracted light and textures. Unlike other painters who apply multiple and thick layers of paint, Gonzales’ finished pieces are neither weighty nor imposing. Her paintings emanate a lightness that is inviting and engaging, giving others opportunities to create their own unique experience, conversation and narrative.
There is an organic quality to all of Gonzales’ paintings. It appears that she starts by applying layers of bright white gesso and/or pigments, and the artist’s canvases offer an inherent luster and/or sheen. This is especially true with “Chakra Sun.”
To ground her composition, the artist painted the bottom section of “Chakra Sun” in lush greens. The sporadic addition of contrasting light blue brushstrokes added richness. Above the greens, Gonzales painted a square in varying shades of gold. Because she presents the perimeter in darker shades of the same color, the square seems to radiate its own light. To complete the canvas, the artist introduces angular brushstrokes in carnelian and off-white; she creates what appear to be luminescent stick figures marching across the canvas.
It is incorrect to assume “Liquid Mind,” a large, imposing, horizontal canvas, is a departure. The artist remains true to her aesthetic and process—but in reverse. In contrast to her usual approach of building up colors to create spaces where forms seem to float, the artist here seems to be carefully stripping away previously developed layers of ground pigments, color and paint. The planned combination of highly textured, visually tactile surfaces and a limited palette makes “Liquid Mind” into a highly introspective and inward-looking painting.
“White Mist and Blackbirds” best exemplifies her organic approach and classical training as a figurative painter. Here, the foreground seems like a filmy scrim or mist hovering over a lake. It is through that uneven whiteness that Gonzales presents outlines of forms in bluish-black pigments or paints. The forms seem sketched, and the unevenly painted light tan background amplifies the sense of forms floating in space.
For more information, visit www.ruthgonzales.com. Jorge Mendez Gallery, 756 N. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs, shows her work regularly. For more information on the gallery, call 760-656-7454, or visit jorgemendezgallery.com. Below: "White Mist and Blackbirds, "Chakra Sun" and "Liquid Mind."