Ella Gonzales

What does it mean to see through painting? The question has been posed many times but rarely with the multivalent possibilities afforded by Ella Gonzales’s current exhibition at Galerie Nicolas Robert, Toronto. The paintings and objects that make up “Temporary lacework” thoroughly interrogate the potentiality of pictorial space and our common assumptions about the relationships between surfaces, spaces and borders in the world itself. They are capricci or architectural fantasies for our present migratory world. The gallery’s statement indicates that this is “a solo exhibition of paintings and supports,” and this duality is necessary for capturing the works’ extraordinary attention to both the painting surfaces and the gorgeous wooden structures that sustain them.

Ella Gonzales, Persistently soft, 2023, acrylic on piña silk, 61 × 50.8 centimetres. Photo: Alison Postma. Courtesy Galerie Nicolas Robert, Montreal.

The paintings can be divided into four types by shape/installation. On opposite sides of the gallery there are two large paintings on Jusi silk, A kind of proposition and Cadence of habit, which are roughly door-like in dimension and are affixed to the wall with three standard door hinges. The paint application here is opaque, but the hinges allow the viewer to look behind the surface and address it from different angles. On the same wall as Cadence of habit, you find a string of five small, jewel-like works (roughly 16 x 12 inches) each bearing the title Portrait, in which piña silk is stretched within carefully bevelled wooden boxes. Because these box/stretchers are pushed out from the wall by little wooden legs, light passes through the back of all the Portraits, thus you literally look through the surface of the painting. The effect is mesmerizing. On the same wall as A kind of proposition are two mid-sized paintings, Persistently soft and Elaborate elsewhere, which operate as a diptych of sorts: the former is a transparent blue monochrome and the latter is an opaque polychrome rendering of the architectural fantasies that are the subject of all of the paintings in the show. These two works encapsulate the show’s primary conceptual and material concerns. Persistently soft takes the viewer into an interior space of hallways, doors and windows, but the subtle layering of different shades of blue paint on the transparent silk surface dematerializes the walls that would otherwise make such structures necessary. Where the walls are veil-like, what purpose is an aperture or a passageway? At stake is the traditional understanding of the picture plane as a window no less than the assumption that a painting lies on a two-dimensional surface. As with the other transparent paintings in the show, the stretcher can be seen, but at times it feels as though there is a second or even a third layer of silk behind the painting’s surface. That is an illusion but one that strangely persists even as you become accustomed to this soft architecture, forcing you to imagine a world where abstraction’s power allows for freely passing through the material limits that separate inside and outside. It’s a metaphor for both recognizing and dematerializing political power’s reliance on the formal organizing elements of time and space. The same set of architectural concerns are explored in a polychromatic, opaque register in Elaborate elsewhere. Fittingly, that opacity places us outside the structure, but we are able seemingly to access the interior through two window-like panels and a peculiar door set tantalizingly ajar. These apertures in a diagonally set, pale yellow plane reveal an iteration of one of the show’s most generative figures: a mauve staircase. What is so fascinating about Elaborate elsewhere is how it seems to read as a depiction of architectural space while remaining an exploration of hard-edge abstraction’s power to upend spatial expectations. Gonzales achieves this extraordinary tension through a virtuoso management of colour and shadow. Muted washes of her generally cool palette are activated by small geometric swatches of reddish orange. However, cast shadows seem to confound the space. With extended viewing, the tiny central orange rectangle emerges as the ultimate enigma; it organizes the painting, but it appears to have no clear “architectural” referent.

Ella Gonzales, Elaborate elsewhere, 2023, oil on linen, 61 × 50.8 centimetres. Photo: Alison Postma. Courtesy Galerie Nicolas Robert, Montreal.

The remaining works extrapolate on the propositions tabled in these two companion paintings. Like Persistently soft, Between gestures is a transparent brown monochrome with a visible stretcher, but the depicted space echoes that of Elaborate elsewhere. Resting on the floor, Furnishing expands the box frames of the “Portrait” series to produce a rectangular wooden prism whose top surface is another monochrome painting on silk. Roughly two feet high, it can be approached from any angle, but the picture’s composition generates a visual conundrum where the spatial claims of sculpture and painting are mutually frustrated.

The “Portrait” series condenses all the formal experiments of the larger works and combines their effects to create spatially impossible interiors and temporally dreamlike worlds. Transparent polychromatic layers and irregular lines gesture at ghostly walls, doors, windows, passageways and marvellous staircases, all of which make us yearn for places and paintings that might have been or are yet to come, but those boxes that keep the silk surface taut introduce a sense of containment. I left the show puzzling over whether these versions of Piranesi’s Carceri d’invenzione, the most famous of which are also in portrait format, capture the condition of soft incarceration that defines late capitalism, or whether these imaginary prisons offer sanctuary or asylum in a world where crossing borders is increasingly fraught and dangerous. ❚

“Temporary lacework” was exhibited at Galerie Nicolas Robert, Toronto, from November 23, 2023, to December 23, 2023.

Danny O’Quinn is a professor in the School of English and Theatre Studies at the University of Guelph.

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