Tamara Gonzales was born in Madera, ca in 1959, and lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. Gonzales has recently exhibited at Klaus von Nichtssagend Gallery and Planthouse in New York, and Harper’s Books in East Hampton. In 2017 her work was part of an Art Critical discussion at the New York Library, and appeared on the cover of The Brooklyn Rail. Gonzales’s work is in public collections including High Museum in Atlanta and Bronx Museum of the Arts where it was also exhibited in 2016.
Interview with Tamara Gonzales
Questions by Emily Burns
Working with lace and spray paint at a large scale must limit control over the surface and composition of your paintings. How does this relate to the control you have with the drawings and what are some of the benefits and challenges of working in this way?
Some of the larger, more atmospheric paintings emerge in the act of making them. Moving the lace around while I’m spraying and lifting it up to peek underneath so I can see what’s happening. Uncovering the painting and looking at it for a while, then making adjustments. Some start with an underpainting done in acrylic. There are always lots of surprises. The drawings are more direct because you can always see what is happening as you make the mark.
How does drawing in your sketchbook inform your work? Do the drawings in the exhibitions differ from the work in your sketchbook?
The drawings in the exhibition do differ from the sketchbooks and a lot of other works on paper. Those drawings began with a rapé session, a type of snuff made by various indigenous tribes in Brazil. I would serve myself and then have a working session lasting several hours, finishing each one before beginning another. The sketchbooks I work in more casually, wherever it’s impractical to bring lots of large paper or supplies. I have some sketchbooks that are specifically done in huachuma (San Pedro) ceremonies—they channel that specific energy. I have others that I work in after ayahuasca ceremonies, or during the course of retreats. Mostly the sketchbooks that I work in every day, in-between painting and other studio activities—you know, when I’m not ready to face a big canvas or I have an idea I want to get down quickly.
What is the moment to moment experience of drawing like for you? Is doodling the same as drawing?
Doodling is drawing but it usually happens when I’m doing some other activity. It used to happen a lot when I was talking on the phone, pre-cell phones that is, or watching tv. When I was younger and in school, a science or math class could be especially productive. Intentionally drawing—I guess you could say—one is more consciously involved in the act. Moment to moment it varies. Some sessions can feel like flying and time passes quickly. Other times it is just a way to get myself started.
There is a painting from 2016 with incredible detail, where the lace pattern is a repeated skull motif. Where do you source the materials for the lace stencils? Have you ever had these made to your specifications? What do you look for in terms of iconography in the lace—whether it be abstract, representational, or symbolic—like floral patterns, skulls, etc?
The skull lace is from Mexico and I was so excited when I found it! There are lots of floral patterns in lace so it’s great to find a net, or something that’s different. With so much lace and so many patterns available I haven’t had any stencils made to specifications…yet. I have begun to think of it because the scale of the patterns in lace is predetermined and sometimes I wish I could have it larger so it scales up with a larger canvas.
How has Magick affected you and your work over the years? Do you still practice or stay involved in rituals in addition to ayahuasca ceremonies?
I love having tarot cards in the studio and usually draw some every day. I don’t do specific readings, just meditate on them or look up interpretations from some of my favorite books. Alejandro Jodorowsky’s is a favorite.
You were very involved in the music scene on your path to becoming an artist—how did music, musicians, and the scene that you were a part of influence you visually, or otherwise? Did you participate in making music? What drew you to that crowd?
I wish I had participated in making music! I feel lucky that I was in New York at a particularly fecund time for music. CBGB’s, Max’s Kansas City, and the Mudd club were all going strong. Punk was such a do-it-yourself aesthetic. Tish and Snooky, owners of Manic Panic, and their band at the time, The Pin Ups, were playing all the clubs. We used my mother’s delivery van to move music equipment around town. There were so many mornings that I forgot where I parked. Most of my creative energy at that time went into putting on makeup and getting dressed. This was all before I went to art school or had any formal training.
How many years did you spend decorating cakes during the day? Did cake decoration inspire your current process or paintings in any way?
I decorated cakes from around age seventeen to twenty four. My mother owned a bakery on the upper west side of Manhattan called Desserts by Michelle. I decorated cakes during the days and went out to clubs at night. Mixing icing is similar to mixing paint. Lots of the patterns in lace feel familiar to cake decorating. Actually it’s easier to correct mistakes in painting. Cakes fall apart after too many swipes.
How long has your work been influenced by ayahuasca ceremonies? Working between ceremonies,
how does the experience manifest in the work?
I drank ayahuasca for the first time around four years ago. I’m fifty-eight so there is a lot of life experience that is going into the work. My training in yoga is always there. The influence of my peers and art history is there. Watching anime is there. Nature is there. I went through a rainbow phase. It’s all there. The figure with two or three antennae pushing open the frame and stepping through the opening or doorway is specific to ayahuasca. It’s something that appeared to me in a ceremony. Sometimes I think they are DMT bunnies. Other times when I see this particular thing it feels more serious, comes with and intense humming that vibrates my body down to the bones. Still with the visions, which don’t necessarily happen all the time, it’s good to remember it is also phenomena, a dream within a dream so to speak. Still it’s wonderful to have the senses which can talk to plants. I heart duality.
There seems to be an increased interest in ayahuasca ceremonies by the West lately. Do you have any thoughts on the cause or effects of this trend?
It reminds me of when yoga first became so popular. It seems as if people having all their basic needs met still find themselves questioning and wanting something. Something you can’t buy. It’s something you only find in yourself in relation to the larger cosmic picture. Basically, if one is still unhappy after getting the house, the clothes, the food, the job, the relationship, the whatever-one-thinks-will-do-it, you begin to question. Spiritual traditions are loaded with tools. Some thoughts on why ayahuasca has left the Amazon and become so attractive now are that there’s almost a spiritual emergency here. Look at all the antidepressants that are needed. That said, it requires work after the experience too. It’s not an instant fix. It comes close in that it can show you the possibilities and it has natural antidepressant qualities that last. With the right setting and in conjunction with other tools, I hope to see more work done in the field of addiction treatment. I can see lots of potential for healing in the case of people who are sober for many years, still struggling with depression, or for those who are on the verge of slipping into old behaviors, to work in a responsible way with some ayahuasca sessions.
There have been so many unique experiences in your life leading up to the present. Are there any sources or references that stand out clearly among the rest as having the biggest effect on your work today?
My relationship with my husband Chris Martin has been the most influential. Since we met he has supported my endeavors to be an artist. That conversation, and how to keep the energy going when there’s not much interest from the art world can’t be emphasized enough.
Your recent exhibition at Klaus von Nichtssagend Gallery was titled Ometeotl, which refers to dual cosmic energies in Mesoamerican culture. Were there two specific energies that you had in mind when titling the exhibition?
The dual cosmic energies are light and dark, male and female, seen and unseen. In the case of the title I used it as a salute. Like shouting, “Oh Great Spirit.”
In a time when so many of us are trapped in our own bubbles, both online and in our day-to-day lives, can you talk about the experience of exploring the unfamiliar? Is this important to you? If so, how do you incorporate this type of exploration into your life and work?
It’s a balance between exploration and grounding. The studio needs time with a solid routine and not many interruptions. Enough time to get bored, and nap, and move through any ennui. Also I don’t think you need to be anything more than present to explore the unfamiliar since everything is constantly shifting and changing moment to moment. That said, I’ve always gone full bore into anything that interests me. I can’t just read about it, I want to physically be there. I have to intentionally ground or I’m off flying all the time.
The primary motif in many of your large-scale paintings are variations of a particular icon or figure—the form of which comes from an opened cardboard box. How did this figure enter into your work, is there significance to the box from which the form takes its shape, and how do you manipulate this shape in each painting?
The box was a lucky find. It was in a recycling pile. The air vents make faces that look akin to robot glyphs or totem faces. At one point Jason Andrews of Norte Maar and I were trying to track down a bunch of the exact same boxes, the quarter bushel salad box, to make an edition. We called warehouses all over the country. Couldn’t find that box. In the meantime I drew it in Illustrator and output it into different materials so I can play with the box in different scales and 3d forms. The artist Steve Keister works with many commercially produced packing materials in a similar way. Finding interesting shapes that become the building blocks for sculptures. The shapes seem to tread a line between the past and the future. I can envision people looking at these strange styrofoam objects trying to decipher what they mean, much like we have looked at Mayan stelaes.
Your works on paper often include a looped, egg-like frame that hovers against the edges—where did this shape originate? How does the repetition of shapes or motifs across bodies of work function for you?Some moves come from the memory of the hand. That particular loop is one. I don’t know exactly where it came from, but it was just there when I started pouring enamel paint on a square canvas. I think it’s related to Hindu Yantras. Now that I think of it, working with enamel paint it is very similar to working with poured fondant.
Your paintings and drawings strongly relate to each other, but they are also maintain a distinctly different aesthetic in terms of formal qualities, color and materials. What is it about the drawings that cause them to feel so unique from the larger works?
I think the directness of the act of drawing itself contributes to that uniqueness. Also, as I mentioned earlier there was a specific energy being channeled with that group.
What was the experience of bringing your drawings to life as woven tapestries while allowing the weavers a level of creative freedom within the translation process? How do these highly-tactile finished objects resonate with you as opposed to the more flat—though optically textured—paintings and drawings? Is this the first time you have worked with other artists to make the physical pieces?
Outside of the one large neon piece made by Lite Bright Neon this is the first time I’ve had anything fabricated. Both times the results were extremely satisfying and I look forward to other projects along these lines. As for the tactility verses the flat surface, it’s one of the most interesting parts of the translation. Previous to spray paint my paintings were extremely tactile. I also think there is a direct connection where the embroidery led to the mark-making in the drawings.
You’ve spent a lot of time in the past making banners, buttons, and websites for Time Inc. What was your job title during this period? Do you feel that this experience, or the current ubiquity of technology in our lives, has had an effect on your work? Do you feel that your work incorporates a connection to the digital as well as the bodily and spiritual?
I started animating simple buttons and banners and graduated to a graphic designer in the online marketing department at Time Inc. This was from around 1998–2008. It was a great group of people to work with and for sure being online and working in Photoshop has influenced me. I still want to make some videos; I just don’t like spending all the time that’s necessary for the edit.
Who are a few of the artists that you feel have influenced your work the most in the past and present?
Miró, Picasso, Niki de St Phalle, Carroll Dunham, Philip Taaffe, Emma Kunz, Sigmar Polke, Hilma af Klint, Alfonso Ossorio, Dorothy Iannone, gosh there’s so many.
Are there any books or other influences that are more relevant or poignant for you now than ever before?
This summer I’m loving reading Gregory Corso’s An Accidental Biography.
Is there any advice from your past that has stayed with you or helped you along the way? Any advice for
I heard Peter Schjeldahl speak on being an art writer and I remember him saying to try and copy your heroes, and where you fail is where you find yourself.
What is one of the most exciting things happening in the studio right now?
I’ve been making some paintings more like I approach my drawings and delving back into sculpture.
Do you have any exciting projects, exhibitions, or residencies coming up?
This December I’ll have some works at Nada in Miami with Klaus Von Nichtssagend Gallery.
Thank you for taking the time to share your work with us!
To find out more about Tamara and her work, visit the Klaus Von Nichtssagend Gallery website.