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The photographs in Ken Gonzalez-Day’s Bone-Grass Boy at Luis De Jesus look so familiar, you think you should be able to place them—do they spoof scenes from The Alamo, or come from novels or legends you’ve forgotten? They both do and don’t, it turns out. The images—of the artist as a belle in a ball dress, or struggling to escape captors who hold a knife to his neck—all come from a fictional narrative Gonzalez- Day invented in the early 1990s, Bone-Grass Boy: The Secret Banks of the Conejos River. The story and images toy with tropes of the frontier novel but are also in opposition to them: about strong protagonists who exist on both sides of the border during and after the U.S.-Mexican War.
Hung salon style, against blue-gray paint or quaint-looking maps-as-wallpaper, the images are comically melodramatic. Gonzalez-Day plays all characters of all genders, and since Photoshop 2.5 and Quark were relatively new circa 1993, it’s high tech for its time, but now feels old-fashioned. We see Gonzalez-Day’s face inserted into drawings of dances, as in Untitled #36 (1996) or see him involved in romantic liaisons with himself (Untitled #28, 1996). In Untitled #47 (1996), he’s working a farm in a headband and dress, long dark hair flowing, looking off into the distance meaningfully, as men in straw hats labor in the background.
Gonzalez-Day began this series in the wake of the AIDS crisis, and was working on it when California Prop 187 (the “Save our State” prop) passed, limiting undocumented workers from using public services. Now, he’s showing it as part of a well-funded, ambitious effort to showcase Latinx and Latin American Art in a region notorious for marginalizing its own heritage. His series, in all its camp and intensity treats that heritage as a given, queers it, makes it personal, gives it dramatic lighting, and treats its nuances as epic.
This review was originally published in Carla issue 10.