Melanie Gonzalez knows the saints pretty well. Growing up in a strict religious Latino household in the Bronx, she was surrounded by Catholic rituals and iconography; in art school, she got into Renaissance and Baroque art and later traveled to Italy enough that she became fluent in Italian.
All these influences show up in her newest photo, video, and sculpture production, Discount Saints. For the show, which will be on display at Medianoche New Media Gallery in Spanish Harlem until January 30, Gonzalez transformed the gallery space into a "hood chapel" complete with a mini nave that holds a crucifix assembled out of gold door-knocker earrings and hairpins. The imagery includes traditional Renaissance motifs, but in her version of the Last Supper the Saints dine wearing their dollar-store regalia at a table littered with Chinese takeout, grape juice, and soda bottles.
It's an art history nerd's modern adaptation of the Catholic paradigm, not dissimilar to Kehinde Wiley's juxtapositions of historical references and modern-day cultural tropes.
This is Gonzalez's second major solo show after her exhibit Letters to Armando at BCAD Art gallery in 2014. Recently, VICE talked with Gonzalez about her art history influences, the interpretation of her work as an art photographer, and the gospel of "the bigger the hoop, the bigger the attitude."
VICE: Considering the work of female artists such as Ana Mendieta or Cindy Sherman who used the self-portrait for political statements in their art, does the inclusion of your image in your work have any political or feminist statements?
Melanie Gonzalez: Not necessarily. As a whole feminism influences me, but I don't try to speak on any particular point in my work. I want my work to be universal. Although obviously Discount Saints is personifying a very niche character—a Latina from the Bronx—I want my work to be universal, so that someone who is not from the Bronx can still appreciate it.
I started photographing myself because I was tired of auditioning for stuff and not getting the parts. I was like, you know what? I'm going to shoot myself because I want to be in photos and videos. Obviously, that has a feminist connotation which is fine and great, but my initial thing was: I'm tired of not seeing enough people like me and my friends, so I'm just going to shoot them. Why do I have to wait?
Who are your models?
My models? Oh, I love them. They are all creatives I know from different aspects of my life. Jesus is Joel Suarez, a muralist, painter, and influential guy in the Bronx and uptown scene. Mary Magdalene goes by Jar. Her name is Julissa and she's a tattooer, body painter, and artist. Athen Wade, who played St. Peter, is a photographer. Chazz Giovanni Bruce is an actor who played Pontius Pilate, and I was a theater major with Paula Diaz, who played St. Elizabeth, in high school. Most of them are from the Bronx. And one is from Harlem. Everyone is from uptown Manhattan.
The symbols you use in the photos—dollar store objects, rollers, du rags, gold costume jewelry, chains, a Louis Vuitton head scarf—can be interpreted as signifiers of race and class. Do these objects have anything to do with the lack of diversity and representation for people of color in the art world?
I feel like that would be the critique on it, which is fair, but that's not my take on it. My intent is to show my version of black and Latino identity in the outer boroughs—people who are from the Bronx and uptown, but who could also be from Brooklyn, Queens, Harlem, or the Heights. But yes there is a lack of representation in the art worlds. I love shooting people of color but not consciously like I'm trying to make a statement. It's just natural. It's not that I'm excluding anybody else. These are my friends and my neighbors and I think they're beautiful, gorgeous, and I want to shoot them.
Is there any irony in the fact that you're referencing these Renaissance–style images we normally associate with wealth and power to get some people of color in front of the camera?
Going back to Renaissance art, all of those artists used models from the street. Someone who saw the work pointed out that I was shooting "everyday people." Caravaggio used prostitutes or beggars—the everyday person—as models, and made them saints and mythical characters. That's literally what I just did but with photography and digital form.
Some people might interpret your work as a subversion of the Catholic Church, but I don't see a critique of religion. I see you using a recognizable avenue in order to elevate the people you want to elevate.
If I was Hindu, I would use Hindu gods. If I was Muslim, I would use Muslim attributes. I was raised in a Catholic home, so I feel like I have the permission because I know enough about the religion to properly use it as a tool for the art. I'm not religious or practicing, but I was raised in a very strict Hispanic Catholic household. I was forced to go to Catholic school and forced to take my communion and confirmation.
I was actually held back in Sunday school because I didn't want to go, but I love the art. It is so exaggerated and dramatic and circus-like. I appreciate religious art's iconography and symbolism. I love how a painting can have so many objects that mean things, like pomegranates being symbols for fertility.
Your mom is still really religious, right? Was she offended by the show at all?
Yes she is, but no she wasn't offended, thankfully. Other people have asked if it's blasphemous. If you're offended, you're not looking at the artwork. It's also a production, a photo shoot that involved lots of editing. If that's how you feel, you're not looking deep enough.
Can you talk about some of the symbolism in the portrait photographs of the characters?
Well Pontius Pilate has no crosses or symbols of Christianity because he was a Roman. Adding him was creative curiosity. I wanted to include a villain, and the model is from Harlem when everyone else is from the Bronx. So if they lived today, they would have beef [laughs].
St. Peter was the first Pope and it was a conscious decision to make him a black guy. There are none of us [pointing to her skin] in religious depictions even though all of the people of the Bible were people of color, but I don't really want to talk about that.
I wanted Mary to be that woman in your apartment building that you love and respect but who knows all the gossip. I wanted her to be every mother— not just a Virgin Mary, but everyone's mom or
titi. I wanted her to be wearing rollers, long nails, and makeup—but with the blue vata (housecoat) that makes her a recognizable Mary figure.
The cross made out of bamboo door-knocker earrings has so many connotations to culture and a very specific woman. Are you expressing an ode to someone, and if so who?
As a black and Latina person growing up in the Bronx, we're always in the salon! Hairpins and hairnets are important objects to a woman there. Gold is also important. But the piece is not about excluding men because a man from the same area knows exactly who that cross is referencing—that's his ex-girlfriend, his cousin, or his aunt or his mother. Those objects are important to everybody, not just women. And this can relate to many people—not just New York Latinas.
The Last Supper is one of the most satirized images in the world. What makes yours unique or different?
Mine is different because I include women. The whole point is that Mary is the narrator of this story. This is her point of view. Most Bible stories are told from a man's point of view, and I wanted to have women in there. I replicated the idea but not the actual painting because I didn't have all the disciples there, just a select few. Also if the Last Supper took place in the South Bronx, it might have Chinese food, beer, and soda. Maybe St. Peter would be wearing a snapback, and maybe Jesus would be Puerto Rican and drinking 40s instead of wine.
Melanie Gonzalez's Discount Saints is on view at Medianoche Media Gallery in Spanish Harlem through January 30. She will also talk about her artistic process at the gallery on December 5. See her website for more info.
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