Artist portrait by Mark Daybell

Artist portrait by Mark Daybell

Ken Gonzales-Day

Los Angeles based artist/author

Interview by Mark Daybell

MARK DAYBELL: It’s August 5, 2019 and I’m here with Ken Gonzales-Day in his studio in Silver Lake, California. Ken, can you tell me about your work?

KEN GONZALES-DAY: My work deals with the history of race and racial formation and is based in a conceptual photography model, which means the projects are research-based often taking place over a long period of time and ultimately finding a form that usually has some photographic presence and sometimes is determined by the space or the opportunity.

DAYBELL: Are there reoccurring themes in your work?

GONZALES-DAY: Definitely. I’ve been working on issues of race, whiteness, racialized violence, museum display, institutional representations of race, pretty much forever. Even my graduate work was starting to look at race. I wasn’t thinking of it that way at the time. It comes out of looking at queer aesthetics and queer politics and queer theory at least in the beginning. Then evolved in different directions based on the project. You could also reframe it and say the projects have all been about queer aesthetic or queer politics and leave the question of race out of it. That’s the way we talk about human difference at the institutional level and because of categories and disciplines we tend to separate race and gender, race and sexuality, but really, they’re all connected. They’re all kinds of marks of otherness that inform my work and many other artists’ work.

Installation view of Untitled III (Antico [Pier Jacopo Alari-Bonacolsi], Bust of a Young Man, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA; Francis Hardwood, Bust of a man, The J. Paul Museum, Los Angeles, CA), 2010.

From the Profiled series Part of the How Many Billboards? MAK Center for Art and Architecture, Los Angeles, 2010.

Image courtesy of the artist and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles.

DAYBELL: What initially attracted you to art and art making?

GONZALES-DAY: I was always the class artists, even when I was in second and third grade. I was that kid that was drawing or working on something or making stuff out of papier-mâché or doing creative projects. Obviously, that’s an experience a lot of kids have. At what point does it become an art practice, I’m not quite sure. I’d say for many people probably the junior high years or high school years when you start to look for other people that are doing similar projects and find opportunities that seem fun or seem exciting. I eventually started taking classes at the local community college when I was still in high school because I had already mastered the skills being offered at my local high school.

DAYBELL: Did you receive a formal visual arts education?

GONZALES-DAY: I did. My undergraduate degree was from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. I started at Parsons School of design, which I didn’t really like. And so, I transferred my junior year to Pratt, which I loved quite a lot. That was my BFA. Prior to that, I had studied as an exchange student in Europe for my senior year of high school. That gave me a little bit of priming for what a studio practice might be at the college level.

After that I got my first Masters in Art History from Hunter College in New York. Then I went to the Whitney independent study program, which at that time was a one-year program that included critical studies, studio art, had visiting speakers, and included a small studio space. After that I came to California and went to University of California, Irvine, which at that time had a very strong program in photography, Queer studies. They had a very diverse faculty racially and ethnically and so I was very drawn to that.

DAYBELL: Can you talk about how you begin a project?

GONZALES-DAY: Usually I begin a project because there’s an opportunity. Other times you sort of imagine as a visual artist or photographer, let’s say, you imagine there might be an exhibition and that exhibition might include a certain number of walls. So, you start to think, “would this be five pieces? Is this one piece? Is this 10 pieces?” Some of it is thinking about space because we all have a lot we’d love to say but we don’t often get the opportunity to have a lot of space to say it in. Particularly young artists who are more likely to be in a group show and you may only get to exhibit one or two piece. In that case, the question becomes, how do you tell your story in one or two pieces? So, for me, the project begins in knowing a little bit about the context and what the space may afford.

DAYBELL: How does the history of art and art making influence your process?

GONZALES-DAY: I have always been interested in the history of art and art making. I have a master’s in art history and I was an art history minor in undergraduate. I think because the methodology behind my projects is similar or identical to the research or practice that would be followed by a historian or somebody working with other forms of cultural materialism, that is to say, looking at the history of objects and how they’ve come to be in the world, to some people my work might seem more like art history than art. But it’s not. My work is informed by the history of art but it’s not art history in the sense that I’m asking new questions or different questions. And in a way I’m asking questions the art historian can’t ask because they’re bound by a certain historical narrative that as an artist I am not bound by. So, I can ask different kinds of questions. What is it to collect an image of an African slave and put it on display in a city that’s eightthousand miles away from where it was originally created? And what is that to put it on display in a city that’s majority Latino? My work tries to make some of those questions visible or more visible.

The Profiled series was looking for what was missing. I photographed every portrait bust in the Getty collection as a way of thinking about racial representation in Los Angeles. One could certainly just look at the online catalog and print out a page for every sculpture and not need to photograph them. But for me, the meaning of the work is in the process of creating the work. First, getting access to the collection. Second, going there with my camera and photographing it, putting up lights, doing all the things that it takes to get a picture. And then in the end, having the knowledge of what’s there. That was partially performative for me. The idea and experience of spending all these days looking at these objects and trying to think about what they meant to me or didn’t mean to me. I mean they’re important works. I’m glad they have survived. I think maybe a little bit reminds me of all the other works that haven’t survived and are not being kept right now. I’m trying to find ways to share that perspective with people who don’t share my perspective, or for whom the questions never occurred. Even when they encounter the images, they’re unable to see the language at work, because the opacity of cultural difference. And the opacity of privilege. And all of these are linked to different forms of oppression.

Untitled (Henry Weekes, Bust of an African Woman; and Jean-Baptiste Pigalle, Bust of Mm. Adelaide Julie Mirleau de Neuville, nee Garnier d’isle, the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA), 2011.

From the Profiled series Image courtesy of the artist and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles.

Untitled (Malvina Hoffman Collection, Blackfoot Man [337236], The Field Museum, Chicago and Jacques-François-Joseph Saly, Faun Holding a Goat, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles), 2011.

From the Profiled series Image courtesy of the artist and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles.

Untitled (Pierre-Jean David D’Angers, Bust of Ann Buchan Robinson, Museum of the City of New York, Joseph Nollekens, Venus, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; Malvina Hoffman, Japanese Woman [337087], The Field Museum, Chicago; Malvina Hoffman, Eskimo Woman [337060], The Field Museum, Chicago), 2011.

From the Profiled series Image courtesy of the artist and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles.

GONZALES-DAY: So, privilege and oppression are interesting to me. And the things that one can find reflected in art museums. These are highly privileged works and what does that tell us. There’s a critique there but I feel like it’s not simply institutional critique of the museum. I’m trying to think about the larger question of what gets taught. Maybe thinking a little bit about museums as part of the educational system, not simply a standalone representative, because they’re based on scholarship and scholarship is what’s taught in schools. You can’t separate the museum from the university. And likewise, you can look at universities. Latinx professors are less than 5% in the state of California and less than 4% nationwide. In California we are literally a majority of the population. When you think about these kinds of histories from apartheid or histories of colonialism and the invisibility within let’s say the arts or within education, I mean how do we get people to think about those histories?

Installation view of Unseen: Our Past in a New Light, a solo exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C., 2018-19.

Image courtesy of the artist and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles.

41 Objects Arranged by Color, 2016. Installation view of Skin, a group exhibition at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery, Los Angeles, CA, 2016.

Image courtesy of the artist and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles.

DAYBELL: What is the role of chance in your creative process?

GONZALES-DAY: I think for anybody that does photography, it’s all chance in a sense that you can plan every angle of the shot and the lighting and everything, and yet you still never know exactly what you’re going to get until you see it. In the old days with film, you really didn’t know what you were going to get.

DAYBELL: For days.

GONZALES-DAY: For days and days of days. And of course, I started working with film. But even with a digital camera it might look great on the little LCD screen but at the end of the day, it may not be the project you thought it was in the beginning of the day. I think chance is there for every photograph.

DAYBELL: Do you embrace chance or just accept it?

GONZALES-DAY: I embrace chance. I think chance often makes things more interesting because is it really chance or was it meant to be? Things fall in a certain way. I might’ve had a very rigid idea when I started out, but something in the experience of the making of the thing changes and then you end up with something different than you thought. I think that’s part of the magic.

“I embrace chance. I think chance often makes things more interesting because is it really chance or was it meant to be?”

DAYBELL: How does risk factor into your process?

GONZALES-DAY: It’s a great question because a lot of my projects are risky in all kinds of ways. But the most obvious way is that sometimes you’re trying to talk about a difficult topic and you feel passionate about that topic and you’re informed on that topic in a certain way through a set of ideas or readings or notions that you take to be widely accepted. But it is not uncommon to find somebody with completely different views who might look at the exact same historical points or the exact same information and come to different conclusions. So, the possibility of taking something that you believe is going to help raise awareness of an issue might also become something that is a point of trauma or is perceived differently by a certain set of viewers.

The risk in addressing difficult topics is that they’re difficult topics and just because you’re an artist doesn’t make them any less difficult and difficult topics change over time. Even if the intention of the work was this or that in two years’ time, in ten years’ time, will it be seen differently?

Mapplethorpe is a great example. People talk about the X Portfolio and its images of black men, naked and very sexualized. The question of race relations, the question of human sexuality, the questions of power, the questions of a cultural capital are all things that might change the way we see the work today than how it was seen when it was made. 

“The risk in addressing difficult topics is that they’re difficult topics and just because you’re an artist doesn’t make them any less difficult and difficult topics change over time.”

GONZALES-DAY: In the case of the Erased Lynchings series, I took a series of historic postcards of lynchings and erased the bodies and the ropes from those images. And then we produced them postcard size and displayed them as a series. The intention was to look in part at the history of racialized violence nationwide and to raise awareness of the fact that Latinos, native Americans and Chinese were the primary victims of lynch mobs in the state of California. There was also a book I wrote on the topic called Lynching in the West, 1850-1935, which gave very specific, detailed information on that history. I was able to identify over 350 cases of lynching in the state of California, of which two thirds were people of color and of which the largest group was Latinx, or Latino, Chicano.

Installation view of Erased Lynchings, 2000-13. Set of 15 postcards From the Erased Lynchings series (set I).

Image courtesy of the artist and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles.

Re-enactment of a lynching, n.d., 2017. From the Erased Lynchings series (set II).

Courtesy of the artist and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles.

der Wild West Show, 2000-13. From the Erased Lynchings series (Set I).

Image courtesy of the artist and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles.

Tomlinson and Griffith Corral, 2000-13. From the Erased Lynchings series (Set I).

Image courtesy of the artist and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles.

Before the Drop (c. 1896), 2017 From the Erased Lynching series (Set II).

Image courtesy of the artist and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles.

GONZALES-DAY: I was trying to invent a way to allow viewers to think about the social dynamics of racialized violence as a national phenomenon that exists in many places. By removing the body, it allows us to see the presence of whiteness, the presence of the lynch mob, the jeering smiling crowd, people sort of goofing for the camera with this horrific image of a body next to them. So, part was to think about the social dynamics nationwide in a larger sense. And part was also to think about the way race has been oversimplified in the popular imagination in spite of this much longer, more difficult history. It’s not to diminish the trauma on African Americans, the families that were impacted and those communities which continue to this day and are echoed in ongoing trauma is caused by police shootings and other cultural realities, but rather to just draw our attention to the larger mechanisms that make racialized violence an unchanging part of the American landscape and to try to imagine something different.

The Wonder Gaze (St. James Park, CA. 1935), 2013. From the Erased Lynchings series.

Installation view of Spy Numbers, a group exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo, 2009.

Image courtesy of the artist and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles.

Installation view of Shadowlands, a solo exhibition at the Minnesota Museum of American Art, 2017.

Image courtesy of the artist and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles.

DAYBELL: Do you need to be in your studio access creative ideas or solutions?

GONZALES-DAY: I don’t need to be in my studio to access creative ideas or solutions, but I do need to be in my studio to see if they work. A notebook sketch is not the same as seeing the full idea in print or printed out. I feel like in the practice, you have to use all the time you have wherever you have it, but then yes, to actually follow through with that and to present that in a way that I think I would share with another person, really does have to be something that comes out of the studio. I think the studio or some space where you can dedicate your brain to your work, is important for the creative process.

“I don’t need to be in my studio to access creative ideas or solutions, but I do need to be in my studio to see if they work.”

DAYBELL: How do you know when a project is finished?

GONZALES-DAY: I think a project is done when we starting moving onto the next one. But I guess I’ve also gone back and worked on things. Something’s are ongoing like the Erased Lynching series because the series is based on real photographs and it takes years to find these photographs. So, I’ve done them as I go, and if I find more, I would do more.

The Hanging of Percy Hand on Stout’s Marsh (Taylor Bros., 1912), 2017. From the Erased Lynchings series (Set II).

Image courtesy of the artist and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles.

DAYBELL: Do you make art every day?

GONZALES-DAY: I don’t make art every day. I make something every day. And sometimes I don’t know if that’s going to be art or not.

DAYBELL: Do you find your creative process more of a challenge or an asset?

GONZALES-DAY: My creative process is a challenge but I enjoy it, it’s a challenge because of the research required to uncover different objects or histories that had never been written on or talked about. There is no book to go check out to find the answer, I have to find the answer here. So, the creative process as I have set it up, has made for a very difficult journey between projects.

Surface Tension: Murals, Signs, and Mark-Making in LA, a solo exhibition at the Skirball Cultural Center in conjunction with the Getty Institute’s Pacific Standard Time Initiative: LA/LA, 2018.

GONZALES-DAY: But that being said, because it’s a very rich ongoing process I never have a shortage of things to do. I’m always working on a bunch of different pathways. On the one hand you could say it’s restrictive in the sense that I don’t know what the outcome is going to be for a long time. But on the other hand, because it’s so overwhelming, I feel like I’m almost always in it.

DAYBELL: Do you ever hit a creative wall and how do you break through?

GONZALES-DAY: Because the work is often research-based, a creative wall can be a research wall. In the case of working with historic images or historic documents or historic objects, sometimes the objects are very difficult to get access to or have been destroyed. And even if I can get access to them, I may not be allowed to use them or to share them or the meaning might have changed so much that they’re illegible to anybody but myself.

In the case of depictions of racial difference in the 19th century, I’ve encountered situations where there are different communities that have to be engaged with, there’s different legacies of violence that make the objects unseeable at this time for many people. I have hundreds of objects that I can’t show anybody because I haven’t yet found a framework that would be acceptable to, or understandable to other viewers.

DAYBELL: What inspires or informs your creativity.

GONZALES-DAY: I find other artists inspiring. I love to go see shows. I love hearing artist talk about their work. I love seeing students work too.

DAYBELL: Do you have activities outside your art practice, which might help feed or sustain your creativity?

GONZALES-DAY: I tried to do a little something physical every day, it helps to get out the cobwebs from yesterday. I often go swimming in the morning. Cooking also is great. Seeing friends, going for a walk, taking the dog for a walk, all of those. One challenge is getting in the studio so you can make stuff. The other challenge is getting out of the studio so you can let something else come into your head space.

DAYBELL: What advice would you give emerging artists?

GONZALES-DAY: Best advice would be keep making stuff, make stuff no matter what, and show it to people. A lot of people make stuff and then they don’t show it to anybody. I often tell my students it’s not art until you put it on the wall, because that’s when people see it. They give you feedback and then you’re like, “oh my God, what did I do?” Or, “Oh my God, look what I did.” It can be on the computer, it can be on the floor of your studio but that’s not reality. You got to tear the band-aid off, see what people say. Then lick your wounds and get back to work.

More of Ken Gonzales-Day’s work can be viewed at:

Article edit by Mark Daybell


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