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  • Harriet Maher

Distant Relatives

Review of the exhibition by Gonzalos Ceballos Chapter House Lane, 6th July - 29th September 2017

‘Distant Relatives’, an installation by Gonzalo Ceballos at Chapter House Lane, is an explosion of colour, imagery, whimsy and personality, offering the viewer an intimate glimpse into the artist’s home studio. Drawings plaster the wall, taking up the entire space and lapping over each other, while brightly coloured balloons are strewn over the ground and green vines hang from the ceiling. There are CDs, DVDs and video games stacked on the ground, serving as makeshift plinths for an irreverent array of objects. The uniting element is Ceballos’s own idiosyncratic drawing style, which spills off the pages of his works and into the rest of the installation. Ceballos creates organised chaos that keeps the eye moving, back and forth from drawing to drawing, forever stumbling upon new surprises. One such hidden gem reads, appropriately, “Look closer, nothing has changed.” No matter how many times one visits the installation (and I have been lucky enough to walk past the work multiple times a day, given I work in the building above Chapter House Lane), there is always more to discover in Ceballos’s imagery, use of text and references to both art history and popular culture.

It is Ceballos’s knack for fusing art historical knowledge with a passion for pop culture that takes this installation from a fun-filled parade of the artist’s favourite figures from the music, art and entertainment industries, to a deeper engagement with what contemporary art could look like. Likenesses of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Henri Matisse appear alongside lyrics by Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar, and a drawing of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is nestled amongst the artist’s own renditions of Pablo Picasso’s Desmoiselles D’Avignon (1907). This irreverent mingling of officially ordained cultural imagery with “kitsch” contemporary culture is a refutation of the notion that “high” and “low” culture can’t, or shouldn’t, co-exist. As well as being united by Ceballos’s idiosyncratic technique, the artist himself forms a physical meeting point between these multiple worlds, appearing in myriad self-portraits throughout the installation. It is as if he is paying a visit to his “distant relatives”: the artists, both visual and otherwise, who have informed his work and whose cultural products have helped shape his identity. Ceballos also pays lip service to other influences to his work, through the piles of DVDs and video games, as well as two hanging masks - one from the cartoon series Transformers and one of Bart Simpson. These masks are, to my art historically trained eyes, a possible reference to the way Pablo Picasso drew on African tribal masks in his Cubist compositions, finding the geometry and mysticism of these cultural artefacts deeply informative for his work, and using them as a way to de-personalise, even-dehumanise, the figures in his paintings. In Ceballos’s fanciful world, however, they are totemic renditions of his pop culture heroes, omniscient and all-powerful - and wittily amusing.

Interestingly, Ceballos’s heroes are almost entirely Western. Although the artist was born in Chile, he fled the country during the Pinochet regime and has lived in Australia since the age of four, giving him a diverse range of cultural references on which to draw in his autobiographical work. But perhaps Ceballos is not simply lauding these figures as benevolent heroes in his work, but is posing a more subtle critique of the way that a select few figures of Western culture are aggrandised by art history and the media. In the press release for Distant Relatives, Ceballos is described as questioning “the archetype of the White male genius and notions of authenticity.” Many of the works in the installation show this archetypal genius figure - white, male artists who dominate the art historical canon, such as Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso - alongside Ceballos himself. This collapses distinct temporal periods into a timeless limbo that exists only behind the glass that contains Ceballos’s installation. It also conflates his work with that which has been designated by the art historical canon as “authentic” works of genius. By placing himself, literally, in the frame of art history, alongside these famous white artists looked upon as “geniuses”, Ceballos critiques the white-washing of the canon, and in doing so offers a much more vibrant and diverse view of art history and art practices. As well as inserting his own body into the work in order to challenge the whiteness of art history, Ceballos includes other artists of colour, such as rappers kendrick Lamar and Kanye West, through both visual depictions and song lyrics, to extend a further challenge to the whiteness of popular culture.

We can certainly understand a number of incisive social and cultural critiques in Ceballos’s work, in the ways he challenges whiteness, maleness and notions of genius. But the narrative he leads us through in his vibrant installation is ultimately a personal one, taking as its subjects not only the forefathers of art history and pop culture idols, but the artist’s wife and two young sons. In intimate portraits accompanied by text that reads “Knew you were special from the moment I saw you,” and “I think we’re just going to have to be secretly in love with each other and leave it at that,” Ceballos complicates the boundary between public and personal identities. Clearly, his public identity as an artist is vividly coloured by his personal life, his dedication to his family and his cultural background. This is emphasised, rather than muted, in Ceballos’s work, allowing a more intimate perspective on the artist’s practice. As a husband, father and late-night security guard, Ceballos must make time outside of these personal commitments to make art - which is perhaps partly the catalyst for his frenzied, energetic and irreverent approach to painting and drawing. His inclusion of his family in his art-making practice extends beyond their likenesses in his works - some of the drawings included in Distant Relatives are collaborations with his two young sons, relatives who are not so distant at all. By allowing his personal life to permeate his public art works, Ceballos insists upon the disintegration of the artistic “genius” figure, and draws us into a world of family, friends, historical influences and pop culture heroes, all of them forming an intimate network of not-so-distant relatives.

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