The Last Art Opening.
I had kept up with @gali_gonz for a few years, ever since he’d followed his heart and moved to San Antonio from Los Angeles to make a life with fellow artist Isabel Ann Castro.
I admired his work, but I was always pleasantly surprised when I’d run into him at social events and he was so bright-eyed and friendly and cool. Isn’t that the best? When you like someone as a person just as much as you like their work? I used to think that was rare, but the older I get, the more I am proven wrong.
One day in mid-2019, I left dinner warming on the stove and my kids’ father in charge, and drove to a café a couple miles down San Pedro from my house to work on a project.
Ah, the days when I could take two or three hours away from the fam to sit unbothered in a café with a pot of jasmine green, my laptop, and the pleasant hum of a busy café behind the music in my earbuds.
I was ordering my tea when I turned around to see Gali reading a book in a chair. Hi, Bonnie! His hellos are always so genuine.
I sat down across from him awaiting my order, and we started chatting about projects and life. It must’ve lasted twenty minutes, but we packed in a lot of serious conversation about topics related to professionalism in the art world, the pros and cons of various opportunities, the importance of accountability, open communication, and redemption not just in the art world, but in real-life community.
After, as I perched on a barstool with my laptop starting up, and my tea poured, I thought about all the experiences and important moments that seemed to happen by chance in my life. How the randomness of happenstance was not really random at all, how everything is connected, how many times I myself have stumbled, and how many second chances I’ve been gifted.
Fast forward a few months later, and I received a handwritten postcard cordially inviting us to Presa House for En Honor, Gali’s show that “memorializes his late family members and friends through a collection of portraits, family photographs and installation that reflects on his loss, his relationship with each subject and the influence they had on his life.”
I tacked the postcard to my bulletin board and looked forward to the show with a nostalgic anticipation I used to feel getting dressed up for an art show, drinking a beer, and waiting for my homegirl to come pick me up.
In all transparency, I know very little about the history of El Salvador, the land tucked between Guatemala and Honduras and cradling the Pacific Ocean. I knew about the civil war, about horrendous U.S. intervention and vile corruption, I knew than many Salvadorans fled famine, violence, and militarized oppression to make new lives in the U.S.
But other than some books I’d read, some mentions of El Salvador in movies, I never knew any names, I never knew any faces of real Salvadorans until I stepped into En Honor.
The chilly December night of Gali’s opening remains etched in my mind partly because it was the last such event I attended pre-lockdown, but more than that, because of the emotional energy filling the installation. Presa House Gallery is, well, a house, and Gali’s art took up two small rooms that really felt imbued with reverence for real people who lived real lives in a real place rocked by occupation, greed, war, and turmoil.
Memory fluctuates details over time, but I can’t get the handmade casket, which stood front and center in the main room, as photos of real people flickered above it, out of my mind.
Gali interspersed furniture, knickknacks, and plants throughout the room to add to the homey vibe, but it was the paintings that took precedence. I’m not going to pretend that I exactly know how to write about art, but I know how to write about feelings.
Gali’s portraits memorialize family members who have passed on, as well as real people like Rufina Amaya, the sole survivor of the El Mozote Massacre. Knowing these details gave solemnity to the atmosphere for me; this was not a puro party kind of art show.
The opening was packed. The moment I arrived, Isabel handed me a plate of Salvadoran tamales, which looked delicious, but I covered the plate with a napkin and took it to my car for later. All I wanted to internalize was the show.
Sometimes contemporary art flies over my head. But I understood and felt En Honor in my bones. I made several rounds, spending time with each portrait. Their faces held memory. The details held their humanity. The rich jewel tone backgrounds gave them each their own regal dignity. I’ve attached each portrait below so you can see what I mean.
I left the show buzzing with happiness and sorrow. Happy that my friend had manifested such a powerful vision, but heartbroken that history is brimming with tragedy, malice, and death.
So, a few months into the pandemic when Gali announced he was opening commissions to help pay for therapy, I leapt into his DMs. Honestly, I never thought I’d be privileged enough to commission a portrait of my own beloved mother by someone of Gali’s caliber. But the pandemic has inspired many shifts and proven many previously held beliefs obsolete.
I sent him my mom’s 9th grade high school photo from the year before she dropped out of school, pregnant with me. I paid him a little extra because understood the magnitude of such a commission, and by that time I knew that mutual aid is karmic.
In late November, Gali shared my mom’s portrait, posting that “this was a bit tough but eventually became one of my favorites to paint so far due to the subtleties in her expression.” If you know Ilza, you know that her expressions are as expansive as her beautiful heart.
As I sit at my desk watching the snow pour down on San Anto in February 2021, my mother’s portrait beaming across the room, I am warmed by the gift Gali gave our family. Portraits like this have been historically reserved for the elite, but he has made it so Ilza Villarreal, she of Río Grande Valley rancho to suburb to trailer park to SA apartment complexes, is forever immortalized en pintura.
What an honor.
In the Presa House archives, Gali states that En Honor "is more than honoring my family, it’s also about honoring Salvadoran culture, history, and the figures that fought against repression and erasure till the very end.”
And I feel that. Knowing Gali has made me more attuned to El Salvador, its people, cultura, and history.
When the pandemic retreats, I hope it’s one of his art openings I get to attend first.
Q: I ask this question to each artist I’ve interviewed, and now that I’m months-deep into this project, I think that is because I’ve maybe subconsciously chosen people with a similar background as mine, or so I’ve gathered, a certain working to middle class upbringing, where creative endeavors might have been a side hustle or a instinctual pleasure, not many of us had role models for forging a life out of art. Maybe that’s why I always feel compelled to ask this, first thing, so here goes: A lot of us struggle with imposter syndrome, feeling like we are not enough or that we don’t belong in spaces designated as academic or artistic. Working class backgrounds and capitalism in general don’t necessarily encourage artistic expression, much less pursuing art as a way of life that can actually pay the bills. Do you remember when you knew art was your calling? Can you tell us about your path from private to public artist?
A: First of all, thank you for allowing me to answer these questions. I feel privileged that you have such an appreciation for what I paint, as well as my subject matter.
So to answer the question: While I’ve been drawing since I can remember, I realized art was my calling when I was about 12 or 13, in my 7th grade English class. At that time, I started to fanatically draw little comics about my moments in class because I wanted to be like the cool kid who drew Dragonball Z characters.
My drawings weren’t as good as his, but it was in that specific English class that something clicked in me: I can make a living making cartoons and getting a job in animation.
However, that path was not easy. At the time, my mom was married to a man who was very abusive in every way you can imagine. During the time he was a part of my family, I would have to throw away anything I drew because he would randomly search my backpack and beat the shit out of me if he saw any doodles.
It was a dark time, but luckily he managed to get arrested and got deported due to his charges. Even though that brought me very close to the light, I had to deal with my biological dad coming back into my life and knowing that he was disappointed that his firstborn son gave up on his science dreams to follow the arts, as well as the stigma from many Latino parents thinking that becoming an artist meant I was going to fail at life.
It wasn’t until I went to Cerritos College up in Norwalk, CA that I started to hone into what I wanted to do. I originally applied as an animation major, but because I started right before the ‘08 Recession hit, many of the required classes were cut. It was disappointing, but I realized I could still take a painting class. I applied to Intro to Painting during my 2nd or 3rd semester with Hagop Najarian, who I already took for life drawing.
As soon as we got to painting our first portrait, I was hooked. I realized animation was not for me, and immediately changed my major to Drawing & Painting. What was supposed to be 2-3 years at Cerritos College turned out to be 6 years due to budget cuts, but Hagop pushed me to use my voice in my art. He helped me in many ways, and to this day I consider him my mentor and will always appreciate everything he’s done for me.
Fast forward to me transferring to Cal State Long Beach and on the first week of my last semester, I had a meeting with Marie Thiebault, Color Queen of CSULB and our teacher for that last semester. She asked me what I wanted my series to be about, and I told her I wanted to interpret stories from my family about the Salvadoran Civil War, something that my grandma would randomly mention during car rides. Her eyes lit up, and the first thing she told me was, “Do you know about the idea of generational trauma?” She knew what she was talking about and enthusiastically gave me the green light.
I think what made this semester such a milestone in my life wasn’t just what I was painting about, but also the space I shared with 18 other classmates. We were one of the biggest graduating classes, and the energy of being locked in a studio at 3am hyped up on coffee from 7-11 and burritos from Del Taco while being sleep-deprived due to my full-time job as a museum guard down the street while my friends were getting drunk at the local school pub as well as from the Captain Jack stashed behind the studio couch while bumping Davis or Coltrane created an energy like no other.
This feeling of camaraderie, rambunctious-ness, and limitless bounds of creativity is what finally made me see that being an artist is what I was destined for. By this time my family (meaning my mom, grandma, and siblings) were finally on board and gave up convincing me otherwise, which also pushed me to follow this path.
Moving to San Antonio to finally live with Isa has helped me tame the rush from being an undergrad and has taken my art to directions I didn’t think I’d be at. While it was rough at first because I was in a city where I only knew very few people, I feel very fortunate that the art community here has welcomed me with open arms.
Besides Isa’s never-ending support, people like you and Rigo from Presa House have believed in what I do, and it makes me happy that I get to make art that I wanna do. However, this path is not finished, and it will never finish because I don’t want my art to become stagnant. I choose to keep my mind open and my eyes fresh because that’s the only way to keep the rush going. I only hope to get better at my craft.
Oh, I forgot: I still don’t know how to draw Dragonball Z characters.
Q: Can you sum up your overall mission as an artist? How does your work tie in to your love for your culture and your cities (at this point I am assuming you love SA like you love LA….or at least you are getting there)? I love how LA and SA parallel, so it would be really cool to hear from someone like you how the cities and cultures overlap and how they are different. Why do you do what you do, and what is your motivation? Can you tell us about any dream projects for the future?
A: My mission fluctuates all over the place because my mind is constantly racing, but there’s a few things that will always be prevalent: My Salvadoran heritage, my upbringings in Southeast LA and the San Gabriel Valley, and now my current life and parallels of living in San Antonio.
Basically, I draw about my life and the shit I grew up around, whether good or bad. Fortunately, there are many things in San Antonio that inspire me because they remind me of home: The love for Oldies, the crazy shit you sometimes see as you’re driving down the streets of the Southside, as well as the city’s appreciation of its artistic culture.
Both cities also have a culture that is unique to their area, a lot of it shaped by waves of immigrants who have brought a little piece of home to both cities. While our ways of living are constantly being attacked by white people gentrifying our areas and telling us how to live and how our buildings should look, both LA and SA are pushing even harder to keep our cultures alive and flowing against what’s essentially Colonization v2.0.
However, one of the biggest differences about both cities is the pace. LA County is fast-paced. You drive everywhere, time is just as valuable as money, and you gotta work to survive. San Antonio is slow-paced. People take their time, everything is in San Antonio, and driving across town is an inconvenience.
However, it’s this pace that has helped me really take my time with the art I create, and gives me liberty to try new things that I never thought possible, like airbrushing.
As far as why I do what I do, there’s two reasons:
1) I do it because it’s one of the few things I’m actually good at. I’m not good at sports, math, science, or things society sees as a “successful trait”, but I can sure as hell talk your ear off about German Expressionism and being able to paint a portrait and what colors to use.
2) As a Central American artist of Salvadoran descent, there’s just not enough representation. While I’m a huge fan of Chicano Art and the barriers it broke down by groups like Los Four and ASCO, there just isn’t enough art about the Central American experience. If there is, it’s usually about civil wars.
Fortunately, there’s a contemporary movement trying to address this. We make art based not just about our lives as Central Americans, but how our surroundings have influenced it as well.
At the same time, I hope that as I’m able to make and show more work, I hope to be an inspiration to young Central American artists as well. I sometimes feel like I’m part of a bigger movement, and sometimes feel the pressure of making good art. However, my family have instilled that obstacles must be met head-on. You gotta come out swinging or else you won’t come out at all.
My dream project is to make art that successfully talks about growing up as a Salvadoran-American in Southern California. While that sounds easy, SoCal is made up of different cultures that interweave between one another, and my upbringings and neighborhoods I grew up with definitely are more than just the Latino view of Southern California.
Maybe I get a chance at that Artpace residency so I can have the time and funds to realize this? Or another opportunity to show at Presa House again? I don’t know, but I gotta start making more soon. I already have a show coming up that highlights my time living here in San Antonio as an LA native, so at least that’s a start.
Q: Which brings us to….the pandemic. I don’t know if you’re ready to reflect, much less read into how it went down for you and your fam, but we’re coming up on one year into it. For me, I was stunned and anxious, but I also didn’t have a choice. I had to do what my mom calls “riding the wave.” You ride it or it rides you, right? Tell us about Pandemic Gali. What have been your saving graces? How do you stay strong for your fam while still taking care of yourself? How has the pandemic changed you?
A: Oh god, this pandemic… Never in my life did I expect that we’d be in this situation, but unfortunately our “leader” only gave a shit about his now failed re-election instead of the thousands that have died in this country. I still remember when SARS and Swine Flu were a thing. I remember being scared then yet there were barely any cases and it never got out of control. Now I believe that if there’s a zombie outbreak, we’re all gonna die, straight up.
This pandemic has definitely changed me. It’s made me angrier than ever. Seeing how governments fumbled this and how some businesses are suffering and others are not giving a fuck shows how terrible this capitalist system really is. If people aren’t seeing it, they’re just choosing to be ignorant. If anything, this pandemic has removed the veil of inequality and how no one is caring. I mean, look at how Ron Niremberg kicked off his re-election campaign by doing a Skid Row-style sweep.
In my opinion, T***p has allowed politicians to be pieces of shit no matter what party. It’s also made me more compassionate, as I’m not only thinking about my family here and back in California and El Salvador, but also caring about my friends and strangers. It’s important that we all look out for each other and communicate as best we can with others, as it’s the only way I feel we can get by during times of crisis.
Sadly, the American system emphasizes individualism, and it’s one off the main reasons why the U.S. is #1 in the amount of COVID cases. If people cared just a little more, we might’ve been in a significantly better situation instead of dealing with idiots trying to correlate freedom with not wearing a mask and having mistrust about common sense ideas.
At the same time, one thing I’ve learned is that as someone from Salvadoran descent, we can’t just sit and cry about everything, as much as we want. We either have to take action to fight it or we have to keep moving forward like we have blinders. Look, my family has experienced some messed-up things during the Salvadoran Civil War. The only reason they survived was because they didn’t stop. They kept going forward with their lives or they took action and settled somewhere else, like how my parents did.
Now, don’t get me wrong, this is not an ideal way of living, and trauma was unfortunately passed down to myself and siblings. Still, surviving is all I know how to do, especially when growing up in Southeast LA surrounded by gang violence and being caught within the school-to-prison pipeline that my high school seemed happy to be a part of.
Fortunately, I’ve also learned that it’s important to take quick breaks, take time to reflect, and keep going forward so that I won’t fall apart. Therapy also helps, as well as distractions like painting or playing my PS4.
In a way, I’m riding the wave as well, but also actively trying to swim back to shore as well.
Q: Through all your styles, mediums, and experiments, it seems like your admirers can always recognize your work because your style is unmistakably yours. Can you tell us about your influences, particular artists and/or movements? Do you have any lifelong and more recent inspo (artists, movements, movies, music, etc.) that you care share with us…like, Gali’s top recommendations to keep us inspired and uplifted?
A: I’m always surprised people can easily recognize my work no matter the medium. I guess it must be the organized chaos within my strokes. I don’t even sign my work because I hate how signatures distract from a painting.
Off topic, but it’s a peeve of mine seeing over-the-top signatures, especially on sub-par work.
I’m very much influenced by German Expressionism and the Bay Area Figurative movement. For those that don’t know, let me try to define them in a nutshell:
- German Expressionism was prevalent during WW1. Many of the artists who were part of this movement were German soldiers who painted some of the brutality they saw (i.e.: “The War” by Otto Dix) or whose view of life were skewed (think of any Emil Nolde or Egon Schiele painting). It’s a very raw style of art that I feel captures the brutality of life.
- Bay Area figurative started when a bunch of abstract artists from the Bay Area decided they wanted to go back to painting traditional subjects. This was considered blasphemy, but it made for some great ideas in art. Examples of artists people should check out are James Weeks and Richard Diebenkorn.
The way they used colors and painted their figures in such an abstracted way blew my mind at the time. I learned that I didn’t have to be perfect and it taught me to see everything in blocks of colors. It’s an eye-opening way of making art.
While both these styles have made an impact in how to approach my art, other artists and illustrators that inspire me are Leon Golub, Robert Crumb, Lee Krasner, Matisse, Judithe Hernández, and Diego Rivera’s illustrations, just to name a few.
Other influences are the gang graffiti I used to see all over my neighborhoods, punk flyers from the shows I used to attend, as well as prison art and Teen Angels magazines.
Music also plays a huge influence in what I paint. I’m currently listening to GZA’s “Liquid Swords” as I’m typing this.
Honestly, anything Wu Tang-related is great drawing music. I’m a huge fan of '80s and '90s rap, as well as Hardcore Punk from the '80s until today.
Actually, I used to be involved in the Hardcore scene back home. I used to go to shows weekly, threw shows in my garage, made flyers, album covers, and even helped design records and tapes. The time making art for bands helped influence how I work.
I don’t hire photographers or pay someone to make my photos portfolio-ready, I do it all on my own. I refuse to have an assistant because I’d rather do it myself. I find ways to improvise whenever possible. I believe that artists having full control of what they do is essential, as hiring an assistant or intern ruins the integrity of the art you’re making and only makes you stagnant… unless you’re Andy Warhol, which makes sense since his art is all about pop culture and commercialism.
Other things I’ve been listening to is Oldies, especially a lot of Westside Sound like The Royal Jesters. They remind me of home. Groups like TOPS and Alvvays are also on my radar, and anything that sounds like “white girl indie music.” Buenas Epocas, Salvadoran Cumbias, and Rock en Español is also stuff that I listen to that inspires me. I grew up listening to a lot of it as a kid, so it’s nostalgic for me. It helps me when I make work based on the Salvadoran Civil War or about my family.
Now I know I’m gonna get some shit for this, but I listen to a lot of Sublime, specifically their “Robbin’ The Hood” album. Look, I know that we all heard “What I Got” or “Santeria” thousands of times, but believe me when I say that “Robbin’ The Hood” is their craziest and best work. Sound samples, dub, punk, rap, and 3rd wave ska makes this album one of the most unique pieces of music ever created.
I describe it as if the city of Long Beach was crammed into an album. Having been a graduate of CSULB and working down the street at MOLAA, you see shit that you will never see anywhere else, including LA. Long Beach is its own bubble with its own vibe, and that in itself inspires a lot of my work.
There’s so much more to list, but I’m just gonna keep going on. Music and art are a few of the topics I’ll never get bored of talking about. I look forward to the day I can go to a gallery, museum, or punk show and talk peoples’ ears off about some of the things I touched on.
Q: I am pretty certain that being from Los Angeles, and now living here in San Anto, you have borne witness to the intense gentrification of the neighborhoods and shift towards transplants setting the tone as cultural tastemakers. How do you navigate the changes and mourn the loss of what was while still holding your own and not giving up? How does your upbringing and your homeland influence your art? What mark do you hope to leave upon the cities? What is you advice for those of us who love our city and are old to remember the past, but who also live in the reality of the present, and want to create and work towards a future where local culture and history are honored, preserved, and never whitewashed to extinction?
A: Let me tell you a story: A few years ago, I was walking around downtown LA because I used to take the bus there to enjoy the sights of Little Tokyo. I remember walking down Main St. past a brand new apartment complex. On one side, I saw white people inside the private gym located in the complex, running on treadmills and facing across Main. On the other side was a row of tents in front of another apartment complex being built.
It was the first time I saw gentrification happening in front of my eyes. The image is burned into my mind, and it’s something I think about when I see gentrification happening here in San Antonio. It’s fucking ruthless here, especially in the Eastside and how people literally drive around telling people they’ll buy their house on the spot.
Even though I’m technically an outsider, both LA and San Antonio are dealing with the same struggle. Hell, even the gentrifiers that I see here are the same kind from LA: out-of-towners that want to create their own whitewashed fake version of our cities and take pleasure in calling the cops on us just ‘cause we’re walking down our own neighborhoods.
It doesn’t help that the city council is obsessed about bringing “tech jobs” here, like as if they want this city to be the next Austin or Silicon Valley.
I feel that San Antonians are navigating gentrification by combating it. From preserving the Hays Street Bridge to ending the contract to demolish the Alazan Courts, this city cares about its rich history. It’s similar to what’s happening in Boyle Heights and other historic neighborhoods in California.
To stop gentrification, we have to fight it by any means. We don’t always win each fight, but each victory only pushes us to keep fighting. As creative people, we have a huge responsibility to be there for our community.
Too many times we’re used as Trojan houses by developers. Many gentrified areas started as affordable havens for poor artists. They use us to say, “Hey, we’re trying to bring culture to this area.” The problem with that is that there’s already a culture in place, but they start building condos and galleries until people from the neighborhoods and poor artists get pushed out and are forced to migrate. If we want to avoid that, we need to make sure that WE set up shop and push OUR stories and culture.
Just like my art, our surroundings shape the way we see life and how to approach it. We know what’s best, so why not do something about it? Sometimes we’re going to lose some of these landmarks, like La Botanica and the Cadillac Bar. It’s a terrible thing because so many memories were made in these locations. But we can use that to create something new and even more accessible to our communities, whatever they are.
We navigate by taking action, if that makes sense.
As someone who’s not from San Antonio but has seen culture stripped away countless times back home, I hope that I can use my influence in keeping San Antonio the way I experience it. I don’t want to change anything about this city. This city is perfect the way it is. The people are perfect in their own ways. I don’t want to become a voice for San Antonio, as I feel that there are others that should, like Isa and yourself.
However, I hope to help and be there for residents of this city in any way possible, whether through artmaking or even what I do in my current county job, where I interact with my community every day by making sure they don’t get lost in the digital divide.
Q: Talk to us about this commission. You opened up portrait commissions to help pay for therapy, which I find so endearing and proactive on your part. I never thought I would own a painting of this caliber, much less a portrait of my beloved mama. Can you give us any fun facts in terms of process and outcome? What’s it like to bust out a bunch of paintings of people’s loved ones in a burst of energy like this?
A: Real talk, your painting was one of my favorite ones that I did. It’s not often that I paint young subjects, so the approach to painting is different.
Painting adults, especially with wrinkles, is very easy because you can use their lines as guidelines and you can break down their faces into blocks of color. With younger subjects, there’s less wrinkles, meaning there’s less guidelines and basically one big mass of color. It also means I gotta paint more delicately and use my fingers to smooth out certain lines. I think I even used more paint than usual, now that I remember.
However, I was very proud of how it came out, and it’s helpful for me because now I have more confidence in my approach. I do wish I had my airbrush when I did it though. I think it would’ve helped out.
Painting six portraits one after the other is extremely draining. Generally speaking, making art nonstop like that usually starts feeling like a chore at times, so it’s important that I take breaks or have days where I do absolutely no painting.
This pandemic didn’t help, plus the fact that I had deadlines, the fact that I HAD to go to therapy and that I had COVID in the middle of everything. But this doesn’t mean that I hate doing it. Once I get to painting, I forget about everything else, and getting to finish a painting always brings me joy. I look at my paintings once they’re done and admire them for a good while. I’m at the point where I stop seeing the errors in my work and see what I was able to accomplish.
I’ll be back to painting more soon, but I need to also focus on an upcoming show in October, as well as learning more about how to use my airbrush. It’s been my best purchase so far and I feel like I’m learning to paint again, which is always an exciting feeling.
Thank you so much for these questions! I had to really take my time answering these, and that made them even more exciting for me. Thank you for everything that you do, Bonnie. You’re a beacon of wisdom and history, and I’m proud to call you a friend and someone whose knowledge I appreciate.
(Note from Bonnie: The feeling is mutual. A million thanks to Galileo for his enthusiasm, brilliance, and warmth that radiate through the screen as I watch the snow ceaselessly pour down on San Anto.)
Galileo Gonzalez is a visual artist born and raised in Southeast Los Angeles, and currently resides in San Antonio. He has earned his BFA in Drawing & Painting from California State University, Long Beach.
Much of his work deals with his upbringing, the urban surroundings around him, and his Salvadoran heritage. His current work focuses on visually interpreting oral stories from the Salvadoran Civil War, as well as the diaspora that followed through generations.
He has exhibited at the PÄS Gallery, AVD Gallery, Cerritos College Art Gallery, Fathom Space, Avenue 50 Studio, Dock Space Gallery, and the Museum of Latin American Art. His work is featured in the Cerritos College permanent art collection, as well as the Enrique Serrato collection.
Gali in San Anto. foto by Jassiel Gomez, 2021.
Copyright © 2021 Bonnie Ilza Cisneros - All Rights Reserved.