This article was contributed by Harlingen historian Norman Rozeff. Rozeff is a columnist for the Valley Morning Star and the author of several books.
In late July my wife and I visited our daughter in Mount Airy, Maryland. We asked if she would treat us to a visit to the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. We had visited it before but, because of its immense size, had not seen all its galleries. After arriving we soon realized that the large building not only housed the Portrait Gallery but in its other half was also the Smithsonian American Art Museum. We should have known better from a previous visit three years ago. We were in luck, for the museum was again exhibiting a very special event, one that had greatly impressed us when we viewed it three years ago.
The exhibition is summarized by the museum as follows: “The Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition invited artists from across the country to submit their best works in the art of portrayal. The dazzling variety of media and diverse approaches to the exploration of “self” and “other” challenge preconceived notions of portraiture and expand visitors’ imaginations. This competition and resulting exhibition “The Outwin 2016: American Portraiture Today” will showcase excellence and innovation with a strong focus on the variety of portrait media used by artists today. The juried competition results in an exhibition of about 50 finalists, with the prizewinners announced at the opening.
This exhibition features 43 pieces including sculptures, mixed-media pieces, photographs, paintings and drawings. The jurors considered this exhibition a synopsis of historical and cultural events that have unfolded in the past three rounds, particularly in terms of race, sexual identity, gender and concerns about protecting childhood in an age of technology and gun violence. This year’s competition received more than 2,500 entries in a variety of visual-arts media.
Held every three years, the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition was made possible by volunteer and benefactor Virginia Outwin Boochever (1920–2005). The competition invites artists all over America to investigate the art of contemporary portraiture. The resulting exhibition celebrates excellence and innovation, with a strong focus on the variety of portrait media used by artists today.”
As we viewed the wonderful submissions done in a wide array of media, we encountered one that sparked a note of recognition. It was a large oil painting of illegal immigrants wading across a river to enter the United States. Upon reading the accompanying information we were dumbfounded to learn that its accomplished artist was residing in Harlingen. The text read “La Guia (“The Guide”)
Born in a border town in Mexico, Rigoberto A. Gonzalez moved to San Juan, Texas when he was young. After earning a MFA in New York City in 2014, he returned to Texas where he began to make work that emerged from his knowledge of seventeenth-century Italian painters like Caravaggio but focused on the stories of drug cartels and immigration that he saw all around him. La Guia is the confrontational narrative depicting the story of a teenage girl who smuggled immigrants from Ciudad Juarez to El Paso, Texas. The three main figures inhabit a nocturnal landscape that resembles a stage set, with theatrical lighting and a dramatic triangular composition. Rigoberto A. Gonzalez, Harlingen, Texas Oil on linen, 2014 On loan courtesy of owner Matt Gonzalez”
Additional delving unearthed more definitive information on this remarkable artist. He was born in 1973 in Reynosa Tamaulipas, Mexico. He was graduated from the University of Texas at Pan America in 1999 where he received a B.F. A. degree. Furthering his education he received a M.F.A. degree from the New York Academy of Art in 2004. Subsequently his work has been exhibited in museums in Sweden, Norway, Mexico, Texas, New Mexico, and local regional ones. In addition Gonzalez has completed artist residencies at the Santa Fe Art Institute Artist Residency Program, Santa Fe, New Mexico (2016), Coronado Studios Serie XX Project Artist Residency. Austin, Texas (2013) Roswell Artist Residency Program, Roswell, New Mexico (2008/09) and Rancho del Cielo, University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College (2004), and received grants from the National Association of Latino Arts and Culture (2009/10). He has been the subject of artist profiles on PBS, NPR, and Televisa.
Perhaps the most important thing that can be pointed out concerning Gonzalez is the fact that he, as did a number of his historic and famous artist predecessors from Holland, Italy, France, and elsewhere, is permanently documenting current history for future generations. This is in sharp contrast to the pseudo-Aztec/Mayan work of “murky” palettes we frequently see from contemporary local artists. There is no question but that Rigoberto Gonzalez is a talent head and shoulders above our many regional artists. We should all recognize and appreciate that fact, for such talents are few and far between.