tal·is·man | \ ˈta-ləs-mən , -ləz- \
1. an object held to act as a charm to avert evil and bring good fortune
2. something producing apparently magical or miraculous effects
In a symbol-drenched, superficially booming, and fractured state like Texas, as seemingly with everywhere else in this country, prices for homes have skyrocketed, displacing locals at all levels of the socioeconomic ladder. One of the saving graces about Dallas is its secret cultural strength. We locals know the city’s rep as an artistic wasteland, and most of us laugh or don’t bother responding, because it’s frequently a claim by people who either don’t live here, haven’t lived here more than a handful of years, or live in a suburb which they willfully call “Dallas.”
Take our music scene. At night, Dallas surges to life, with jazz leading that glowing charge. The city is largely indebted to the nearby University of North Texas in Denton, once hailed by U.S. News and World Report as the top jazz school in the nation. Another secret hiding place is the teaching staff scattered throughout the Dallas Independent School District, passing a full slate of artistic practices and otherwise to coming generations by day, so they can support full-scale art making at night, on weekends, and on holidays.
For a while, one of those teachers was Dennis Gonzalez, though his legacy is not limited to his lucky former students. Gonzalez’s unexpected death last March brought losses far beyond his jazz community and Oak Cliff neighborhood. His impact on younger generations of makers was profound, including the experimental jazz trio Yells at Eels, which he formed with his two sons. In addition to his dominance on trumpet, he played multiple instruments in a recording career that dated back to the 70s. He founded a music education nonprofit, hosted a radio show for two decades, and he was a family man. He was a visual artist, too. To quote Plush Gallery’s exhibition statement, Gonzalez was a “cultural influencer of great magnitude.”
With this posthumous show, Talismans, the artist leaves us a fresh conversation on the evolution of multifaceted creative practices and the ways we interpret our home environments. The importance of sticking to your roots, deeply and unshakably, is a takeaway of this distinctive handmade collection of mystical, protective totems. Though I never knew the man personally, Plush Gallery crackles with Gonzalez’s charisma, a final parting gift that reimagines the prospects for mystical objects using tree branches, feathers, gourds, wire, bells, and yarn.
The first piece, if you’re reading the show left to right, is mounted alone against exposed brick, a combination that always thrills me in this space for adding magic to objects already infused with a certain alchemy (Celia Eberle’s bone sculptures spring to mind). This talisman is the most anthropomorphized of the family; it has a skull. Looking at the work from underneath, you can see the skull is hollow. It’s some kind of gourd that makes me think of a tiny drum. Horsehair (I think) on opposite sides provides balance for a big feather facing front. The rest is a body of ribbons, bells, and sundry noisemakers, giving the work weight for gravity that holds its length against the frailty of the ribbon.
The middle eight talismans are hung side-by-side in an unbroken line on a white wall, like a barricade of color-blocked warriors backed by white sand. The total collection of ten was made for hanging at home, with and for the Gonzalez family, and do indeed resemble a family of unique individuals sharing a common origin without pressure for conformity. Was Gonzalez challenging himself to take all the fun and artistry of experimental jazz, transfer it to random common or natural materials, and see what came of it? All pieces share the same title: Talisman. Some are hung vertically, some are not. One has a double wand. The last piece, mounted around the corner wall, is a fan with three feathers in blue, black, red. The base was some kind of iron tool that looks like a hand with fingers bent to pounce, with three quills held in place by those claws. The full effect isn’t violence, but the grace of a fan or a fountain.
All of these pieces possess a natural whimsy, and all appear made for holding, though their sizes vary. Missing from the mix were amulets or other wearable objects that usually represent the historical origins of talismans across civilizations. (How much fun could that have been, and might there be more of Gonzalez’s concrete material juju hidden away somewhere?) I felt the same admiration at Webb Gallery’s Ken Havis show last fall — for some resourceful artists, supplies are always within reach, somehow. I suspect that for some musicians, anything can be an instrument, too. The rules are theirs to make.
Dennis González: Talismans is on view through September 10, 2022 at Plush Gallery. A closing reception for the show is scheduled for September 3 from 4-8 PM.