Talented and prolific new media artist Melanie Gonzalez‘ Discount Saints exhibition opens this Friday night in Spanish Harlem. With this work Gonzalez, 24, “hoodifies” Bible icons and offers us her modern interpretation of familiar figures revered by many. A project more concerned with conveying a personal statement than “repurposing a Biblical story,” the result is a mix of the sacred and profane that will certainly challenge the viewer.
Discount Saints at MediaNoche New Media Gallery and Digital Film Studio, 1355 Park Avenue at 102nd St., New York, NY. On view November 20th through January 30th, 2016. Opening reception, Friday, November 20th, 2015 6-8PM.
Here are 10 Questions for Melanie Gonzalez:
Laura James | Your project Discount Saints consists of “iconic Biblical figures relocated to the Boogie Down Bronx,” what was the motivation for this work?
Melanie Gonzalez | Discount Saints is a multi-media art project that I began working on in early 2014, it’s been a long time coming and my most ambitious project to date. In a nutshell, the “Saints” I photographed are the “discount store” versions of Biblical icons. They’re gaudy, tacky and hood, but still aesthetically beautiful and strong. I started with a self-portrait, posing as La Virgen Maria as a test. I had this vision of a “ghetto Mary” character with rolos and doorknocker earrings, who personified a Hispanic mother archetype.
Ghetto Mary, 2015, 16 x 24 inches
From there I thought it would be interesting to photograph more characters, and I began doing research on saints I was somewhat familiar with, coming from a Catholic household. I carefully chose the accessories and outfits that went with each Saint, and throughout the last year and a half I shot my versions of Jesús, Mary Magdalene, St. Peter, St. Elizabeth, and oddly Pontius Pilate… because there has to be a villain right?
I was thinking, “If these Biblical figures were alive today, where would I place them and how would they look?” I set Mary, Jesús and the others in the modern day South Bronx. I did it as a challenge, to see if I could accurately portray with modernization the classical attributes of each Saint in their photograph. I studied Italian/Renaissance art in college and have always been enamored with classical portraiture of all kinds.
Papi Jesus, 2015, 16 x 24 inches
LJ |Tell us about MediaNoche and how you came to work with them.
MG | MediaNoche and Discount Saints are a perfect match. They are a new media gallery and film studio located in Spanish Harlem, operating for over 10 years in that community. They’ve exhibited artists from around the world and I’m happy to be a Latina new media artist on their roster. Owner and curator Judith Escalona is a filmmaker and professor among many other things, and was my film professor years ago at City College. I had no idea she ran a gallery then. We reconnected this year; I reached out to her at the right time and proposed presenting the Discount Saints exhibition at MediaNoche. She has been super supportive of the project and my work as an emerging artist.
LJ |Besides photographs, the project includes video and sculpture?
MG | Yes, the video projections include a Last Supper scene, the Saints are gathered eating Chinese take-out, and a Pietà scene. I also shot scenes of Mary in her home, doing her makeup, sitting by the window with a fan; domestic scenes that remind you of that lady in your building or neighborhood that knows all the gossip but is respected and loved by everyone. I collaborated with filmmaker Luis Servera on 5 of the 8 video loops.
Pietà, 2015, video loop
I also collaborated with Stephanie Mota to create a 4 foot sculpture of a wooden cross adorned entirely with gold doorknocker earrings and hairnets. That piece to me is a subtle ribbon to tie it all together, that this exhibition is a “hoodified,” 21st century fabrication of a chapel. The looping video clips and photography and sculpture are the platform for the Discount Saints to shine.
Doorknocker Altar Cross, 2015, 4 x 3 feet
LJ | Are you religious? What would you say to critics who may think this work is sacrilegious?
MG | I am not religious. However, I love religious iconography from the Renaissance/Baroque periods. From Caravaggio, Botticelli & Bernini to the really odd work that came out of the Mannerism period. A lot of those artists also made allegorical paintings and often added secular motifs to their “religious” works; they were interested in technique and the emotional effect of the painting. As far as Discount Saints is concerned, if someone considers the work sacrilegious, then they’re not looking at the artwork and production that went into it. The images are less about re-purposing a Biblical story and more about the modernization of a few select Saints that were interesting to me, and key to growing up in a Catholic Hispanic household.
St. Elizabeth, 2015, 16 x 24 inches
LJ | Your mother is Puerto Rican, your father Dominican, and you were born and raised in the Bronx; how does your background inform your work?
MG | My Bronx/Hispanic identity showed through my work unconsciously. I had a thesis film in high school (very amateur!) called In Your Dreams, about a boy who traveled through his dreams, which then affected his reality when he realized a love interest was “hacking” into them. Crazy story aside, it was produced entirely in the Bronx, using a plethora of locations and backdrops to fill the scenes. I would constantly be asked where was this or that scene filmed, and was happy and surprised to say it was all filmed on location in the Bronx.
My first solo exhibition Letters to Armando was a series of self-portraits where I meticulously recreated old family photos from my Dominican father’s side of the family.
Me as Matilde
Me as Nicholas
Not all my work is commenting on a Hispanic or Bronx identity, because I feel it gets repetitive and limits the range of the work I want to do, but the backend of my photo and video productions always have some root in it. It’s inevitable as the creator.
LJ | What’s your take on the changes happening now in the borough, particularly as an artist?
MG | I feel that I am part of the changes in the Bronx, a part of the influx of millennial artists that are recent graduates and producing artwork because it’s what we’ve decided to do. I feel my generation is fighting hard to produce quality content that represents the Bronx without departing too far from an authentic Bronx identity; while the rent is going up, and up.
I personally aim to create thoughtful, quality content that can evoke conversation with any artist of any background, not just for Bronxites. I want my work to travel outside of the Bronx, so that an international audience can see authentic BX art. All roads lead to home.
Melanie Gonzalez, Photo by Athen Wade
LJ | What do you think is your greatest challenge today as a young artist working in New York City?
MG | There are not enough spaces to produce, create, or exhibit art that give chances to new or struggling, or better yet new and struggling artists. And when the opportunity does arise, you have to submit dozen documents- resumes, forms, work statements, etc. That’s why, until now, I’ve produced my own art shows and procured my own venues to show my work, because I choose to invest in myself and my art.
LJ | You’re also an actress and director of Shit Spanish Girls say on YouTube. The three-part series has cultivated over 8 million views; can you tell us more about that project?
MG | I directed and co-wrote Shit Spanish Girls Say with Juan Ortiz, Julissa Contreras & David Zheng. It started with a video that we did on the fly during the time where other Shit Girls Say videos were popping up and it went viral literally overnight in January 2012. We have since produced more videos, and I’ve directed many of Juan’s other parodies and music videos (like Self!e). Shit Spanish Girls Say was nominated that year for Viral Video of the Year by Premios! Tu Mundo on Telemundo, which was one of the most surprising things that’s ever happened to me. I just couldn’t believe so many people not only watched it, but understood exactly the jokes we were hitting in that video. It hit home to a lot of people, and even people that weren’t Latino, and we loved that.
Video still from Shit Spanish Girls Say
LJ | You were working in Italy this past summer, what was that project about?
MG | At City College I was an Italian minor, and also acted in two plays produced completely in Italian. After graduating I continued collaborating with Italytime, a theater nonprofit based in NYC. They produce a play in Italy with international Italian learners every year and I went to Calabria this past summer as their video/photo producer to document the practicum/festival called Orlando Innamorato. I recorded their rehearsals and extra content in the small surrounding towns and interviewed historians and locals of the town of Diamante, where we stayed for a month. To say the towns I visited, the people I met, and the entire experience was breathtaking and incredible would be an understatement.
View of Diamante, Calabria
LJ | What’s next for you?
MG | I’ve mostly spent the second half of this year completing Discount Saints. I can’t say what I’ll be up to directly after this exhibition because that’s not clear yet. The show opens this week and it’s all I’m thinking about. In the long term however I can say I plan to make a play or film with the Discount Saints characters, but that’s further down the road!