Updated: Mar 9, 2021
By Elizabeth Harris
If you walk around the THEXCHANGE in Charlotte, NC, you’ll come upon a mural. You’ll see the vivid colors of jaguars pulling a folk cart bursting with tropical flowers along a road overflowing with gold and jewels with a young girl proudly directly the jaguars forward. What you’ll notice is that this beautiful creation of Latinx art is calling out for climate change action, but, with a twist. It feels very Latinx - the colors, the flora and fauna, and the traditional cart- but has a fresh and modern sense. It’s this beautiful combination, bringing together two worlds and using this hybrid experience to call forth change, by Charlotte-based artist Irisol Gonzalez.
What continues to draw me to Irisol’s work is her beautiful way of combining her Latinx, Costa Rican heritage, with her American experiences, creating art that shows a new modern Latin-American perspective while creating dialogue on social and environmental change.
Like many artists, art has been a passion for her since childhood, but, life and career expectations can get in the way. Irisol recollects, “I was working at a finance company and I was asked to do a poster for a team. They gave me some markers and a poster board, and I spent 5 hours on that poster board. I was like, ‘I've been happier these 5 hours than all of the times at this place combined.’”
With a handful of commissions and support from local grants, Irisol was finally able to take the leap and begin her career as a full-time artist. “I had a few commissions for people who I knew, and I decided that I was going to quit my job. The commissions that I had will let me sustain myself for a few months while I did this. I just went for it. I started getting more commissions to sustain myself and it started growing,” she recalls.
And has she flourished! These past four years Irisol has not only grown her flow of commissions but continues to receive recognition and awards and for her work domestically and internationally. She had a solo exhibition in Spain, her work was exhibited at the Tubman-Mahan Gallery in Washington, DC, and the CAM Raleigh and Raleigh Fine Arts Society in Raleigh, NC for starters. She’s an Inaugural ASC Emerging Creator Fellowship Recipient, a former META Mural Resident, and was awarded the Art Pop Street Gallery Charlotte to just name a few. The mural of jaguars pulling a cart overflowing with lush flora is her Climate Change Mural part of Charlotte’s Talking Walls initiative.
How has she developed as an artist? “It has definitely become more concept-based than it was at the beginning. In the beginning, it was more focused on aesthetics. And now it’s secondary to the concept. My idea is to be deeper with my work and I hope that as I continue to make it that it’ll continue to be heavier in context.”
One of the concepts seen throughout much of her artwork is identity. More specifically, Irisol’s finding a way to balance her Costa Rican roots with her American experiences and define what her identity means to her. “There’s always this clash of being a Latin-American and what that means in terms of culture and growing up. I try to explore it in a way that combines them (Latinx and American). For a very long time, I saw them as this is my Costa Rican culture and this is my American culture, and I either fit into one of those but I never fit into any of those. Then I went to Costa Rica, they would be like, 'You haven’t experienced a lot of the things we have therefore, you can’t really talk about this experience the way I can.' Same for the American. I’m never going to be American. I wasn’t born here. There’s a big part of my life that I didn’t experience here. So I’m never gonna do that either.”
Despite these feelings of being stuck between worlds as an outsider, Irisol steadily bloomed into her hybrid Costa Rican-American self. “I’m no longer trying to fit into these boxes. I’m okay with being on the outside of both of them because for a long time I wasn’t. Now, it’s like I understand that I’m going to be an outsider for both of them because I'm this new thing. In my art, I express it by mixing things. In a lot of my murals, I put my American culture and Costa Rican. It looks like a hot mess sometimes. ‘You got a banana tree and a cardinal?’ Yes! Because that’s who I am,” she tells me.
This beautifully clashing, challenging, and appreciation for the two worlds is evident in her new series Machismo. “Machismo is sexism in Latin American culture. It’s gender roles that are masochistic and misogynistic. It’s the patriarchy,” Irisol explains. It is through her insider-outsider experience that Irisol is the best placed to explore the sexism and everyday misogyny many may experience in Latin American culture.
In the Machismo series, viewers are presented with jarring, theatrical, and slightly comical images, like viewing a theatre show, with curtains framing each scene. “The curtains are a criticism of Latin American culture,” Irisol tells me. “You might go to a house that doesn’t’ have floors because they’re poor but they’ll have these royal curtains in their house. To me, that is so superficial the way that you’re trying to show off but in reality, this is not your reality. I feel like that is a metaphor for machismo itself.”
These curtains also emphasize the roles, the acts, the characters, the costumes we all play in our everyday lives. Irisol explains, “These roles that we create for ourselves in the way that we behave. It’s not who we are, it's how we want people to see.”
Talking about choosing what we see or don’t, all the women from the young wives to the Abuela are blindfolded. “Their faces are covered because their identity doesn’t matter. They’re just women. In Machismo culture, it doesn’t matter if it’s a mother, an aunt, a neighbor, the women are seen as a service. Therefore, her thoughts, who she is, and what she wants do not matter. That’s why their faces are covered. Their identity is irrelevant,” she clarifies.
Cleverly, Irisol notes that the girls can see, they’re not blindfolded. They also don’t have halos. It’s like they’re watching, waiting, in training. “The girls aren’t covered because they’re learning from this but eventually their faces will be covered. The little girl if you noticed doesn’t have a halo. That’s because women have to earn their halo, but the men are born with a halo. They’re born saintly, they’re born great. If the girl earns her halo, she becomes a ‘good’ woman like the other women.”
As we chat during the interview, I glance through her paintings. It’s clear women are a tool, a figure in service to men, but not just any servant - a Virgin Mary-like servant, the ideal woman. “They’re also dressed like the Virgin Mary, all of them. The closer she is to being a virgin, the closer she is to the idealistic woman, giving herself up in service to a man to make him happy and to make him comfortable. That’s a good woman.”
You may be thinking, “Wow, why do men treat women this way?” or “Why are the women doing this?” In the end, it’s both men and women responsible for the perpetuation of this culture. It’s the everyday abuses of misogyny from both men and women on men and women. Irisol adds, “My series is not so much about this is what men are. It’s about how women are also participants and active subjects passing it on to their children and continue to support machismo. I find it interesting that when people talk about misogyny they tend to go directly to abuse. But, what I am saying is it’s the little things in our everyday that’s making the difference and pulling the strings.”
What are these everyday misogynies?
“A mom feeding meat to only the men is telling your daughters you are not worthy enough, you are not equal to a man. What does that do to your self-esteem growing up and the things that you allow to happen?
Say, a woman who has 4 girls and 1 boy, teaches those girls to care for that boy. That boy grows up and he doesn’t know how to care for himself. He's not a self-sufficient adult.
Telling boys that you can’t cry. Imagine not being able to cry? I think about this all the time. How would you take that out not being able to cry? Not being able to express yourself and release in that way? Or, having men not be able to appreciate the beauty of a flower. Why would you take that sensibility away? It’s those little things that eventually you are creating a sociopath. You don’t know how to process emotion. The only thing you go to is anger.”
The men and women in her paintings are simply reflections of the culprits and the victims, the actors and the perpetrators, the men and the women in our daily life passing down machismo, from one generation to the next. Telling the boys and men they’re saints requiring no self-sufficiency, and the girls they are merely saintly servants if they learn to be. Irisol’s art is simply showing this.
“It’s very easy when you see abuse and say that’s not me. When you see someone feeding someone else something different, you’re like okay well maybe that is. It hits you differently. It’s a sting you feel because you don’t expect it. If somebody is talking crap about your everyday life, then at that point you've got decisions to make.
And now, you know. Now, you know this is wrong. Now, you know that this is wrong, and you either change it or you’re a hypocrite. But you can’t unknow it, and that’s what I want.”
So what’s the response to these jarring, eye-opening, slap-in-the-face pieces? Well, pretty darn positive, and if it isn’t, it’s doing its job. “It’s been great. It’s created so much conversation and fights. Actually, in my family, it was really funny. We were talking about service and the value of these women. If you were to put a price on the service they give to these men, they (men) wouldn’t be able to pay for it. If you had to get a babysitter, somebody to cook for you, somebody to clean your house, they wouldn’t be able to pay for it. That created a whole lot of chaos.”
Isn’t that the purpose of art? To create release, conversations, and inspire change? To be a mirror of ourselves, our lives, our cultures. Toastee certainly thinks so, and so does Irisol. In fact, she’s only getting started on Machismo and will be producing over 40 pieces this year! From a giant mural resembling The Last Supper to smaller paintings focusing on the deeply personal and the more light-hearted experiences of her life.
But the artist has more for herself and her community. “I’m going to be doing murals this year. I have some that I’m doing around Charlotte with Latinx neighborhoods. I want to bring in community murals and activate spaces in those neighborhoods. I noticed that a lot of the art stays in certain areas. That’s why I want to bring it into these other areas where it’s not as accessible. Art does you good. It’s good for the soul. It makes people feel like they’re a part of something,” she tells me.
From a childhood in Costa Rica to finding her hybrid Latin-American identity in North Carolina to now challenging and celebrating her heritage, Irisol is certainly stepping out, turning heads, raising hell, and starting much-needed reflections and conversations. We are sure to be seeing more of her in the future.
To learn more about Irisol, check out her artwork, and connect for a commission visit her website www.irisolgonzalez.com. Make sure to keep up to date with her and the Machismo series follow her on social @irisolgonzalezart on Instagram and Facebook.
If you like this story on Irisol, her more about her from the artist herself. Check out her on CreativeMornings on Youtube, which starts at minute 55.