May 16, 2016

Boundless Space, Vanishing Space: A New Painting by Rafael Gomez Luna

Rafael Gomez Luna, Eagle Eye, 2016

The Children's School in Park Slope is one of the best grade schools in the city. It feels like a private school when you walk in. But this is PS 372, which just had its annual fundraising gala and art auction. "My daughter is in a class of twenty-five, and they have six teachers, for 25 children," Rafael Gomez Luna tells me. "We are really lucky to have her in this school, and I am grateful, really grateful. That's why I do so much for the school."

The school's district takes in Gowanus and parts of Park Slope and Carroll Gardens. So the parents are wealthy and not so wealthy. They are native New Yorkers and transplants. Rafael himself is a confluence of worlds. He went to elite schools in the Dominican Republic, where he was raised as the foster son of a wealthy family. He is one of hundreds of "godsons" of the former dictator Trujillo, a fact that leant Rafael Gomez some cover in the waning years of the 30-year regime. "There were family godsons and political godsons, I was a political godson," Rafael says with a worldly laugh.

After a stint at a military prep school, Rafael rejected a career in the army, and rejoined his biological parents in Manhattan. First to Chelsea, then to Washington Heights. It was the roiling 70s and 80s. Washington Heights was Latin, and still is. But at that time, there were landed Italian and Sicilian families who controlled most of the nightlife across the metropolitan area. "I was all over the Italian scene, but that was citywide," says Rafael, as distinct from the Heights. "There were very few Italians in the Heights."

The Green Building, Union Street, Gowanus
photo: the green building
Today, Rafael is as typical a New Yorker as any you can find in any neighborhood. You could call him a metropolitan New Yorker, as I myself am, who have family roots in NewYork. albeit no personal connection until my late twenties. Rafael came to the city when he was eighteen. And today he is a painter, an activist, a food-coop squad leader, and passionately dedicated father.

Never mind that he was a legendary hustle dancer in the 80s. Or that he is an authentic "filio" of the dictator. He has been seen in dress uniforms that recall the Munroe Doctrine "and its age" of bandito colonels with whom the United States simply banned, by fiat, any commerce with Europe that was not actually just commerce. This was well before France took north Africa and the English took the Punjab. So a US kibosh may have been prudent. Even with the muscle-wars and CIA shenanigans of US-Latin history, it seems much worse may have been evaded. All of the local revolutions would stand, said the US of Latin America. And all forty of their prevailing parties would be allowed essentially to continue to work things out among themselves. And would there be a Republic of Patagonia as well? 

We stroll along Union Street in Gowanus, and Rafael elaborates on the fusion of haut-bohemian aesthetics and designer real estate in this most hot of gentrifying neighborhoods. The next minute he tells me about how he dispatched a gang that attempted to jump him and his wife on this street a decade or more ago. "Initiation ritual," he says. "Let's just say they were very surprised by my reaction." Another worldly laugh. "They took off."

The Children's School, Carroll Street, Gowanus
photo: Brooklyn Catholic

Rafael Gomez Luna, Eagle Eye, 2016, small painting

The painting "Eagle Eye" can hang any way you like, it's an aerial view. And it's sold, auctioned off at the school fundraiser. This and two others by Rafael have found their ways onto walls in Brooklyn. A very small painting on a thick frame, which floats about 10,000 feet over the earth. It is about space, boundless space, and also contracting space, vanishing space for artists in Gowanus.

Rafael's paintings, which he signs "Siri," are comments on what a painting is, on its coinage in our present place and time. And at the same time, a comment on its pictorial distance from our place and time. In these paintings, the pictorial is always allowed to fall back into inscrutable landscapes. The paintings are crafted in the round, "tamped in well," as it were, from several perspectives. It is the compressed, spring-loaded space of Rafael Gomez Luna. Who has a gamely approach to the mysterious moment.

— Ethan Pettit, 16 May 2016