By Jesse Hamlin

A public defender by day, Matt Gonzalez moonlights as a collage artist whose work has been snapped up by SFMOMA and savvy collectors.

Matt Gonzalez was working in his Alamo Square apartment on a Saturday morning in the early days of the City’s shelter in place, sifting through a box of torn paper fragments in varying shades of white. There were snippets of envelopes, the side of a lemon shortbread box found on the street, a patch of white from the label of a tossed tequila bottle — the raw material of his art.

“This is the first piece I’ve started since the outbreak happened. The coronavirus has disrupted everything,” says Gonzalez, a noted collagist whose day job as chief attorney for the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office has been particularly demanding during the crisis. He and other city officials, adjusting to the scary new reality, have worked to secure the early release of nonviolent offenders from the jails to thin the population in those cramped quarters and reduce the infection risk. These days, he notes, “The police are trying not to arrest people on minor things. Everybody is trying to give people an early release if they can.”

“I’m still going into the office as needed,” says Gonzalez. “The wheels of the criminal justice system don’t really stop.” The former San Francisco supervisor’s politics lean progressive. He nearly beat Gavin Newsom for mayor in 2003 on the Green Party ticket and ran as Ralph Nader’s VP as an Independent in the 2008 presidential election, two years after he’d begun making his found-paper collages.

A prolific self-taught artist, his work has been widely shown at galleries such as the Dolby Chadwick, Jack Fischer and Luggage Store. Even more impressive, it can be seen in the collections of SFMOMA, the Crocker Art Museum and the Fine Arts Museums’ Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts. Gonzalez is represented by the Dolby Chadwick Gallery, where his work ranges in price from $2,100 to $8,500 and is acquired by collectors from the Bay Area and around the country.

A recent collage, ‘The last to speak her name, hopscotch, 2020,’ features a collection of fragments of paper and packaging culled from the artist’s walks through the City.

Gonzalez usually spends weekends working in the South of Market art studio he shares with poet and painter Tamsin Smith, his partner. The health crisis altered his routine — art-wise, the first few weeks of the pandemic were his least productive period in a decade — but he’s back collaging. “Today I woke up with such a desire to make art,” he says. “That’s how I spent the early morning. The light is good right now. It allows me to parse out the white versus the creams and whatever other shades of that color there are.”

Inspired by the pioneering German modernist Kurt Schwitters and his poetic transformation of found objects and fragments of image and text, Gonzalez has made mostly monochromatic pieces in recent years — ripping, cutting, shaping and layering forms in hues of purple, green, gray or blue to create intricate, pulsing constructions suggestive of cityscapes or circuitry. They read like nonobjective relief sculpture.

“I used to separate out my colors in a more basic way,” explains Gonzalez, who fell in love with art in the museums and galleries of New York after moving from McAllen, Texas, to study at Columbia University. Later, he took up painting to better understand what he was looking at, and what the artist had to do to create the work.“ Now I’m really attuned to what’s shiny, or cream-colored; or if I have green, what’s light green, what’s dark green, what’s green with a little bit of blue or turquoise? I’m refining how I see those elements.”

SFMOMA owns his 2018 With the one light-formant, a 32-by-26-inch blue collage whose title refersto the spectrum of sound. “You almost see the vibration of color in that one, as it’s kind of fading in and out of that blue,” says the 55-year-old. “It’s monochromatic and yet isn’t, because there’s so much variety of that color there.”

He gathers material ambling through the City, stopping to ponder and maybe harvest a weathered toothpaste box or bus transfer that catches his eye. “There’s something about excavating these artifacts of commerce, and recasting them and really focusing on the color and form they present,” muses Gonzalez, who finds Haight, Divisadero and other busy streets fertile ground for these littered objects that “were not supposed to last.”

Since the coronavirus, Gonzalez has become much more selective about what he brings in off the street, though he recently stopped to cull a piece of silver cardboard from a discarded Marlboro package. Fortunately, he says, “It isn’t affecting my work as I have a robust paper stash to last me well beyond a lengthy pandemic, so I’m excavating my reserves.”

When composing a piece, he notes, “you’re putting something down, slowly working on it, and you see something become denser as you go along to try to approximate whatever emotional quality or sentiment you’re feeling or heading toward.”

Retired San Francisco Chronicle art critic Kenneth Baker praises Gonzalez’s black pieces, which are energized by the fine white edges of cut black forms. “Abstract as you please,” Baker says, “they nevertheless have a hint of coded reference to nighttime cityscapes. Call them nocturnes, maybe.”

Gonzalez aims for beauty, in the wide sense that “beauty can also be equated with equilibrium, or some kind of respect for the materials, and light, and the moment,” the artist suggests. “Sometimes I really like a piece that has flaws, but is honest to the moment in which it was made.”

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