by Jennifer Pfaff Smith 

Gonzalo Fuenmayor’s studio is “a dangerous place for white clothing,” he warns. Charcoal dusts the surfaces, and the artist typically ends the day resembling a chimney sweeper. Fuenmayor resigned to wearing black 20 years ago, when he began using the pigment as a way to counter stereotypes—a decision that launched an accomplished career exploring his drawing skills, imagination and identity through a single shade.

 Artist Gonzalo Fuenmayor draws large-scale abstract scenarios rendered in charcoal on paper.

It all started when the Colombia native came to the United States in 1998 to attend art schools in New York and Boston, focusing primarily on painting. As one of the few Latinos in the programs, “I perceived that in order to fit in, I had to paint in vibrant color and incorporate Latin American cliches,” he says. “After exploiting myself for others, I decided I didn’t want cultural expectations to dictate my work. So I came into black and white as a way to counteract that.”

Fuenmayor often depicts settings with unexpected elements, a concept that speaks to “the pressure of performing in order to assimilate,” he says.

The shift from painting to drawing came easily. “I was in love with the touch of my hands directly on the paper instead of a brush,” says the artist, who relocated to Miami in 2007. But what didn’t change was his exploration of identity politics, which played in his mind like scenes from a movie. “While trying to fit in, there’s this performance that happens,” he explains. “In my work, I slowly started referencing these spaces of acting, depicting a stage of sorts.”

The artist is a native of Colombia.

These concepts are often translated into renderings of surrealist scenarios, such as a Victorian drawing room containing a spiraling waterslide, a chandelier crowned with bananas or a gilded theater stage overtaken by tropical flora. “I want to make the viewer see that something doesn’t quite make sense,” Fuenmayor says. “In a way, it’s evoking that same sense of how it feels to be an outsider.” The baroque settings further underline a connotation of control, such as colonialism. “Under the spectacle of opulence, where did that power come from?” he considers. “It’s an exploitation of other cultures, which is kept secret in the shadows. That’s what I’m trying to convey.”

Fuenmayor's studio is in Little Haiti.

Drawn from collages the artist assembles using photographs—some he’s taken himself, others sourced from the Internet—these scenes capture real spaces and objects. He then projects the collage onto the paper, traces the image and uses charcoal to create an atmosphere. Fuenmayor’s signature touch is the use of chiaroscuro, a drawing technique used to evoke a sense of volume and accurately portray shadows—a key element of his work. “I’m trying to manipulate how darkness and lightness are perceived,” he explains. “My aim is to make these images feel as if they belong together.” The final piece appears photorealistic and precise, but up close the artist’s fingerprints are apparent, smudge marks dotting the paper.

The Miami artist is known for his deep shadow work.

So just how will Fuenmayor’s movie end? For now, the assimilation plot continues in black and white. “There’s always this struggle of trying to belong,” the artist says. “And I believe that struggle is shared among so many of us.”

“I use black and white as a way of expression,” he explains.

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