The path that led Teo Gonzalez to his present work has almost as many twists as the thousands of little cell-like shapes in his paintings and lithographs at Roy Boyd. Born in Quinto, Spain, in 1964, he dropped out of school at 15 (“I didn’t know what I wanted to do and they weren’t teaching me anything I was interested in”). For a few years he wrote fiction and took photographs, but stopped both because he “wasn’t getting anywhere.” He’d also started to build cameras, first wood boxes and later attempts at single-lens reflexes, which he sold to photographers who wanted to experiment with them. He was about to buy the parts he needed for his first real SLR when his girlfriend suggested he buy an airbrush instead: “I didn’t know what an airbrush was, but it intrigued me.” At 19, he began airbrushing “grotesque imaginary beings” and felt he’d finally found his vocation. When his airbrush broke, he started painting faces on his mother’s old bedsheets. After learning about technique and materials from an art-store salesman, he also started doing absurdist comics, the first based on a Beckett story. His paintings, meanwhile, became entirely abstract, though he’d change his style every few months, discovering new approaches in art magazines.

At 26 Gonzalez had a brainstorm after reading a magazine article on conceptual and minimal art, realizing that the work he was doing required regular aesthetic/emotional crises. He decided instead to try “some sort of painting that didn’t reflect my emotions or my political ideas or my likings–that wouldn’t say anything, that would just be painting.” That same day he ruled a grid on paper, then made little puddles of water at each intersection and put a drop of ink in each. “I thought, ‘The ink is going to do whatever the ink is going to do.’ I found a way to remove myself.” Then he put down darker drops within each puddle of diluted ink as it was drying, beginning the approach he’s used for the past 16 years; when cells are empty, it’s because he didn’t get to them before the first drop dried completely. He switched to paint on canvas several years later when his ink supply ran out and he couldn’t find a suitable substitute, a method that allows him to experiment with color.

In 1991 Gonzalez moved to California when his wife got a job there teaching elementary school. After they split up, he started attending Cal State Bakersfield–he got an art degree in 1997–while working in a coffee shop, which helped him learn English. A piece he entered in an Oakland art competition in 1994 attracted the attention of a San Francisco dealer who offered him a show, and it was then he switched from paper to canvas. Within two years he was making a living by painting; he now lives in Brooklyn. In 2001 he began to think his ruled grids were “too rigid” and trained himself to lay down his cells freehand.

Gonzalez sees the mix of repetition and variation in his cells as true to life. “The sun comes up in the east and sets in the west,” he says, “but every day is different.” Looking at his work, the viewer feels lost in a thicket or labyrinth. Gonzalez objects to the characterization of his method as obsessive, however: “A factory worker assembling a car does the same thing again and again, and nobody calls him obsessive. You cannot be considered as having a ‘condition’ when that’s the rule in the society you live in.” His painting also lacks the emotional engagement seen in truly obsessed artists. “I’m not one of those guys who wakes up at 4 AM because he needs to paint. What I use to work is not inspiration but focus and attention.”

Teo Gonzalez

When: Through Tue 3/14

Where: Roy Boyd, 739 N. Wells

Info: 312-642-1606