Living in the tristate area, it is easy to become desensitized (and perhaps disgusted) by the presence of vehicles of mass transit. Hundreds of belching buses careen out of the Port Authority Bus Terminal every day. Thousands of people are carried on identical New Jersey Transit trains. Passengers of these vessels usually see them as mundane symbols of their commute – the regional, the double-deckers, the eerie yellow subway cars that slowly roll by late at night. No one really notices the intricacies of their design.
Narciso Gonzalez is one of the few people to devote his life fully to creating tributes to the regional transit authority. From the mid-1950s to his death in 2015, “Ciso” devoted his time to photographing, itemizing, and recreating the municipal vehicles of New York and New Jersey. He leaves behind a meticulously crafted, obsessive catalogue of small-scale models of vehicles, thoroughly investigating dozens of kinds of trains, buses, and municipal vehicles, painstakingly depicting their designs down to the last detail: tiny headlights, corrugated roofs on specific buses, and unique identification numbers.
Each sculpture stands alone, but together they tell the story of one man’s journey through the history of industrial design. Gonzalez’s careful attention to detail brings to life vintage design, even for those of us who don’t recognize the particular make and model of the vehicles. Pale yellow and green coach buses feature rounded, air-stream style corners and periscope headlights. Some trains have triangular protrusions on their faces like cat ears. Sanitation trucks are kitted out with trailer hitches and tow chains, painted green and mustard yellow. Gonzalez builds volume on the exteriors of the vehicles by layering thin strips of cardboard, precisely cut to shape and size. Some of the trains feature complex patterns of corrugation on their roofs. The wheel wells on the trucks are carefully curved to arch over slightly off-kilter tires. Similar in style to the work of Chase Ferguson, who creates paper models of NYC taxis and other vehicles, Gonzalez’s sculptures chronicle a long-term and personal relationship with what are typically considered faceless vehicles of mass transit.
For those who didn’t know him, the body of work that Gonzalez created in his lifetime is a little mind-boggling. Most of it is now housed at Arts Unbound Showcase in Maplewood, New Jersey – a small storefront gallery featuring artwork by people with developmental disabilities – which hosted a combination memorial service and exhibition of Gonzalez’s work this past July. Gallery director Celene Ryan carefully stores boxes filled with train cars, buses, trucks, bridge trestles and the occasional building. Ryan was approached by Carlo Giardina, Gonzalez’s counselor through The Arc of New Jersey, after Gonzalez’s death. When faced with the task of cleaning out Gonzalez’s room, Giardina wanted to bring the work to a place where it could be seen and appreciated. “Ciso never really liked going to art museums,” Giardina says of Gonzalez’s interest in art. “He really loved the Museum of Transportation.”
The Arts Unbound exhibition was the first time Gonzalez’s work had been seen in a gallery setting, and was exciting for all involved. “There were wonderful models of the Empire State Building,” Ryan explains. One picture from the exhibition captures Gonzalez standing next to one of them, which is slightly taller than he is. “They all sold.” When speaking about the sculptures, it’s clear that Ryan is excited about the scope and scale of the work. “It’s rare these days to come across an artist who obsessively created objects simply for the joy of it.” Ryan hopes to interest the New York Transit Museum in Brooklyn in the Ciso Gonzalez collection.
For Giardina, the sculptures are clearly a labor of love. He witnessed Gonzalez’s collection of vehicles grow steadily over the last 10 years, but the work was developing long before they met. Giardina estimates that Gonzalez began making these models in the late ‘50s. He often gave them to friends as gifts, surprising recent acquaintances after meeting them once with a customized vehicle at their next encounter. “He never intended to sell his work,” Giardina says. “He made it with love.”
His artwork was all created at home in his spare time. Giardina describes an assembly-line operation in Gonzalez’s apartment, with stacks of cardboard, magazines, newspapers, house paint, pens, pencils, and scissors all deftly laid out before him. After returning home from his day job, Gonzalez would turn on the television and get to work. On the weekends, he would spend hours photographing buses and trains, cataloguing these for reference. Giardina remembers a couple times when Gonzalez roused suspicions of police officers while photographing his subjects. “They thought he was a spy. But once they knew what he was doing they were OK with it.”
Seeing Gonzalez’s work provides a new perspective on these industrial vehicles, lovingly recreated with such care and dedication that their cold, methodical engineering seems sensitive. The work has an organic feeling, as if forged from cumulative nostalgic recollection rather than observation from life. Though uncompromisingly accurate in design, they are all clearly made in Gonzalez’s idiosyncratic shorthand. The trains and buses are all numbered in the same scrawling handwriting, and the weepy application of paint at times gives the impression that these steel vehicles are slowly melting.
With no known living family, little is known about Gonzalez’s early life. He was born and raised in East Harlem, and moved to New Jersey as a young adult. In 1987 he became involved with The Arc of New Jersey, and was employed in workshops in Hackensack and Elmwood Park as a screen printing technician. Gonzalez was typically accompanied by his long term-girlfriend who worked in the same place. The two frequently traveled together, most recently on a cruise to Alaska.
According to Giardina, Gonzalez worked unceasingly on his sculptures until a few months before his death. “There was one day he said, ‘That’s it, I’m retired,’” Giardina remembers. “And he never made work after that.” Perhaps, after over 60 years of creating small-scale trains and buses, Gonzalez felt the collection was complete.