Gabriel Fortoul Explains the Hanging Teardrops, Sawdust Paths in the New Fortoul Brothers Show

Thirty-three large tear-shaped drops made from off-white paper file folders hang suspended at eye level inside a pop-up gallery space in central Phoenix.

They’re part of the latest local exhibition by Isaac and Gabriel Fortoul, ages 36 and 39 respectively, who operate a nomadic gallery called 40Owls. Using the name Fortoul Brothers, the pair creates primarily paintings, drawings, and mixed media works.

The Fortouls have exhibited works in several cities, including New York and Los Angeles, but got their start here in Phoenix after moving to the Valley from New Jersey in the months following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Later, they moved back to New York, then returned to Phoenix with a 2014 exhibition that New Times named one of that year's best

“We’re getting more and more into installation art,” Gabriel says of the drops, which they've titled Bring the Rain. “It invites people to become part of the exhibit and interact with it, so they feel feel at one with the art.”

This particular piece, he says, is meant to transport people from where they are to a different frame of mind. “It’s a little wake-up call, a kick in the ass to open their eyes again.” 

The shape featured in their installation recurs throughout the show, which they're simply calling "Fortoul Brothers Phoenix." Sometimes it's a tear, but other times it's a drop of rain or milk from a mother’s breast. They’re all part of the show’s central theme, described by Gabriel with one word: balance.

“In this journey called life, our reason for existence is to learn, and to gain knowledge, and to progress in whatever way we can towards elevating our consciousness,” Gabriel says. “Finding balance comes through simple things,” he says. And he’s got a long list of examples: diet, attitude towards other beings, respect for the Earth, and nature. Plus “finding the good things, and finding ways to balance out the negative.”

The brothers’ personal journeys are clearly reflected in their art, which will be on view at their Phoenix gallery space located at 815 North Central Avenue, for both First and Third Friday in April.

Their parents, Isabel and Alberto, hail from Colombia but live in Union City, an area of New Jersey just off the Hudson River. The brothers were born in Hackensack, New Jersey. “Our father was an illustrator,” Gabriel says. “But our mother was also very creative.” Often, he says, their mother would take them to museums, ashrams, and powwows.

But they also did a lot of traveling, which widened their world view.

The family traveled to other states, but also to Colombia. “We got out of the city as often as we could,” Gabriel says. He still recalls his first trip to the coastal city of Cartagena, a major port during the period of Spanish colonization. “It’s the first place we got to see something magical,” Gabriel says. Just 5 or 6 years old at the time, Gabriel still has vivid memories. “It’s a place full of happy people, vibrant colors, distinctive food, and blasting music.” They’re all elements reflected in the Fortoul Brothers’ latest show in Phoenix, which opened on Third Friday in March.

Lively music played as people strolled through the gallery, pausing often to talk with other gallery-goers about the bold lines and bright colors in the work. Behind one of several temporary gallery walls used for exhibiting large scale paintings, some gathered at a long bar or paused to check out a lone garment rack with hand-painted T-shirts.

Others lingered over a pair of works joined by a curving line of sawdust, a material some may remember from their 2014 show here. At first, they were inspired to use sawdust by a Guatemalan tradition practiced during the holy week leading up to Easter Sunday.

Traditionally, Guatemalans use dyed sawdust and other natural materials including flower petals, fruits, and vegetables to create carpets called asserin alfombras. They’re said to have originated in Mayan culture with the practice of creating carpets of flowers under the king’s feet. In 2014, the brothers used colored sawdust, but this time they decided to forego the pigment – and used the sawdust to represent the Earth.

Sawdust winds between two paintings, including one with a central figure, a giant sun, and raindrops that's titled The Gift of Rain. The other, titled Brothers, depicts the artists. It’s a way, says Gabriel, to show their “connection as brothers to the Earth.” They shaped the sawdust to mirror the peaks and valleys of a mountain range, which serve as symbols for the ups and downs that mark what Gabriel calls “the mysterious journey of life.” It all has a purpose, he says.

But it’s not just an unusual choice of materials that stands out in this show. There’s also the matter of all those naked bodies.

“Being naked and exposed is not a very comfortable feeling for everyone in society,” Gabriel says. “We’re taught to cover ourselves up.” Still, nude figures are central to the brothers’ work. “It’s a connection to the moment that we’re born, devoid of material things,” Gabriel says. “At that point we are just being.”

Over time, Gabriel says, they’ve shed the art of too many symbols – taking their work down to the “bare bones.” Often it includes a central figure, or figures, with images of fruit, plants, milk, honey, or water. They’re all references to “the magic of the blessings that were bestowed upon us here, and the sustenance of life.” The very fact that we’re here is something to be thankful for, Gabriel says. So, their work is filled with references to fertility, abundance, and prosperity. Water is prevalent as well, in the teardrops that can signal sadness or joy, and the rain that’s essential to life.

None of the works featured in this exhibition are signed by one brother or the other. Years ago, Gabriel says, they were each creating distinct bodies of work. But now, they put the works out there together. “It’s a very odd relationship,” Gabriel says. “We both do everything.” 

They've got big plans for moving forward once the Phoenix show comes down. 

Gabriel figures they’ll stay in Phoenix until summer, then travel and work in other cities, although he says the Valley may see “some surprises” from them in the fall. “For a number of years we’ve wanted to go back to Colombia,” Gabriel says. “We’d like to do some public art there, and we want to find a studio space there and be inspired by new people and surroundings.”

But they’re dreaming of creating a large-scale mural in Phoenix as well, although so far no one has commissioned them to create one. Last year, they painted a small piece at a Phoenix restaurant, but they’ve got something much bigger in mind.

They’re hoping to create something to help everyday workers take their mind off their daily routine, and something that inspires local youth. Gabriel envisions a mural that’s “balanced and positive, but still with some social impact.” Most of all, they’re eager to create a mural that helps them give back to the Phoenix community. 

“We want to express the magic and the joy that the Valley has brought us.”

The Fortoul Brothers solo exhibition at the 40Owls pop-up gallery space at 815 North Central Avenue in Phoenix will be on view First Friday, April 1, and Third Friday, April 15, from 6 to 10 p.m. Find more information on the 40 Owls website.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Lynn Trimble is an award-winning freelance writer and photographer specializing in arts and culture, including visual and performing arts
Contact: Lynn Trimble