16 August 2014


Hola Readers!

As you may have guessed by the lack of new articles, Antillando has been put to rest.

No catastrophe, nor any type of boredom - ¡nada del estilo! I have some exciting new projects to develop and these will of course continue my exploration of Puerto Rican cultural production, both high and "low." And there is the small detail of my final year of MA studies at the University of Puerto Rico, already demanding quite a bit of my time (when I'm not trawling art collections and folding t-shirts, that is).
No se desesperen, however, as Antillando will live on in some form through my Tumblr blog, SubTropicalia, where I'll be covering some of the more interesting works, places, music, and vistas that this self-designated island of enchantment has to offer.

At any rate, it has been fun "antillando" with you and hopefully you will have been marvelled, impressed, piqued and, well, enchanted by the content of this collection of articles.

Gracias mil.

27 April 2014

The Cost of Space

© Agustina Ferreyra
If ever there was a perfect illustration of how galleries really are white cubes, Galería Agustina Ferreyra is it. "Intimate" would be an understatement when describing the gallery's ambiance, as the whole thing can scarcely be more than a few meters squared.

That said, the work inside for the exhibit Donde Hay Protesta Hay Negocio (Where There Is Protest, There Is Business) offers itself up for much closer (and, incidentally, briefer) scrutiny. Interestingly, the entire exhibition can be seen on the gallery's website here; this will allow you to be the judge of the work. Based solely upon consideration of the pieces' subject-matter and the title of the exhibit it's easy to deduce that these works are critical analyses of capitalism and activism. The titles and artist attributions are only available on the gallery's website, so the works have to be considered on purely visual terms.

Frankly, I have to admit I was only really taken with the installation Luto e Luta by Brazilian artist Marcelo Cidade. Admittedly cheating by using Portuguese's similarity to Spanish, I have inferred that the best translation would be  Mourning and Struggle, which in the original Portuguese is a very clever play on words for their striking similarity - language rears its head nonetheless! The striking image that results from the Brazilian flag underneath a neatly stacked pile of cement blocks could speak to a variety of issues and also refers back to the piece's title: a burden on the nation and its ideals, a weight that leads to hardship. One can only wonder if the mourning aspect is symbolised by the funerary aura the installation gives off, austere in its magnitude.

Whatever the case, Galería Agustina Ferreyra is at least taking chances on new artists who have something to say. Also, while most galleries of its calibre are located in posher areas, it's taken the pioneering decision to ply its trade in Santurce, the bohemian darling of San Juan's neighbourhoods. While the venue is well-appointed, perhaps it would be a good idea to break out some of the money in the frames and rent more space for future shows.

Galería Agustina Ferreyra is at 750 Avenida Fernández Juncos - just ring the bell.

The exhibition continues until 3 May.

10 February 2014

Holy Craft!

© Brandon Queen, 2014
One of the most disjunctive aspects of life in the Americas is the strange concept of time that comes from the combination of cultural and artistic currents from the Old World and the New. At least this was the epiphany I had visiting the exhibit Miniatures and Saints :A Selection of Works from the Teodoro Vidal Collection at the Ramón Power y Giralt House in Old San Juan. On show until 29 June, this small exhibition of miniatures (most portraits, some icons) and votive statues is the perfect introduction to Puerto Rico's traditional crafts.

Where the historical currents cross is in the iconography chosen as the vehicle of expression for these statues and statuettes. In addition to representations of the Three Wise Men (traditionally very important in Puerto Rican culture) and various saints, there were many madonnas, the most ubiquitous being Our Lady of Monserrat. A cult that originated in Alicante, Spain, the most important site for its devotees in Puerto Rico is theVatican-deisgnated Basilica Our Lady of Monserrat in Hormigueros that was constructed over the course of a year in 1775-1776. Deovtion to this manifestation of the Virgin Mary took hold on the island at the end of the 16th century, when a farmer named Gerardo González was injured by a bull and called on her to heal him. Indeed, this madonna makes up the bulk of statues in the exhibit and although each one is distinct, they are all informed by medieval Catholic iconography.

The seated Virgin holding the Christ-child is a sculptural genre known as the throne of wisdom. Of possibly very ancient roots in Mediterranean paganism, the Catholic version really took root in the Romanesque Period, just at the end of Classical Antiquity and the beginning of the Middle Ages. The iconography is meant to recall Mary's role as Queen of Heaven and teacher of Christ and these statues were ritually consecrated to imbue them with mystical power; thus it's no surprise that in colonial Puerto Rico it was a popular choice for domestic shrines.

Another connection to medieval iconography are the many black madonnas in the exhibit. Like the one pictured above, they are throne of wisdom madonnas whose skin has been darkened. The reasons and meanings for this tradition of black madonnas remain unsettled, and many of the proposed theories rely on apocryphal information. Possibilities range from a simple case of statues darkened by the smoke and ash of incense and candles to connections with pagan African religions. Whatever the case, it appears that it was a popular choice for portrayals of Our Lady of Monserrat in Puerto Rico.

The craft of devotional statues was one bound to family heritage and many of the artisans were trained by the previous generation. In this exhibition alone there are three different families highlighted, one of which are the Riveras. Responsible for the statue pictured above, the family tradition is practiced to this day by their descendants. The whole thing started with a man called Pancho el Santero (Pancho the Saint-Maker) in the 19th century and the rest is history, as it were.

Along with the miniatures by José Campeche, this collection of scultpures provides great insight into a traditional art form that flourished in Puerto Rico and shows how this particular aspect of craft connects centuries of Western art history in one manifestation.

The Ramón Power y Giralt House is at 155 Calle Tetuán, Old San Juan.

20 December 2013

Feliz Navidad

© Brandon Queen, 2013
A combination of the holidays, a never-ending analysis of Puerto Rican Spiritist literature and a part-time gig in a sexy boutique have prevented me from updating with some of the many art happenings that have taken place in San Juan since November. Some of those include a few interesting shows at Galeria Espacio 304 and yet another obscenely amazing international street art festival called Los Muros Hablan (The Walls Are Talking).

But I don't want to leave anyone empty-handed at the holidays, so rather than the gift of another review I thought I'd leave you with a stocking-stuffer run-down of what's been covered here over the past year.

Appropriately enough, this blog began with an entry about the Puerta al paisaje exhibit, where I couldn't say enough good things about painter Carmelo Sobrino. Then came my grudging acknowledgment of performance art followed by a foray into gossip and architectural history. The frivolity continued with a note about eighteenth-century European artist Luis Parét y Alcázar. 

We shot back to the modern world with a trip to a comic-inspired exhibit organised by Pernicious Press. Gritty modernity kept its hold in a brief mention of the other urban art festival, Santurce es ley. That entry was followed by a quick summary of Puerto Rico's other major artistic strength, poster art, and one of the genre's elder statesmen, Antonio Martorell. The national theme continued with a review of the National Expo 2013, where the best of the best were showcased. When spring term finals cut time short, I decided to highlight another one of San Juan's Art Deco treasures, the Arriví Theatre in Santurce.

The summer highlight was the second half of the Puerta al paisaje exhibit, Entremundanos, at the Puerto Rican Museum of Contemporary Art. As I'm a fan of extreme time travel, that review was followed by a note on the pre-columbian art of the Tainos and archaeology in Puerto Rico.

Student work got a shout-out in this review of Omar Velázquez's exhibit Undo. Finally, in October, I reviewed another survey of national art that focused on the work of Elizam Escobar at the Puerto Rico Museum of Art.

And here we are, dear readers.

I hope this past year will have introduced some of you to some amazing new work and piqued your interest in Puerto Rico's art historical tradition. It's rich and varied and what has been covered here is not even close to scratching the surface. There are new exhibition spaces opening every month and the festivals, talks, and publications are multiplying exponentially.

For now, happy holidays and hasta 2014!

6 October 2013

Paging Dr. Freud

© Brandon Queen, 2013
The current exhibition of Elizam Escobar's work at the Puerto Rico Museum of Art is thematically organised, with the resulting theme being general stylistic confusion. With the English title of "A Symbolic Introspective," the viewer can only expect the slightly surreal scenes that they are actually confronted with in each of the paintings. And it is precisely the narrative content of the works that takes precedence. However, relating the very personal scenes with those making social and political commentaries requires a mental stretch that is completely unnecessary.

Escobar is an established artist whose work goes at least as far back as the seventies. The pieces in "A Symbolic Introspective" cover this entire period, with the bulk of them being from the eighties and many from the past decade. The resulting retrospective (which seems like what this show is in some sense meant to be, which would explain the odd translation of the title) draws attention to some amazing work, but overall one wonders where exactly to situate the message and if a different theoretical framework might have clarified certain compositional decisions. Although the introductory text mentions Realism and Impressionism, most of the paintings could easily be described as Outsider art in style if not in substance. A more serious curatorial misstep occurs near the end of the exhibit, where a work from Carlos Raquel Rivera is placed next to a series of Escobar's paintings for an illustration of comparisons made in the informational panels; for me this makes Escobar look like an imitator and breaks the rhythm of the exhibit, especially since it's the only non-Escobar work presented.

There were four paintings that not only stood out, but completely saved this show. Toward the middle of the exhibit hope is offered in the form of La imaga (2005), where the abstraction Escobar seems to be most comfortable with comes to the fore. In this painting he mixes textures and shades, using each to highlight just the right parts of the composition. Another high point comes toward the end with the painting La nube (The Cloud) (2003); this is a large-scale painting (167.64 x 243.84 cm) and the simplicity of the image, with its duotone colour scheme, pulls the viewer into the very cloud depicted. A piece both well conceived and well executed.

By far the two most impressive works were the abstract ones, also on large canvases. El rinocerante (The Rhinoceros) (1988) is masterful, painterly work that shows that Escobar is far more at home when he thinks big. Even better than this painting was La maga y el vejigante (The Wise Woman and the Mummer) (1985). Measuring 127 x 247.65 cm, this painting shows that Escobar is a master at his craft and can create visual narratives that delight and intrigue. Free from any kind of ideology or psychoanalytic pretensions, this is is an exhaustive exploration of the possibilities of colour, shape, and saturation. Because of the topic (vejigantes are the traditional masks worn during carnival season) and its treatment, this painting is far more complex and interesting than the others for the simple fact that it does not feel forced.

"A Symbolic Introspective" runs until 1 December.

3 September 2013


© Brandon Queen, 2013
The exhibit Undo by Omar Velázquez is an appropriate one for the on-campus art gallery of the Universidad del Sagrado Corazón in San Juan's hip Santurce neighbourhood. Appropriate, because the overall theme of the pieces presented is nothing new and - to employ a bit of irony - recycles once more the concept of trash-as-art while touching on the dystopian nature of consumer culture. To be fair, in an age of Brian Jungen, it's quite difficult to find new approaches to this particular concept.

However, it is important to say that almost all of the pieces are very well executed from a technical standpoint.  Velázquez uses a range of techniques to make his point about the refuse left over from all of our society's industrial pursuits, including serigraphy, photography, collage, and sculpture (using Styrofoam, no less). One of the most refreshing aspects of his take on this issue is the playfulness of all the pieces. Rather than inviting the viewer to meditate gravely on the impact of capitalist production on the environment, Velázquez's works come off as a snide Pop Art commentary that belong as much in a hip café as in a museum or gallery.

In fact, his Styrofoam packing pallets serve as a bridge between the visions of the aforementioned Jungen and Jeff Koons. But the strongest piece(s) for me were the two untitled wood engravings, Sin título V and Sin título VI. They are a minimalist pair with small touches of colour - and even a small patch of duct tape - and are the most sophisticated execution of Velázquez's vision for this show.

The exhibit lasts until Saturday, September 14th at the Galería de Arte de la Universidad del Sagrado Corazon (Tuesday-Friday, 9h 30 - 17h 30; Saturday, 11h - 16h).

10 August 2013

Digging Up the Past

© Brandon Queen, 2013
As the signage at the entrance of the exhibit explains, guaca is a Taino word for "region" or "surrounding area" and also denotes the small vases in which offerings were placed, as well as a tomb. The Museum of History, Anthropology, and Art of the University of Puerto Rico is currently showcasing part of its collection of Taino archeological treasures and, as is the case with many archealogically themed exhibitions, the items on display are primarily ritual pieces.

From stone slabs with petroglyphs to fully intact vases and stools, this small exhibit gives a great deal of insight into the development of indigenous culture in Puerto Rico for the past couple of millenia; there's even an almost complete skeleton to welcome you into the world of Puerto Rico's native history. The chronologically organised display begins with a display of stone and crystal tools, proceeds to some of the most beautifully executed pottery and jewelry produced anywhere in the Americas, and ends with a series of ritual items, including the famous dujos, or stools, used by noble and religious figures during important activities.

More broadly, this exhibit showcases the archeological activity that has taken place in Puerto Rico over the past century and reminds us that every corner of the New World was inhabited before the arrival of European armies, merchants, and religious groups. While I don't have a clear idea nor good knowledge of the historiography of Puerto Rican archeology, I can say that the collection poses more questions than it answers regarding native history on the island. In other words, the archeological scene in Puerto Rico should be a very interesting and exciting one in the years to come (if the funding is available, of course).

The nation boasts a very well-rounded programme of study in archeology at the prestigious Centro de Estudios Avanzados de Puerto Rico y el Caribe (Puerto Rico and Caribbean Centre for Advanced Studies). The island also recently hosted the 25th Congress of the International Association for Caribbean Archeology, which brought together researchers from all over the world and focused on all of the Caribbean nations; there were presentations in French, English and Spanish and not a single cultural block was left out of the programme (the oft-ignored Dutch islands were the subject of a few presentations).

In addition to shedding light on the full history of Puerto Rico, and the Caribbean in general, these discoveries provide a range of beautiful new additions to the material and architectural heritage of the Americas as a whole.

The exhibit runs throughout the fall of 2013.