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.

20 July 2013


 © Brandon Queen, 2013
 The Puerto Rico Museum of Contemporary Art is  hosting one half of the Puerta al paisaje exhibit, a show organised in conjunction with the Museum of History, Anthropology, and Art of the University of Puerto Rico - Río Piedras. This part of the exhibit, entitled Entremundanos (Interworlders), regroups the work of established artists and further explores the relationship between the artist's gaze and the landscape.

The most notable works in this exhibit are without a doubt those by Myrna Báez, an artist active since the 50's. Báez's work is masterful; she perfectly manipulates colour and texture to create captivating visual narratives. Of all her works on display in this show there are two that stand out for their pensive beauty:  Pensando en Proust (Thinking of Proust) and Mangle en las salinas (Mangroves in the Salt Marsh). Both paintings arrest first the eyes and then the mind, creating a contemplative artistic experience for the viewer.

The next most impressive piece in this show is a sculptural installation by Jaime Suárez entitled Galerías de la Tierra (Hall of Regions). This as a true delight for the senses, as the use of paper and clay sheets suspended from the ceiling gives one the very real impression of wandering through the deepest caverns of the Earth's surface layers. The monumental size and deft use of the materials provides the viewer with the approximative experience of a natural phenomenon.

Another notable contribution to Entremundanos is the series of photographs by John Betancourt, Puerto Rico: Calor. These black and white shots of landscapes and the built envrionment are technically very well executed and reflect their title perfectly; one can actually sense the heat of the day in each photograph, inspite of the cool black and white tones. There is a variety of compositions that were perfectly chosen and captured, which demonstrates the mastery Betancourt has over his medium.

These three artists are certainly some of the best in Puerto Rico and - I would venture - in the world. Each one shows a full understanding of their medium and has a sense of how to communicate with the viewer regardless of the latter's understanding of fine art. All three artists' works are a pleasure to encounter and any collection would be all the more complete with their presence.

The exhibit runs through September 2013 at the Puerto Rico Museum of Contemporary Art in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

27 June 2013

Stage Presence

© Brandon Queen, 2013
Appropriate for a long absence from the blogosphere stage, my return is marked by a piece on another of San Juan's Art Deco treasures: the Teatro Arriví.

Unfortunately, this theatre doesn't have a website anywhere online so all I can say about its productions is that they are relatively frequent and are occasionally the work of international troupes.

The original venue was a cinema, one of the first in Puerto Rico in fact. After successive decades of use and abandonment, today the structure stands refurbished and has established itself as an important part of the ever-gentrifying neighbourhood of Santurce.

The theatre's namesake is Francisco Arriví, a prolific writer and literary figure that has been called the father of Puerto Rican theatre. He was especially active in the forties and completed a number of works in English.

As I said, the lack of a website makes it difficult to speak about Teatro Arriví's productions, but each time I pass by there seems to be a new banner advertising a new show or theatre festival. In fact, it was one of the main venues during the recent international theatre festival. Aside from hosting the vibrant theatre scene in Puerto Rico, it's also a great example of what architectural restoration can achieve for cultural preservation and urban development, something the city's leaders will hopefully be attentive to in the coming years.

22 May 2013


© Brandon Queen, 2013
The Muestra Nacional 2013 (National Expo 2013), organised by the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture, takes the country's artistic pulse with a multi-generational survey of artists working in Puerto Rico. The exhibit, held in what used to be the Spanish marine's armoury, combines work from well-established and emerging artists.

Although time was short and the exhibit closed before I could see the whole thing, I can say that the work is of a very high quality, particularly the paintings, which are the high points of this show. Some of the sculptures and video works are out of place in comparison to the more refined pieces, but overall this exhibition shows that artists in Puerto Rico are producing world-class art.

While the paintings in the show are reason enough to check out the exhibit, the skill displayed in the mixed-media installations is especially striking. In the two rooms I was able to visit there were three pieces that stood out for their plastic sophistication and visual composition, all three from established artists.

One of them, by Franklin Graulau, is a three-piece sculptural installation in ceramic, enamel, and fibers entitled Jardín de media noche. Calling to mind 3D Surrealist flowers with Freudian undertones, each component has rounded edges and is a soft greyish colour, thus heightening the sense of dream-like playfulness.

Next to Graulau's work is a large-scale installation by Daniel Lind Ramos, Guardacosta(s). I will unreservedly admit that this was my favourite piece in the entire show (at least what of it I saw). An assembly of painted wood panels, palm fronds, pots, pans, machetes, and hoes, it sweeps the viewer away with its game of visual seduction and then invites them to consider the significance of each of the components. Referencing the name of the work (which means "coast guard") are the palm fronds, a bag of sand laid at the foot of the piece, and a background painted to recall the sea's horizon, all of which bring Ramos' biography into play since he is from Loíza, one of the country's oldest towns and located on the northern coast.

In the same corner with Graulau and Ramos' works is a piece by Spanish artist Luis Ivorra, who has been in Puero Rico since the late seventies and studied at the prestigious Escuela de Artes Plásticas (School of Applied Arts) in San Juan. His mixed-media sculpture Tránsito combines metal work, wood work, and ceramics to produce an austere and surreal effect. The apparent minimalism of this sculpture belies the skill necessary to produce such a clean but large-scale work.

All three of these works hearken to the Arts and Crafts Movement and take as a given the place of craft in contemporary art. They demonstrate that traditional techniques such as ceramics and wood working can be used to achieve a contemporary artistic vision without wallowing in a more traditionalist past.

The exhibit runs at the Antiguo Arsenal de la Marina until 8 October 2013.

24 April 2013

Poster Child

© Brandon Queen, 2013
If you  thought  the concept of the Renaissance man was dead, you have not heard of Antonio Martorell. He is an artist who has produced not only visual art, but has also written extensively and worked in theatre. The image accompanying this entry is of a poster he created for an academic conference in 1996 and I came across it in the Department of Translation at the University of Puerto Rico - Río Piedras (a campus where art is everywhere - and quality).

Martorell is one of many very, very talented poster artists that have worked - and are still working - in Puerto Rico. Aside from representing the tradition of the cultured gentleman that the island still maintains  to some extent, as a graphic artist Martorell is also a standard-bearer for what can arguably be called the country's national art form. Serigraphy has a long history here and the medium has been worked from every possible angle and then some. So integral is poster art to Puerto Rico's artistic heritage that the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico has dedicated an entire wing of its current survey exhibition of national art to the medium. It's the really the kind of stuff theses are made of (for all of you art history researchers looking for a topic) and Mr. Martorell even has an extensive archive to help you along the way.

For a wider look at his oeuvre, there is an exhibit opening on Wednesday, April 24th and running until June 29th at the Universidad de Sagrado Corazón.

17 April 2013

It's the law.

© Brandon Queen, 2013
Santurce, Santurce es ley. This street-art festival took place in what is certainly San Juan's hippest neighbourhood (an area complete with cafe book-signings and (a) chic Indian restaurant(s)): Santurce. The area has been getting a lot of press for its extremely high concentration of artists, designers, and general manifestations of the hipster ideal. At any rate, it is the perfect location for a street-art festival that brings together musicians, artists, museums, and galleries to both showcase and revitalize this particular barrio.

I have to admit that I was too busy with textual analyses and the finer points of Spanish syntactic conventions to make it out - obscene, I know, but  the work is still up and there is always next year. However, I can say that street-art is a particular gem among the city's artistic offerings. The work seen on walls in this city is the most vibrant I've seen yet (even compared to New York, Montreal, or Los Angeles!); it is of a quality and, above all, ubiquity that so far I haven't noted anywhere else I've lived. Even before the festival (and continuing now) there are new murals going up all over the place, in every neighbourhood. There is enough very good work to merit a blog - or even a fancy Taschen/Phaidon publication - all its own. There also appears to be a consensus among Sanjuaneros that this is a vital part of the city's civic life, much to the benefit of the seeing public.

It would be remiss not to mention that at least one writer took issue with how this event, in its fourth edition, took form this year. Apparently that old trope of a disadvantaged neighbourhood at the mercy of a hipster invasion is rearing its head, as outlined in this article from El Post Antillano. Essentially, the writer says the artists (an admittedly well-off bunch) just kind of went in, cans ablaze, and did not really involve the area's residents, who are primarily immigrants and not financially privileged. A valid complaint, if it is actually true.

Whatever the case, I think this festival is a good reason in and of itself for anyone to visit Puerto Rico - the work is that good! Before long this is going to get the kind of attention that drives up the cost of real estate and hotel rates, so book your tickets in advance.

9 April 2013

Comic del arte

© Brandon Queen, 2013
Complete with a quote from Buddha (Siddharta Gautama -the original) and a recreation of a Christian witchcraft altar (designated in this way to prevent religious mislabelling), this exhibit of Sergio Vázquez's work is a nice blend of pop culture, Freud, and Joseph Campbell. Entitled Santos, Deidades y Titanes (Saints, Gods, and Titans) the pieces do not create the kind of dark mood this combination could otherwise produce and end up being very light and funny, albeit in a very gothic way. Overall Vázquez demonstrates amazing technical skill, as these are paintings on wood panels that have been carefully pieced together and sanded down; they actually remind me of the wood panels depicting the Passion of Christ in many churches, which intensifies the mystical theme of the exhibit. It is refreshing to see this kind of style executed without recourse to digital techniques and goes a long way to complementing the primal nature of the subject matter.

The gallery hosting the show is Galería Candela, located in Old San Juan (110 Calle San Sebastián - blink and you miss it, so look carefully). The space is amazing; the exhibition space is on the second floor and spread across three rooms. While the exhibit is up you have the chance to buy the Vázquez's comic and some t-shirts that he designed. This art and design initiative is part of a series of exhibits of similar work from an independent publishing house called Pernicious Press, who also have a host of other creative projects going on.

Santos, Deidades y Titanes runs until April 11th - and I believe there is a closing party.

24 March 2013

Roccoco Loco

© Brandon Queen, 2013
Ah, the Roccoco, or Late Baroque as some would prefer. The irony and frivolity of this French movement bridged the gap between the remnants of the Renaissance and Neoclassicism, that other French contribution to art history. While examples  of Roccoco from Europe easily come to mind, it is sometimes forgotten that the movement was in full force during the colonisation of the Americas and particularly marked the early visual culture of the Caribbean nations. These historical interconnections all come together in the person and work of Luis Parét y Alcázar, a Franco-Spanish artist that spent a very short time in Puerto Ricoin the late 18th century. One of his works is currently on display at the Museo de San Juan, a small municipal museum that presents free exhibitions that tell San Juan's story from an artistic point of view. The current exhibit, Obras Maestras, also includes work from two superstars of Puerto Rican art history, José Campeche and Francisco Oller and is a great way to get introduced to both artists, especially if you do not have the stamina for a full museum visit.

Parét y Alcázar was a court painter in Spain before he was exiled to Puerto Rico because of his libertine ways. Although only in the country for under three years, he apparently produced quite a bit of work, most of which did not survive to the present day.

What has made him well-known in Puerto Rico is his Self-Portrait (c. 1776), in which he portrays himself in full jíbaro regalia. The jíbaro is (and was considered at the time) a folkloric representation of Puerto Rican culture; the archetype springs from the early colonists who worked the land and created an agricultural plantation society on the island. Needless to say, none of these people would have worn the fine fabrics portrayed in Parét y Alcázar's   portrait, nor would their hats have been quite so decorative.

This self-portrait exemplifies perfectly the European use of portraiture to create a rapport with (and co-opt and mock) the newly formed/discovered American cultures that so amused and amazed them. This is so in that the irony of a peasant farmer posing for a portrait would not have been lost on 18th century viewers, with the luxurious accoutrements Parét y Alcázar wears deepening the sense of irony even further. This tongue-in-cheek kind of play-acting was typical of Baroque and Roccoco culture, especially in France where the nobility would go out for day-long picnics in which they would wear costumes and engage in a very theatrical role-playing game that required them not to break with character until the picnic/play was over. Needless to say, this type of carnivalesque tradition allowed an otherwise conservative society to act out any manner of secret desires and forbidden impulses and it is not surprising that Parét y Alcázar would have thoroughly enjoyed such an activity.

Considering the incongruency of the portrait's subject matter, this portrait participates in the aforementioned European tradition of making the exotic familiar and can be compared in some ways to John Verelst's series of portraits of Native American leaders for Queen Anne in the early 18th century.

I am not sure when the exhibit will end, but if you happen to be in Old San Juan and need a break from the vigorous architectural sight-seeing the area offers, the museum offers a tranquil respite and some of the most valuable art treasures of the Americas.

17 March 2013

San Juan's Ship of Dreams

© Brandon Queen, 2013
The sleek and sexy Hotel Normandie greets visitors as they round the corner from Condado heading into Old San Juan. Having remained shuttered for the better part of the past decade up to now, the sleekness and sexiness are more hinted at than actually present in its current state. But like any great ship of dreams, even the wreckage is majestic. 

Ship, you ask? Yes, although sitting on dry land and very clearly serving (having served...) as a hotel, this structure was modeled on a well-known   French cruise ship called the SS Normandie. The SS Normandie was synonymous with Jazz Age glamour and was essentially a floating boutique hotel, as this was the golden age of the cruise vacation (which didn't resemble AT ALL the buffet and fanny-pack fest the event has become). What made the ship even more famous was the crowd it entertained, including one Lucienne Suzanne Dhotelle, or as she was better known, la môme Moineau

A rather raucous lounge singer from France, la môme Moineau ended up on Broadway where she met the very wealthy, very bon vivant Félix Benítez Rexach. Mr. Rexach was one of the best (or at least most well-known) engineers in Puerto Rico in the twenties and thirties and after falling in love with Ms. Dhotelle he had the Hotel Normandie constructed in her honour; the relationship and other aspects of la môme's life are detailed in this book by Michel Ferracci-PorriUpon completion, the Normandie proceeded to welcome the BCBG from all over the Americas, especially Hollywood and the various Latin American film and music industries. 

As for the architectural style of the hotel, it is called Streamline Moderne, which is a type of Art Deco that reflected the toned-down style of the Great Depression. The inside was inaccessible when I visited, so I was not able to show more than the outside version of this. However, it is easy to see in the rounded lines and simple silhouette what exactly this style entailed. In fact, this is generally the kind of Art Deco the average American (including Latin American) comes into contact with, as the more ostentatious Art Deco styles were reserved for places like Miami Beach and the ritzier parts of Los Angeles, San Juan, and Buenos Aires. Think Edward Hopper's Nighthawks diner for a representative example.

Since the early 90's, the Normandie has been in limbo. It was supposed to be up and running by the end of the decade, but some very intense, murky legal issues kept the property owners from moving forward with any of their plans. It has changed hands a couple of times since and is currently sitting idle, which is extremely disappointing. It is difficult to understand why those who have spent such large sums on a prime piece of real estate have not been able to take advantage of owning Puerto Rico's only boutique hotel. It is also quite sad, as in addition to straddling two of San Juan's most coveted tourist quarters and sitting in front of the beach, the hotel is located in one of the most interesting neighbourhoods of the metro area: Puerta de Tierra. 

Puerta de Tierra is a refreshingly residential quarter with a lot of history, stretching back to the original colonisation of the island. The eateries, shops, and galleries it hosts are full of amazing food and artwork (and not the kind of over-priced tourist trinkets you get for your grandparents). Within  a one-minute walk from the Normandie you are in the most beautiful public park in all of San Juan, a great place to bike or picnic. More about the hotel and its neighbourhood can be found here.

Let us hope that someone realises the potential of what they have and opens the doors soon - I can already picture a lazy summer Sunday with chilly sangria and a good DJ set while gazing at the glistening Caribbean waves...

10 March 2013

The enemy of my enemy is my friend...or at least a good artist.

© Brandon Queen, 2013

Google "La Comay" and you should find at least a few English references to who and what this scourge was (disclaimer: I was not a fan). To sum up: a puppet whose puppeteer was of the most reactionary ilk of humanity and had no real concept of decency. There is no bias in this, as I don't think anyone could support the ratings of a show on which murder victims are ridiculed and blamed for their own fate.

So, soapbox vacated, let me introduce you to this week's entry.

I recently found this addition to the collection of interesting graffiti on the little street that leads to my local metro station. Curious about who this performera is, I took the bait and went to the website. This is what I discovered:

I have to admit that I am not generally a fan of performance art (this stems from some terrible experiences in art school), but anyone who uses guerrilla marketing and a machete to promote their work while making my neighbourhood walk more interesting deserves some applause.

I have to also admit that because of a very urgent need to finish my analysis of Cervantes' Novelas ejemplares and get some translating done, I was not able to give Lora's work the time it undoubtedly deserves.

Hopefully you will be able to catch a performance in a hip city near you. Just PLEASE send me a t-shirt if she sells any with that machete print!

2 March 2013

Brutal Fertility

© Brandon Joel Queen, 2013
     The Museo de Historia, Antropología y Arte del Recinto de Río Piedras, Universidad de Puerto Rico is hosting the first half of a two-part exhibition of landscapes, in painting and other media (the second stage of the show will be at the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Puerto Rico beginning 6 March).  Entitled feroz/feraz (brutal/fertile), the exhibit   is really a survey of Puerto Rican artists' changing view of their environment throughout the nation's history. You could also call it a who's-who of Puerto Rican art history, as all the greats are there: Francisco Oller, Ramón Frade, Rafael Tufiño. Of course, this could also simply mean that Puerto Rican artists have a special relationship with their surroundings, as every artist of note in the canon (and many not in the canon) have dealt with the subject of landscape, and in very interesting ways. 

But I digress.

The exhibit begins with the traditional greats mentioned above and their early Modernist takes on the island's landscapes and then traces the development of the genre and subject up to the present day. While many of the pieces were quite notable for their use of colour and painterly gusto, three in particular stood out for me.

The first, Relatos de un paisaje asesinado, was a mixed media piece by Wilfredo Chiesa. Including poetry from Tomás López Ramírez and music from renowned composer Rafael Aponte Ledeé, this mix of serigraphy, intaglio and collage techniques was originally a book made in 1976. Displayed as five length-wise panels with music emanating from the ceiling, it draws you in out of curiosity and you end up staying for a poetic revelation. What's the revelation? Nothing less than re-connecting with an environment in ruins through the eternal medium of art well-made. These three artists offer up their work - and encourage others - to reconstruct the magic of our lost relationship with nature by making art. In other words: in the midst of destruction, heal yourself with an act of creation.

The second piece that stood out was a small painting by Spanish artist José María Iranzo. Entitled La Envidia, it's a priori another nature scene with a lot of green, but the intensity of the brush strokes and striking contrast of black plant silhouettes against the green-yellow background start toying with your mind soon enough. What makes this work stand out - especially among the others in the oh-don't-we-hate-nature section - is Iranzo's take on the alienation from nature that curator Lilliana Ramos Collado mentions in her introduction to the exhibit. The plants (or rather their silhouettes) appear menacing against the cheerful background, even more so when you consider they are all painted with sharp edges, all suggesting the texture of thorns and needles; none of them are the kinds of things you would include in a bouquet unless you're a member of the Addams family. 

The final work that caught my attention was a rather bubbly painting by Carmelo Sobrino, one of my new favourite artists. The cheerful pastel colours that are combined using techniques from pointillism and Impressionism - with a dash of De Stijl and Cubism - saturate the canvas and, with the title Atlántico, evokes images of the beach and its ocean horizon. The caveat comes when you realise you're at the end of the exhibit, where nature takes on a menacing aspect; suddenly the cheery abundance of this beach scene becomes an overpopulated mess threatening a pristine ecosystem. It is perhaps for this reason that this one was my favourite. As so often occurs in contemporary life, we are confronted with the painful reality that underlies our good time and care-free attitude. At first the painting makes you smile, but the smile either fades or becomes nervous. And the painting is still beautiful to look at.

So that was a taste of the "brutal fertility" Dr. Ramos Collado has put together for us. There were other great works and if you're on the campus of the university for the next couple of weeks, it's worth the time to check this exhibit out. (There's even a great little food court with some of the best sandwiches you'll ever eat in your life nearby. Make a day of it.)