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.)