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REPORT FROM PUERTO RICO
by Walter Robinson
 
New York’s wintry weather prompts fond memories of a quick trip last November to sunny Puerto Rico, where you could get a tan in a mere half-hour on a mountainside patio. The terrace in question is attached to a new house designed by Jorge Pardo, the Cuban-born California artist whose taste for bright colors and streamlined shapes has made him the go-to guy for contemporary art-world design. The project was commissioned by psychiatrist and art collector César Reyes and his wife Mima, who were celebrating with a brunch and an open house on Sunday, Nov. 27, 2005.

A series of stepped, trapezoidal volumes, the Reyes House is broadly open to its surroundings -- like much traditional island architecture -- with many walls replaced by decorative screens of orange steel rings (which were laboriously cut by hand from lengths of pipe and welded together). The tiled floor, whose color scheme moves through the spectrum, extends out to the patio, which boasts a small built-in pool. Small circular openings in the house walls let in shafts of sunlight, providing dramatic illumination.

The house is made largely of poured concrete, like much metropolitan construction on the island, and is clearly designed for the tropical climate. It sits on a verdant hillside in the small fishing community of Naguabo Playa, about an hour’s drive from San Juan on the southeast coast of the island. The site is beautiful, with ocean vistas on three sites and a view of Monkey Island, a local landmark.

Reyes is an avid fan (and friend) of artists Peter Doig, Chris Ofili, Laura Owens, Elizabeth Peyton and Enoc Perez, among others. He tells of how he first saw Doig’s work in a New York Times review of the artist’s show at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, and was so taken by it that he flew up to New York and bought the painting illustrated in the newspaper.

Pardo and his wife and daughter were bopping around the island in Reyes’ silver Volkswagen Beetle for most of the afternoon, but plenty of artists, dealers and local art patrons showed up at the house for a celebratory barbecue. The wacky young German expressionist Jonathan Meese was among the guests, snapping pictures like crazy (he says he takes them for his mother). Later Meese would give an exemplary demonstration of the way that an artist should react to seeing his work in a patron’s collection, when he exclaimed in pleasure and rushed up to the painting, embracing it and caressing its paint-encrusted surface!

Also on hand was Cheryl Hartup, who recently became curator of the Museo de Arte de Ponce, which has been attracting broad attendance to "Frida Kahlo and Her Worlds," Nov. 20, 2005-Feb. 26, 2006, a show of approximately 250 items examining Kahlo’s production in the context of both fine art and popular culture. "Every Puerto Rican grandmother wants to see that show," said one local critic. Many of the works, including about 50 by Kahlo, are on loan from Mexican institutions, thanks in part to the connections of the Ponce museum’s new director, Augustin Arteaga, who is from Mexico.

Hartup is also organizing a survey of three centuries of Puerto Rican art, a show with the working title of "Puerto Rico in the Artistic Imagination (1785-1948)." The show features about 45 works by 10 artists, notably José Campeche (1751-1809), Francisco Oller (1833-1917) and Miguel Pou (1880-1968), and is slated to open at the Worcester Art Museum on Oct. 10, 2006.

Accompanying Hartup was her husband, the art critic Joel Weinstein, who had recently finished overseeing an international symposium at the Universidad del Sagrado Corazon in Santurce on the state of art criticism. Provocatively titled "Art Criticism Today: Who Writes It? Who Reads It? Who Cares?" the gathering included presentations by writers from Madrid, Mexico City, New York, San Juan and Sao Paulo. The Mexico City novelist and essayist Carlos Monsiváis was the keynote speaker.

With the exception of the Reyes open house, the timing of our visit wasn’t ideal, since many of the local art spaces were closed, and most of the dealers had already left for Art Basel Miami Beach, which opened during the coming week. Among the galleries that we missed were Galería Comercial, which specializes in younger avant-garde artists; Galeria Punto Gris, which represents Allora & Calzadilla, Ivelisse Jimenez and Vargas Universal; and the Walter Otero Gallery, who handles a somewhat more established group of artists, currently with a show of symbolist photographs by Victor Vazquez on view and plans for an exhibition of work by Andres Serrano next February.

Thanks to Marimar Benítez, rector of San Juan’s Escuela de Artes Plásticas, we were able to hook up with Luis "Tito" Feliciano, the head of Puerto Rico’s Yellow Media Group, an ad agency that has successfully promoted something called Taxi Galería, a project designed to put artist’s designs on taxi cabs (via taxi-sized computer-printed vinyl decals). Move over, Cow Parade! So far, the determinedly populist scheme includes 23 cabs, all sponsored by local galleries (the dealers pay $2,500 for the decals, or swap art valued at $5,000 for it). Feliciano considers the project to be a success. "We’re ready to go in Venice, New York, anywhere," he said.

Designs range from an allover lyrical abstraction by the Puerto Rican modernist Rafael Tufiño (Galeria Prinardi), who was born in 1922, to the graffiti art of Carlos Dávila Rinaldi (Galeria Petrus), whose bright yellow tag boasts Peter Max-style red lips shouting "taxi!" Participating dealers also include Galería Raíces and Tag Rom, an alternative space. "Everyone turns around to look," said Jose Luis, one of the drivers, who had brought his cab by our hotel, the Hostería del Mar, which is right on the beach in San Juan’s gated Ocean Park section.

We were also treated to a special tour of the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico (www.mpr.org) in San Juan, thanks to one of its founders, Jose "Chilo" Andreu, whom we had met at the Reyes house. Launched in 2000, the Museum of Puerto Rican Art occupies a neoclassical building originally built in 1920 as part of the San Juan Municipal Hospital, which was recently renovated and expanded to provide a 130,000-square-foot home for the museum, including a three-story atrium and a five-acre garden.

With galleries devoted to graphics, colonial art, WPA-era photographs, post-war abstraction and large-scale contemporary works, among other exhibits, the museum is impressive. One contemporary gallery is dominated by The Garden of Intolerance (2002), a Neo-Expressionist figurative triptych by Arnaldo Roche, who was called "the greatest painter in Puerto Rico" by the local art critic Manuel Alvarez Lezama, who accompanied us during our visit. Also on view is a large room installation by Pepon Osorio titled No Crying Allowed in the Barber Shop (1994), including barbershop chairs, covered with garlands, potted plants, hubcaps on the walls and a life-size plaster statue of Jesus. On the second floor was "Un Impulso Figurativo: Obras de la Colección de Arte UBS," a selection of works by 32 contemporary artists -- from Louise Bourgeois and John Currin to Thomas Ruff and Sam Taylor-Wood -- most likely representing one of the most international, avant-garde shows to appear on the island.

We were also able to visit Espacio 1414, a private collection opened a year ago in a former Royal Tire warehouse in San Juan by collectors Diana and Moises Berezdivin, head of Kress Stores, specializing in women’s apparel. Espacio 1414 houses La Coleccíon Berezdivin, which is overseen by curator Julieta Gonzalez, who had come to Puerto Rico to do a residency and stayed on. The collection was started 30 years ago, and is extensive. "It’s very difficult to stop once you get hooked," admitted Diana Berezdivin.

On the ground floor is a group of works from the collection by Puerto Rican artists, including Rafael Ferrer, Charles Juhasz-Alvarada, Jesus "Bubu" Negron and Chemi Rosado. Up on the mezzanine floor is a special installation by the 28-year-old minimalist Tony Cruz, who exhibits his own line drawings -- a dense rank of parallel lines, drawn freehand, approximates the distance, according to the artist, to his parent’s house -- in juxtaposition with works from the Berezdivin collection.

The third floor features "Los Usos de Pintura (Part 1)," a show of abstractions by Albert Oehlen, Fabian Marcaccio, Peter Halley, Arturo Herrera and others. The installation includes a table designed by Jorge Pardo that has a silhouette reminiscent of Jean Prouvé and a surface design that channels Japanese calligraphy through digital imagery. One surprise was a large "painting" from the 1980s by Meyer Vaisman, one of the artist’s trademark canvas constructions set with rows of canvas "coins" featuring cartoon self-portraits of Vaisman himself. Clearly inspired by the cover of a numismatic catalogue, the work is a great emblem of the art-and-money ‘80s.

Next door to Espacio 1414 is Galería Comercial, which was shuttered during our visit -- dealer Francisco "Tito" Rovira had already left for Miami. But not long after he opened with an installation of new large-scale collages by Pedro Velez, an artist and writer who has contributed to Artnet Magazine in the past.

Velez is a hard-core critic in more ways than one, and his altered banners are edgy combines of commercial and street imagery. One work, titled UNI VAS RASFUR FALUT, the artist describes as a fake banner for a fake exhibition ("David Robbins and the MacLaughlin Group," curated by Velez, ‘05), while another "has a Ray Smith shopping bag on top and is supposed to read something like this: BENN’S HRE FUCKED SHIT D," the kind of menacing if incoherent message that is becoming Velez’ trademark!

This year Puerto Rico gets its first art fair. "Circa Puerto Rico 06," as it has been dubbed, is scheduled at the San Juan Convention Center during May 25-28, 2006, and promises 100 exhibitors. The fair is being organized by Portfolio FIAC, Inc., which is headed by entrepreneur Robert José Nieves. He has enlisted as his curators the San Juan based Cuban art critic Elvis Fuentes, who was formerly a director at the Ludwig Foundation in Cuba, and Celina Nogueras, a professor at the Puerto Rico School for Visual Arts who since 2001 has worked on the Puerto Rico Public Art Project (see www.artepublico.puertorico.pr). The fair’s website is www.circapr.com


WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.