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PUERTO RICAN SUN
by Walter Robinson
 
Scenic San Juan peninsula looks a little like Miami Beach, with new hotels and condos cutting a pretty figure against the deep blue ocean and sky. At the heart of the new waterfront development is the $188-million, 580,000-square-foot Puerto Rico Convention Center, the largest in the Caribbean, which opened 18 months ago. Here, one of the warehouse-like exhibition halls housed Circa Puerto Rico '07, Mar. 30-Apr. 2, 2007, the second annual installment of Puerto Rico's new international art fair.

Fair directors Celina Nogueras Cuevas and Paco Barragán take note of Circa Puerto Rico's potential to give new visibility to the entire Caribbean art world. "Puerto Rico has the money, the important collectors, the big corporations," said Barragán, optimistically. "We want to make Circa into a funky and intelligent art fair, with a humane scale," he noted. "The business is just starting -- there's good energy, good sales."

In fact, Circa '07 logged total estimated sales of $4 million, a fairly modest number in these times, though the sum is double the $2 million posted by the first fair in 2006. A total of 12,000 visitors passed through the gate, an increase from 10,000 last year. About 270 foreign VIPs, including dealers, collectors, artists and others, also visited the fair. Booths ranged in price from around $3,000 to $12,000.

The most curious thing, then, was that so few New Yorkers took the opportunity to fly down and enjoy the lovely weekend weather. Circa '07 was small and intimate, with only 62 exhibitors (34 of them commercial galleries), an on-site bar and restaurant, and a large communal area with a stage for musical and art performances.

Sponsor was Rums of Puerto Rico, which boosted the fair with the slogan, "Come for the art, stay for the rum." The Puerto Rico tourist board also kicked in $7,500.

Overall, the mood was quite pleasant. Everyone agreed that things went off much better this time around. The change of dates worked well in the crowded art-fair calendar; last year, the event took place under a hotter sun in late May.

Circa '07 also managed to spark the interest of local collectors and art patrons, in part thanks to the concurrent exhibition at the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico featuring a selection of buzzworthy artists drawn from local collections. Organized by Miami curator Silvia Karman Cubiña, the show was titled "Appropriation, Authority and Authenticity" and featured works by Wade Guyton, Seth Price, Josh Smith, Kelley Walker and Aaron Young.

Circa '07 also featured a row of smaller booths housing individual projects by invited artists. One of the most popular was "Artistas de Hoy," a project stage-managed by Braulio Espinosa Castillo of Producto? Inc., for which he somehow convinced 40 artists to pose in a glass display case alongside a video of their artwork. The combination was a perfect gambit. Not only were the videos illuminating, but fair visitors clearly were enchanted by the opportunity to stare at real artists standing in a booth.

Another project was a suite of red punching bags, courtesy the Cuban artist who lives and works in Miami and goes by the single name of Antuan. Titled Left or Right, the bags were all printed with photo-transfers of the world's most belligerent leaders, including Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez, Osama bin Laden and George Bush. Not too many people bothered to take a whack at an el supremo. Hmmm.

Also on hand was Amanda Coulson, the Frankfurt-based director of the Volta Show in Basel, who culled artworks from the exhibitors for a special exhibition about Puerto Rican identity dubbed "In the Spot." Barragán described this effort as part of his attempt to inject a curatorial component into the fair.

"Amanda had to come up with the idea in three hours," said Barragán. "It's 'instant curating'." The idea came from his frustration with art institutions, he said, which can take several years between approving a proposal and actually mounting the exhibition. "An art fair can provide a platform to explore a curatorial point of view," he insisted. "Art fairs can be made more intelligent by making them smaller and more focused."

Another curatorial booth was occupied by an installation overseen by Belgrade-born curator Lara Pan, who currently lives in Paris and plans to relocate her New Art Project to a space in Brussels. At Circa '07 she had brought a new video by Braco Dimitrijevic -- the Sarajevo-born artist who is famous for his early Conceptual Art photos of "casual passersby" in 1971 -- and another video piece projected on a string construction by the Cuban artist Duvier Del Dago, currently having a show at the artist-run Galerie Ouizeman in Paris.

The heart of Circa '07 was the mix of native Puerto Rican dealers and artists, of course. Sadly, two dealers who have made it to Art Basel Miami Beach and beyond, Galeria Comercial and Punto Gris, were absent, but otherwise the fair featured a great mix of Puerto Rican dealers and independent thinkers that aren't found at other fairs.

Holding pride of place at the booth of San Juan's Walter Otero Gallery, for instance, was an eight-foot-tall, four-tiered faux wedding cake, slowly spinning on a round table draped with satin and clear plastic beads. Loaded down with bright pastel-colored frosting and covered with glitter and plastic fruits, the cake -- a work by San Juan artist Melvin Martínez (b. 1977) smelled like cherries and softly played Eat Me Again, a popular salsa tune from the '80s. It appeared as if the Cookie Monster had already taken a few overscaled bites from the sweet confection -- an over-the-top allegory of Circa '07, or for the art market at large?

Also notable at Otero were the fantastically tropical paintings of Arnaldo Roche, who was born in Puerto Rico in 1955 and who has been starring in Latin-American survey shows since the mid-1980s (at LACMA in 1984 and MoMA in 1992, among others). For his densely worked, large-scale paintings, Roche typically uses live models, wrapping the canvas around their bodies and using a kind of frottage to transfer their images into his pictures, which are about "the celebration of life, the denial of death."

Business was good, by the way. "I sold practically everything in the booth," said Otero. Roche's paintings typically go for $45,000 each, and Martínez's cake was sold for $20,000. Martínez has an exhibition opening at Yvon Lambert Gallery in New York on May 31, 2007.

Another strong impression at the fair was made by Zilia Sánchez, a card-carrying member of the shaped-canvas movement of the 1960s. Typically Minimalist and softly colored in pale white and blue, paintings from the 1990s by the 70-something Cuban-born artist (a longtime Puerto Rico resident) ranged in price from $12,000 to $75,000. They were presented at Circa '07 by CMLC Corp. Galería Itinerante, headed by Carlos M. Lopez, who has been working as a private dealer for two years.

Another notable local is the multi-tasking Pablo Rodriguez, who operates -- under the umbrella name of Candela -- a sound studio, music label, hotel and bar on Calle San Sebastian in Old San Juan with, upstairs, the curiously named Carlos Irizarry En Candela! gallery (which also houses the studio of the famed 60-something Puerto Rican political Pop realist Carlos Irizarry).

The Candela booth at Circa '07 included a working digital sound studio, with local musicians mixing music during the run of the fair, as well as a selection of artworks with what might be called a post-graffiti cast. These included works by Lee Quinones, Dzine, Rostarr and Swoon, whose large wall installation of two fearsome skeletons doing battle, painted on a mosaic of corrugated cardboard, was priced at $7,000.

Also on view at Candela were small works by New York artist Rafael Vargas-Suarez Universal, whose graphic, abstract wall drawings turn technical data into a visual music of the spheres. His work was on view at Candela's San Juan gallery as well.

Another local exhibitor was Galería 356, a two-year-old San Juan space run by 25-year old Michelle Fiedler and featuring puppet-filled dioramas by Elsa Mariá Meléndez -- a smaller one was $1,500, a bargain [see Puerto Rican Sun, Feb. 21, 2007].

One of San Juan's private galleries is Cr3ma, directed by Herbert Mattei and originally launched 18 months ago by three artists (thus the "3" in the name). "We do art fairs," said Mattei, who formerly worked in advertising, and at a gallery in Tel Aviv. "You get access to art that you would otherwise rarely see."

Among the works in the Cr3ma booth were one of New York artist Arnaldo Morales' fearsome mechanical prostheses (a fairly small one, priced at $7,500), a rotating stainless-steel kinetic light work by Erik Guzmán-Shorrok titled Mine Eclipse, and a suite of three sound sculptures by Charles Juhasz-Alvarado (b. 1965), a Puerto Rico-based Yale grad who has shown his works widely, most recently at the Moscow and Singapore biennials.

Titled Polilla x 200 (2006), Juhasz-Alvarado's sculpture consisted of large wooden cut-out models of termites perched upon conga drums that double as speakers. For the accompanying audio track, Juhasz-Alvarado overlaid the magnified sound of termites and a classic Caribbean rhythm section. The works are $8,200 each, or $40,000 for five.

For a selection of 19th- and 20th-century classics of Puerto Rican art, Circa '07 boasted Carmen Correa Contemporáneo. Among the choice works was The Red Bandana, a large painting from 1985 by the 74-year-old Puerto Rican artist Rafael Ferrer. The price was $32,000.

One visitor from the cold northeast was Space Other, which hails from Boston's new South End gallery district. Dealer Gamaliel R. Herrera (a native Puerto Rican) had a hit on his hands with a kind of computerized tree by artist Peter Schmitt (b. 1977), who now lives in Boston (and is pursuing a master's degree at MIT's media lab).

For 004#3 (2006), as it is called, a "trunk" of gray computer cables snaked up in the middle of the space, spreading out into a penumbra of "branches," each of which had a little handmade, wooden "fruit" at its end -- a tiny machine, complete with motor, gears and a roll of paper that was mechanically extruded a few inches and then cut off, to flutter to the floor like an accountant's leaf. Done in an edition of three, two were on reserve at $18,000 each.

Miami galleries were in relatively short supply, perhaps because of a kind of communal recoil from the perceived disasters of Circa '06, as suggested on Rotund World by Puerto Rican art critic and blogger Joel Weinstein. Miami dealers, he suggested with tongue in check, were "dicked around by Fate itself" during the 2006 fair, and may well have "decided never to return to la Isla del Encanto."

Undaunted, however, was Andreina Fuentes, an artist and dealer who runs Hardcore Art Contemporary Space on North Miami Avenue in Miami. In addition to manning her booth in the fair, she put on a special performance at Café Seda in Old San Juan on Saturday night. Rechristening the place the Blue Pill Bar, she circulated among the crowd in her stage identity of Nina Dotti, handing out packaged blue condoms as souvenirs and dispensing from a large tank on her back a mysterious blue elixir (blue curaçao and pineapple juice, someone said). Called Blue Pill, the bit was billed as a celebration of menopause and andropause as milestones that allow us to "set a new flow in our life."

From Europe came dealer Christa Schübbe, who has operated her Galerie Schübbe Project in Düsseldorf for some 30 years, keeping a daunting schedule that most recently includes art-fair visits to Miami, Palm Beach, Düsseldorf, Beijing and Seoul. One star exhibit in her booth is a "Great Criticism" painting by Wang Guangyi, a signature work mixing propaganda images of the Cultural Revolution with Capitalist logos and slogans. "It's one of the originals, from 1994," Schübbe said. "Not one of the later ones when he started copying himself!" The price is $280,000.

"I have a lot of collectors here, and they wanted me to come" Schübbe said. "So it's like being part of a family." Puerto Rico has "world-class collectors," Schübbe went on, predicting that Circa '07 "has a big, big future." Among the other works in her crowded, lively booth were a heap of large fish -- made of aluminum -- by Carl Emmanuel Wolff, some large-scale wall constructions marked with gnomic graffiti and hung with an assortment of photos, including some from old pinup magazines -- works that doubled as booth dividers -- by Franz Burkhardt ($18,000), and an assortment of glossy, artfully painted images of high-class babes drinking champagne -- done in oil on aluminum -- by Matthias Köster ($9,000-$32,000).   

From Milan came dealer Tomaso Renoldi Bracco, who established his Contemporary Art Vision gallery in 1996. In his booth at Circa '07, he was featuring works by David LaChapelle, Erwin Olaf, Orlan and Andres Serrano. "Much can be done in Puerto Rico, especially in photo-based art," he said.

From Bogotá came dealer Catalina Casas, whose Casas Riegner Gallery specializes in young Colombian artists. Among the offerings were shaped paintings by Rodrigo Echeverri (b. 1975) that resembled piles of red bricks or a black brick wall in a curving arabesque, and a small crate filled with slight Duchampian drawings and modest odds and ends by Mateo López (b. 1978).

Among the items in López's latter-day " Box in a Valise" is a less-than-spherical rock from a stream painted to resemble a baseball, and an eye-chart that reads "I don't like America and America doesn't like me," a play on the title of Joseph Beuys' 1974 performance with a live coyote in New York. The prices are similarly modest, beginning at $100; a clear light bulb painted in black with a map of the earth was $700. 

One of the most eye-catching artworks was at the booth of Galería Fernando Pradilla from Madrid, a partner space of Galería el Museo in Bogotá. Holding pride of place was a large, hand-painted color photograph by the 49-year-old Argentinian artist Marcos López titled Snacks at the Terrace of Fundación Proa (2005), the image (from Buenos Aires, as it happens) that the fair used on all its marketing materials.

Featuring bronzed bathers of both sexes relaxing on a checkerboard patio in front of the sea, complete with cocktails and fried snacks, the photo updates picnic images by artists as varied as Edouard Manet and Henri Matisse while gently poking fun at the clichés of luxe Latin life held dear by North Americans and, no doubt, a few Puerto Ricans as well. The 39 x 39 in. photo, done in an edition of six, was $8,500.


WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.


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