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PUERTO RICAN SUN
by Pedro Velez
 
If Puerto Rico were somehow to rid itself of all the painters, sculptors, curators, dealers, critics and debutantes, the island art scene could still sustain its creative cravings with photography alone. For a territory so small -- a mere 100 x 35 miles -- Puerto Rico has legions of photographers.

Where do they all come from? My best guess is that the rampant corruption on the island, at all levels of government and business, draws forth an irresistible urge both to document and to hide. When you peer through the lens of a camera, it’s like wearing a mask. You’re telling the story in the third person. The lens is like a shield, it protects the witness and loosens inhibitions and fears.

Pointing a camera is pointing a finger. It provides both evidence and recrimination.

New photos by Tristán Reyes
One of Puerto Rico’s best photographers is Tristán Reyes, who made a respectable name for himself by immortalizing iconic Puerto Rican new wave bands like Superaquello. Reyes’ studio is perfectly located in Miramar, two minutes from Old San Juan on a part of the peninsula where there are no traffic jams. What’s more, Reyes is located across from the best bar on earth, the Port ‘O Call.

For his exhibition, the second in less than a year -- he puts them on himself in his studio -- Reyes presented nine new photos under the title "Reflejos del Subconsciente," a series based in his recent breakup with his wife and baby. Fragmentary details freighted with feeling, the images could have very easily become syrupy or even therapeutic, but luckily that’s not the case.

All of the photographs are self-portraits, some made via objects. In Reyes’ narrative, a bloody knife functions as a symbol of contempt, or red lipsticked lips speak of self-mutilation and humiliation. In a group of underwater pictures, the artist uses his brother as a generic image for redemption in photos that have a cold, deep blue tonality and shine.

Un Cuchillo, Un Espejo-Entre Piedras (A Knife, a Mirror between Stones) is an image of a thin knife on a surface of gravel and stones reflected on a mirror. Boca 2 shows an overflow of bright red lipstick on a bearded mouth, reminiscent of Diane Ladd’s tantrum in David Lynch’s Wild at Heart.

The most painterly image is Cuchillo (Knife), which depicts the bloodied blade lying on a smooth wet lens and white surface. The implement looks more like a painter’s palette knife, and the picture is beautiful and happy, the only hopeful image in the show. All prints are nicely mounted on aluminum and priced at a comfortable $1,200 each in an edition of nine.

"Heavy Traffic" at Galería 356
Galería 356, a slick, clean space that opened two years ago in the residential Hato Rey district of San Juan, has recently opened "Heavy Traffic," an elegant group exhibition organized by gallery director Michele Fielder.

One notable work by Elsa Melendez arrays several grimacing female figures in a kind of ragged 3D frieze. Titled Jam for the Natural Flow of Transit, the low-relief sculpture features a series of cushioned feminine figures that are hung by nylon thread in a wooden box, as if on a miniature theater stage where the viewer can move each character at will, like a puppet master. The young artist comes from a printmaking tradition, and the drawing that helps define the cloth figures, which are also heavily stitched in colorful thread, has echoes of Mexican printmakers like Posada or the younger Jose Fors.

Though clothed, the dolls’ breasts and vulvas are drawn and lyrically stitched in, sometimes as flowers and sunbursts. Melendez’ fashionable femme fatales, post-feminist or not, display their pubis as both stop sign and invitation. The "jam" is a play on words, conflating a "traffic jam" with the sweet fruit spread. I only wish I could see these stuffed women life-sized and filling the room, but for now the comfortably toy-sized work has to do. The price: $1,600.

Other highlights in the show are El Extásis Creativo de la Palabra by Cristopher Rivera, a cool and teenage sort of ode to poetry and letters, where a topless woman in wrestler’s mask threatens to commit suicide by pointing a huge gun to her head, and The Terrible Encounter between Sharon and the Cars by Herminio Rodriguez, who shows a "fashionista," or model, striking a pose and literally stopping traffic in the middle of town.

Bik Ismo & the Graffiteros
For reasons unknown, the best piece in the show was taken down during the opening, and is not listed in the exhibition catalogue. An ordinary toaster, painted white and marked in black marker with a series of graffiti tags and symbols, the work is by Bik Ismo, the celebrated graffiti artist who was recently targeted, out of the blue, by the idiotic mayor of San Juan, Jorge Santini. Santini is ready to blame Bik for all the graffiti on the island, and has issued orders for his arrest and prosecution.

As ridiculous as it might seem, the issue -- and it has been debated on all the talk shows and public forums -- is not whether graffiti is art but rather whether Bik and the other writers are a kind of terrorist group. Even more hilarious, by contrast, is the mayor’s praise for the exhibition of graffiti paintings by Jean-Michel Basquiat at the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico.

Adding to the irony is the fact that Bik and many of his contemporaries have been granted permission to paint on the sides of empty buildings by their owners. Either that, or they tag in areas that are widely considered to be "free zones," like the underpasses and makeshift walls at construction sites, which are already covered by the endless posters for corporate or political propaganda.

The media storm includes images of the mayor with paint and roller whitewashing over graffiti, though he doesn’t touch the three-year-old election posters or the washed-out ads for blockbuster movies or even events at the city’s own Convention Center. The selective persecution has only served to put Bik at the forefront of Puerto Rican culture and to validate him to the public as a legitimate artist, if it was ever in doubt.

One of the casualties of the mayor’s tasteless anti-graffiti campaign is an emblematic and colorful graffiti area under the Baldorioty Highway, a scene that was much loved by tourists on their way to the Plaza del Mercado, a popular market square in Santurce. Much inventive graffiti has been lost, including works by Sheppard Fairey, Swan and many others -- though one has to admit that graffiti is by definition a transitory art.

One local dealer who has positioned herself on the side of the mayor is Silvia Villafañe, proprietor of Petrus Gallery. Curiously, Petrus was one of several galleries that produced thematic exhibitions about urban art in conjunction with the Basquiat show, as part of a month-long tribute extravaganza sponsored by Art Premium magazine. Her new stance against the "graffiteros" apparently prompted an anonymous artist to spray the façade of her gallery with the words, "EMBUSTERA, CHONCHI," or  "Liar, Little Fatty," written in red and adorned with hearts.

Double standards are a bitch, especially when visual contamination and political irresponsibility are in the mix. While the mayor paints over street art, it’s truly sad to see the ultra-modernist Professional Building colonized by humongous and intrusive banners, a condition that similarly afflicts every single other architectural gem on the island. Formerly called the Eastern Building, the structure is probably one of the first high-rises on the island, also known to aficionados for its part in an infamous 1974 UFO sighting, in which a bright disc could be seen hovering above it for a few seconds.

Lee Quinones at Candela
Only steps away from the mayor’s office in Old San Juan, Galería Candela featured work by another tried-and-true enemy of the state, Lee Quinones. Born in Ponce but raised in New York, the world-renowned graffiti artist -- certainly one of the first to become a mainstream success in the 1970s and ‘80s -- came to Candela for "Amplified," surprisingly his first-ever solo exhibition in Puerto Rico, curated by Isolde Brielmaier. 

Though you can see Quinones’ spray-paint roots in these new paintings, he has developed a post-graffiti style that is uniquely his own. On rough fabric he covers a white ground with a color wash, and then executes a subtle line drawing on top of that -- typically a rendering of hands grasping an album and thrusting it under a coat. The album art itself is done in color, sometimes in considerable detail.

Quinones combines the idea of tribute with theft in a melancholy look at a craft that’s slowly fading out. Vinyl records are a thing of the past, relegated to collector’s editions -- and perhaps viewers will end up fetishizing these paintings as a substitute for soon-to-be-lost musical artifacts.

My favorite work is the bright yellow Shaft in Africa. Also on view is a group of studies on unstretched canvas, priced at $1,250 each. But these works do deliver and the exhibition turns the Candela space into a chapel of sorts. The paintings are offered together at $120,000 -- not bad for a so-called graffiti artist. Word is that the buyer is Eric Clapton, and that the series may be exhibited in New York.

Aby Ruíz at MUAC
At the Museo de Arte de Caguas (MUAC) is "Termite and Pangola" (plague and pasture grass), the debut show by Aby Ruíz. In three galleries, Ruiz displays paintings and drawings that are filled with metaphorical figurative images for corruption, war and political inertia. A talented draftsman and master of art production, Ruíz borrows and adopts from Fancisco Goya, Francis Bacon and Jose Morales.

In Ruíz’ series of 12 portrait drawings, his thick and crude lines channel the spirit of Egon Schiele. In Existencia Sin Alagos, the gray figure of a kneeing man, posed in fetal form, bathes with a viscose substance pouring from a bucket, in an image of savage capitalism. I know this sounds a little cheesy, but the artist manages to bring a certain refreshing coolness to these old, hot themes. For instance, in Flowers for a Finding, a diptych, a man holding a bouquet of pink flowers is juxtaposed to a black field of skeletons covered by gooey dirt.

Jose Luis Vargas at La Liga de Arte
Back in Old San Juan but outside of the art gallery circuit at La Liga de Arte was a show of work by the great draftsman, artist and cult figure Jose Luis Vargas titled "The Museum of Supernatural History." Eerie isn’t the right word to describe the feeling one gets from a Vargas exhibition. A decade before young New York artists ventured into "Goth," Vargas had developed a solid reputation as a painter who made spirit images and portraits of the dead. In his works from the late ‘80s the artist would stain paper and canvas with coffee grounds and other fluids, drawing strange forms and figures out of the undifferentiated mass, Surrealist-style, which he would then alter by adding images of dead celebrities or even pictures of himself as a kid.

In the ‘90s Vargas’s work entered a transitional period. His work depicted abductions and possessions over luscious and milky large-scale abstractions, sometimes with text added, juxtaposed with other paintings of flying saucers landing on mountaintops. Other fantastic works where made on top of Haitian folk art. Vargas then began to perform as a character in a video art series known as El Santo en Santurce, where he played a masked wrestler inspired by Baltimore filmmaker John Waters.

Now, in "The Museum of Supernatural History," Vargas fills the gallery with amazing, large-scale paintings done on unstretched canvas, mostly with grayish and dirty surfaces dotted with simple but elaborate drawings of cadavers and levitating figures. In The First Steps of the Training, a man, probably the artist himself, seems to bend backwards after some kind of critter, which looks like an augmented Predator, splits in two and arouses the host figure by creeping thru his head and ears. The metaphysical encounter seems like a blessing a disguise, as the head spasms in a kind of sick ecstasy.

Some works in the exhibition were completed at the opening with the help an old-fashioned large-format studio camera, which was used to record "spirits" in the vicinity. Viewers were asked to pose for portraits, resulting in a series of black-and-white prints hanging from the ceiling. In one uncanny special effect, a small boy -- not actually present at the opening -- is seen in the photos sitting alongside the models.

One outstanding work is the ambivalent The Shadow, which shows the dead figure of outlaw Toño Bicicleta, levitating dead on his back with a pee stain on his pants. An elder who floats above the criminal’s dead body stares out at the viewer, against a cloud of black paint. Here, Toño resembles the revolutionary Puerto Rican Nationalist leader Pedro Albizu Campos, who was in and out of U.S. prisons for 25 years.

In 1936, Albizu Campos was imprisoned for trying to overthrow the government. During his captivity, Albizu repeatedly claimed that he was being subjected to radiation experiments, and at his death in 1965, medical records did in fact show lacerations and burns on his body. More than 75,000 people joined the funeral procession to Old San Juan Cemetery. To this day, Albizu is an iconic figure in Puerto Rican history and culture.

On the other hand, Toño, who was said to have killed his wife with a machete, was infamous for evading the police for many years, presumably with the help of ordinary people. Despite being a well-known criminal, Toño became a symbol of good luck in rural areas. He was finally found and shot dead, and part of his legend is that, as told by reporters and cops off the record, he had an unusually hard and erect cock when the body was found. His death has become a carnavalesque emblem, a legend in contemporary society and folklore.

The question remains: Is Vargas confounding the figures of the criminal and the revolutionary? Or is the artist making a simpler connection between two kinds of social outlaws, both of whom have been embraced by the masses?

Vargas’ uncanny comparison seems to claim that history is tragic and full of blank spots. That’s where the ritualistic, performative and the spectacle of the metaphysical find their place in his art, establishing the wreck of the historical narrative and documentation.

To that extent, the mindset of the colonized described by Franz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth is still relevant.


PEDRO VELEZ is an artist, curator and critic. An exhibition of his work is currently on view at Plush in Dallas.