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by Pedro Velez
The Museo de Arte de Ponce, located two hours away from San Juan in the south of Puerto Rico, is now undergoing a $32-million renovation and expansion, overseen by architect (and photo collector) Luis Gutiérrez, with reopening of the building (originally designed by Edward Durell Stone) set for 2010. Now that the museum is closed, its importance to Puerto Rico’s art scene is clearer than ever.

The museum especially kicked things up a notch with its last two exhibitions, one last fall of work by the locally renowned photographer and installation artist Victor Vázquez (b. 1950), and another earlier this year by the hot young Leipzig painter David Schnell (b.1971), in what amounted to his first solo museum show on American soil. The Schnell exhibition is a collaboration between MAP and the Mönchehaus Museum für Moderne Kunst de Goslar in Goslar, Germany.

Victor Vázquez, Iconographer
MAP chief curator Cheryl Hartub collaborated with the artist Victor Vázquez in the translation of several of his most memorable images into a museum installation, titled "Dialogues." With eight light boxes and two other sculptural works, the project manages to re-contextualize the MAP permanent collection at the same time that it gives new life to Vázquez’ sepia-toned photographs addressing questions of body politics.

My favorite juxtaposition between old and new was Mattress and Ball (2005), a work that features a pair of free-standing photographs of a soccer ball sitting amidst a messy tangle of hair and dirt on top of a used mattress. An obvious homage to Arte Povera, the work looked elegantly out of place in MAP’s pristine galleries, not to mention juxtaposed with Vanitas (1678), a 17th-century painting by Pieter Gerritsz Van Roestraeten. But both artists present the eternal conflict between life and all its stuff and the dark finality of death. In Vanitas, the material world is symbolized by a shiny black-and-gold lacquered chest with elaborate Rococo mounts. For Vázquez, materiality is represented by a small tin can holding a toy soccer ball (like a coffin) that sat on the floor, not far from the two photos. Painted on the floor, beside the can, is a bold question mark.

Vázquez took a chance at syncretism by mixing Catholic iconography with the Afro-Caribbean religious traditions of Santeria in a two-sided light box placed in the Spanish Baroque wing. The image that stood out is Still Life for Yemayá (1994), in which a foot pierced by nails calls to mind martyrdom and crucifixion. As the title refers to the name of the Santeria deity Yemayá, the foot in front of Francisco de Zurbaran’s The Crucifixion (1630) seemed to question assumptions we all have about faith and the common denominators in the representation of its iconography.

David Schnell’s Classicism
Schnell’s works -- the show featured almost 40 paintings -- display a formidable command of painterly craft, his imaginary landscapes and architectural renderings typically using a dramatic one-point perspective that seemed so pronounced that it is almost mocking. His images, which often have the feeling of sci-fi illustrations, are so precise that they seem inhuman.

Still, Schnell’s ever-shifting space is more than a little delirious. Like other members of the Leipzig School, he employs a draftsmanship that is super-fluid, weightless and almost cartoon-like in character (the spindly, imaginative elements of his paintings remind me of the feature-length animae film from 1988, Akira). But Schnell’s painting also resounds with pastoral and fantasy elements, alternatively suggestive of Caspar David Friedrich, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot and Umberto Boccioni. At MAP, it was all installed a breath away from galleries of classical painting.

In Treibhaus (Greenhouse), a large horizontal scene of deep, fragmented space is filled by what seem to be shards of aluminum and Christmas trees, all growing relentlessly upward under a fractured dark roof. Though the painterly surface is smooth and tight, the original charcoal annotations are visible on the surface, and help direct the swift movement of wood planks, benches, leaves, clouds and other abstract stuff filling the depicted space.

Some of Schnell’s paintings look effortless at first, like Verschag, a vertical painting of the inside of a long, rectangular, slightly spiraling tunnel made of wooden planks. A shadow cast across the threshold of the tunnel suggest a vertiginous expansiveness. We see no exit at the end of the shaft, and though we don’t feel trapped, there’s the tension of a possible implosion. Here, Schnell indulges in painterly play in his rendering, working with beautiful areas of brown and moldy green color.

Though Schnell is a master of architectural spaces, humans don’t inhabit these paintings. Ballen 2 shows what seem to be rolled up haystacks on an arid valley with deep linear perspective -- though everything is made of wooden lathe. The line is strong, delineating perfect cylinders and a parquet-floor field, and the colors are vivid, mostly generic mustard yellows, filling everything in between the lines, like a super-neat coloring book.

In the hexagonal gallery on the MAP’s second floor was a group of large, semi-abstract landscapes painted in high-key colors, engulfing the viewer in a spectacle of light and warmth. One of Schnell’s more complicated compositions, Mikado is a vertical landscape with bits of foliage and structures of lathe plunging into deep space. In the "pick-up sticks" game known as Mikado, players test their nerves and skill by trying to pick up sticks from a pile without moving any of the remaining cluster. Each stick is colored, and those colors seem to be echoed in Schnell’s painting.

For Schnell, the game is all about ambiguity, playing tricks with perspective, using color, form and line to develop multiple rationalities that place the works on the threshold between figure and ground, nature and artifice. Schnell’s pictures depict the urban landscape, the abstract sublime and the shredded fabric of rule-making human consciousness.    

Since the beginning of Cheryl Hartup’s tenure in 2005, and under the able directorship of Agustin Arteaga, MAP has presented a string of great exhibitions (these include "Julio González: Sculptures and Drawings from the IVAM Collection" and "The Age of Rodin: Sculpture in France, from Romanticism to Modernism," done in collaboration with Museo Soumaya of Mexico). The solo shows devoted to works by Schnell and Vázquez are two more in the list of intelligent and well-produced exhibitions for this great museum in the Caribbean.

Victor Vázquez, "Dialogues," Aug. 12-Nov. 11, 2007, at the Museo de Arte de Ponce, 2325 Ave. Las Américas, Ponce, Puerto Rico

David Schnell, "Hover," Dec. 3, 2007-Mar. 9, 2008, at the Museo de Arte de Ponce, 2325 Ave. Las Américas, Ponce, Puerto Rico

PEDRO VÉLEZ is an artist and writer living in Puerto Rico.