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Puerto Rico Sun


by Pedro Vélez
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Albert Camus famously claimed that “A guilty conscience needs to confess. A work of art is a confession.” Spearing that sentiment into the heart of an exhibition’s thesis can be ostentatious and dangerously philosophical. But artist-curator Elsa Meléndez has pulled it off, somewhat, in “Vívidos / Vividos,” Dec. 29-Mar. 23, 2012, a group show about brutal personal truths at the Museo de Arte de Caguas in Puerto Rico.

Now, don’t get me wrong when I say “somewhat.”  Elsa’s show is not bad. My apprehension comes from the fact that of the eight artists tapped by the curator, only three went the whole nine yards.

Take, for example, Catherine Matos Olivo’s book, Galactic Vision: The Sketch Book Project of My Cancer Year. Here, the artist chronicles her experience with the mortiferous illness in layered digital collages, things like X-ray films of her chest juxtaposed with alphanumeric codes, new-agey bald heads coming together into one undefined cosmic structure, and landscapes superimposed over vistas of root-like blood vessels.

There’s no doubt that Galactic Vision is heavily emotional. Believe me, I was taken by it. Especially by a simple drawing of a solitary person standing next to a bed occupied by two cats resting on nightgowns and linens. This enchantingly sad scene takes place in a dark cavernous grave and, even though the contour lines have been inked in optimistic electric yellow, the cats can only indicate just how many more lives the artist may have left in her.

Self-deprecation is a hilarious joke in Did you hate me? Did you love me? I did it for you! (2010-12), a multimedia installation composed of large photographs, video documentation, a book and other ephemera by the locally celebrated Trance Líquido blogger and artist Lilliam Nieves. Presented on tiny screens, the videos show extreme close-ups of Nieves torturing her Savillesque body by stabbing it with red lipstick and sticky paper that shoots from a price gun.

But my favorite is a donation can that looks just like the ones you can find by the cash register at the corner store. It sports a full-color label of the artist in her underwear grabbing her protruding gut. The plea above this grotesque portrait reads, among other things, “Lilliam Nieves needs an urgent liposuction so she can stop using Photoshop.”

I’ve know Nieves for a long time and I can assure you she is in no way or form ashamed of her voluptuous body, yet she is obliged to conform to the rule in a satire directed at many of her friends, graphic designers and other aestheticians who sell masochistic, stereotyped fantasies of female beauty.

Lastly, total pity seems to be what the young performance artist Angelí Vélez (we’re not related) aims for with her engrossing photograph, Untitled Self–Portrait. In it we see the skinny artist naked, sitting on an unmade bed, dreadfully holding a plastic hamper top over her chest as if it were a shield. She looks wasted, depressed and defeated.

If you thought that wasn’t personal enough, take the confessional video Coctel (2011), in which she tries to play music by rattling and shaking a wide array of her prescription pills. Is something terribly wrong with Angelí, or is it all a show? At least she seemed happier three years ago.

In 2009 her performance La Vida es Lucha Toda (Life’s a Constant Struggle) became a national sensation when she did a very public action during her graduation ceremony at la Pontificia Universidad Católica de Ponce, a Catholic University. The event, which poked fun at baby-boomers, government officials and religious leaders, was taped live with a hand-held camera. 

In the middle of her graduation ceremony, we see Angelí putting on a Mexican wrestler mask while ushers and other people in charge grow visibly nervous, to the point where she is heckled and even warned that she will be kicked out if she doesn’t put a stop to her artistic rebellion. We witness bureaucrats and paternalistic macho-men unsuccessfully trying to contain tiny Angelí in what is a public trial of sorts.

We also get to witness the birth of an artwork in progress, as we see her run the full gamut of emotions, from daring daredevil to doubtful performer. She even steps out of character a few times. But in the end she wins, producing the now-famous money shot when she unveils a sign scrawled with the word “Unemployed,” while a corrupt state senator on the podium speaks of the utopian future that awaits these recent graduates.

In all, “Vívidos / Vividos” poses several questions that must be answered. Is personal tragedy more valuable than the value of the artwork? Is it ethical to exploit one’s illnesses in the name of art? Should curators be held accountable for exploiting the intimate dealings of an artist in distress?

Camus said that everything has to be accepted before it can be improved. So for now I am just going to take it for what it is: Art therapy in the tropics.

Vividos / Vividos,” Dec. 29, 2012-Mar. 23, 2012, curated by Elsa Meléndez, at the MUAC Museo de Arte de Caguas, Calle Ruiz Belvis, Esq Padial Caguas, Puerto Rico.

PEDRO VÉLEZ is an art critic and writer hibernating in Chicago.