Lehman College Art Gallery

THE STREET IS A PLAZA
By: Elvis Fuentes, Curator

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The life of our city is rich in poetic and marvelous subjects. We are enveloped
and steeped as though in an atmosphere of the marvelous; but we do not notice it.
Charles Baudelaire, On the Heroism of Modern Life, c.1846


Times of crisis are also times in which one lives more out in the streets. Whether because one is looking for work, scraping by through the informal economy or protesting for some particular reason, the street becomes the plaza where the past is debated, the present critiqued, and the future sketched. Since the presidential election in which an African American with a Muslim name assumed power, the federal capital and the mass media have been captured by the reaction of the activists of the Tea Party, united under the false premise that the empire was crumbling and that the country was falling in the hands of foreigners. While the streets of New York lived the hope of a life after racism, the extreme right made important electoral gains that have left several states on the verge of another crisis: the elimination of much of the progress made through several decades regarding the rights of women, people of color, workers, gays and immigrants. As has recently happened in the Middle East and Africa, the street should be the place where a confrontation between those who support and those who oppose those changes should take place.

That was one of the reasons we subtitled this edition of El Museo’s Bienal, The Street Files. The other reason was a historical one. We were interested in bringing out the influential role that Latinos, and in particular Puerto Ricans, have had since the 1970s in establishing an artistic practice focused on the outdoor space, especially graffiti and street art. In many ways, these are expressions which grasped the signs of crisis in the poor neighborhoods of the city. Many protagonists of these artistic movements had never shown their work in El Museo del Barrio, despite the institutional intention to develop programs in close connection with the Latino community in New York. The indebtedness of contemporary art to expressions of popular urban culture such as graffiti could be the object of a major future project at El Museo. However, before embarking on such an enterprise, we decided that the pioneer artists who have now more than 30 years of work behind them and their younger followers should not have to wait longer. Thus, some of those legendary figures are here, with a current oeuvre that preserves the vigor and energy of the years when subway cars were the canvases they used for their paintings. In her essay, Rocío Aranda-Alvarado focuses on this issue and others.

If art is marked by the signs of the times, the art being produced today by Latino artists in New York (as became apparent during the selection and curatorial process), seems to focus more attention on economic issues, rather than political or social ones. A fair number of pieces are related to the street in a more direct way: their use of found materials, which are incorporated into installations, assemblage, and other media. Trinidad Fombella explores the connections between several artists who have developed work in this vein, some of whom combine actions such as recycling, reusing and repurposing with an ecological consciousness (paradoxical as it may seem) without abandoning topics such as fashion, fantasy and play. This highlights not only the creativity of the artist who is forced to improvise, but also the lack of resources to produce art, when grants for artists have waned substantially (and the situation threatens to become even worse), and when traditional media appear to be getting more expensive. Even photography, which was normally seen as a relatively cheap medium, has become more expensive as a result of the monopoly of sophisticated studios and labs.

In view of all this, and given that the 2009 edition of the biennial did not take place because of renovations at El Museo, we decided to go against the grain and challenge the tendency currently prevalent at other institutions of reducing the scale of projects. Instead, we expanded the Bienal beyond El Museo to five other venues in order to show the work of 75 artists. On the other hand, we reflected on the role that biennials play in the development of so-called peripheral art scenes by including a selection of projects from the Bienal de Artes Visuales del Istmo Centroamericano (BAVIC), which began its second traveling cycle through the region last year with the 7th edition in Managua, Nicaragua. Juanita Bermúdez, Coordinator of Fundación Ortiz Gurdián, and the main organizer of this event since its creation, offers an enlightening essay on the growing presence of Central America in the international art scene, and the role BAVIC has played in this expansion by adopting changes that have allowed it to thrive. By presenting a group of projects that dialogue with production of Latino artists in New York, we underscore the timeliness of their proposals in the international debates on aesthetics.

METROPOLIS: ANXIETY AND COMFORT

I have the impure love of cities
and to the sun shining over the ages
I prefer the clarity of gas lamps…
Much more than tropical forests
I am fond of the gloomy poor districts
that age-old capitals enclose.

Julián del Casal, In the country, c. 1890

The urban environment is the setting of all kinds of exchanges: gazes, words, symbols, images, and objects. It is a place of promiscuous crossings—symbolic and real. If there is something that defines a city; it is its multiple faces, whether it be those that peer through a taxi or bus window, those that gather in protests, in markets or nightclubs, or those on billboards advertising products. That’s why, when the street becomes the starting point, the images don’t just portray urban scenes (although those scenes are also present). The images also depict details that often translate into the iconic portraits of a public figure, the global remains of consumer society, the subway platforms, the evidence of a crime.

In his intervention Get Lost!, created in several subway stations and subway cars, Daniel Bejar substituted New York’s MTA map, saturated by lines that indicate the public transportation network, with an empty map in green; he also altered the labels of places in order to return them to their original names. Thus, Manhattan became Manahatta, Brooklyn became Breuckelen, and so on. This simple gesture underscores the denaturalization of geographic space and the vulnerability of an existence that depends too much on the symbolic. In the photographs that document the action, passers-by appear disconcerted. Justine Reyes’ approach to the subway is very different, although her material is also the MTA. In her case, she riffs on the campaign “If you see something, say something,” launched after the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York. In her photographic series, Usual Suspects, Reyes places all kinds of bags, suitcases, purses, and containers on a stool, as if they were on trial, and takes pictures of them. But these objects show signs of use and abandonment, as if they were the belongings of those worst affected by the crisis, those “others” who are often blamed for everything.

Portraiture as a traditional genre (and symbolically, the subject represented in it) is transformed into still life in the paintings of Geandy Pavón, and into a hallucinogenic vision of meltdown in Joaquín Rodríguez del Paso’s gaze. The figures of Barack Obama and Tiger Woods melting next to Mickey Mouse and an ice cream cone, and again the wrinkled figures of Ronald Reagan, John F. Kennedy, and Obama, are not presented simply as mementos of American politics. They represent a media culture in which they are merely objects of use, symbols of this or that doctrine (whether it be the social ascent of African Americans or the neoconservative figure who inspires Tea Party activists). Although perhaps in opposed ways, these artists underscore the intrinsic illusionism of triumphant discourses on democracy, and expose their fault lines. For her part, Rachelle Mozman exploits the expectation of fidelity that the viewer has with regards to photographic portraits, and uses a simple effect—the darkening of the skin—in order to create three characters from a single one: her mother. Taking on the roles of the white lady belonging to the aristocracy, the mestizo sister that the family hides away, and the maid, this multiple portrait of her mother allows Mozman to bring out the social disparity associated with racism.

If Rodríguez del Paso uses as visual material what is massively consumed as American culture in Latin America, Jonathan Harker focuses on another aspect of the media’s game of mirrors: the North American perception of modern Managua by the authors of a song that was popular in 1946. In Manawa, Nicarawa, the Panamanian musicians Iñaki Iriberri and Rodrigo Sánchez alter the lyrics and music of the song written by Irving Fields and Albert Gamse. This is the basis for a design-based animation film that brings out stereotypes, the illusions of development, and the unequal power relations that have existed historically between the United States and Nicaragua. In contrast, Sandra Mack-Valencia celebrates with irony her recently earned American citizenship through a pompous series of drawings where a lavish dress with a red, white and blue stripe motif hides a landscape of her native Colombia. By comparing her new immigration status to the aristocracy, Mack-Valencia echoes the imperial attitude that is still present in American official documents: the envelope where the passport is delivered reads: “The world is yours.”

War and social violence that consume the energy of family and country are the themes of Women Breeding Soldiers, by Lady Pink, a pioneer of graffiti art since the 1980s. In this mural, made up of canvases of different sizes and designs painted directly on the wall, the dominant color is pink, something that produces an effect similar to that of Jessica Kairé’s sculptures, shaped as military or police paraphernalia, such as grenades, bullets, mitts, and batons. These objects are presented under the paradoxical label of a fake trademark, Confort. On the other hand, the duo nicoykatiushka explore interpersonal relations through performances, installations and situations that often become violent expressions (duels or aggressions). This shares an affinity with Marina Abramovic and Ulay’s performances, with added humor and a lighter tone. By doing so, they update the subject of the rubbing (sometimes erotic) between reality and fiction, art and life.

The marginal neighborhoods, with their social tensions and frustrated dreams, offer inspiration to two artists who also share the use of wood, staggered structures and futurist imagination. Lost Cities (Ciudades perdidas), by Simón Vega, defies economic logic by fusing informal architecture to high tech: surveillance cameras and exploration robots are fashioned out of materials gathered from urban dumps. For her part, Priscila de Carvalho imagines a bright, colorful world, where a street fair’s games and distraction take over the beat-up favela dwellings, and their inhabitants overcome the challenges of life in the ghetto. Painting on wooden strips becomes the camouflage that mass culture, with its portion of exoticism and adventure, imposes on the poor sectors of the city.

As a result of the massive shut-down of factories and worker layoffs, Alicia Grullon decided to recreate a worker’s protest in The Stella D’Oro cookie factory, , in the Bronx. The original protest had happened a year earlier, but few seemed to remember it. Grullon positioned herself in front of the old factory, carrying banners similar to the original ones, and handing out homemade cookies to passers-by, who would begin to talk with her and expressed their regret regarding the “imminent” shutdown. With this action, No more cookies, the artist underscores the paradox of the disconnect between the residents of a neighborhood and their own surroundings in a world invaded by mass
communication and social networking sites, the same ones that have facilitated large-scale popular uprisings in the Middle East.

Another project focuses on economic history, in this case the manufacture of car tires from Peruvian rubber. In his installation, Ishmael Randall Weeks employs discarded rubber to create black trophies symbolizing the triumphant spirit of progress. These crafted, quasi-gloomy objects contrast with the accompanying images, photographic transfers of cityscapes from Brasilia, New York, and other modern metropolises associated with the Novecento. Likewise, Adán Vallecillo exposes the patches of tires repaired over and over again by stretching them like canvases. They look like abstract compositions. The deterioration of this chemical material associated with transportation is a metaphor underscoring the failure of the many nationalistic and regional projects throughout the subcontinent over the last two centuries. Juan Betancurth, too, bases his work on a motif that epitomizes the technological progress of the second half of the last century: the television set. Television and mass culture are the basis for an installation and performance in which the artist mixes objects from his studio with some others sent by his aunt from Colombia. In a space that resembles his aunt’s living room, the artist performs, and invites some colleagues to do so as well. Most of the audience, however, sees those actions through the electronic screen.

The duo formed by Rafael Sánchez and Kathleen White has found in street vending the ideal platform to disseminate their artistic proposal. They develop this through books, tapes, and records that they intervene and turn into art objects in order to be sold at modest prices. But unlike a normal bookseller, Sánchez and White offer a unique experience in that their selection does not correspond to the demands of the reading public market, but rather to a specific vision of the world they want to communicate. The law allows artists to sell their works without a permit, unlike other street vendors who are often the victims of frivolous accusations on the part of businesses who are eager to mark as private property the ambiguous territory of public space. Those lines that stake out property are precisely the motif of the frottages of sidewalks by Francisca Benítez. Paying attention to the details of the city that offer clues about social and economic problems, the artist produces images dominated by geometric forms and at times texts that oscillate between minimalism and decorative arts, but which contain unequivocal meanings. The strokes of Property Lines are like the border separating two enemy territories.

This symbolic violence has a tragic counterpart in the real history behind Aldea Modelo. Pequeña Historia 1984 [Model Village. Brief History 1984] (2010) by Yasmín Hage. The town of La Técnica, Petén, is located in Guatemala on the border with Mexico. The regular army of Guatemala imposed a reorganization of the town houses around a military camp, turning the inhabitants into a human
shield against the insurgents. Like Mariví Véliz points out, “Aldea modelo reveals its secret: an entire state plotting against its communities.” Through variable installations that include a book/maquette, texts, photographs, video, and maps, a summary of the testimonies of several survivors of this civil war episode, the artist exposes the scars left by an urban structure as twisted as the very government that created it.

GPS: A PICTURESQUE WALK THROUGH THE CITY

I met Felix Morelo on the subway. He was drawing feverishly in his sketchbook. I asked to see his drawings. They were beautiful drawings with figures and faces between skyscrapers that literally touched the sky. He didn’t have a website, he told me, and had also never been to El Museo, although he knew about it. “You can send a dossier of your work, and we’ll open a file,” I told him. “That way you can be considered for the next Bienal.” Morelo has continued working. Now he has a website, he gives free advice in Union Square Park, and with chalk he sketches a path of faces in the city. Despite his desire to be a street artist, his drawing skills as well as his outsider-like phantasmagoric visions are his most surprising qualities. In the same visceral vein, Ohne Titel (German for “untitled” and the pseudonym of Flo Drake del Castillo) uses the drawings of a legendary figure of graffiti art, Jean-Michel Basquiat, as the basis for an act of appropriation that attempts to demystify the signature and direct the viewer to the work itself. She has done the same with other artists such as Keith Haring and Jasper Johns that have become commercial trademarks, but it is through Basquiat’s obscene and politically incorrect language that the tension of the urban marginal contexts in which this work developed emerges.

A diametrically opposed approach is that of Julio Granados, who lives the city as a fiesta. His designs and illustrations include animals and figures belonging to a kind of personal mythology set in New York. With a great degree of humor, a paper cup with Greek key pattern becomes Nefertiti’s headdress (entitled Nefer-Tea), and the Manhattan skyline is transformed into a huge hotdog topped with a mustard train. Felipe Galindo is another artist with a background in illustration. He uses consumer objects associated with informal encounters among friends (a paper coffee cup, an empty beer can) to recreate possible scenes in which these objects played a role (a chat in a coffee shop; a get-together with buddies). The objects themselves are integrated into the piece as collage, and drawing completes the composition. Gerard Ellis introduces motifs in his paintings that hark back to his childhood, such as toys or pictures of superheroes. These are not real objects, but rather realistic representations of them. He adds strokes and urban pieces that make the scenes more dynamic. Stains and graffiti play a central role here.

For his part, Alexis Duque relies on the sophisticated Colombian tradition of cartoons to draw apartment buildings that are stacks of stories rather than constructions built according to a plan. The same happens with his cities that seem to grow like the uncontrolled mushrooming of poor suburbs around the metropolis. By placing them atop supermarket shopping carts, Duque highlights the strategy of certain corrupt governments who abandon poor neighborhoods to their destruction making them prey to voracious urban gentrification. There could be no greater contrast to Duque’s drawings than the rational and geometrizing order of Leonor Mendoza’s sculptures. With a solid background in design and functional art, Mendoza creates tables (and other pieces of furniture) fashioned with fanciful configurations, including the cartographic design of an ideal city. The form of the tables suggests a café conversation about the adventures lived in the streets drawn under glass.

In Armando Mariño’s painting Coming From Nowhere (Viniendo de ningún lugar), a character goes down a single ladder as if emerging from a pile of twisted steel rods and broken glass. The images of the tragedy, whether caused by a war or by a natural disaster, are a clear reference. Mariño depicts disaster in all of its solemnity, as New York City did with the vanished Twin Towers. The human figure standing in the midst of a civilization turned into nothingness, torn down to its foundation, is a monument to solitude but also to the life that remains. Moral rather than material ruin and the solitude lived by many is the subject matter of Elena Wen’s video animations. In Drop Dead, a man walks while the people around him collapse, disintegrate or are led away by death. Inexorably, his turn arrives when time comes to an end. And in Fortification, a woman standing on a street corner wishes the crowd would disappear until the moment she realizes that when that happens she is overcome by fear. This paradox of independence finds a witty metaphor in the video Comfort Zone by Donna Conlon. In it, a person walks along a path marked by police tape. Every so often, a piece of tape blocks off the path, but she firmly removes it in order to go on. The last stretch however presents an unexpected situation: the limitless, unfettered space of the jungle. The person hesitates, weighs the situation and after a few seconds places the tape back to mark the boundaries of her comfort zone.

Cities offer passers-by spaces with symbolic and commemorative value. Marcos Agudelo has reflected on the emptiness of symbols and motifs associated with the heroic and the transcendent in the Nicaraguan context in his series Anti-Monuments. Some of the actions that perform an ideological exorcism to confront taboos include setting fire to a book about Lenin, destroying a Maya idol with a sledgehammer, a burying a rock in front of a Christmas tree (symbolizing the government’s wastefulness brought about by the whims of the First Lady), all of which he installs in front of a perpetual fire honoring a courageous female hero, Rafaela Herrera. Interested in mobility and in the relation of art to objects, Ryan Roa breaks with the static quality of public art sculptures by artists such as Alexander Calder and Anish Kapoor, interacting with them in the most casual way: he executes domestic rituals doing exercises, shaving, or taking a shower. In another situation, he uses his pick-up truck as an outdoor photography studio, complete with sand, a parasol, a lawn chair, mojitos, and other beach paraphernalia. In the same way that New Yorkers turn the park into the simulacrum of a beach resort, Roa convinces passers-by to take off their clothes and take a picture on the beach with a false pose of happiness.

Nightclubs are places where people wandering through the streets have dates, often blind ones, and thus escape the trials of urban life at the end of the day. The feeling of liberation is limited to the loudness of whatever rhythm happens to be in style and to the fragmented light of strobes and disco balls hanging from the ceiling. Las Hermanas Iglesias use this hybrid territory to talk about their complex identity as the daughters of a Dominican father and a Norwegian mother who grew up in an American city. They compare this to learning the popular dances of each country. Thus, they mix merengue with the traditional Norwegian “pols” dance, and they invite the viewer to follow the painted steps on the dance platform. In this zesty metaphor about belonging to more than one culture, following the dance steps is also a way of adapting to the movement of a group one does not know very well. It is making a blind date with a stranger end well.

Nueva York lives and marches to its own rhythm. Sometimes it’s the rhythm of dance music during a time of war. But at other times, the city awakens and recreates its profile as a zone of reflection and value. The street then becomes the backdrop of a silent epic, but not a less admirable one, of artists who struggle for the betterment of humanity, to make more meaningful (and even joyful) our temporary passage through this world.