Sunday, May 7, 2017

Beyond the Canvas: Contemporary art from Puerto Rico at the Newcomb Art Museum


Despite its huge influence on popular music, the Caribbean can seem rather removed from the mainstream art world. A few Cuban and Haitian artists have of course been very influential, but the communities that comprise the Caribbean mostly small and distant from the culture capitals. If this exhibition of work by five Puerto Rican artists (timed for the 100th anniversary of Puerto Rican-U.S. citizenship) seems reminiscent of much modernist art, a closer look reveals its Caribbean flavor. For instance, Zilia Sanchez's shaped canvas sculptures are minimal by any measure, but instead of the industrial minimalism for which American sculptors like Donald Judd are known, Sanchez's far more organic Amazonas, left (detail), mostly suggests thorns, while wryly hinting at those pointy conical bras that can still be seen in old 1950s movies.


Another minimalist, Julio Suarez, does recall Judd in a charcoal-hued canvas square composed of smaller gray rectangles -- the only truly austere minimalist piece in the show. More typical is Suarez's, OO (Infinito), two bouncy bright green canvas circles that seem to primly bump against each other like tentatively lascivious dancers at a Latin jazz club. But nothing is minimal or prim about Elsa Maria Melendez's mixed media light box Haber Sido Mas Perra ("If I had been More of a Bitch"),  above -- a lurid magenta phantasmagoria of wild dogs and wild women like a fever dream from the Caribbean unconscious – a classic example of her boisterous mixed media figures that seem to densely populate the gallery like a flash mob. But Arnoldo Roche Rabell's colorful paintings, while no less passionate, exist in a more hermetic psychic space that attains lyrical fluidity in tableaux like Isla Vacia, below, where the the intrusion of a ghostly cow skull amid overturned place settings suggest a brunch suddenly upset by poltergeists. Pedro Velez -- and a selection of activist artworks curated by Newcomb students in Puerto Rico earlier this year -- rather dreamily explore the visual ramifications of community and the social realm. In the Caribbean, as in Nola, the subconscious reigns supreme, and their best artists are the ones who utilize that precious gift to the fullest. ~Bookhardt

Beyond the Canvas: Contemporary art from Puerto Rico, Through July 9, Newcomb Art Museum, Tulane University, 865-5328.