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'Here and There/Aquí y Allá': Tourists, Jungle Sprites And The Logic of Dreams on Fantasy Island


March 9, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All Rights Reserved.

Ambitious young artists living outside the big European and United States art centers tend to be a mobile, cosmopolitan lot. And even if they don't travel, art trends do, through books, magazines and the Internet. Never in history has International Style been quite so international.

This has been true in Puerto Rico for generations. Since the 1950's, artists have been flying back and forth between San Juan and New York, carrying ideas in both directions, often settling in one place or the other. "Here and There/Aquí y Allá: Six Artists From San Juan" at El Museo del Barrio is an up-to-the- minute look at a handful of artists who have chosen to work on the Caribbean side of this creative commute.

The participants – four men, two women, all in their 30's, all working with installation – are a lively crew. Minimalism isn't their scene; nor, in any overt way, is politics. For the most part, they are into sound, color, humor and unfastidious beauty, with several media cooking away simultaneously. The result is a messy, obstacle-ridden, outré-and-proud sort of show, the kind you move around in slowly, even cautiously, rather than breeze through.

Toward the beginning comes the one somber, stripped-down entry, a three-channel video piece by Nayda Collazo-Llorens titled "From the Memories Series: Dream." A woman's face, murky red, looms across two gallery walls; she seems to be underwater. Words are projected on another wall, phrases in Spanish and English that add up to an amorphous narrative about swimming, encountering violence, trying to scream, and then, in that illogical dream way, being carried off in a boat.

Water washes through this show of what is, in the richest sense, island art. Ana Rosa Rivera Marrero riffs on the mythological "feminine" associations attached to the conch shell, drawing sex, religion, Barbie and Cindy Sherman into the argument.

In Aaron Salabarrías Valle's "Earthly Paradise," the Caribbean of tourist lore is reduced to plastic swimming pools and shots of out-of- shape bathers posing, heroically and absurdly, in goggles and flippers.

Posing is what Freddie Mercado's art is about. Mr. Mercado creates and wears an elaborate wardrobe of gowns, veils and capes, which he supplements with wigs, extravagant makeup and portable props (pineapples, dolls, gilded picture frames). Sometimes he dresses for himself at home; sometimes he appears at art events in San Juan.

In the show, he's seen in photographs as a chunky sprite beside a jungle stream, as a dryad-with-parasol by the sea. Call him a performance artist, a sculptor, a stylist, there's some kind of multimedia transcendence going on here.

As there is, in a different way, with Charles Juhász-Alvarado, one of the bright lights of the Caribbean contemporary scene. Born on an Air Force base in the Philippines, he grew up in Puerto Rico and studied art at Yale, where Ursula von Rydingsvard was his teacher and Matthew Barney a fellow student.

Narrative fantasy, fashioned by hand on a colossal scale, is Mr. Juhász-Alvarado's métier, as seen in the installation "Mona Channel: Zone of Turbulence." The piece is based on his own folk-style story about a boatman shipwrecked in the treacherous waters between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. He's rescued by an exotic Caribbean sea creature, half man, half beast, whose perpetual state of erotic excitement is the source of the channel's turbulence. Transformed by the encounter, the boatman decides to be an artist, a creator of "paintings, merengue lyrics and Internet pages."

This Duchampian scenario is captured in a floor-to-ceiling tangle of bentwood bands with brightly colored soft-sculpture figures caged inside. In Puerto Rico Mr. Juhász-Alvarado has produced even larger works, including full-size wooden planes and sci-fi-inflected environments that seem intended to function as walk-in erogenous zones. More than any other artist in "Here and There," he is hard to describe and impossible to pin down, which is almost always a good sign.

Somewhat different in tone from the rest of the show – which has been organized by Deborah Cullen, a curator at El Museo del Barrio – is Carlos Rivera Villafañe's "Bullet and Trajectory." Its main component is a stage-set version of a middle-class living room, replete with kitsch décor and a model family, all of which have been shattered by physical assault.

Mr. Rivera Villafañe built the piece outdoors, subjected it to a barrage of gunfire, then marked the path of the bullets with steel dowls, which bristle through the walls like giant arrows. The results, which make a big bow to Pepón Osorio's "Scene of the Crime," are about violence, but from a hard-to-read perspective. Is it deplorable? O.K.? Even funny? It's just there, everywhere.

Until recently, work by Mr. Rivera Villafañe, Mr. Juhász-Alvarado and Ms. Rivera Marrero might have felt out of step with a neatnik, object- fixated New York art mainstream. But with Panamarenko at Dia and Paul McCarthy erupting all over town, the blend of theatrical physicality and inscrutable fantasy in "Here and There" makes sense, both as something apart and as a part of the flow.

"Here and There/Aquí y Allá: Six Artists From San Juan" remains at El Museo del Barrio, 1230 Fifth Avenue, at 104th Street, East Harlem, (212)831-7927, East Harlem, through May 20.

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