Puerto Rico Profile: Charles Juhász-Alvarado
June 22, 2001
A new generation of Puerto Rican artists has been emerging in recent years. Based primarily in San Juan and working in a variety of media, they are challenging conventional thinking about Puerto Rican art and culture and exploring the unique history and character of the island where they live and work.
On June 22, a sampling of these young artists opens at the Blaffer Gallery in Houston, Texas. Curated by Deborah Cullen of El Museo del Barrio in New York City, Here & There/Aquí y Allá: Six Artists from San Juan displays the cutting edge of contemporary Puerto Rican art. As the title suggests, the exhibitions six installations which incorporate sculpture, video, photography, and live performance represent a cross-cultural dialogue between Puerto Rico and the U.S. mainland, highlighting the artists mobility and international outlook.
Charles Juhász-Alvarado has contributed a provocative sculpture installation to Here & There/Aquí y Allá. Perhaps more than any other artist in the exhibition, he encapsulates the globe-trotting, multicultural style of the Puerto Rican art community.
Juhász-Alvarados life has been spent on a succession of islands, and references in his work to water, flight, and the discovery of identity can be traced to a habit of moving between insular destinations. He was born in 1965 on Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines. His father came from Hungary, his mother from Puerto Rico. He grew up in the Dominican Republic, where he attended school through the beginning of college.
He left the Dominican Republic in the mid-1980s for the ivy-covered confines of Yale University, where he graduated with a bachelors degree in art and architecture in 1988. He also pursued his graduate studies at Yale, and in 1994 he received a master of fine arts degree in sculpting.
Juhász-Alvarado moved to Puerto Rico after completing his studies, and his loft in Old San Juan has become a magnet for up-and-coming members of the citys art community. He is married to the Puerto Rican photographer and sculptor Ana Rosa Rivera Marrero, who is also featured in the Here & There/Aquí y Allá exhibition.
Juhász-Alvarados art has been exhibited in Spain, Italy, Iceland, and at various locations throughout the United States and Puerto Rico. His work combines large-scale sculpture with narrative and photographic elements, and it often encourages participation by the public and by other artists. He utilizes a dazzling array of materials, including "smooth, shaped wood lathing, metal tubing, bright primary color fabrics, and casts that simulate sand, dirt, and crystallized glass," to create objects ranging from airplanes to sandcastles to carousels, writes Ms. Cullen of El Museo del Barrio in the Here & There exhibition catalogue.
His work is often fantastical, with satellites and submarines suspended above the viewer and strips of wood twisting in surreal configurations. Curator Kevin Power has noted Juhász-Alvarados tendency to "quote, appropriate, and convert" the work of other artists, taking their influence "into some kind of science fiction space."
Yet for all the "science fiction" in his installations, Juhász-Alvarado grounds his work in the tangible world. He achieves this effect with frank portrayals of sexuality and bodily functions, as well as with witty references to current events and public scandals.
For instance, his piece Tu-Tran from 1999 mimics a train platform and pokes fun at the problem-plagued Tren Urbano (Urban Train) project in San Juan. He takes the Puerto Rico art establishment to task in another installation, mocking the construction of the new Art Museum of Puerto Rico by building a large sandcastle and surrounding it with photos of vulgar construction workers.
Juhász-Alvarados installation in the Here & There exhibition demonstrates his penchant for things both mundane and supernatural, for attaching an almost mythological significance to topical issues. Zone of Turbulence: Mona Channel tells the story of a Dominican named Wilfrido who is shipwrecked while trying to cross the Mona Channel to Puerto Rico. He is miraculously rescued by a mysterious sea creature, who in turn recounts his experiences to Wilfrido.
The tale is told through an elaborate and beautiful sculpture and a written narrative that appears below it. The sculpture, which hangs above the viewer, includes a yellow mini-submarine, a blue and red sea creature made of stuffed cloth, and intricate wooden strips that represent a drowning man and the channels roiling currents.
The written portion of the piece is full of colloquial language and witty commentary. Wilfrido calls himself a "libidibedouin," a sensual nomad. He is a boatman who "always dreamed of being a gondolier at the Venice Biennial." When he attempts a voyage to Puerto Rico, the dangerous surf of the Mona Channel smashes his boat "as if it had been hit by a bomb from Vieques."
Wilfridos rescue by a "siren-manatee" named Cristóbal is a transformative experience, inspiring Wilfrido to develop "ideas for paintings, merengue lyrics, and Internet pages."
"I feel that the purpose of my life has changed," exults Wilfrido, "that from this moment on I should devote myself to study, understand, and explain artistically that contradictions, coincidences, and silly ideas are inevitable and can also be beautiful."
The narrative concludes with a warning that repeating the story will "surprise, move, enrapture, soothe, depress, intimidate, delude, amuse, insult, engage, distract, bore, irritate, cost, stir, annoy, harm, prejudice, denounce, agitate, confuse."
Juhász-Alvarado appears willing, even eager, to incite all of the above emotions in his audience; and he is not alone. Each artist featured in Here & There/Aquí y Allá succeeds in provoking strong responses from the viewer, from laughter to empathy to horror. Together, they find new ways to explore and present what it means to be Puerto Rican in the 21st Century.