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Seeking Truth And Beauty In a Plastic Frog


November 18, 2001
Copyright © 2001
THE NEW YORK TIMES. All Rights Reserved.

USING a pressurized spray gun the size of a fountain pen, Miguel Luciano turned the plastic coqui frog from green to brown. This coqui, with its sky-blue saddle and big blue eyes, was part of a children's automated ride, the kind that squats outside barbershops and bodegas, eating quarters and bobbing to a tinny tune.

As the sunlight drifted into the first-floor studio in his apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Mr. Luciano, his frog perched on a box, sat right under a bright track light. The only sound was the hum of the compressor that fed the spray gun as he waved the nozzle back and forth.

The ride's base sat behind Mr. Luciano, awaiting the facsimile of the little frog that is omnipresent in Puerto Rico. There was also a sound system that imitates a rainy night on the island and the coqui's musical hiccup. The frog's name is roughly the sound it makes.

The coqui was serious business, Mr. Luciano said, an installation piece "that questions what is real, what is fake," exploring the intersection of consumerism and romance. It is one of five works he will display in his first solo art show in New York, starting Nov. 30 at the Taller Boricua Gallery in East Harlem.

"I always find beauty in the stuff I'm working with, even in a plastic frog," said Mr. Luciano, a hazel-eyed 29- year-old dressed all in blue. "These are all translucent colors: green, brown, gold, yellow. The nice thing about airbrush painting is you can go back and forth and take some off. It's painted on real thin."

Mr. Luciano arrived in New York from Miami in January, following a familiar narrative: the young artist comes to the city, seeking to make a name for himself and to change the world. Mr. Luciano's art is political, playing with ideas about race, consumerism, culture and Puerto Rican identity. The coming gallery show is an unqualified high point. But like many personal narratives these days, the contours of his story have shifted; the story lines are not as certain. He has asked himself: "Is this World War III? Is it Armageddon? What about issues like the military presence on Vieques?"

Referring to a Latino youth organization a few blocks away, Mr. Luciano said: "On Sept. 10 I started working as an artist in residence at El Puente, which has a Peace and Justice Academy. It was great because in my work I have a political goal that has to do with liberation, with psychological liberation. In Puerto Rico, we have this illusion of autonomy, with limited self-governance. It's inhibited our whole identity.

"So there I was at El Puente," he added, turning his attention to the base of the coqui, spray-painting three wispy palm trees. "Overnight, the Puerto Rican flags became American. And there was the National Guard in front of the school, checking the cars going to the Willamsburg Bridge. I'm trying to figure it all out. It's not getting any simpler. I try to be in two places at once, inside my thoughts and also interpreting what's going on."

Simultaneously here and far away.

Mr. Luciano shares a three-bedroom apartment on Havemeyer Street with two other artists. His share of the space is about 300 square feet of honey-colored wood floors, white walls, a bank of windows covered by bars.

Outside the two-story, red brick building, there are still signs pushing Ferrer for mayor, and some Puerto Rican flags among the American red, white and blue. Mr. Luciano says he works best at night, with the long stretches of quiet hours, when he can retreat into imagination.

The other day, hugging his studio walls, were the 6- by-6-foot canvases that are Mr. Luciano's reinterpretations of turn-of-the-last-century fruit crate ads from Louisiana for "Porto Rican Yams." The ads show blacks with big lips and head scarves. Mr. Luciano overlays them with such touches as black and white madonnas, bombs painted with palm trees on them, and tiny depictions of Colonel Sanders.

"A piece like this is not as overtly political as the others," Mr. Luciano said, touching up the coqui just enough so that "it implies some authenticity, but it's sort of mocking that."

He mounted the little frog on a base of blue with white clouds. The frog looked as if it were flying, dreamily, over Puerto Rico.

Far, far away.

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