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The New York Times

Puerto Rican Artists, Yes, But With A Global Vision


June 13, 2004
Copyright © 2004 The New York Times. All rights reserved.

JUST before the opening at Real Art Ways of ''None of the Above: Contemporary Work by Puerto Rican Artists,'' somebody painted, messily, a large Puerto Rican flag in the parking lot outside the Hartford gallery. That person also chained the leftover paint cans and brush to a railing at the entrance, suggesting that this was a guerilla artwork of some kind. So far, no one has claimed responsibility.

The meaning of this clandestine action-painting is ambiguous. It could be in protest of the exhibition by a disgruntled artist, or an affirmation of Puerto Rican identity in a city that has one of the largest Puerto Rican communities per capita in the nation. Either way, it is a canny bit of graffiti.

Organized by Steven Holmes, Silvia Karman Cubina, and Deborah Cullen, ''None of the Above'' samples the handiwork of 16 young Puerto Rican artists living in Europe, the United States and the Caribbean. Although some of the works are informed by the artist's history and identity, most fit within a Minimalist, neo-Conceptual tradition that has been fairly ubiquitous in the art world since the early 1990's.

Not surprisingly, this kind of work differs greatly from that of artists popularly selected to represent Puerto Rico in the past. Juan Sanchez, Pepon Osorio, and Antonio Martorell, stars of an earlier generation of Puerto Rican artists, were more concerned with issues of nationalism and identity. By contrast, the new generation of artists interact with and respond to a wide array of global concerns and interests. Even the war in Iraq comes in for scrutiny.

Much of the work featured in this exhibition is the kind that is usually accompanied, in museum exhibitions, by lengthy wall texts. There is nothing of the kind here, which means you probably need to grab hold of the brochure to help you navigate the space, or spend a moment flicking through the exhibition's substantial catalog. This is a minor burden of neo-Conceptual art; it requires thinking as much as looking.

Filling the feature wall is Dzine's (Carlos Rolon) ''Beautiful Otherness'' (2004). It consists of a dozen or more painted strips of canvas, covered in clear beads, arranged sequentially along the wall to form a glistening 6-foot-by-38-foot rectangular mural. Touched by a formal elegance, the underlying design refers to the rhythmic pulses of sound waves on digital music editing machines. This is a very seductive artwork.

Dzine, who lives in Chicago and Paris, has a growing reputation, with exhibitions scheduled for galleries across the United States and in Europe. He is not the only one, either, for Ivelisse Jimenez has shown in Europe, while the art team of Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla were recently included in a group exhibition at the Tate Modern in London.

Ms. Allora and Mr. Calzadilla are exhibiting a terrific video projection titled ''Returning a Sound'' (2004). It shows a young man riding around the Puerto Rican island of Vieques on a moped with a trumpet attached to the exhaust pipe in place of a muffler. So what's it all about? The piece celebrates the recent return of the island, once the home to a United States Navy base, to the Puerto Rican people. This is my kind of political art, detached but charismatic, conceptually oblique but pointed in its underlying message.

Oversize sculptures of ice cream and an ice-cream van by Charles Juhasz-Alvarado, from San Juan, are darkly comic. They take their cue from the 1983 robbery of a Wells Fargo truck in West Hartford by a Puerto Rican pro-independence group. The heist, netting the gang over $7 million dollars, remains a point of pride among some members of the Puerto Rican community living in the United States. Some of the thieves have never been caught.

A handful of artists deal with architecture, that absurdly popular subgenre of contemporary art. Among them are Javier Cambre, Enoc Perez, and Cari Gonzalez-Casanova. Although their works are too diverse to neatly summarize here, all possess a lingering nostalgia for Modernist architecture of one kind or another.

The rest of the videos, installations, sculptures and paintings that make up the exhibition tell a story of gifted young artists feeling their way in a mixed-up world. (Note Arnaldo Morales's huge pump-action crossbow, a comment on United States military might.) Real Art Ways should be congratulated for such an ambitious, revelatory exhibition, which raises the bar for contemporary art projects throughout the state.

''None of the Above: Contemporary Work by Puerto Rican Artists,'' is at Real Art Ways, 56 Arbor Street, Hartford, through Oct. 3. Information: (860)232-1006.

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