San Juan Art Diary: Winter, 2019 -- "The Joke's on You"

by Jan Galligan and Lillian Mulero
Santa Olaya, PR

“A college professor, a businessman, and a janitor are in the forest where they discover a magic fairy,” says Lillian.

“What happens?” I ask.

The fairy says, “I will give you what you most desire if you do someone else's job for a day.”

The professor says, “I'll be a kindergarden teacher. What can be so hard about that?” So he is teleported into a classroom. After a few minutes, all the kids are screaming. He tosses all their supplies aside and gives up.

“I'll be a waiter,” says the businessman. “All you do is carry food back and forth.” He is teleported to a restaurant. After an hour, the annoying customers drive him crazy. He smashes all the tableware and gives up.

The janitor says, “I'll be an artist,” and he is teleported to an art studio. He quickly glues the classroom supplies and shattered plates to a canvas and sells it for a million dollars. The fairy asks the janitor how he was so clever.

The janitor replies, “Easy. Years ago I got a masters degree in art.”

We're standing in the middle of the Embajada gallery in Hato Rey where they are showing work by eight artists and one video collective in an exhibition titled, The Joke is on You, presented as “an homage to humor where the works don't just laugh by themselves, but laugh with each other.”

The piece that seems to laugh loudest is the video installation by Basica TV, a transgender art collective who, costumed as giant stork-like birds, are chasing each other around an artist's studio while squawking and flapping their wings. The sounds of their squawking reverberates off the gallery walls.

The video is surrounded by a group of paintings: Roadside Attractor, a small oil on linen of a woman's head by Emily Davidson; Applause by Tess Bilhartz, a collage of watercolor and photograph mounted on plexiglass depicting a close up view of a woman's torso wearing a dress that appears to be a landscape with another woman standing amid the trees; and an oil on canvas by Jonathan Torres, titled Falling which shows two figures falling from the ceiling towards a third figure lying on the floor. Interestingly, these paintings have been hung from 2x4 planks erected from floor to ceiling, allowing you to see both the front and back of each canvas while they appear to float in the middle of the room. A very large wall mounted canvas that combines acrylic paint and silkscreened images, has been left untitled by artist Fernando Pintado. Other works in the exhibition are by Sam Borstein, Matteo Callegari, Stuart Lorimer and Elsa Maria Melendez.

A second companion exhibit is installed in an adjoining room. Two long tables are covered with a large collection of objects collected on the Playa Limones and Bahia de Jobos beaches in Guayama by Javier Orfon as part of a project he has worked on since 2007, which he calls Pozuelo. These objects include fragments of coral, rocks worn smooth by the sea, small pieces of tile and other construction materials that were found near the ruins of Central Aguirre and the long abandoned power plant. A few of the rocks and coral forms have been decorated with carefully painted landscapes or portraits of people. Orfon considers his project a kind of topofilia, which Allen Watts described in his autobiography In My Own Way, as a special love for peculiar places. Aguirre certainly fits this definition as it has a tragic history while remaining very scenic and, despite it present state of ruin, maintains some deep local pride and even patriotism by those who, like Orfon, might consider it a sacred space worthy of what he calls “amor a la tierra” a love of the land.

Lorenzo Homer, Turistas, 1953 (detail)

Acting like a couple of art tourists, we next found ourselves at Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico in Santurce where we'd come to see Repatriacion, billed as a cultural exchange between this museum and the National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture in Chicago. Having been an art student in Chicago many years ago, I was especially interested in this collaboration which features ten artists who live and work in Chicago. All are part of the diaspora, maintaining family or other ties to Puerto Rico.

Billy Ocasio, director of the National museum, initially planned to bring the work of a group of island artists to Chicago, but after hurricane Maria, decided instead to bring artists from Chicago to exhibit here in Puerto Rico as a gesture of solidarity soon after the storm.

Josue Pellot, born 1979 in Mayaguez, is represented by a very large photograph of El Morro which he has modified by adding signs and storefronts to the facade, turning the fortress into a gigantic shopping mall, as a kind of fantasy post-hurricane reconstructive bid for increased tourism.

Jose Lerma, born in Spain in 1971, has maintained close ties to the island. He is represented in the Museum's permanent collection and has shown regularly with the Roberto Paradise gallery. Working in the more traditional vein of acrylic on canvas, here he presents two of his signature paintings of noses, one large, the other small. The large painting is called El Huelebicho (The Douchebag). For those unfamiliar with the term, the Urban Dictionary says a douchebag is a man with an inflated sense of self worth, who thinks he is a ladies man, but is a joke to all but the most naive observers, while he remains an arrogant phony.

In a display case, a group of small ceramic models of typical suburban homes, stand next to series of documentary photographs of similar houses, distinguished by the fact that the second story of each house remains unfinished. Concrete block walls jut upwards from the flat roofs as a testament to the unrealized hopes and dreams of the occupants. Javier Bosques, born 1985 in San Juan, calls these works Family Extensions, and in an interesting twist, he has created the ceramic models in collaboration with his mother Elba Melendez.

Born on the island in 1971, Edra Soto has been in Chicago since she was 27. Widely exhibited and in numerous museum collections, her work in this exhibition presents a large group of empty liquor bottles that she collected over a two year period from the streets near her art studio in the Garfield Park area of west Chicago, a low income neighborhood with a reputation for gang activity and violence. After collecting many discarded cognac bottles, itself an act of litter control, Soto carefully washed and cleaned them to a like-new appearance, then organizing them in various still life arrangements, she photographed them as if they were an advertisement for themselves. Here she presents a grouping of the actual bottles mounted on a shelf, along with a set of the preliminary photographs and one large format, billboard sized final photo, which she has titled, Open 24 Hours: Cognac (Remy Martin, Courvoisier V.S., D'Ussel, Hennessy) in tribute to the various brand names of the bottles collected.

Other work in this exhibition curated by Bianca Ortiz Declet of MAPR, include paintings and installations by Bibliana Suarez, Candida Alvarez, Luis Rodriguez, Nora Maite Nieves, Omar Velazquez and Oscar Martinez.

Before we left the museum, we looked at a large collection of silkscreen posters from the 1970s that included this striking work by Carmelo Sobrino, titled Paz, paz, paz … un dia de estos, carajo (Peace, peace, peace, one of these god-damned days) as well as another collection of black and white woodblock and linoleum prints by Lorenzo Homar, Rafael Trufino and others, truly one high-point of the island's fine art heritage.

Carmelo Sobrino, Paz, paz, paz..., 1970

“I've got another story for you,” says Lillian. “It goes like this ...”

While working in his studio, an artist gets a phone call from his dealer. “I've got good news and bad news,” says the dealer.

“Give me the good news,” replies the artist.

“A client asked me if the value of your work would increase when you're dead.”

“Of course,” says the artist.

“That's what I told him, and he bought ten paintings.”

“What's the bad news?” asks the artist.

“He's your doctor.”

382 Calle Cesar Gonzalez, Hato Rey

Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico
299 Avenida de Diego, Santurce