New Orleans

Beyond the Canvas: Contemporary Art from Puerto Rico at Newcomb Museum

Ni de aqui, ni de alla—neither from here or there. This is something you might hear on the streets of Puerto Rico as people consider what it means to be both citizens of the United States and colonized subjects of an antiquated political system. This year, Puerto Rico had the largest bankruptcy case in the history of the American market. The island’s total debt, according to the control board appointed by the U.S. Congress (and ironically named PROMESA), is $123 billion.[1] Beyond the Canvas: Contemporary Art from Puerto Rico, at the Newcomb Art Museum in New Orleans, coincides with the 100th anniversary of Puerto Ricans’ U.S. citizenship, and also acts as a stark reminder of the current crisis in Puerto Rico.

Zilia Sánchez, Amazonas, 1993; acrylic on stretched canvas, 52.5 × 42 × 11 inches. Courtesy of Newcomb Museum.

Zilia Sánchez. Amazonas, 1993; acrylic on stretched canvas, 52.5 × 42 × 11 in. Courtesy of Newcomb Museum.

It is increasingly clear that the current U.S. Congress will not inject public dollars into the largest overseas territory still under the sovereign control of the U.S. Instead, massive cuts to education, healthcare, and retirement pensions will eke out less than a quarter of what is owed over the next ten years. Puerto Rico’s debt to Wall Street will be paid by teachers, students, and retirees of the island. Zilia Sánchez fits into many of these categories. One of the island’s most venerable artists, at age ninety-one Sánchez has taught at the Escuela de Artes Plásticas for decades. Sánchez’s work is a reminder of the tension inherent in canvas. Her technique of stretching canvas over molded wooden armatures creates a thin, porous, skin-like feeling. In Amazonas (1993), a quartet of powder-blue waveforms cover the canvas. The apex of each wave has a white nipple, as if two women’s bodies were floating just beneath the water, with only their breasts visible to the onlooker. Sánchez’s work combines the fluidity of the natural landscape with female objectification in a seamless manner, suggesting a connection between the colonization of the island and the body.

Elsa María Meléndez, El Ingenio Colectivo o la Maldición de la Cotorra, 2014; Installation view, Beyond the Canvas, 2017. Courtesy of Newcomb Museum.

Elsa María Meléndez. El Ingenio Colectivo o la Maldición de la Cotorra, 2014;
installation view, Beyond the Canvas, 2017. Courtesy of Newcomb Museum.

Elsa María Meléndez similarly breaks out of the traditional canvas frame to depict Puerto Rican bodies, but does so with a much more riotous and dissenting aesthetic. In the installation El Ingenio Colectivo o la Maldición de la Cotorra (2014), Meléndez uses canvas as a material for installation, breaking completely from a two-dimensional picture plane. The installation is made up of white jackets, rough pants, and arched feet, all pressed against the wall. Dogs that look like they might have died and come back to life guard the bodies. A cloud of heads hangs above, detached but not by much. An island of debris floats in front of all this, filled with canvas hands, pins, and needles. Everything about this installation is tense. The use of canvas—a rough, beautiful material—grounds this piece. If the installation had been made in paper, or another fine material, the meaning would be obscured and disembodied. It’s easy to see this piece as an homage to the student protesters who have been marching against the installation of PROMESA, the control council that effectively takes fiscal decision making away from the Puerto Rican government.[2]  #NoAlaJunta, or #NoToTheCouncil, one of the protesters’ hashtags, is delicately stitched into pieces of canvas and strewn throughout the trashed island. This piece makes clear that this is no celebration of the 100th anniversary of Puerto Rican U.S. citizenship, but a cry for independence.

Pedro Vélez, Surrender Flag with Dollar Skull, or Surrender Flag with Zombie Abstraction, 2015; mahogany and acrylic on reversible canvas, 31 x 67 x 5 inches. Courtesy of Newcomb Museum​.

Pedro Vélez. Surrender Flag with Dollar Skull, or Surrender Flag with Zombie Abstraction, 2015; mahogany and acrylic on reversible canvas, 31 x 67 x 5 in. Courtesy of Newcomb Museum​.

The work of Pedro Vélez, an artist and critic, is in conversation with many aspects of the world: personal, political, and artistic. His canvas flags drip with symbols of colonialism. Surrender Flag with Dollar Skull, or Surrender Flag with Zombie Abstraction (2015) has a refined, highly designed wooden handle from which a flag of a large red dollar sign is painted with seemingly slapdash, gestural brushstrokes. White flags such as this are generally symbolic of submission or truce, and this one could be read as a surrender to the capitalism of the United States, which for decades allowed Puerto Rico to be a tax haven for corporations, leading to a proliferation of headquarters and offices based on the island. But in 1996, Congress cut out the tax breaks that had made Puerto Rico so attractive to companies. The island immediately plunged into a recession from which it has never recovered. Vélez’s work operates on multiple levels—always with a sense of irreverence and rage—and has a long history of critiquing the power sources of the art market along with global politics. This flag could also be a surrender to the corruption of high art. From a personal perspective, it suggests the struggle of being a working artist in Puerto Rico in the midst of a massive debt crisis.

Beyond the Canvas curators Mónica Ramírez-Montagut and Warren James manage to balance two investigations in this exhibit. As the title suggests, the question of how each artist has formally evolved their canvas away from a two-dimensional field is a prominent thread throughout. But the exhibition is also an investigation of what it means to be a Puerto Rican artist working at a moment when economic catastrophe afflicts the 3.4 million U.S. citizens who live there. Perhaps, like the two-dimensional canvas, the political reality of being a protectorate of the United States is pushing out and ripping apart so that a new dimension of government can be built—for and by the people of Puerto Rico.

Beyond the Canvas: Contemporary Art from Puerto Rico will be on view through July 9, 2017.

[1] Detroit’s bankruptcy, by comparison, was $18 billion, almost only a tenth of the Puerto Rican bankruptcy.

[2] PROMESA has called for severe austerity measures, such as a $512 million reduction to the public university by 2025. “La Presidenta de la UPR Aclara el Propuesto Recorte de $512 Millones,” El Nuevo Dia, April 19, 2017, http://www.elnuevodia.com/noticias/locales/nota/planfiscaldelauprcontemplarecortesdehasta512millones-2312768/

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