ArtNexus Review of the Group Show The (S) Files 2011


ssue #82

United States, New York
Institution:El Museo del Barrio
by: Raúl Díaz


El Museo del Barrio with venues at Chashama at the Donnell, Socrates Sculpture Park ¿ Queens, Lehman College Art Gallery ¿The Bronx, Times Square Alliance, Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance and the Bric Rotunda Gallery ¿Brooklyn.

Political paradox, urban life, social engagement and playful utopian realities seem to build the argument of El Museo¿s Bienal: The (S) Files 2011 at El Museo del Barrio. The theme chosen by the curators Rocio Aranda-Alvarado, Trinidad Fombella, Elvis Fuentes and Central American guest curator Juanita Bermúdez for this sixth edition is the street ¿ an inner and outer fact perceptible throughout the exhibitions. Literally, The (S) Files 2011 takes the streets with an expansive schedule running from June 14, 2011 through January 8, 2012, showing the largest amount of artists and collectives (75 in six different venues throughout the city) in its history. As some of the venues were not yet open at the time of this review, I will be commenting only on those available.

Perhaps the most popular show of El Museo¿s curatorial program, the current edition of The (S) Files comes a year late due to the renovation of the institution¿s installations. The show reconnects El Museo directly with its immediate constituency, the Latino and Hispanic artists of the region. Arguably, the idea is an ethnically focused version of Artists in the Market Place: The Bronx Museum Biennial, which this year celebrates three decades of existence. However, an interesting innovation has taken place from the last third biennial edition, an exhibition by an invited country. This year¿s focus, in keeping with the at large tone the curators pursue, is even bigger the Central American region, establishing a conversation with the renewed Central American Isthmus Visual Arts Biennial. This dialogue is indeed interesting and refreshing because rarely is it possible to see work by artists of that region as a whole.

Chashama at the Donnell, a storefront on the sidewalk opposite MoMA, opened the bienal. This clever location with high visibility had an interesting display of armament-related works. A large watercolor by Armando Mariño, depicting an atomic bomb on which mushrooms are growing, seems an ironic commentary on the faith and uses of this type of weapon. Alberto Borea, interested in the time and history of the objects created, uses less traditional material as a medium, showing a series of armaments made out of black plastic shopping bags and relating the daily uses of bags and arms on the streets today. His work at El Museo galleries, Rainbow, is a mural celebrating diversity. Made with multicolored plastic bags, it seems on target because it was shown at the exact time gay marriage was approved in New York State, days before the Pride Parade.

The exhibition at El Museo galleries does not allow viewers to distinguish the invited Central American artists, striving instead for a thematic museography and making a bonded dialogue among the works. Nonetheless, a possible didactic resource the curators could have used was highlighting the affiliation on the exhibition labels, which are bilingual only in some venues. But as a result, the main exhibition is cohesive and successfully provides an extensive overview of the themes and mediums in which Latin and Hispanic artists are working, an integrated dialogue despite their countries of origin and diverse generations. Their attentions are focused on common aesthetic and social issues.

As a counterproposal of violence in her native Guatemala, Jessica Kairé¿s soft sculptures are created and designed to make the public relate to and become comfortable with objects of warfare, commercialized by using the internet for her fictitious CONFORT company. In addition, Donna Conlon employs plastic bags of diverse sizes and colors to explore the use and reuse of objects, and the creation of waste by society, with a video of a quotidian repetitive action: opening bags contained inside one another.
Irvin Morazán is interested in the pre-Columbian mythologies from his native El Salvador, relating them with contemporaneous issues of identity carried by new Latin American immigrants. His performances bridge Mayan rituals with practices by urban gangs. The sumptuous regalia used and videos of the actions are shown as documentation. Identity, race and self-definition are also the concern of Firelei Báez and Rachelle Mozman, whose works are commentaries on current social paradoxes. Ms. Báez, an Afro-Latin woman from the Dominican Republic, depicts herself on numerous gild frontal profiles with different hairstyles, keeping her eyes as a unique common feature. She declares that her intention is to avoid political and ethnographic statements but her disruption and questioning of current social categorization does all the opposite. The technically imperfect photos of Ms. Mozman excavate the relationship between social positioning and skin color. The same woman, her mother, is posing as three different characters in an upper-middle class setting. Each character is defined by skin color and the typical dress of the social group she represents.

Significant for its traditional use of painting, somewhat rare in contemporary art, is the work of Geandy Pavón. His series of wrinkled portraits of North American presidents, each one yellowed in correspondence with the era of presidential term, is an ambiguous commentary on the value of cherished American political ideals and perhaps a fine coming to terms of his own work. Hatuey Ramos-Fermin used multimedia to explore working condition of livery cab drivers communities of some of the most densely populated poorest neighborhoods of the city. His work the actual roof of a livery cab lay on the floor with loudspeakers attached re-run real radio communications between drivers and their base. A video loop shows colorful testimonies of the drivers, providing viewers a firsthand taste of street life. 

Showing for the first time at El Museo are some pioneering graffiti artists who have taken their work from the street to the studio. The invitation of these artists, who are significantly older than other artists in the biennial, is without doubt a way of honoring them, although this intention is not so clearly rendered. Their presence seems ghostly and cryptic because the works are no longer as vibrant and vigorous. Ms. Aranda-Alvarado¿s essay in the catalog is explicit in detailing aspects of graffiti¿s history and the relevant role these artists have played within it, perhaps pointing a finger to El Museo as an institution that has not yet devoted proper attention to this art form in which Latin and Hispanic artists have been paramount. 

The exhibit at Lehman College Art Gallery, as a whole, reunites work by artists who have taken graffiti art as an inspiration. Gerard Ellis¿s work provides the clearest example: he exposes his inner world, personalizing his anxieties through childhood memories and characters of popular culture. Hauling out fictitious characters of her infancy is Sandra Mack-Valencia, using them to celebrated and infuse with life her adult experiences and feminine visions. 

A particular voice for her rendering and idiosyncratic formal exploration of the landscape is Leonor Mendoza. Her sculptorical deconstruction caries a ¿womanly¿ quality when maps are reshaped and placed on tables ready to be tasted and rediscovered. The fine materials and craftsmanship contrast with poor resources seen through the exhibition. The economic recession has been a challenge for art production and artists are considering ¿new materials¿ to keep the dialogue going. Overall, they are focusing in building intellectual utopias rather that in militant journeys. 

In The (S) Files 2011, the tradition of the biennial survives and feels robust, fresh and diverse as the Latino and Hispanic artistic community in the city. 


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