The B-sideFebruary 9, 2015
Este país… ¡no existe! [This country… doesn’t exist!], a play by Myrna Casas, was first staged in Río Piedras in 1993 at a critical political junction; official government activities celebrated the 5th centenary of the island’s “discovery,” and the second referendum on its political status resulted in maintaining Puerto Rico as an unincorporated territory of the United States. Part of a tradition of absurdist theater, the play alludes to the disintegration of nationalism and culture in the midst of growing consumerism, real estate speculation, and spectacle.
More than twenty years later, these issues remain just as relevant. The apparent condition of not existing as it relates to visibility within international legitimizing structures, such as that of the nation-state and the institution of contemporary art with its aesthetic models, are important when thinking about the narratives that are exported from the island. Here, notions of rediscovery and crisis coupled with the exuberant and exotic iconography of the Caribbean predominate. This discourse, together with continuous attempts at definition from an outside perspective, can border on soft paternalism. It’s true that institutions struggle to subsist and more critical perspectives are urgently needed. And yet, against any essentialist approaches, and facing an increasing brain drain of artists and cultural producers, resistant artistic initiatives in the San Juan area continue to thrive both inside and outside institutional parameters.
Since 1995 Galería de Arte at University of the Sacred Heart has been dedicated to recuperative art histories, presenting work by a generation of “forgotten” artists such as Olga Albizu, Paul Camacho, José Morales, and Juan De’Prey. It has also provided an experimental platform for artists at the beginning of their careers including Ada Bobonis, Nayda Collazo Llorens, and Omar Velázquez.
In Old San Juan, La Casa de los Contrafuertes is an open collaborative workspace initiated by artist Charles Juhasz and commissioned for the last Trienal Poli/Gráfica de San Juan “El Panal/The Hive” (2012) under the curatorial vision of Deborah Cullen. The once abandoned and dilapidated structure, formerly the Museo de Nuestra Raíz Africana, embodied the spirit of the Trienal according to a text by Cullen, affirming that “artists working with other artists are a powerful and productive creative force,” particularly in a place that lacks the economic and physical infrastructures to support autonomous efforts. For two years following the closing of the Trienal, La Casa de los Contrafuertes became an important enclave and intellectual oasis for local artists, international guests, and the general public. Currently, Juhasz and the local artist community lead efforts to reopen the space after it was closed following repressive actions from the Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña (ICP).
Recently, the Antiguo Arsenal de la Marina Española, a military complex built during the 19th century under Spanish colonial rule as an arms and ammunitions storage facility, has a played a more active role in the local art scene under the direction of Abdiel Segarra Ríos. The Antiguo Arsenal is the venue of the Trienal Poli/Gráfica de San Juan, initiated by Mari Carmen Ramírez in 2004. The next iteration of the Trienal, titled “Displaced Images/Images in Space,” will be curated by Gerardo Mosquera, Vanessa Hernández Gracia, and Alexia Tala.
Already recognized with a fair amount of international exposure, Beta Local, an experimental pedagogical space founded by Michy Marxuach with artists Tony Cruz and Beatriz Santiago Muñoz has recently expanded to include two additional spaces: MAOF and Casa del Sargento. The latter hosts La Práctica, Beta Local’s yearly in-practice program.
Now in its 5th edition, Santurce es Ley is an international urban festival that combines street art, music, design, and some contemporary art. It has filled Santurce’s run-down buildings with colorful murals. Although this event has been instrumental in the promotion of Santurce as a hip creative neighborhood, attracting a growing “creative class,” its potential role as agent of real estate speculation and gentrification remains to be critically assessed.
The economic crisis has engendered the need for hybrid spaces that function as studio, gallery, and meeting point; places where artists gather to talk about art and show new work without institutional red tape or commercial approval. Exhibitions are put together quickly to respond to the immediate needs of local artists. These gather around the former site of Taller Alacrán, a revolutionary printmaking collective founded in 1968 in Cerra Street in Santurce by Antonio Martorell and Carmelo Sobrino. Following the legacy and spirit of Taller Alacrán and others, notably MSA Xperimental (Teo Freytes, Yrsa Dávila, and Roberto Torres) in the 80s and early 90s and =DESTO (Omar Obdulio Peña Forty, Jason Mena, and Raquel Quijano) in the early 2000s, a group of artist-run spaces have begun to appear on the scene over the last six years. Although some spaces are more consistent than others with their programming, they all participate in the vibrant optimism that is in full swing in Santurce.
Centro Curatorial La Quince is an intermittent exhibition space in Calle Ernesto Cerra founded in 2007 by artist José Jorge Román. One of the longest standing artist-run spaces in Santurce, it iconsists of a small space in front of his storefront apartment. La Quince is known for organizing an exhibition of small scale works in tribute to legendary Italian-born art dealer Luigi Marrozzini (1933-1997), who founded Galería Colibrí (1962), the first Bienal del Grabado Latinoamericano (1970), [now the Trienal Poli/Gráfica de San Juan], and Luigi Marrozini Gallery (1980).
With over 4,000 square feet, La Productora is the largest space on the block, and is a multidisciplinary studio that focuses on merging art with design through the production and exhibition of new work. It is the workshop of architect and artist Martín Albarrán and designer Roberto Sánchez.
Next door, Recinto Cerra, the studio space of sculptor Jaime Crespo, focuses on solo exhibitions. Crespo co-founded together with Martín Albarrán the now defunct Cart Watch, a production and exhibition space that was also on Cerra Street.
In front of Recinto Cerra, 20/20 mainly features a monthly program of group shows, usually featuring artists without gallery representation. For two consecutive years, founders Tony Cruz and Izam Zawahra have organized “LA CERRA ALL- STARS: A tribute to FANIA,” a popular exhibition that commemorates the street’s musical history and connects with a community that has welcomed visual artists in their midst. During the 1960s, Cerra Street was the epicenter of salsa music and its tropical beats arriving from New York City. It was home to the San Juan branch of the renowned New York based label Fania Records. Owner Johnny Pacheco created the Fania All-Stars in 1968, a group that brought together musicians Héctor Lavoe, Celia Cruz, Ray Barretto, and Ruben Blades, among many others, to perform worldwide.
Omar Obdulio Peña Forty’s space 2BLEÓ functions as an exhibition platform, private residence, and a makeshift barbershop.
Art Lab is an alternative space that doubles as a framing business and workshop. Directed and owned by Ahmed Echevarría, it is a tool for both artists and curators to experiment with new forms and formats.
In the suburbs of San Juan, Area: lugar de proyectos is a vital platform that supports local emerging artists. Founded in 2005 by collector José Hernández Castrodad and artist Quintín Rivera Toro, the space consistently fosters artistic and curatorial experimentation through adaptable exhibition platforms. Artists who have shown here and who today have an international profile include Pedro Vélez, Michael Linares, and Karlo Andrei Ibarra.
Casa de Cultura Ruth Hernández Torres is a flexible community-focused cultural center in Río Piedras. It is the site of exhibitions, dinners, and workshops, among many other activities. Above, the movement project/course “body, architecture, mobility” by artist and activist Noemí Segarra.
Three commercial art galleries—Roberto Paradise, Walter Otero, and Agustina Ferreyra—present a consistent program of exhibitions with local and international artists. After the demise of Circa International Art Fair in 2010, these galleries represent an important art market moment for a group of local artists, but also serve as a much-needed window into international practices.