by Jessica Holmes
Urban Martyrs and Latter Day Santos
El Museo del Barrio | July 22 – December 19, 2015
Rodríguez Calero—who was born in Puerto Rico but has lived most of her life in New York and New Jersey—is an artist whose methods and processes are so intricate that she has had to invent unique terms of classification to describe them. Rather than paintings, she refers to her works on canvas as “acrollage,” pieces in which she uses an acrylic emulsifier to transfer collaged images onto painted canvas that has been further interfered with by gold leaf, stenciled patterns, and rice paper. Most often the collage aspects make up a central human form out of various parts, infused with the Catholic iconography that has left a deep impression on the artist since childhood. Despite their traditional elements, the acrollage works exhibit a definitively contemporary spirit. Rodríguez Calero: Urban Martyrs and Latter Day Santos is the first monographic survey dedicated to the artist.
Calero’s style can easily be compared to that of Kehinde Wiley, an artist a generation her junior whose work, at least until now, has enjoyed a wider critical audience. Both artists share an affinity for placing a strong character at the center of a richly textured and vibrant background, as well as a preference for chromatic resplendence. But where Wiley’s interest lies overwhelmingly in the depiction of African-American men in lionhearted poses, Calero’s subjects blur the lines between gender and ethnic boundaries, the ambiguity extending to the equivocal postures their bodies assume. The upshot of her efforts is subtly political and broadly humane.
Take, for example Virgen Maria (2000), where Calero has transformed the traditional image of a passive, receding Madonna into something more subversive. With a halo of gold leaf and paint surrounding her head, Calero’s Virgin Mary, rather than the typical Caucasian visage and dreamy, ethereal demeanor, is depicted as an amalgam of two female faces, one Asian and the other African-American. The torso is banded with streaks of red paint, as if she has been bound. However, the composite face stares straight ahead with a defiant expression, representing perspectives that have frequently been left out of the larger feminist conversation and embodying the strength and self-awareness of an empowered woman. The lashes around her body perhaps symbolize the long history of female subjugation, but the Madonna’s obstreperous expression suggests that the time for this suppression has passed.
In Transcendent (2013) Calero has collaged the figure of a young black man with his back to the viewer and his head averted, a gesture akin to the one made when glancing down at a cell phone in hand. He stands before a cruciform comprised of a horizontal band of gold leaf and a vertical swathe of gray. The remainder of the canvas is painted a bright, contrasting aquamarine, over which a delicate, lacy pattern has been stenciled. By underscoring the body with the religious symbol, Calero ups the image’s emotional charge. Instead of an average guy situated in an unremarkable pose, we recognize a spiritual quality in the man’s stance, not to mention its vulnerability. Made in the year sandwiched between the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, the acrollage evokes their ghosts, as well as the rash of other very public deaths of African-Americans that have followed of late. The cross becomes a memento mori, when we remember that even just standing idly to read a text message has the potential to become rife with danger for a non-white body.
Calero’s more modest collages on paper hang in two adjacent galleries with those works she has dubbed “fotocroles,” a technique combining photography, painting, collage, and chine-colle. Where the larger canvases are refined and contemplative, these smaller works are suffused with an aggressive, jangly energy. Invoking the legendary dance troupe from In Living Color, the iconic, early-‘90s television sketch show, Fly Girl (2003) simultaneously attracts and repels. The collaged face of a B-girl is a mashup of so many parts it becomes a grotesque mask, and is a marked antithesis to the provocative, barely-concealed breasts and stilettoed leg that partially comprise her body. In Barrio Boogie Movement (2006), another collaged B-girl leaps from the page in a breaking move, while she’s photographed from the sidelines. Set against an urban backdrop of blue sky, a high-rise apartment building, and streetlights, the work vibrates with a nearly audible hip-hop bass. A viewer can fairly imagine the busy, messy street life of New York in the summer, the thrum of a sound system through the open windows of a passing car, the sweat and heat of bodies in proximity crossing paths on a narrow sidewalk, pausing maybe, to watch this dancer in the street.
Presiding in one of the side galleries—and indeed over the entire exhibition—is a selection of santos de palo: wooden religious figurines common to traditional Puerto Rican folk art. Chosen by the artist from El Museo del Barrio’s permanent collection, the humble little icons offer their benediction over Calero’s very contemporary work. Seeing them in the context of this show of urban martyrs and latter day santos is a reminder of Puerto Rican culture’s elemental influence on the city. Without it, New York wouldn’t quite be New York.