Exit Art, May 17 – June 29, 2008
At first glance, the main gallery of Exit Art resembles a Wunderkammer of lovingly selected botanical, animal and human artifacts. These objects, made by the artist Charles Juhasz-Alvarado, tell stories that are as culturally specific as they are utopian and borderless. In this mid-career retrospective of the Puerto-Rican/Hungarian artist, we find allegorical sculptures that are participatory, and aesthetic encounters simultaneously whimsical and political.
Among the objects in Juhasz-Alvarado’s collection are a gigantic shoeshine box (that could comfortably house the fabled Old Woman-in-the-Shoe and all of her children), recounting the artist’s plebeian role as international shoe-shiner, and, in the gallery’s entryway, a collection of giant termites carefully crafted in wood, the very material they devour—biomorphic forms melded with conga drums and audio equipment emitting insect sounds and a low hum of human voices. In both these works, the artist examines class through observable behaviors and systems. While the large-scale shoeshine box and the wooden termites are clearly recognizable objects, they also stand as emblems of disruption, meant to transport us to more radical and philosophical interpretations of their being. Of the termites, the artist says it’s “the metaphor of force that works in an underground way” that interests him—“By the time you discover [them] it’s too late.” An insect with a “bad rep” that “plays a vital role in the ecosystem,” and the beauty he finds in the termite parallels his appreciation for the humble shoe-shiner in the context of an often Darwinian class struggle.
But this “natural” order always has some wiggle room. If the termite is able to “transform the materials into sculpture faster than I could,” as the artist says in an interview, his imaginative shift in scale, creating enormous bugs that can stand upright and meld with drums, captures his sense of wonder over their subversive power. Accordingly, the role of the shoe-shiner is not merely servile: for his performance-sculpture titled “S.S. Moscow” (“Shoe-Shine Moscow”), the artist has fitted his shoeshine pedestal with an attachment that tickles his private parts whenever he crouches down to work.
Juhasz-Alvarado considers each element in his installations carefully, avoiding a heavy-handed political critique in favor of situational irony. In “I-Scream,” he presents a wooden replica of an armored truck that was hijacked by members of the radical Puerto Rican separatist group Lost Macheteros in 1983. As related by the artist in a video interview by Jeanette Ingberman, the curator of Exit Art, they were handing out toys to children at the cultural and religious holiday of Three Kings Day when they were arrested. The act of giving comes full circle then, with Alvarado handing out ice cream to gallery-goers at the show’s opening, along with wooden popsicle sticks printed with the dates of Puerto Rican acts of protest. If we missed it, we can still see the wooden sticks strewn around the interior of the truck, leaving us clues we can reconstruct as forensic evidence or a political fable. Other artworks beside the truck in this installation include a large-scale chocolate-covered ice cream bar made of dirt whose vanilla tip “melts” into the the presidential profiles of Mount Rushmore plastered with greenbacks. By quoting a sculptural icon of American-ness, grandiose and bluntly patriotic, and melding it with an edible delight, the artist leads us to consider the human dimensions of the Macheteros’ heist: how much the children must have enjoyed the toys they received, from a dual act of criminality and generosity.
Partaking food along with ideas is revisited in “Jardín des Frutas Prohibidos (Garden of Forbidden Fruit/Duty-Free Zone)”. This piece satirizes agricultural border control from Puerto Rico into the U.S. mainland, presenting photo testimonials of people attempting to depart on flights from the San Juan airport with their pockets stuffed with local verdure or wearing it on their clothes. Rather than relinquish the fruit, many opt to stay on the island and enjoy each bite. Alvarado imagines a paradise garden at the airport, grown from the food confiscated by the authorities, and he invites viewers to linger in a seating area, whose flooring and cushions sport images of the airport Eden.
The nomadic artist, the cherished homeland, the perceptions of mainland versus islander are all cultural constructions that Juhasz-Alvarado implicates in these works, which reflect his travels and his celebration of Puerto Rico. Whereas the aim of the 18th century European collector of the Cabinet of Wonders was to amaze, he did not necessarily understand his objects, which to him were perhaps fetishes. As a maker of objects, Juhasz-Alvarado demonstrates, as he maintains in his interview, that all art is political by virtue of art practice. Yet political readings are often hardly scrutable with much current art, obscured by the veneer of commodity. What can be found here is an exception to the norm: fanciful installations and objects that manage to ground identity and place, whose politics are as personally informed as they are part of the public sphere. From the fertile soil of real events and situations, emerge fables and dreamed spaces.