On ViewHutchinson Modern & Contemporary
Juan Sánchez: Ricanstructions condiciones que existen
September 1 – November 4, 2022
The phrase “Primero soy Boricua” resonates in Juan Sánchez's solo show Ricanstructions condiciones que existen at Hutchinson Modern. Twenty-four works of collage, painting, printmaking, and mixed media, spanning from the 1980s to his most recent production in 2022, provide insight into the artist's trajectory, including his activism, political views, and lived experience as a Boricua born in Brooklyn. Sánchez borrowed the term “ricanstructions” from jazz and salsa musician Ray Barretto’s 1979 album Rican/Struction to refer to the existing conditions that inform identity such as history, social and political experiences, and Sánchez’s process of adopting mainland US influences as a Nuyorican.
Sánchez’s Ricanstructions configure multilayered images as a deconstruction of the Latin American sentiment of incompleteness due to economic and socio-political struggle. With humor and irony, Sánchez’s aesthetic embraces diverse elements to push the boundaries of politics by positioning Puerto Rico and Latin America at the center of the conversation. He endeavors to create a paradox between economic disparity, colonialism, and decolonization, disclosing the deep-rooted Catholicism intrinsic to his work.
Entering the gallery creates the feeling of being surrounded by Catholic altarpieces because of the large-scale paintings, the Christian iconography, and the segmental arch of the wood panels. One could sense the artist's meditative process through the musical lyrics and the spontaneous poetry written over the fresh paint on each canvas, while his collages allow us to observe the deconstruction of Catholic, Taino, and African symbols and cultural traditions through their juxtaposition with comics and television characters.
One of the central paintings titled Confused Paradi©e (1995), is a wordplay that coins life as dice in a game, both played and gambled. Following the structure of a cross made of NYC subway maps, the painting presents two wrestlers looking like El Santo, the iconic Mexican wrestler from the 1970s, wearing the flag of Puerto Rico during the Puerto Rican Day parade. At the pinnacle of the painting, the portrait of Jesus Christ appears on a twenty dollar bill surrounded by multiple Mickey Mouse figures, which also appear at the bottom. The contiguity of these religious and popular icons problematizes oppressive and inhuman practices such as chattel slavery. In the center, an upside-down palm tree stands out in a landscape of Taino symbols representing Puerto Rico’s endless cycle of dependence on the United States. The golden surface represents the limb of reality and the reconstruction of reality once learned and constantly reconfigured.
Yo soy lo que soy (1996) is an autobiographical painting in which Astro Boy, a Japanese manga character from the late 1950s, appears flying in space surrounded by seashells representing stars. This character’s fierce eyes symbolize the artist’s alter ego that wears the Puerto Rican flag. In the repeated portrait, the artist was four years old wearing a suit at a toddler’s first birthday party. In each picture, the artist circled himself to highlight his innocence and shyness in an existential moment where Sánchez reaffirms his identity by creating a hypertext of his origin story.
Similarly to a mix of salsa with jazz, the exhibition invites us to observe the musicality of Sánchez’s visual compositions through their whispered memories beneath the layers of color, gesture, and hypertext. Situated in the gallery’s back room, one must make an effort to discover Young Lords Warriors (2009). This archival pigment print on watercolor paper delicately reveals the image of Pablo “Yoruba” Guzmán, Juan González, and Iris Morales, former members of the Young Lords, which was a national political and civil rights organization focused on fighting for neighborhood empowerment and self-determination for Puerto Ricans in the United States. The Young Lords’ ideology is visible through the superimposed layers depicting socialist iconography as an homage to their resistance and solidarity.
More salsa music influences emerge in Para Tito Puente (2001–02). One can almost hear the bright ostinato patterns of timbales reverberating through the repetition of images of St. Martin de Porres, patron saint of social justice, placed on a grid and crowned by the mirrored image of Tito Puente. Between Puente’s image, there is a rosary made of cowrie shells and beads in the colors of the Puerto Rican flag. The painting, however, diverges into a circle divided by four double-headed arrows, a Santería symbol representing the cross worlds and the possibility of going in different directions like a sudden, loud rimshot, a comment on the complexity of the two worlds and identities commonly seen in immigrants and their future generations.
Hutchinson Modern presents Juan Sánchez’s first solo show in a private gallery in the Upper East Side, which creates an intimate and emotionally charged space by exploring Sánchez’s political history and commitment to the sovereignty of Puerto Rico and civil rights at large. Throughout his career, Sánchez has composed a visual melody that asks us to reevaluate our common notions and understanding of the multiplicity of Latin American identity.