Environmental and Economic Crises in Puerto Rico Inspire New Works by Radamés “Juni” Figueroa
Following up his solo exhibition at Long Island City’s SculptureCenter last year, Radamés “Juni” Figueroa brings his tropical touch back to New York in “Current Times, Savage Times” at Taymour Grahne Gallery. Trained as a painter, Figueroa maintains an artistic practice that blends sculpture, painting, and installation. He often creates site-specific works that draw as much upon art historical tradition as they do on the cultural climate of his native Puerto Rico. Figueroa’s vibrant constructed environments evoke visual stereotypes of Puerto Rican life, all the while reclaiming them as a formal aesthetic. In this latest exhibition, the tropical melds with the urban, providing a subverted view of Caribbean life tinged with a cynical reflection on the economic and environmental crises consuming his homeland.
“Current Times, Savage Times” departs from elements of Figueroa’s other recent shows, which primarily centered around installations born from an original 2013 project, Casa Club—The Treehouse of Naguabo. Reimaginings of the treehouse, built collaboratively on almost no budget in Puerto Rico to be used as a creative community space, appeared at the 2014 Whitney Biennial, SculptureCenter, and in galleries in London and San Juan—where the artist was born and raised. At Taymour Grahne, Figueroa emulates his past installations, forefronting his readymades and taking a clear, at times tongue-in-cheek, social stance.
A signature in his visual arsenal, the “Tropical Readymades” (which almost always pepper Figueroa’s installations) take shape here as deflated soccer and basketballs that have become makeshift planters for lush greenery (namely snake plants and bromeliad, which is native to the American tropics), accompanied by small-scale, color drawings arranged on individual shelves along one gallery wall. Pulling natural elements of the tropics into dialogue with contemporary, man-made relics of everyday life, the readymades consider a more realistic representation of Puerto Rican culture, one beyond the stereotyped image of “island life,” where urban environments encroach upon and redefine tropical spaces. The visually enticing juxtaposition of the works also stands as a sly reminder of a darker past, where colonial forces infiltrated the Caribbean, rebranding it as their own (highly commodified) object.
Also on view is Figueroa’s new series, “Street Studios,” a set of hanging panels of wood slathered with asphalt and marked with bits of litter and slashes of fluorescent spray. Appearing as though cut from the city streets just outside the gallery, the works reinforce the urban grit present in Figueroa’s new take on the tropical space.
Opposite the readymades hangs Please Hold Me (2015), a jumbled assortment of hand-painted signs, the likes of which you might spot on the street alongside a member of the homeless community. Emblazoned with messages in both English and Spanish, the signs humorously call attention to the decidedly not humorous state of the Puerto Rican economy and environment. As of late June, the nation owed approximately $72 billion dollars to foreign lenders, all the while suffering from a massive drought that is affecting over 2 million people (or nearly 60% of the roughly 3.5 million inhabiting the U.S. territory). Figueroa’s street signs petition for everything from money and work to beer and iphones, with snarky phrases like “necesito dinero para producir arte, mi pais esta jodido...please help me” (“need money to make art, my country is fucked”), “trabajo x agua, will work for water, $ please help $” “soy un pobre diablo de una isla tropical en banca rota” (“I’m a poor devil from a tropical island in bankruptcy”), “will xchange masterpiece for art studio rent.”
All at once, Figueroa touches upon the failing capitalist system, the environmental crisis, and the struggle that artists face in seeking compensation for their labor. He reminds us that amid this bright, blossoming, tropicalized urban landscape, the sinister truth about the slow drain of our vital resources lurks beneath.