Treehouses and Tropical Readymades: The Lively Forms of Radamés “Juni” Figueroa
“You seem to one arriving on your soil / A lovely mystic city made of foam,” wrote the celebrated 19th-century poet José Gautier Benítez of his native Puerto Rico. The steamy climate and lively energy of San Juan, the Caribbean island’s capital, are the inspiration for works by another Puerto Rican artist, Radamés “Juni” Figueroa. In his new show “No Fear, Dead or Alive” at San Juan’s Walter Otero Contemporary Art, the artist takes this a step further, injecting his work with shamanic spirituality.
The exhibition serves as an interactive journey of sorts, with sculptures and installations that fill the gallery and guide visitors from the ground floor to the roof. “Shamans have the ability to modify reality, they are creatively advanced and they are able to reinvent themselves not only spiritually but also physically,” Figueroa has said regarding the inspiration behind the show. “I am very interested in how they transform their spaces and I see them as very knowledgeable beings which motivated these paintings.”
Figueroa’s works feel like vivid visual representations of the romantic Puerto Rican imagery—gardens of enchantment, azure seas, wild foams, the wind’s unrest—described by Benítez. His installations, paintings, sculptures, and drawings are celebrations of life on the island. However, Figueroa, who was born in 1982, also makes references to life in the 21st century. The same sea and wind are there, yes, but so are radios, fluorescent basketballs, gold lamé hot pants, graphic T-shirts, and Converse sneakers—trappings that are as much a part of the modern Puerto Rican identity as language and landscape are.
The artist doesn’t only express the energy of his environment through his work. For his most impactful installations, he goes one step further, using the environment itself as a source of materials. Figueroa constructed Tree House—Casa Club in Naguabo, Puerto Rico, in 2013, using found materials from the surrounding tropical rainforest and from the streets of San Juan. Airy and colorful, Tree House is meant to be accessible and lighthearted, whether in its original milieu or in the sculpture yard of the Whitney Museum of American Art, where an iteration of the structure was exhibited last year as part of the Whitney Biennial.
The treehouse might be viewed as a natural extension of what Figueroa calls “tropical readymades”—which he has been making since his youth—like the planters he crafted out of shoes and basketballs, or the fountain he built with watermelons and tropical fruits. These pieces don’t simply evoke the spirit of Puerto Rico—they are constructed from the island’s resources, which makes it especially satisfying that, this time around, the work isn’t on display in New York or Miami, but in San Juan.