Art Adventures with El Museo del Barrio: El Salvador
March 20, 2015
Shortly after landing, we arrive at the gates of MARTE, Museo de Arte de El Salvador, in San Salvador. Our five day visit has been organized by the contemporary art branch of MARTE Contemporaneo, invited by its savvy curator, Claire Breukel and through the auspices of Trustee Mario Cader-Frech, one of the most important supporters of contemporary art in El Salvador. We start at one of the centers of San Salvador's culture with a tour of the museum.
The museum is a small jewel, with entire galleries dedicated to modern and contemporary art. One gallery is just for contemporary work by living artists from El Salvador and is filled with fascinating works by the renowned Luis Cornejo, Walterio Iraheta and Simon Vega among others equally fabulous. The largest gallery on the main floor is reserved for an important survey of twentieth century art from El Salvador. Immediately noticeable is the country's participation in larger hemispheric movements that explored the (sometimes romanticized) idea and the image of the indigenous figure as a marker of authenticity and harbinger of modernity. Idealized landscapes and larger than life figures inspire national pride and evoke a certain heroic "Salvadoran-ness." Works from later periods often either directly address or ignore the period of the civil war in works that are simultaneously euphoric and tragic. This turns out to be perhaps the most important part of the voyage, because the themes and ideas evoked in these earlier works will continue to be important to the artists working today in El Salvador.
Walterio Iraheta: Hecho con desechos
Walterio Iraheta likes toys. Not just any toys but specifically the kind of toys that come with the McDonald's Happy Meal. Mass produced in China, the toys are consumed in the United States and end up in super sized used clothing and goods stores in El Salvador that source their merchandise from the U.S. In his studio Disney characters abound--giraffes and monkeys combine to create a Brancusi-referenced endless column of plastic toys. Behind this endless form of plastic toys are two giant grey paintings of Teletubbies. The enormous twin figures stand in monumental silence above the rest of the toys and other objects in the studio. Below these lie a series of toy guns covered in graphite. Placed in careful arrangement on the floor, the artist explains that in his upcoming show in Los Angeles, these will be placed on the wall to give the notion of their installation in the home of a gun collector. Mixed together here are "classic" toys that imitate handguns and AK-47s s with futuristic guns that look like something from the armory of Marvin the Martian. In order to find his materials, Iraheta spends a great deal of time in the second-hand stores of San Salvador to find multiple versions of the same exact toy. It is a lengthy and dedicated process, which draws from a general concern for the environment that is palpable in the country and not only among artists. A visit to MARTE-C (Museo de Arte de El Salvador) reveals a work in the collection by Iraheta that is a lineup of plastic spray bottles painted in a gradient range from white to dark grey. Like artists elsewhere in Central America and the Caribbean Iraheta's work reflects a culture of seeking out discarded materials (often from the landscape itself) to create new works of art.
After Walterio's studio we stop off at the famous El Oasis, a natural juice bar near the University that has been in business for over 30 years. Living up to its name, the bar consists of walk up window and a set of small tables placed under a canopy of leafy green plants (speaking of which, everything here is green and leafy...one gets the feeling that you could pretty much throw a handful of seeds anywhere and vegetation would grow). I order the Bengal Tiger juice: mango, strawberry, pineapple and blackberry juices. My partners in crime order the Egyptian Goddess, another fabulous concoction of freshness.
March 21, 2015
By 9 AM we are entering the doors of the Sala Nacional de Exposiciones Salarrué (National Salon of Exhibitions) to see a solo show by the intensely cerebral Natalia Dominguez, a young artist who, like many of her top compatriots, has studied elsewhere and returned home to launch a career. Her highly personal exhibition reveals a deep interest around materials, processes and objects that reference specific moments and bodies. Nostalgia is bound up with recollections of family history including the death of her brother. The exhibition opens with a series of masks, which are intended to recall family, friends, acquaintances and lovers from her past. They are the welcome to the exhibition. What follows is a series of individual works that, taken together, evoke the artist's life through recollections of family. A round table is covered with a chaotic grouping of glass teacups and saucers. A holdover from colonial times, la hora del té, or teatime, is a tradition for households of all levels of society. In these teacups, however, we see strands of white "hair" trapped in a liquid that is not tea-colored at all, lending a disturbing air that is reinforced by the jumble of cups. Cement is another material that makes several appearances in the work. A cement stairway that starts and stops in midair leads nowhere. Elsewhere, a bed is made of a mattress with a thinner top layer of cement. Into this layer are embedded a series of fish eyes in cast resin. When first shown in Caguas, Puerto Rico, this installation featured fresh fish eyes that were left uncovered, enveloping the bed in odor and a constant drip of water that fell in the middle of the concrete "mattress." A series of ties on one wall recalls her father. In various states of decay, we are allowed to see the inner parts of the ties, where the silk has been stripped away from the lining. They hang like rags, sad and defeated, a metaphor for a lifetime lived at work, away from the family. As do the teacups, they evoke reflections of middle class life and the presence and absence of the body.
From the Sala Nacional, we head to a housing development outside of San Salvador on the way to the beach, La Hacienda, to visit artist (and arts administrator) Mayra Barraza. Mayra has been making work since the 80s and has several series, some of which focus on the figure and others that rely on abstract forms. Among her most powerful is a series of miniature watercolor portraits that the artist made during the civil war in El Salvador that feature faces of those who lost their lives in the violence. Each small image has been taken from the newspaper, forming a visual narrative of death. The artist appropriately titled this series The Book of the Dead. Using a medium generally reserved for carefully painted images of idyllic landscapes, the watercolor becomes kind of brutal ally, recording the likenesses of bodies no longer visible. A related work, Republic of Death, features diptychs that show a woman's naked body on one sheet and her severed head on the other. Without a doubt, these are Mayra's best works, though the artist has noted that it became difficult to continue to address such issues every day in her works. Other strong works include a series of large portrait paintings of men that are slightly blurred, or portrayed from behind. This absent male figure is a constant in the artist's body of work, reflecting not just family narratives, but also the realities of a country at war with itself over a period of 12 years (and with related problems in the aftermath of returning exiles and the associated exportation of gang culture).
From Mayra Barraza's studio we head to Simon Vega's home studio located on the beach at playa Xanadu, La Libertad. Overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Simon's space is a garden paradise where the artist uses found objects to make works that recreate the ephemera of space programs everywhere. The skeleton of one of his well-known Sputnik works sits under a trellis of vines. In the distance are what remains of one of the smaller Sputniks, still covered with found aluminum cans. These works and small maquettes for other works are visible throughout the house. Drawings of wooden structures in sepia and graphite come to life on the porch, where he has constructed a miniature version of some of his larger temporary installations. Little house-like structures cling to one another like tiny homes to the side of a mountain, a view reflected in the region. The artist discusses his recent works in Miami as social sculpture in the tradition of Joseph Beuys but with a tropical twist. Artists and other art world types are invited to bring the ingredients for their favorite cocktail to make and share with others via one of 4 mobile cocktail stations fabricated by the artist. Manipulated wooden pallets become benches for the public. Another object from the series acts as both beer cooler and refreshing seating. In another work, people are invited to use a local space that was already popular as a place to light bonfires. Building materials and tools are available and a large platform is constructed according to instructions from the artist, among other more artisanal objects made by the whim of the public. In addition to these works that invite social interaction, the artist also has a body of drawings and preparatory sketches that reflect the construction of the sculptural works. A larger series of "blueprint" paintings is reminiscent of design sketches and architectural plans that present alternative versions of NASA-type technologies. The Tropical Mercury Capsule runs on organic coconut oil, boasts a pirated DVD collection and a secret place to stash weed. Its "concrete suspension system" evokes the modernist architecture of the Caribbean and Central America and bears witness to the spur of building that reinforced concrete allowed. An unexpected surprise comes in the decoration of Simon's surfboards, which he has emblazoned with the image of the Virgen de Gualadupe. Her symbolism is not lost on the artist, who identifies her as an important symbolic (and racialized) figure, a heroine for immigrant populations in the United States.
March 22, 2015
La Fabrika: Fantastic Four
Monday afternoon finds us visiting artists who have taken over an abandoned muffler factory where over the years, a numbers of artists have collaborated. More recently, a committed group has whittled itself down to about 7 artists, and we were able to visit with four.
Ronald Moran is, without a doubt, one of the key figures in the art scene of El Salvador over the last 20 years. He is perhaps best known for his environments, entire rooms including a kitchen and a nursery that have been completely covered in soft cotton-like material. These installations have been shown all over the world, including in the Venice Biennale in 2007 when he represented El Salvador in the Latin American pavilion. In these fantastic and obsessive works, each object is covered in this soft material, underscoring the overwhelming violence that exists in the world, here subtly considered through the blurred surfaces of every object in the kitchen or child's room. This body of work led to a deeper consideration of various objects including kitchen knives. The everyday violence of these objects is dulled by the cotton layer, but simultaneously heightened by the outlining of its signifying form. In recent works, the artist has been creating a series of labyrinths, stairs to nowhere and other conceptual forms from fishing line and white thread. In some cases, these are illuminated with black light, making the white threads eerily visible as the stairs climb to an unseen and unknown location- perhaps a kind of dislocation. We discuss his interest in some of the American Minimalists and his dedication to a repetition of identical forms. This is becoming most apparent in drawings that he creates as preparatory studies for installations, but which are beautiful on their own. Using lined paper covered in squares, he pokes through the paper to create a raised surface and a kind of minimalist drawing that is essentially based on the square. Recalling Joaquin Torres Garcia's embracing of the circle, triangle and square, Moran makes a connection across 80 years to the School of the South, reclaiming the square as a meaningful sign.
Moran's younger colleague POKER represents a newer generation of artists working in El Salvador. The artist has been doing graffiti for 8 years and since 2009 has been working on a series of paintings that has transformed into a series of interventions on car windows and windshields. The artist mixes popular imagery with a graffiti aesthetic and sprayed-canned texts that evoke social issues, such as his “Perro de oficina” --an early twenty first century critique of class immortalized in gang speak. His most recent project, which we would be seeing that evening, is an “unpainting” that he calls a questioning of the support, a returning of the wall to its original state. For a future project, he is interested in questioning the relationship between the interior and the exterior of a wall. The idea may take the form of removing part of an interior wall and placing it outside to allow it to take on a kind of patina from the street. A kind of inverse graffiti project, the artist hopes to explore ideas of displacement and reversal through painting, text and gestures inspired by the historic avant-garde's.
Danny Zavaleta tells a story of growing up in a neighborhood (Soyapango) in which young men generally had only two options in life: to make a life among the struggling or to join a gang. Having the opportunity to observe members of the notorious gangs of San Salvador, the artist has made a concerted study of the tattoos worn by the young men, which are often a mix of domestic and violent objects. They have become part of the inventory of images of the culture El Salvador that are exported. Working through these ideas, Zavaleta has created a limited edition circular tablecloth embroidered with icons of violence as well as a series of tea towels that feature hand grenades, spider webs, shanks, and glamorous jainas (the Hollywood gang molls and East L.A. cholas of El Salvador). A new piece reverses the idea of adapting violence to craft and the handmade object by returning it to the body. It is a typical Salvadoran white cotton costume emblazoned with traditional gang tattoo depictions and “Vivo Por Mi Madre y Muero Por Mi Barrio” which trnslates into I live for my mother and die for my neighborhood and "ES" in large Old English-style lettering across the front of the shirt. A new body of paintings takes inspiration from the back of the tractor-trailer trucks that are the backbone of every economy. The popular icons and silhouette figures favored by truckers become symbolic traces of space, money, desire and the passage of time. Trained as a graphic designer, the artist has also created a number for projects that play on ephemera such as maps and posters, recreating the map of San Salvador as an insider’s view of the city.
Antonio Romero works in both painting and ceramics and plays with fragments and partiality in his discourse. Fragments of the female body are revealed in paintings that recall both historic signage and fragments of large painting from the 1980s or, even earlier, from pop paintings that feature luscious nudes. A breast-as-pipe ceramic work plays on Magritte’s Treachery of Images, while an elongated ceramic form evokes both phallus and female leg in the midst of a Zen-like garden. For the artist, the fragmentation of the female body serves as a symbolic critique of violence against women. Among the artists most interesting works are a couple of series that deal with explorations of identity, desire and the body. Included among these is a group of portraits that are photoshopped according to the sitter’s wishes. Asking his subjects to describe how they hope to be seen, the artist adds piercings, changes hair color and length and shapes of features to create an individualized ideal. This work is an extension of his investigations into the essentialism and commercialization of identity, which includes his exploration of his own image hybridized with that of Lenny Kravitz and his Perfect Fit, which allows any man to don a set of perfect pectoral muscles above a perfect abdomen. It is a powerful comment that reminds us that men also feel pressure to be perfect.
March 24, 2015
8:30 AM: Art slams
By 8:30 AM, we arrive at Carrot Concept design studios. It is a multi-use space with a large sales room for innovative design upstairs, offices for artists doing graphic, furniture, textile and interior design. Seeing a lack of local and international business opportunities for the growing design community in El Salvador and a need for space to show work, a group of designers came together to found Carrot Concept. Their beautiful location also houses two architecture studios, a graphic design/illustration studio, a textile and stamping workshop and an organic food store that develops and sells locally-sourced health foods. On the first floor is a small space where artist Alexia Miranda teaches art workshops for students of all ages. This is where we meet for portfolio reviews.
Rodrigo Dada is a photographer who is interested in the absurd and introspection. His photos function as psychological portraits of his sitters, who were originally friends and family but now may also include strangers who agree to sit for a portrait. They have a quality of film stills and the figures seen in them evoke fragility and isolation. He is interested in exploring the insignificance of humanity in the scope of the world by focusing on quiet moments of vulnerability. Movement is important in the work, evinced by the way in which the figures are posed, frozen in sometimes complex poses that allude to contemporary dance. He is also working on new media projects that involve Google maps and other open source imagery.
Alexia Miranda measures space with bodies, both hers and those of willing participants. She does this in order to create a kind of algorithm that is intended to explore connectivity and physicality. From real measurements of real bodies, she explores the metaphorical sphere of distance and its relationship to the body. Through her performance, the artist seeks ways of gaining energy from others and helping them to energize, share and grow with one another.
Javier Ramirez/Nadie is perhaps one of the most unique artists we had the pleasure of chatting with. Nadie (No one) described to us how his nickname, which drew from the tales of Odysseus, eventually stuck because it became a kind of standing joke: “you have email from ‘No one,” “‘No one’ called you.” Part of his work came out of an experiment with making “interesting” profile images for social media. This way of experimenting with the body and the face has permeated his work, resulting in humorous and unexpected juxtapositions of feminine and masculine characteristics, various unusual materials, and collages that are formed from a cast of thousands.
Abigail Reyes is having a solo exhibition at MARTE Contemporaneo (described later), making her one of the artstars of the moment. Her deeply methodical work centers of text. Though she is interested in the context of words, she is equally interested in their forms, studying letterpress typeface and diligently recreating its signs in her needlepoint works. Using unusual materials such as newsprint and carbon paper, the artist alludes to both the overuse of words and their fragile nature. She explores the boundary between legibility and illegibility, often evoked as a critique of the educational system in the country. In a very conceptual gesture that recalls the work of the American artist Adrian Piper, the artist has also created a series of poems that she places in the want ads of the local paper.
Kevin Baltazar, in his most recent work, has “wrapped” a pedestrian overpass in bright green flexible PVC tubing. His interest in the repeated object of the city street led him to the overpasses, which are rarely used in San Salvador. Straddling the busiest streets in the capital city, the overpasses are giant, rusty objects, reminders of the unimportance accorded to pedestrians in urban and suburban culture of the 1970s, when the oil and automobile industries were ruling. The stark contrast of the neon green with the aging metal and chipping paint of the pedestrian walk way create a visual dialogue that is palpable in his photographs of the project. A new installation at The Point underscores the linear and drawing-like effect of the thin green tubing “drawn” in front of a window and attached to added metal pipes in the hallway of a minimalist office space.
After a delicious lunch of Thai food, we head to Centro Cultural de España, which has recently launched a residency program. We sit in the informal workspace of these shared quarters to visit with three more artists.
Victor "Crack" Rodriguez was recently detained by police and charged with something along the lines of “tampering with public property” when he deployed an art action during the elections. The artist, rather than voting, stood in the voting center after receiving his ballot and proceeded to chew up and consume the ballot. This gesture was intended to question the entire voting process and its actual impact against the social ills that the artist sees as deeply influenced by the political culture of the country. Rather than calling his works performance, the artist refers to them as art actions. Another action, this time an endurance piece, involves the artist kneeling on a mound of birdseed, a common punishment for children in the parochial school system. Intended as a critique of the education system, the artist sees this work as a parallel to the gesture that Bart Simpson is forced to make when writing 100 times on the chalkboard “I will not (fill in the blank here)….” as a punishment. The use of the maiz,or grain for making tortillas, also refers to the invasive politics of Monsanto corn and its growing power in a region in which corn is a major food staple. One of his simplest and fundamentally funny actions is his Neutropolitan Attack, in which he reads out loud the instructions for using a Blackberry device, underscoring the hegemony of the English speaking world, even visited on devices made in Asia.
Melissa Guevara is interested in materials, in what is available and easily accessed. Her Exvoto cerrado features a mound of chicken bones covered in clay. As they crush against each other, they break and reveal the bones that lie beneath the ceramic surface. She often prefers to work specifically with unfired clay because it is more fragile and evocative of its natural materials. The little bones stand information, like a military troop, waiting endlessly to be deployed. Bones are the central material in several of her new works such as a triple set of hourglasses, each filled with ground human bones. Marking the passage of time literally through human remains, these works are reminiscent of seventeenth century Dutch and Spanish still lifes in which skulls, candles and fruit are all signs for the inevitable passage of time and the brevity of human life. Perhaps her most labor-intensive work has been the folding of 1000 paper cranes, each one formed from a page torn from the Bible.
Mauricio Kabistan will be participating in this year’s Venice Biennale with a sound/video work that is about the disappearing Nahuatl language spoken by indigenous groups that live in Western part of El Salvador. His work 1932 recalls a massacre ordered that year by General Maximiliano Hernández Martínez in which 30,000 indigenous people were killed. This kind of violence which has marred the history of all of the Americas is explored here through the human voice and the distinctive sounds of the Nahuatl language. This activist component is common in his work. Another project, Memory Circle, brings together a group of women who lost family members during the civil war to discuss living without loved ones in the aftermath. A video, Requiem, is a large-scale projection in which 27,000 names of people killed during the civil war scroll like a mass of film credits. Each name is taken directly from the civil war Monument to Memory and Truth, each one having been retyped by the artist into his computer to create the projected image. It is the labor not just of an artist, but of a compassionate and deliberate activist, one who never loses hope for the possibility of change.
Just before visiting the last artists of the day, we stop to see an exhibition organized by Washington D.C.-based artist from El Salvador, Muriel Hasbun. The exhibition focuses on Galeria Laberinto, the art gallery that Hasbun’s mother, Janine Janowski, operated between 1977 and 2001. It was one of the only galleries that functioned during the civil war and was an important place for artists and intellectuals of the period. The exhibition looks at the history of the gallery and many of the most important exhibitions held there, underscoring its continued relevance. Through a grant, the artist has created Laberinto projects, a collaborative, arts and lens-based, education and cultural legacy preservation platform, consisting of a digital archive of art, documentation and video oral histories of artists of Central America working during the Salvadoran civil war and its aftermath. According to Hasbun: “laberinto projects provides a lens into the state of the arts during the 1980's and 90's in El Salvador, fosters research and outreach projects across borders, and promotes post war healing, transnational dialogue and cultural understanding in El Salvador and in the United States.”
Finishing here, we head across the street to InSitu design group, a project launched by Mauricio Esquivel and Jaime Izaguirre. In Mauricio’s absence, Jaime graciously spoke about his collaborator’s work, showing us a series of works that explored the border between Mexico and the United States. This was a research project that the artist undertook during a three month period, exploring the border territory from Tijuana to Naco. Due in part to the violence in which Salvadorans live and in preparation for imminent death, the artist has tattooed his body with a red line from chest to abdomen that indicates where the flesh should be cut when an autopsy is performed on a cadaver.
Jaime Izaguirre then discusses his own work with us, beginning by divulging a fascinating and terrifying fact about the country: that there are more privately contracted security guards than there are men on the entire police force. This kind of reversal or diffusing of authority underscores the idea, for the artist and perhaps for many others, that security is a state of mind. He has created a series of drawings of the sky, as though seen only from the confines of one’s space enclosed by high walls. A fountain of knowledge, Jaime also mentions the work of art historian Jorge Palomo who notes that artist Mayra Barraza (see March 21) is the first artist artist in El Salvador who touches on the theme of gang violence in her art work (Republica de la Muerte, 2009-2010). Of course, this will become a common thread in the work of many artists of her generation and in the following years. Jaime notes how the entire culture of the country has turned inwards on itself, seeing safety within the home, creating spaces that act as barriers to the violence on the streets. The artist refers to this as “la generacíon del encierro” or “the generation of confinement,” which was also the theme of an exhibition organized by inSitu and presented at the prestigious TEOR/éTica in Costa Rica. For this generation, remaining enclosed has been made easier with the advent of cable television, video games, and the Internet. The chair, in Izaguirre’s work, becomes a metaphor for the human condition.
On the wall in the office is a work by another collaborator, Virginia Cortez, who has installed on the wall together a series of porcelain plates of various patterns and forms, creating a kind of study of domesticity and objectness as presented through the guise of an object of daily use. This ordinariness, however, is disrupted by the fact that the surface of the plates are sand-blasted and engraved with erotic scenes.
The little bird picks out a number of fortunes for me; the young boy fans them out and instructs me to select one. Choosing a pink sheet, I unfold it to read: "Health challenge due to problems purchasing vaccines...Minister of Health confirms difficulties paying OMS (World Health) for vaccines...Four month shortage of neumococo and Pentavalente vaccines." Two additional headlines read: "7 police and a court employee are detained in San Miguel" and "Allies: Previously the FMLN was the first to criticize Madrugones." This litany of national woes is the artist's clever twist on this traditional (and fading) fortune telling method popular throughout in the Americas, in which parakeets are trained to select, from a circular tray of pastel colored papers, a fortune that is specific to the individual. This is Abigail Reyes' lovely and carefully considered project that brings live animals and their trainers into MARTE for the first time ever. Buena Fortuna/Good Fortune draws on the artist's interest in text. While the formal elements of text have always been significant to her--its shape and formatting--the significance of the words have generally been of a personal nature. Expanding this interest in text and in newspaper fonts and the newspaper itself, the artist uses the media as the message of her work, deploring the state of the country through its own texts.
March 25: The Final Day
Prior to my 3pm departure, I am treated to a discussion on the state of contemporary art in El Salvador with a journalist from El Diario de Hoy. We make a final visit to the gallery of contemporary art at MARTE, re-visiting again the animated works of the newest generation of artists being represented by the supportive and nurturing museum. It is a pleasure to see the work of living artists given such a prominent location within the museum’s space. It is a hopeful statement, a model of excellence.