San Juan, Puerto Rico is quietly becoming one of the hottest destinations for contemporary art in the world. This doesn’t completely surprise me—for the past few years I’ve been watching a group of Puerto Rican artists like Allora & Calzadilla, Angel Otero and Carlos Rolon “Dzine” rise to the top. Last fall, Phaidon Press, which is well-known for publishing art books that are edited and written by respected curators from all over the world, chose San Juan as one of the art cities of the future and called it “twenty first century avant-garde.” So naturally when Walter Otero, the owner of the most important contemporary art gallery in Puerto Rico, invited me to explore San Juan’s art scene, I didn’t blink.
Walter has been credited with discovering and developing some of Puerto Rico’s most prominent contemporary artists, including Arnaldo Roche and Carlos Betancourt. His eponymous gallery is located right outside the Old San Juan district in an area that is destined to become Puerto Rico’s art and design epicenter. The space has two large floors and a rooftop where a view of the Bay of San Juan is like their proverbial cherry on top. The current solo show is Dzine’s. His mixed media pieces and sandblasted mirrors explore Puerto Rican ornaments and architectural details in a sophisticated manner with flawless execution.
Agustina Ferreyra’s gallery, whose program and well-curated shows focus on promising emerging artists from all over the world, currently has the works of Brooklyn-based abstractionist Zak Prekop on display.
San Juan even has a gallery on wheels. The Trailer Park Project is a more experimental space where young, local artists show their work inside of an itinerant trailer that travels around the city bringing the works to collectors. The project also has a stationed trailer in the Barrio Blondet neighborhood and has released their own limited edition prints with several of the artists that they work with. Their mission is fantastic and it extends to offering indie and art house movie nights as well as “hang out soirées” in local museums.
San Juan has two art museums in its metropolitan area: Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico and Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Puerto Rico; and both contain large collections of international and local art. Another museum about an hour drive from San Juan, Museo de Arte de Ponce, is considered one of the finest in the Americas.
Because, to me, no exploration of an art scene is complete without seeing local artists in their natural environments, a visit to some studios was de rigueur. So we started with Arnaldo Roche’s workspace, which is housed in a massive warehouse in the area of Carolina. The ceilings are at least 18 feet tall and the space is covered in papers and raw canvases, all of them executed using a combination of blue tones ranging from indigo to periwinkle. Arnaldo is in his “blue period” and has been exploring it in-depth. Roche is very humble and avoids the limelight, but he has had a brilliant trajectory that started with becoming one of the very first Latinos to get his BFA and MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the 1980s. Now, his pieces are in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, the RISD Museum in Providence and the De La Cruz and Rubell Collections in Miami among many others. Infinitely talented and with a technique I had never seen before, he uses objects and people as models that he places under paper which he then rubs with either oil bars, pastels, pencils or whatever he feels is the best medium to accomplish his objective. Alternatively, he prepares canvases that had been covered in layers and layers of oil paint. After the right drying time (usually several days), he uses a knife to carve and discover the textures that remain underneath. He offered to make a piece using my own hands, which he covered with a piece of paper that he had previously dyed with watercolor depicting a delicate strip of lace. He worked quickly, intensely and with confidence. In a matter of minutes we had an outstanding work on paper.
The second artist I visited was Luis Vidal, who splits his time between Barcelona and San Juan. His space was perched on the top floor of a landmark building in beautiful Old San Juan. What could have once been a 5,000 square-foot home is now an airy and ample studio with magnificently preserved marble checkerboard floors, exposed beams, arched doorways with baroque details and wood shutters opening to colonial balconies overlooking the narrow streets of the historic district. Vidal works with a variety of media, including resin, foam and plaster. He is also known for his staple paintings, each combining at least 1,000 staples that are placed on boards covered with foam, felt and salvaged rags. Luis explores the interplay between beautiful things and the darkness that may surround them, and social activism is often linked to his work. For example, an installation of babies made of resin and wrapped around colorful cords and ribbons hanging from the ceiling was made in Brazil to bring awareness to the practice of child trafficking.
The third and final artist I visited was Michael Linares, a young conceptualist who was included by the New Museum in the celebrated survey “Younger than Jesus” in 2009 and who also collaborated with Mark di Suvero and Rirkrit Tiravanijaon on “The Peace Tower” installation for the Whitney Biennial in 2006. Linares is now completely immersed in a new project where he has conceived, produced and edited a film about the history of the stick. Yes, the long, cylindrical object that has been used for everything from cooking to canes. He walked me through his most important pieces and eloquently and succinctly articulated the concepts behind each of them.
As my trip came to an end, I reflect upon the reasons why this Puerto Rican renaissance is happening. San Juan has a very active artist community, excellent art schools, an engaged group of collectors, fine galleries and some very good museums—all necessary for the healthy development of a city that wants to be a contemporary art power player. But, on a deeper level, perhaps Puerto Ricans have found the answer, after years of conflicting identity, to what it really means to be the Latin piece of the geographically and politically denominated “unincorporated territory” of the United States. Maybe the rich amalgamation of cultures, including European, African and American influences, were just waiting for the right moment to fit together. Whatever the reason, San Juan is certainly solidifying its place within the contemporary art world, and I’m elated to have witnessed it firsthand.