Criticism
Friday, September 4th, 2015

Holy Hip-Hop: A Rodriguez Calero Retrospective


Rodríguez Calero: Urban Martyrs and Latter Day Santos at El Museo del Barrio

July 22 to December 19, 2015
1230 5th Avenue (between 105th and 104th streets)
New York, 212 831 7272

Rodríguez Calero, The Apparition, 1999. Acrollage on canvas, 36 x 24 inches. Courtesy of the Artist.

Rodríguez Calero, The Apparition, 1999. Acrollage on canvas, 36 x 24 inches. Courtesy of the Artist.

Framed, perhaps unavoidably, by the artist’s predilection for mixing graphic and painted methods, Rodríguez Calero’s “Mártires Urbanos y Santos de Nuestros Días,” on view at El Museo del Barrio through December 19, 2015, is an exhibition that announces something more than Calero’s remarkable ability to mix media. Though her layering of techniques is somewhat unique and decidedly complex, there is really nothing unprecedented about them, which only proves to be one of the many reasons why her work is extraordinary — it embraces contemporary painting’s limitless possibilities yet transcends the unfortunately popular and futile search for the next new thing by taking a higher road.

Here are images of mostly solitary figures that are more than the dizzying array of visual sources and picture-making methods used in their creation. Though each panel is a composite of photo collage, stencils, embossments, painting, drawing and applications of metal leaf, what comes across in nearly every instance is a stately elegance — I would even say a genuine and rare beauty — the source of which is undoubtedly the artist’s commitment to images that address human dignity, furthered by a gift for design, color and especially nuance. As layered as the surfaces are, and as readable as each pictorial construction remains upon completion, to focus exclusively on their process, which I admit is tempting, risks missing both the vision and the ambition of their maker.

Only the second in the museum’s Women Artists Retrospective Series, (the first was an exhibition of Marisol’s work late last year) more than a hundred examples of Rodríguez Calero’s paintings, collages and acrollages (a term she coined to represent the more complex of her techniques) fill a long, narrow space in the main gallery that aptly resembles a nave. The sacred connotation this brings to the room is superfluous but certainly consistent with her highly effective use of sacred and iconographic tropes. Many of the images echo traditional representations of saints, but without making too much of the connection. In fact, it is her ability to fuse the sacred with the secular, and sometimes with the slightly profane that keeps a viewer’s focus trained on the stubborn spirit of each panel’s unique persona.

Rodríguez Calero, Saint Anthony, 1999. 24 x 18 inches. Courtesy of the artist..

Rodríguez Calero, Saint Anthony, 1999. 24 x 18 inches. Courtesy of the artist..

As they are rather complex images, a more austere example might serve as the best overview. Saint Anthony (1999), is built outward, so to speak, from a single photographic fragment cut from a magazine depicting the head of a young bearded man cradled in a high-collar sweatshirt. Added to this image is a hand and arm from another magazine clipping, and at the bridge of the man’s nose, yet another magazine fragment, in this instance revealing a woman’s eyes, tilted slightly against the axis of the male jaw that subtly emphasizes the benevolence of her gaze. Surrounding this gender-aggregated head is a nimbus of pale gold, painted in a manner similar to the decorative rubbings that overlay the painting’s deep liturgical red ground with decorative motifs. The pattern repeated in this particular motif is reminiscent of stamped sheet metal tiling that once covered ceilings in older New York tenement buildings.

Obviously not a purely traditional representation of the 13th century Paduan monk, it is instead an assertion of the living metaphor St. Anthony embodies — a sympathetic archetypal figure that one could imagine seeing, as the artist apparently does, in the face of stranger on the street. It is this vision of living memory that Calero maintains so effectively in her work. Generally what comes across is the artist’s informed familiarity with, and an affection for, Nuyorican street culture filtered through the somber gravitas of the Spanish Baroque, the delirious fecundity of Picasso’s early decades and the manic inventiveness of Kurt Schwitters — all of whom are mentioned by the artist as significant influences.

Rodríguez Calero, Transcendent, 2013. Acrollage painting, 48 x 36 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Rodríguez Calero, Transcendent, 2013. Acrollage painting, 48 x 36 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

The textures and rubbings that draw each composition into a coherent vision form a theme that runs through many of the larger panels. Yet their symbolism is delimited by their opulence, which is apparently the result of intuitive selections, each informed only by the graphic possibilities they offer. The tin ceiling reference may be interpreted as a visual trace of a NYC tenement, but in other panels, such as a riff on Catholic Sacred Heart imagery in The Apparition (1994), more mundane studio detritus functions much the same way, specifically in the figure’s crown, made in the shape of those extruded wedges that come attached to art store canvases — their dark silhouette offset by a flaming red nimbus encircling the figure’s drooping head.

As with all the larger panels, the focus is always on a figure enveloped in an ethereal, magical or hallucinogenic ambiance, the range and variety of which is stunning. But these represent only half the exhibition. The rest is devoted to examples of Calero’s more modestly scaled and more spontaneously fashioned collage work, much of which seems more attentive to a hip-hop than to a votive premise. These figures dance, bend and pose in gestures that recall imagery from advertising and music videos, although a few, such as Exotic Dancer (1994) use totemic imagery that reminded me of paintings by the late Emilio Cruz. Others, like Silent Scream (1997), echo notes typically struck by Francis Bacon.

Art historical connections fly of the pictures like sparks. Gustav Klimt came to mind as I stood before the majestic and mysterious Virgen Maria (2004), an experience I must report demands a visit to the exhibition. Its reproduction does little justice to its color and delicacy — a criticism, I hasten to add, of just about the only flaw in the show’s beautifully designed bilingual catalog. My only other gripe is the choice of a distracting yellow for the walls of the room where the collages were hung. But aside from these minor aspects, it is one of the most impressive retrospectives of a living artist I’ve seen in a long time.

Calero Rodríguez, Silent Scream, 1997. Collage, 8 x 5 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Rodríguez Calero, Silent Scream, 1997. Collage, 8 x 5 inches. Courtesy of the artist.


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