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Gabriela Salazar has built a small metropolis in a basement in Bushwick. Her exhibition My Lands are Islands at NURTUREart consists of 16 triangular wedges of coffee grounds placed atop pedestals of glazed white bricks. The installation draws on the artist’s personal history — her mother’s family ran a coffee plantation in Puerto Rico and both her parents were architects — but its forms and materials are sufficiently abstract to allow the viewer to invest them with all manner of alternate meanings. Not surprisingly, given that the white bricks she’s used are ubiquitous in Manhattan and were one of the building materials of choice during the postwar housing boom, the room-size installation is most readily interpreted as a small cityscape.
The coffee wedges are installed on plinths of varying sizes and shapes that are intended to evoke minimalist sculpture but also recall the silhouettes of various building types — the low and wide big box store, the tall and slender skyscraper, the L-shaped office building with its stubby entry pavilion. Standing, teetering, or crumbling atop these structures, the coffee ground triangles resemble slap-dash approximations of gables anachronistically placed atop models of modern buildings. The juxtaposition of unstable and extremely durable materials is deliberate: Over the course of the show the coffee building toppers will decompose and scatter, unintentionally evoking another kind of increasingly popular feature of the urban landscape — the rooftop farm.
Salazar’s choice of brick may make for a compelling approximation of modern sculpture and modern architecture, but her use of coffee to create the wedges brews up an even more potent set of associations. She has previously created similar forms out of wood, synthetic carpeting, textiles, rope, string, shoes, paint, and other materials, but none quite as charged as coffee. The grounds successfully evoke the importance of coffee in the history of Puerto Rico’s uneasy relations with the US. One the world’s leading coffee producers for generations, Puerto Rico’s coffee industry collapsed after the US took control and many of the workers on whom it relied migrated to the mainland. The drooping wedges, then, may stand for the slumping Puerto Rican economy and the mixed feelings that island’s residents have toward the US.
The installation also gives off a powerful odor that, combined with the wedges’ short lifespans, calls to mind the melting molasses sculptures Kara Walker created for her installation at Williamsburg’s Domino Sugar Factory last summer. While that exhibition took on issues of exploitation and colonization very forcefully through the lens of the sugar industry, Salazar uses coffee to call up similar subjects more ambiguously. The ephemeral coffee pyramids could be a postcolonial critique of recent art history, a gesture aimed at deflating Modernism and Minimalism’s fetishization of pristine materials, pure geometry, and authoritative objects. Perhaps, more generally, they represent Puerto Rico’s conflicted and unstable relationship to the US. Or maybe, as I first thought when entering the gallery, they are endearingly imperfect monuments whose drooping silhouettes are intended to deflate the pompous solidity of the plinths they inhabit. Whatever the case, Salazar demonstrates that mutability and frailty are extremely compelling formal qualities. In an art world obsessed with the provenance, preservation, and prices of immutable objects, this is a lesson that merits frequent reiteration.