In a five-part exhibition series, El Museo del Barrio in East Harlem is highlighting women artists. For its second edition, the museum is showcasing collage work by Rodríguez Calero that beatifies her Puerto Rican community with slices of pop culture imagery and Byzantine-influenced icons.
Calero’s career retrospective at El Museo del Barrio, covering three decades of her art, follows the museum’s 2014 exhibition on sculptor Marisol Escobar. The focus on Latino women in El Museo’s five-year plan addresses the lack of diversity in contemporary art shows at New York City museums, and as Rodríguez Calero: Urban Martyrs and Latter-Day Santos, curated by Alejandro Anreus, demonstrates, the series celebrates compelling work that may not be on the art audience’s radar.
A long, main gallery flanked by additional exhibition space is lined with the New York-raised, New Jersey-based Nuyorican artist’s collages that juxtapose cut magazine images with painted surfaces and Renaissance stylistic elements in dynamic collisions of different identities. These often large-scale, mixed media pieces interpret contemporary culture with the reverence of Catholicism. That’s not to say the work is religious, but harnesses the spiritual history and heritage of Catholicism that’s embedded in the artist’s Puerto Rican roots and makes ordinary people into these “urban martyrs and latter-day santos.” The gold flourishes framing faces, and angels lurking in the corners, recall Byzantine paintings; yet instead of those old world works which turned every biblical figure into a European, Calero’s are people of color, and the symbolism is a mix of consumer media fragments and the sacred.
Calero calls her technique “acrollage,” a mix of painting and collage that rewards a close look at all the layers built up on the often monumental pieces. In “Saint Anthony” (1999), a face distorted like a Cubist character is encircled with a halo amidst red and black botanical patterns that creep all around Anthony’s shiny track jacket, and in “Cruz de Loisaida” (1994), the image of a syringe pressing into an arm is splashed with red against shapes that suggest a cross, with the name “Loisaida” likely referencing the Spanish term for Alphabet City. Each piece seems to capture a moment in time, even if we can’t always decipher the meaning from the lustrous density of color and materials.
Perhaps it’s impossible right now to discuss art that imagines urban saints without mentioning the recent Kehinde Wiley exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. Yet where Wiley’s paintings of African-American men and women are sleek and meticulous in their old master appropriation, Calero has a frenzy to her forms that suggests some act of artistic ritual in glorifying the people around her. Nowhere in Calero’s art is there any sort of parodying or costuming, with her work akin in this way to Hamilton currently on Broadway (by Lin-Manuel Miranda, a fellow Nuyorican) that uses hip hop to tell the story of the founding fathers of the United States, played almost entirely by black and latino actors. The sampling and references in their work are cut from across cultures to elevate everyday identities that often slip into urban anonymity.
Rodríguez Calero: Urban Martyrs and Latter-Day Santos continues at El Museo del Barrio (1230 Fifth Avenue, East Harlem, Manhattan) through December 19.