Edra Soto attempts architectural transplants the way a doctor might replace skin, seeing if an unfamiliar addition will take. Since 2013 in a project titled Graft, the Puerto Rico-born, Chicago-based artist has relocated the geometric patterns of rejas screens from her home territory to settings in the mainland. Currently, an experimental attachment is underway at Graft’s first New York iteration, at Artists Alliance Inc.’s Cuchifritos Gallery + Project Space in Essex Street Market.
A large reja pattern overtakes the Cuchifritos window in the Lower East Side food market, with two pastel-hued wooden tributes to San Juan bus stops inside, their backs a lattice of lines and circles. In between, a matching stand has newspapers published by Chicago’s Sector 2337 with images of screens in Puerto Rico and essays in English and Spanish discussing the history of rejas. Soto is not just celebrating the dynamic patterns of these screens, but also considering the Spanish influence that first brought the ironwork techniques to safeguard colonial homes in Puerto Rico, and the evolution of the rejas into a popular midcentury ornament on porches and balconies that let the breeze flow through. It’s also, albeit indirectly, a physical reminder of the current crisis in Puerto Rico, where the Zika virus is looming and the island’s debt stands at $72 billion. (The exhibition happens to close on May 1, the final date set for potential congressional legislation to address the debt.)
Curator Albert Stabler poses the central question of Graft in his newspaper essay: “Can a nation that has so freely appropriated the land and resources of Puerto Rico, while consigning its residents to second-class citizenship and exorbitant government debt, be itself appropriated as a screen upon which Soto can project the (wooden) screens of her Boricua childhood?” The Lower East Side “graft” follows Soto’s interventions in Chicago, including enclosing the porch of the bungalow in Oak Park that serves as the Terrain art space and the windows of Corner Gallery. Working with her husband and fellow artist Dan Sullivan, Soto’s Graft will be incorporated into Chicago’s Western Avenue train station through a commission from the Chicago Transit Authority. Each site-specific edition of Graft responds to the friction of merging this island design onto a piece of the mainland.
Journalist Andy Sullivan adds in an essay:
Like 4.7 million of her fellow Puerto Ricans, Edra Soto lives on the mainland now. Her fence may not bring to mind a 700-mile barrier as much as the shuttered storefronts and condos that are growing ever more common as Puerto Ricans flee their island. It’s a potent symbol of a place that has suffered as well as prospered in the embrace of a country that invaded 115 years ago.
Graft at Cuchifritos is meant to be a meeting place, where people can read the newspapers at the bus stop structures. However, when the gallery is empty, the space feels a bit vacant with the blank space on the walls, and little else besides the two structures and newspaper stand. For the project to have its full effect, there’s definitely a minimum level of engagement needed for viewers to delve into the context. In a way, it’s similar to Liene Bosquê and Nicole Seisler’s 2015 exhibition Shifting Impressions, also at Cuchifritos, in which the duo roamed the Lower East Side with a cart and clay to take impressions of the built environment. Soto is asking viewers to explore a larger history through just a glimpse of the architecture that supports it, and is using vernacular design to cross the boundaries that keep Puerto Rico separate, even as it remains part of the United States.