For those who were unable to go to the Lancaster Museum of Art in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and see RAFAEL FERRER, Works on Paper, A Survey 1952–2012 (September 7, 2012–November 11, 2012), Ferrer’s exhibition, Calor at the Adam Baumgold gallery will have to do.
There are more than thirty works in the show, most of which are on paper, but there is also “Lam” (1996), an abstract musician made of three painted and incised gourds joined together by metal rods, Lam (1996). This is not the first time that Ferrer has alluded to or named the great Cuban modernist Wifredo Lam (1902–1982) in his work and, I suspect, it won’t be the last.
In 1954, Ferrer, who was born in Puerto Rico in 1933, traveled to Europe and met Lam, who, recognizing a kinship, dedicated and gave one of his drawings to him. Lam, whose father was Chinese and whose mother was Afro-Cuban, understood the effects of colonialism. At the outbreak of World War II, Lam left Europe, where he had been for nearly two decades, and sailed back to Cuba.
During his voyage back, Lam was briefly imprisoned in Martinique, where he met the Martinican poet, Aimé Césaire (1913 – 2008), who helped found the negritude movement in French literature and was a teacher of Frantz Fanon (1925 -1961), author of Black Skin, White Masks (1952) and The Wretched of the Earth (1961). In 1943, while in Cuba, Lam did his great painting, The Jungle, which the Museum of Modern Art, New York, hung for years by the coatroom and, more recently, in the hallway by the men’s room.
I mention this nexus of connections because Lam’s influence on Ferrer was both artistic and cultural. By making a sculpture out of gourds, and evoking the older artist in the guise of a musician, Ferrer, who is a renowned Afro-Cuban drummer, links himself to Lam, who once stated:
I decided that my painting would never be the equivalent of that pseudo-Cuban music for nightclubs. I refused to paint cha-cha-cha. I wanted with all my heart to paint the drama of my country, but by thoroughly expressing the black spirit, the beauty of the plastic art of the blacks. In this way I could act as a Trojan horse that would spew forth hallucinating figures with the power to surprise, to disturb the dreams of the exploiters. I knew I was running the risk of not being understood either by the man in the street or by the others. But a true picture has the power to set the imagination to work, even if it takes time.
Ferrer has had at least two distinct careers. Between the late 1960s and early ‘70s, he used such ephemeral materials as ice, leaves, and cyclone fencing to make temporary installations whose existence is largely recorded in photographs and drawings. He once filled a gallery elevator with leaves from floor to ceiling. During this period, he was associated with artists such as Allan Kaprow, Gordon Matta-Clark, Alan Saret and others who were trying to work outside the white box.
At the same time, as the dates of his show at the Lancaster Museum of Art indicate, drawing played an important role, as it has throughout his practice. In his second career, which began in 1972, shortly after he had a show of his temporary installations at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, Ferrer seemed to do an abrupt about-face. Inspired by the artists associated with the Hairy Who and the Chicago “Imagists” (Jim Nutt, Roger Brown, Art Green, Ed Flood and others), Ferrer got back in touch with his surrealist roots. He also became an artist of place. This is most evident in his drawings on navigational maps in oil stick and other media, which he began doing in the ‘70s.
A number of these are in the show at Adam Baumgold. In the large map drawing “La Luna y La Palma II” (1979), Ferrer use the map’s grid to define squares of different colors, thus linking a commonplace modernist device with mapping and colonialism. The image of the quarter moon and palm remind us that a map is a static abstraction, which is superseded by the actual place and the passage of time.
In another, smaller map drawing, “51 State Bridge” (2005), Ferrer grids off a map and fills it with a mixture of the real and the fanciful, while recalling pre-Columbian navigational charts. Along the bottom of the map, in a gridded area of gray and white parallelograms, he has written in cursive letters the Spanish word “Pesadilla” (nightmare). Above “Pesadilla,” Ferrer has stacked two words, “Migraña” (migraine) and “Memoria (memory). Elsewhere, he has labeled Cuba the “Real South Beach” and connected it to Florida with the “51st State Bridge.”
Another area is marked “Valet Parking” and “Free Disney Ruins.” Satire is a way of turning anger and critique into humor, and Ferrer has more than enough of it to go around. In the margin between the map and paper’s bottom edge, Ferrer has written “SUR REAL.” He has written “SOUTH” in the margin along the map’s top edge, a clear sign of how upside-down the world has become.
Christopher Columbus brought the pineapple from Guadeloupe back to Europe on his second voyage. Within a short time the pineapple became a symbol for hospitality, and one can still see it carved into marble columns or cast as doorknockers of houses built during the colonial and antebellum periods. It is hard to imagine that Ferrer, who lived for many years in Philadelphia, never saw one used in this way. In the ink drawing “Untitled (Pineapple),” dated 1983 and the oil stick on paper, “Dos Pinas Secas” (“Two Dry Pineapples”), 1990, Ferrer depicts pineapples as isolated or fallen objects.
In “Dos Pinas Secas” the oil stick’s rich texture and the dense green of the ground are inviting to the eye, but, at the same time, his use of black and reddish-brown to depict the fruit are signs that the pineapple is a dead thing incapable of providing nourishment. Surely this is one of the binds Ferrer finds himself in as an artist. He wants to be both critical and nourishing, sharp and sensual. In his ability to negotiate both sides of this conundrum, Ferrer becomes a Trojan horse.
In the oil painting “Dulzura” (“Sweetness”) (1993), Ferrer depicts a close-up view of a black woman seen from behind. She is balancing a large bowl of pineapples, bananas, mangoes and gourds on her head. Her left hand grips a bag whose contents are cropped by the painting’s bottom edge. What appears to be a gourd is held in her right hand, and a shopping bag is looped over her forearm. Ahead of her we see a river that she will presumably cross. The roof of a house – her possible destination — is visible on the far shore. Nothing is spelled out. This is the opposite of tourist art, which always shows the natives, so to speak, happily going about their business, for the entertainment of the omniscient viewer.
At the same time, and I cannot stress this enough, Ferrer does not want the viewer to see this woman as a victim or even as a symbol for something larger. In fact, in his use of dark and light blues, dark salmon pink, and various greens, browns and yellows, the painting could be understood as being about different intensities of color.
(Let me go on record and say that I think it would be interesting to pair certain paintings and drawings by Ferrer with works by Stanley Whitney, as they both have charted a course that resists the mainstream’s desire to pigeonhole them in terms of their ethnicity or color. To be blunt, they haven’t taken the bait).
And if Ferrer’s restating of the grid and use of color isn’t enough to convince us of his imaginative powers, we should consider the mystery and dignity he infuses into his depiction of this woman on her return trip from the market. We see her, but she neither sees us nor acknowledges our presence. She is too busy with living to care about what we think. It is this understanding of autonomy and independence that has guided Ferrer throughout his long and adventurous career.
Rafael Ferrer: Calor runs at Adam Baumgold Gallery (60 East 66th Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through March 16.