CHICAGO — Edra Soto’s sculptures are lovely places to be inside: dappled light shines through walls made of ornate blocks or windows covered in decorative screens, casting shapely shadows that mingle with the free-flowing breeze. There might be a bench to sit on, a table to play dominoes at, or an architectural essay to read. If you’re really lucky, a slice of pineapple upside-down cake or some spam-velveeta-pimiento sandwiches will be on offer.
The mid-century Puerto Rican vibe of all that food and space is no accident. Soto, who has lived in Chicago since the late ’90s, was born in 1971 in San Juan and has for the past two decades been creating installations and events that draw on the culture of the place where she grew up and where her family still lives. She has done this in an increasingly elegant, pared-down style, whether the subject is Iris Chacon, a legendarily flamboyant ’80s television variety host who inspired Soto’s 2009 stage set of minimalistic tropical fruit-shaped benches; the US flag, which she remade in “Tropicalamerican” as a green-and-black amalgamation of tropical foliage and quilting patterns; or the domestic architecture of Puerto Rico, whose rejas (ornamental wrought-iron grates) and quiebrasoles (decorative concrete block fences) spawned GRAFT, a series of reliefs, sculptures, and standalone structures, ongoing since 2013.
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Destination/El Destino: A Decade of GRAFT, currently on view at the Hyde Park Art Center, offers an overview of the seemingly limitless iterations that the project has taken since its beginnings. These include the curlicued, rust-color two-wall wraparound that opened the Whitney Museum’s no existe un mundo poshuracán; kaleidoscopic wooden screens for a front porch at Project Row Houses; pink, mint, and white freestanding dividers with shelves, used to display salvaged liquor bottles at the Albright-Knox Northland; and graphic window and door grilles for a dozen art venues around the country, including El Museo del Barrio and Rice University’s School of Architecture. “Casa-Isla,” a house-shaped pavilion in shades of blue, floated, like a mirage, in the lagoon of the Chicago Botanic Gardens last summer. “Screenhouse,” a surprisingly airy gazebo of black concrete blocks, currently provides much-needed shade and privacy in tourist-thronged Millennium Park.
At HPAC, the very latest version of GRAFT takes the form of a sprawling ranch-style home, with metal-tube framing from which hangs a shimmery facade of 500-plus hand-tooled aluminum stars in bronze, silver, and gold. In one of the most ingenious solutions to the problem of exhibiting ephemeral site-specific work that I have ever come across, fragments of 15 previous GRAFT sculptures stand inside this newest one, each embedded with a peephole whose viewfinder shows an image of the original installation. A wall of blueprints fills in much of the rest.
The mini picture viewers are a device Soto has used on and off since 2018. Typically they show images of her family and homeland, small glimpses of people and places hard to hold on to when living far away, especially when those people become ill or that place is hit by environmental disaster. It’s a messiness mostly kept at bay by GRAFT, whose clean lines adhere with uncanny neatness to whatever surface or space they migrate, bringing with them the fabulous look and feel of tropical architectural solutions but not always the pain and difficulty of diasporic life.
An alternate panacea is to build a new community where you live. To do so, Soto and her partner, Dan Sullivan, founder of her longtime fabricator Navillus Woodworks, constructed a wooden gazebo in their backyard in 2012, complete with diagonal slat walls and a robust exhibition schedule. The Franklin, named for the boulevard on which their modest home in the Garfield Park neighborhood sits, has shown hundreds of artists over the years. A choice sampling is on view in Amuleto, a group show co-organized with Mayfield, a newish gallery run by father-daughter duo Alberto and Madeleine Aguilar out of their family home and garage in Forest Park. On view simultaneously at HPAC, The Franklin, and Mayfield, it features talismanic objects contributed by 50 local artists. The convenience of consolidating the programs of two outlying spaces with very limited hours into an accessible institution open seven days a week cannot be overstated.
Strange and magical art in manageable sizes abounds in Amuleto. There are those that harness raw power: Dianna Frid’s yellow rain hood, lined with silver foil, promises cosmically enhanced sensitivity; Whitney Bradshaw’s photograph of herself as a Sheela-na-Gig, her crotch a blinding flash of light, protects against patriarchal control of women’s bodies; Jonas Mikosch Mueller-Ahlheim’s blocky sculpture plugs directly into an electrical socket. Others manipulate loaded materials to advantageous ends: John Preus spray-foams together a funky arrangement of mirror, rope, and a zebra pelt shot by his father, there being all kinds of inheritances; kg’s tiny red-and-white weaving incorporates golden charms and scraps, presumably for good luck; Cydney Lewis fashions a tall headrest from curlers and fake dreads for better dreams (and hair). Some results are inscrutable but magnetizing, like Juan Chavez’s giant pendant of orange handmade paper in a shape that seems vaguely Meso-American, Jim Duignan’s five cast bronze whistles, and Maria Burundarena’s emergency blanket wall hanging, agleam with disco lights. Plenty encourage meditation: Michelle Chun’s beaded necklaces, drawn in colorful pastel, loop and tangle endlessly, while Kushala Vora’s vertical arrangement of stones, feathers, miniature enamel eyes, fruit peels, and dead leaves offers narrative, spiritual and aesthetic abundance well beyond its means.
Edra Soto: Destination/El Destino: a decade of GRAFT continues at the Hyde Park Art Center (5020 South Cornell Avenue, Chicago, Illinois) through August 6; the exhibition was curated by Allison Peters Quinn. Amuleto continues through August 13 at HPAC, The Franklin (3522 West Franklin Boulevard, Chicago, Illinois), and Mayfield (505 Marengo Avenue, Forest Park, Illinois); the exhibition was organized by Alberto Aguilar, Madeleine Aguilar, Allison Peters Quinn, and Edra Soto.