Juan Sánchez is one of the most influential and talented Nuyorican artists working today, yet seldom is his work taken as seriously as, or given the space, it deserves. Juan Sánchez: Ricanstructions Conditions Que Existen at Hutchinson Modern and Contemporary fills this void.
The exhibition is a detailed art historical excavation of work by this foundational Latinx artist that illuminates both his legacy and his timeliness. The exhibition draws richly from Elizabeth Ferrer, who curated the artist’s first solo exhibition in Brooklyn in 2015, at BRIC, and includes a digital study room that makes accessible the works of leading art historians and writers who have commented on the artist’s work for decades. This scholarship establishes the historical significance of Sánchez’s art in ways that should inspire new generations to study it, and major institutions to finally collect it.
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In recent years, galleries have become key cultural players because of their fast planning pace, in comparison to the years of research and planning that traditionally go into museum exhibitions. Unfortunately, the museum model repeatedly fails artists in the here and now who need exposure and support, and whose works need to be sold. This is especially true in one of the most Latinized cities in the world, where the paucity of Latinx artists and curators in major New York museums amounts to a damaging act of erasure.
It was moving to see works from the 1980s that had never been exhibited, or had not been shown for decades, alongside newer pieces produced just for the exhibition. The result is a compact yet comprehensive display that shows the development of Sánchez’s visual vocabulary alongside his continuous commitment to collage. From painting to photography, Sánchez is a brilliant mixer of mediums; his sophisticated hybrid aesthetic echoes the very condition of being Nuyorican. His works often combine Taino symbols with comic book icons and popular culture references, as well as photographs of the Nuyorican community taken by Sánchez or from his family albums, along with urban landscapes and religious iconography that joins Catholic saints with Santería orishas. Each work speaks to an evolving Puerto Rican diasporic community, past, and present. The result is an exhibition that is classic Juan Sánchez and extremely contemporary in its urban and global concerns.
A particular highlight is the dialogue between Sánchez’s powerful video, “Unknown Boricua Streaming: A Newyorican State of Mind” (2011), and his artworks. This frenzied 8:09-minute collage video of historic photographs from the Center of Puerto Rican Studies archives, along with cartoon images and commercial advertising logos, and spoken-word poetry, speeches, and Afro-diasporic music neatly captures the global third-worldist references and positionality that feed Nuyorican history and identity. The sounds of timbales and trumpets, along with speeches by Malcolm X, poetry, and musical genres like guaguanco, bomba y plena, and jazz fill the exhibition spaces, powerfully amplifying Sánchez’s global messages about colonialism and resistance. To any Boricuas visiting the exhibition: you will likely be moved, angered, and inspired.
Sánchez’s exhibition coincides with yet another catastrophe rooted in colonialist politics. Five years after Maria, Puerto Ricans have just endured the devastation of Fiona, another natural disaster exacerbated by colonialism and the archipelago’s lacking infrastructure, and by the post-Maria recovery that never happened.
Ironically, Juan Sánchez is not well known in Puerto Rico’s art world. His work has seldom been exhibited there, like scores of Nuyorican and diasporic artists — especially Black artists such as Sanchez — who are invisible to archipelago art circles. These blinders erase the contributions of a visionary artist who has been consistent in his critique of the archipelago’s colonial condition, and of the fallacies of capitalism and commercial culture that prey on it.
In “Confused Paradi(c)e” (1995), the artist writes “No puedo regresar a mi país, es víctima de maracas y cemento, I can’t go back to my country it is victim of maracas and cement.” This description captures the plight of generations who were pushed out of Puerto Rico by the type of speculative consumer capitalism that has historically enveloped the archipelago. This is a capitalism undergirded by a colonial “visitor economy regime,” as curator and scholar Mariana Reyes describes, that functions through the logics of foreign privilege and local servitude and preys on the island’s exotic Caribbean allure (which, ironically, is destroyed by developments benefiting Puerto Rico’s wealthy and foreign visitors).
In this work, Sánchez speaks for the millions who cannot go back — who see clearly the maracas and cemento combo standing in for tourism and development, that pushed them to leave. The work is structured as a tableau topped with a dollar bill against Mickey Mouse iconography, followed by a photograph of El Santo (the justice-seeker masked Mexican wrestler famous across the Americas) caped in a Puerto Rican flag. The bottom frame features an upside down palm tree protruding from the El Santo photograph with colorful Taino symbols of air and water superimposed on the entirety of the work. The text no puedo regresar… is handwritten at the bottom to reinforce the painting’s message. The work is critical yet playful and hopeful: El Santo may still bring about justice and overtake Mickey Mouse.
This is one of the many works that makes this exhibition so timely and necessary. While Puerto Rican artists are critical voices interpreting and analyzing the history and present of Puerto Rico, Sánchez’s exhibition makes clear that Nuyorican artists have long been harbingers of the larger forces of capitalism and colonialism affecting Puerto Rican and diasporic communities across the United States, revealing their roots in capitalism and colonialism for all to see.
Juan Sánchez: Ricanstructions Conditions Que Existen continues at Hutchinson Modern and Contemporary (47 East 64th Street, Lenox Hill, Manhattan) through November 4. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.