Another Fumble at the Whitney: no existe un mundo poshuracán: Puerto Rican Art in the Wake of Hurricane Maria

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Installation view. Photo courtesy of the writer.

The exhibition no existe un mundo poshuracán: Puerto Rican Art in the Wake of Hurricane Maria, though it includes 50 works by 20 artists, seems overwhelmed given it has been installed in an enormous space. With the exception of two lounge-like areas in which billboard-sized video projections are installed, most of the works, modest in scale, seem to be scattered through the space, or enigmatically clustered together. Ironically, where the Wake of Maria is sparsely installed and attended, the Edward Hopper NY exhibition, given its scale and popularity, would definitely benefit from more space than the half floor it has been jammed into. Another oddity is the disparity in the number and scale of works each artist is represented by. I can only suspect the budget of this show was insufficient to achieve its stated ambition of “presenting artworks made over the last five years by an inter-generational group of artists from Puerto Rico and its diaspora.”

This “review” is less about the art gathered to represent this exhibition’s premise, in that the works are all of varying interest. In another context many would be worthy of our attention. My focus instead is on how this exhibition fails to fulfill its promise. To begin with, it fails to tell the story of how Puerto Rico’s colonization is implicit in the disaster associated with the hurricane Maria, or how US policy has made Puerto Rico a third world nation. Add to this the fact that in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria between 114,000 and 213,000 residents of Puerto Rico leave the island annually, while from 2017 to 2019, Puerto Rico lost up to 14% of the population. The extent of this diaspora is reflected in the fact that many of the artists in this show live and work on the mainland and that the curator Marcela Guerrero, while born and raised in Puerto Rico, has in the main worked in the newly minted category of Latinx for mainland institutions. Subsequently, we are informed that while working on this exhibition she visited artists’ studios across the continental U.S. as well as those in Puerto Rico—there is no indication in the press materials that her team included anyone from the Puerto Rican art world.

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Installation view. Photo courtesy of the writer.

Built on four themes: Fractured Structures, Critique of Tourism, Processing Grieving and Reflecting, Ecology and Landscape, much of the work focuses on the subjective. Yet, even for these more personal works it would have been useful if the Whitney had supplied viewers with a time-line of the diaspora, especially during the decades of the 1940s to the 2019, as well as documenting such events in Puerto Rico’s recent history as the austerity measures implemented by the PROMESA (Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act of 2016); the protests during the Verano del 19 (Summer of 2019) that led to the ouster of governor Ricardo Rosselló; then there are the string of earthquakes; as well as the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. While this history is referred to in the press release and catalog, it would have helped the Whitney’s audience to understand how this legacy has affected those artists working in its wake.

Nowhere to be seen in this exhibition are the indelible image of President Trump throwing paper towels in the face of the collapse of PR’s infrastructure. Likewise, there is no mention of how the Jones Act and Palmer Amendment, which requires all goods to and from Puerto Rico be shipped by American carriers. Initially this prevented relief from arriving to this island nation in a timely manner. The black and white Puerto Rican flag which originally was used to protest mainland’s financial control over Puerto Rico, and after Maria became a symbol of resistance and grief puts in only a singular and cursory appearance, in Miguel Luciano’s Shields (2020), an installation of ten “shields” made from the metal armor of decommissioned school buses. Other references to protest and resistance are to be found in the posters of sculptor Garvin Sierra, whose Instagram account (@tallergraficopr), is a platform frequently updates about current events and national grievances. What goes unrecognized for the mainland audience is Sierra’s use of elements borrowed from what in Puerto Rico would be recognizable references to 1950s Puerto Rican art movements.

The exhibitions general aesthetic makes it appear as if Puerto Rico’s artistic culture corresponds to that of the Anglo mainland, though this is not necessarily so, given its cultural and historical roots are in Spanish colonialism—it became a US possession in 1898, when the Spanish-American War ended. In these post-colonial days, one would think, somewhere the fact that of all the Spanish colonial possessions in the Americas, Puerto Rico is the only territory that has never gained its independence, would be mentioned. Knowing something of this history for example, would make accessible the irony and sarcasm inherent in Gabriella Torres-Ferrer’s sculpture, Untitled (Valora tu mentira americana) [Value Your American Lie], 2018, which consist of a diagonally suspended wooden utility pole bearing a sign in Spanish urging voters to value their American citizenship. (This citizenship is not Constitutionally guaranteed and was only granted in 1917, by an act of Congress).

What this exhibition—organized by Marcela Guerrero, Jennifer Rubio Associate Curator, with Angelica Arbelaez, Rubio Butterfield Family Fellow, and Sofía Silva, former Curatorial & Education Fellow in U.S. Latinx Art—does tell us is that the Whitney is fumbling along trying patch up their past failing of not being inclusive. This is also implicit in the three shows: Dawn of a New Age: Early 20th Century Modernism, Balance Between Painting and Sculpture 1965-85, and Selections from the Collection 1900-1965 running concurrent with “Maria.” In these exhibits rather than rewrite the history, the Whitney stealthily attempts to diversify the canon by introducing women and artists of color into it. Yet such good intentions are questionable give that while the Whitney promotes In the Wake of Maria as the first scholarly exhibition focused on Puerto Rican art to be organized by a major U.S. museum in nearly a half-century, rather than boldly focus on the impact of the Puerto Rican diaspora on its art and culture, it chooses to present works made in the last 5 years in response to the tragedy of Maria as if it were a significant cultural turning point in Puerto Rico’s history— but there is not enough here to indicate that to be so.

Installation view. Photo courtesy of the writer.

Saul Ostrow is an independent curator and critic. Since 1985, he has organized over 80 exhibitions in the US and abroad. His writings have appeared in art magazines, journals, catalogues, and books in the USA and Europe. In 2010, he founded along with David Goodman and Edouard Prulehiere, the not-for-profit Critical Practices Inc. as a platform for critical conversation and cultural practices. His book Formal Matters (selected and revised) published by Elective Affinities will be launched Fall, 2022. He served as Art Editor at Bomb Magazine, Co-Editor of Lusitania Press (1996-2004) and as Editor of the book series Critical Voices in Art, Theory and Culture (1996-2006) published by Routledge, London.