The title of El Museo del Barrio’s biennial exhibit Here Is Where We Jump refers to one of Aesop’s Fables, “The Braggart.” In the tale, a man boasts of an extraordinary jump he once made in Rhodes. He claims witnesses will attest to the jump if the listeners ever visit his home country. Eventually, someone challenges the man to reproduce the jump, saying, “Jump here, jump now. Here is where you jump.” Through its title, the exhibition places emphasis on the “now,” focusing on ongoing artistic production rather than finished product—a start with no end. Showcasing works from artists of varied backgrounds who live and work in New York City, La Bienal seeks to gain an understanding of the conditions in which “artistic communities produce, present, and think through art in the city.”
But take a look at the museum’s mission statement. According to this text, the museum endeavors to “enhance the sense of identity, self-esteem and self-knowledge of the Caribbean and Latin American peoples” through art. Because of this ethos, no piece is identity-free. Many call attention to a liminal space, as the title suggests, but they suspend themselves in the space between cultures and countries. Production and the artistic process fall to the wayside.
Take Ignacio González-Lang’s Khinatown (2011). A black fabric sculpture takes the form of a robe worn by a security officer for the Ku Klux Klan. White stitches weave themselves throughout the sculpture, making the black costume appear gray. A group of undocumented workers from New York’s Chinatown embroidered the robe. Words in English and Chinese dot both the bottom of the outfit and the sash. The stitches number around half a million, representing the significant number of undocumented workers in New York City alone. In literally stitching together two disparate communities, González-Lang treats identity as both fluid and contradictory, a costume to be thrown on or off at will.
Nearby, three black-and-white drawings by Bronx-born artist Manuel Vega hang side by side. In Tito Puente, the legendary musician and composer is pictured, a smile stretching across his face as he plays the drums. Oshe Meji (2011) features showgirls from the famous Havana nightclub, Tropicana, standing in a line in front of the mirror, wearing bikinis and sarongs. A rooster, a sewing machine, a violin, a pumpkin, and decorative vases sit on the floor in front of them. The third, Loremil Machado, shows a friend of the artist, a capoeirista, standing on his head, his face squished and his eyes drooping. The hundreds of thick, curved black lines that make up each figure lend the subjects a textural, bulbous, otherworldly quality and connect them through their visual similarities. Despite their unique histories, they could be family.
But some of the culturally informed pieces come off as excessively didactic while lacking nuance. One black-and-white photograph stands alone on a corner wall. The Portrait of El C, by Shaun “El C” Leanardo, shows a bare-chested man clad in a luchador mask. He stands in a cramped hallway, staring straight into the camera. Little light enters the frame, highlighting the glaring whiteness of the man’s gloves and mask. Both items reference superheroes and, with that, power, masculinity, and the culture of machismo. Alone, the piece only makes murmurs, its message trite. But within the context of the show, it speaks loudly about the confusion and desperation inherent in these cultural ideals.
The exhibition closes with two pieces, each by a different artist, that exist in conversation with one another. Goat Song # 5: Tumult on George Washington Avenue, by Dominican artist Manuel Macarrulla, shows a grand, baroque carnival scene. The crowded foreground reveals a number of masked revelers. Those who are unmasked have warped faces—noses melting into confused, blank eyes. In the background stand two piercing white skeletons clad in top hats and tuxedos. Their clothes give them an air of formality and wealth. Even farther back stands a replica of the Washington Monument, done in the same stark white. The racial implications of the painting’s coloring are obvious. Color—both skin color and the color used in the cultural context of the parade—stands in stark contrast to the deathly white figures. The whiteness connects them to the monument behind them, a vestige of American diplomacy. The figures draw from one another; in such close proximity to the skeletons, the looming monument becomes infused with a sense of dread.
Across from it hangs Wallscape (2013), a painting by Havana-born artist Pavel Acosta. Because of the scarce resources and foodstuffs available in contemporary Cuba, many Cubans survive by stealing what they can from the state and reselling the items on the black market. Acosta incorporated this thievery into his artistic process, stealing aging and peeling paint chips from walls, doors, and chairs. The painting reflects the run-down quality of Havana itself. To produce Wallscape, Acosta stripped paint from the gallery wall opposite the one on which Macarrulla’s work hangs, resulting in a monochromatic reproduction of the painting, dilapidated and ghostly. Both a lesson in temporality and recycled production, the piece aesthetically blends into the exhibition while also disrupting it. Its colors and format heavily contrast with both the painting it mirrors, Goat Song # 5: Tumult on George Washington Avenue, and with the other paintings in the gallery.
The piece speaks best about the exhibition’s stated intent, drawing attention to the process used to create the work rather than the finished product. It suspends itself between art and object, painting and wall. It exists in the middle space, the jump. Rather than attaching itself to one identity to another, it successfully exists as everything, all at once.
Here is Where We Jump is on view at El Museo del Bario through January 4, 2014.