by Peter Malone
Jorge Luis Rodriguez. A Monument to 500 Years of the Cultural Reversal of America. Wood, steel, ceramic, copper, feathers, canvas, slide projections, and recorded sound. Installation in the Legacy/Legado exhibition, The Old New State House, Hartford, CT, 1996.
Our notion of the monument has expanded along two parallel paths. Beginning in the 1960s, public art evolved from statues of noteworthy individuals or allegorical representations of events, to an art with a greater focus on each participating artist’s personal concerns and aesthetic vision. Simultaneously, younger artists were developing the new genre of installation, which proved seminal in the resurgence of public art in cities across the world, as it opened art gallery and museum spaces to the idea of temporary constructions sharing a sense of scale and narrative with the public art model. Most importantly, the inevitable melding of the two transformed and expanded what was considered politically relevant to include minority voices and revised historical perspectives.
For the remainder of this month, and through February 2016, a visit to the Center for Puerto Rican Studies (Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños) at the Hunter College Silberman School of Social Work in East Harlem offers a rare glimpse of how this transformative cultural environment inspired sculptor Jorge Luis Rodriguez in creating a body of work that revealed an early and thoughtful grasp of the possibilities inherent in this widening sculptural environment. For a small exhibition, its range is impressive. Filling out a visitor’s sense of the artist’s achievement in terms of large scale work — conveyed through documentary photographs — the show includes examples of actual work in ceramic, steel and mixed media.
Following a career path punctuated by major public and installation projects, Rodriguez produces a steady stream of smaller efforts that include drawings, prints, books of varied materials, carved stone and wood figures, allegorical furniture, sculpture employing sound (both actual and implied) all of which are informed, as are the larger pieces, by the city’s Nuyorican cultural Renaissance. Collectively they demonstrate an impressive range of studio skills. His project-oriented approach was complemented at times by multidisciplinary strategies, often including collaboration with other artists and with scholars versed in the subject matter of each project. There are photos at the Hunter exhibition, for instance of his “Orisha/Santos” project, a joint effort by Rodriguez, Charles Abramson, Susana Torruella Leval, Robert Farris Thompson and Cynthia C. Turner, that was installed at the Museum of Contemporary Hispanic Arts (MoCHA), New York, NY in 1985.
The ARtCHIVES: Method & Documentation Series, of which this exhibition is a part, was initiated to focus attention on artists of Puerto Rican descent, specifically by highlighting their process through a display of photographs, ephemera and examples of art when suitable to the facility’s limited space. The main focus of this particular exhibition is the documentation of a large and ambitious sculpture Rodriguez called: “A Monument to 500 Years of the Cultural Reversal of America”, which was a collection of prints and wall sculptures designed to be installed in a gallery space surrounding a huge wood and steel slave ship. The ship’s exposed lower deck was covered with ceramic figures modelled after an infamous 19th century print illustrating the cold and brutal efficiency applied to the stowing of bound slaves for transportation to the Americas.
The prints in the original installation, included here, display the American continents as they looked before and after Columbus’s journey. Based on 15th century sources, Rodriguez’s fastened his reinterpreted plates to the 72” diameter steel globe mounted on the ship and held together with nautical rigging all tied to a steel sculpture of a bull’s head, which is also included in the exhibition. The original sails of Rodriguez’s ship had similar images projected onto them during each installation. “A Monument to 500 Years of the Cultural Reversal of America” was first assembled as a solo exhibit at the Mayfair Festival of the Arts, Allentown, PA in 1993, and installed again the following year at El Museo del Barrio as part of their “Reclaiming History” exhibition celebrating the institution’s 25th year. The wall display at the Hunter research room includes the actual astrolabe that was part of the original exhibition, along with several of the ceramic figures, hung this time in a horizontal band along the bottom in imitation of the print above.
Taking into consideration the research component that often became a crucial part of each project Rodriguez tackled, it seems appropriate to not only exhibit the work in a room dedicated to research, but to enhance the largely documentary aspect of the show with a few small sculptures. As patrons of such places know, the inspiration gained from intimate contact with original material (the actual historical document as opposed to a copy) is invaluable. Thus, a poetic aspect enlivens the availability of a few sculptures set before visitors on the work tables themselves, instead of against the wall or in a corner of the room.
Fortunately, the exhibition’s East Harlem location also allows the same visitors to get a visceral sense of the scale Rodriguez brought to many of his projects by simply taking a walk around to East 120th Street. So instead of the more typical muscle-stretching detours to the water fountain or the pencil sharpener, a researcher can stroll around the corner to East Harlem Artpark on 120th Street where Rodriguez’s 14 foot sculpture, “Growth” occupies the same site on which it was installed in 1985. It was the first major project completed under the auspices of the Percent for Art Program of NYC’s Department of Cultural Affairs. The NYC Parks Department just completed its repainting this past summer.
The exhibition is on view until February 26, 2016 at Hunter College Silberman School of Social Research, located in the Centro Library & Archives (Rm. 120 on the ground floor), 2180 Third Avenue in New York, NY.