Rafael Ferrer. Notes,
Oil on canvas
36 x 24 ¼ in. (91,4 x 61 cm.)
Montclair Art Museum, NJ, Museum purchase.
El Museo del Barrio
Issue #78 Sep - Nov 2010
United States, Miami
El Museo del Barrio
In this retrospective
of Rafael Ferrer's thirty-year career, his paintings initially hit you
with the full-force of their exuberant light and color. But it turns out
to be the artist's capacity to depict darkness that impresses us the most.
This tropical noir manifests itself in Ferrer's superlative handling of
black paint and in his talent for eliciting beauty from found, throwaway
materials. This dynamic aspect of Ferrer's oeuvre is nicely dramatized
by Deborah Cullen, the organizer of the show and the Director of Curatorial
Programs at El Museo del Barrio. Lightness, including a wonderfully washed-out
white-on-white self-portrait, beckons us into the exhibition, whereas
the final gallery of the show sends us on our way with visions of black
jungles and cock-fighting arenas. The contrast between lightness and darkness
is further emphasized by these paintings' shared format: they are all
from a body of large-scale works Ferrer made during the mid-1980s and
`90s, when he was spending a great deal of time in the Dominican Republic.
Cullen tells us that she features these paintings from the 1980s and `90s
so prominently in this retrospective, organized as part of an ongoing
series of exhibitions intended to foreground the work of under-recognized
artists, because she wants to convince us that this aspect of Ferrer's
artistic production was integral to his assemblages, sculptures, and installations.
She achieves this by presenting Ferrer's artistic production in thematic
groupings. Under the heading "Light/Movement," the first gallery
features brightly colored landscape and genre scenes of the Caribbean,
mostly from the late 1980s and early `90s. The next displays works related
to Ferrer's interest in music; the third, organized around the theme "Series/Language,"
focuses on drawings from the 1970s and works since 2005, including Ferrer's
navigational charts and a series of drawings of faces on paper bags (1973-2010).
Paintings from the 1980s and `90s about Ferrer's art historical models,
as well as abstract and surrealist works from the 1950s and `60s are the
focus of the next gallery. And, as has been noted, the artist's affection
for portraying topical noir is the focus of the last, "Darkness/Menace."
Additionally, a small adjacent gallery features photographs and archival
material documenting his performance and installations works.
All of these themes speak to Ferrer's extraordinarily precocious and energetic
movements among remarkably rich and numerous artistic and cultural spheres
in the Caribbean, the United States, and Europe from the 1950s up to the
present. Ferrer's great strength is his peripatetic agility to insert
himself into multiple scenes while maintaining the intensity and singular
vision of his production. While the organizers have no doubt braced themselves
for the inevitable complaints that this exhibition was not organized chronologically,
the exuberant tempo and intensity maintained throughout the body of the
show is largely due to Cullen's decision to opt out of a chronological
That said, much of the interest of viewing the entire body of Ferrer's
work in a retrospective comes from tracing the path of his process of
artistic discovery,a fascinating and enlightening enterprise. Perhaps
the most important lesson to learn from Ferrer and his engagement with
modernism is that, as a peregrine and interloper, he has enjoyed the privilege
of moving among an impressive number of contexts, allowing him to engage,
for instance, in both New York and Caribbean jazz, and Parisian and Caribbean
surrealism. Returning to Puerto Rico has allowed him to consider the multiple
art worlds he participates in at a distance. This, I think, is what Cullen
is referring to when she refers to him as a Caribbean modernist.
As a participant in efforts to reevaluate the nature of the artistic object
Ferrer has also shown that he possesses a keen sense of most vital concerns
of his day. Taking this into consideration, it seems like it makes the
most sense to view his turn to painting in the early 1980s as yet another
instance in which Ferrer had his finger on the pulse. The problem of the
reception of his paintings during the 1980s,which, remind me, especially
the paintings of the early 1980s, of the irreverence of Peter Saul and
the Chicago Imagists, prompts us to ask questions about the return of
painting more broadly in the United States and Europe during the 1980s,
such as, How could claiming a place for Ferrer at the center of these
trends shed light on the primitivizing impulses of a figure like Francesco
Retro/Active: The Work of Rafael Ferrer was on view June 8 - August 22,
2010 at El Museo del Barrio in New York, and is accompanied with a catalog
including essays by Deborah Cullen, and Edward Sullivan and Carter Ratliff,
and an interview with the artist by Vincent Katz.