Busy Bees: An essay by Deborah Cullen
By Deborah Cullen, Chief Curator, 2012 Trienal Poli/gráfica de San Juan
Sometimes artists do it better than curators. Oftentimes, in fact, they get right to the heart of the matter without our didactic curatorial worries. The project at Casa de los Contrafuertes, convened by Charles Juhász-Alvarado (with Néstor Barreto), shows rather than tells. It is a must-see event. Inspired by the theme set forth for this year’s Trienal Poli/gráfica de San Juan, “El Panal/The Hive,” these busy bees have enacted a hive of their own, thus affirming the curatorial premise that artists working with other artists remains a powerful and productive creative force.
Ente (think “gente”), the group occupying the former home of the Museo de Nuestra Raíz Africana, was initiated by a commission offered to Charles Juhász-Alvarado to create a special project for this year’s Trienal. The artist has long been the Trojan horse of the Puerto Rican art world. From Transvestoys and Tú-Tran of the 1990s, toGo-ga and Escala of the more recent decade, Juhász-Alvarado’s work often has drawers, way stations, and platforms—spots designed for other artists’ participation, in which he can smuggle them into his exhibitions. His modus operandi has always been inclusive and generous, and he is a tireless promoter of Puerto Rican talents of all groups. Charles is an ambassador without ego, and never wastes an opportunity to share the stage. Although the commission was offered with the expectation that Juhász-Alvarado would create a new, collaborative work, we could not have foreseen the inspired project that is emerging.
After selecting the magnificent, historic, 2-story edifice (in need of restoration) offered by the Instituto, Juhász Alvarado set about bringing his own personal hive together under his moral and esthetic embrace. As he activated this group, he designed and built hive-inspired furniture, window elements, and doorways that organize, clarify and energize the space. Honey-colored wooden component tables reflect the bee motif and serve as plexi-topped trays containing small projects by 13 invitees: the loaded number at the Last Supper, the number of completion in the Aztec Trecena, the amount of circles in the angel Megatron’s cube, formed from his own soul to ward off evil, the age at which boys become men. The 13 tables in this case are composed by Allora & Calzadilla, Néstor Barreto, Marielys Castro, Elizam Escobar, Teo Freytes, Adelino González, Ivelisse Jiménez, Julio Suárez, Vargas Suarez Universal, Marga Vicenti, and Fabian Wilkins. The little worlds they are creating spread throughout the building.
In an organic evolution, he began inviting the artists around him to participate. These include his ever broadening circles: starting first and foremost with his wife, the artist Ana Rosa Rivera Marrero, who is installing a project created collaboratively while she was in residence at the Fabric Workshop in Philadelphia. A sculptural fabric piece, it also is a set for her simultaneously historic and futuristic performances. Juhász-Alvarado has long served as a professor at Escuela de Artes Plásticas, and there are individual artist projects by former students ranging from Arnaldo Morales to Frances Rivera to Bik. While the interactive metal wizard Morales (my husband) was one of his earliest students alongside Rivera Marrero, Frances is of a newer generation. She has been producing dreamlike tactile sea creature sculptures that zip up or unfold like a cloud. Charles’ fellow professor, Dhara Rivera, is working with a team on a project that considers the challenged river ecosystem of the island. Teo Freytes, Juhász’s longtime neighbor, is setting up a room for MSA, his legendary alternative space that, like an original hive, embraced a multiplicity of forms and factions. Between Freytes mini-show, the adjacent fantastical skirt-stages of Rivera Marrero, and a niche under the stairs being occupied by Ruben Solla, performative interventions promise to be ongoing. Área, another notable artist’s space, will also be in residence. Néstor Otero and Annex Burgos, also long in collaboration, are also mounting a project.
Juhász-Alvarado has a deep respect for literature, and decided to split his commission with Barreto, a respected poet and founder of Colección Maravilla (an independent publishing house) so that Barreto could create an independent press reading room on the first floor, as well as organize a series of readings. Juhász loves audio projects, and brought in frequent collaborator, musician Fabian Wilkins, to set up his sound studio. He will be working with and among several of the other artists. Cinema is another important form, and Juhász invited Guillermo Vázquez to program evenings of independent Puerto Rican avant-garde film. Andrea Bauza, the genie behind the official Trienal’s exhibition design, is organizing cutting-edge architectural presentations. Finally, as theatre aficionado, Juhász-Alvarado brought in renowned actor, Teofilo Torres (who also happens to be an agricultural guru) to carry out monologues, organize performances, and tend to an actual colony of bees taking up residence in the space, in a hive designed by Charles. They will feed off a patio garden created by Juhász with his student, Lynette Ruíz Martinez.
This ecosystem cuts across groups and styles. Juhász-Alvarado denies a curatorial role, and stresses rather the idea of a workspace. He assumes that projects will change and get added on, and he wants it to be a living, breathing production space. He has not discriminated to select only coherent and seamlessly-flowing works, but rather has taken an inclusive stance to represent as much of today’s culture as he has connection to. He has done an admirable job, particularly, of including a number of the oft-overlooked strong female artists on the island. However, to understand this beehive, you have to think through his relationships, his give and take over the years with these figures, and the invisible but now very tactile and deeply etched web that one person traces in the world. His personal connection is the motivating factor that draws all these voices into a marvelously-twinkling orbit.
My colleague, the curator Rebeca Noriega-Costas, riffs in her Trienal catalogue essay about how the title “El Panal” also contains the phrase, “mi pana”—and that friendship, camaraderie and shared experience is why collaboration is such a powerful force. In the official Trienal, we can trace this clearly in the historical sections with works from legendary studios in which Caribbean and Latin American artists played key roles such as Atelier 17, Taller de Gráfica Popular, and Robert Blackburn’s Printmaking Workshop. As we moved to the postmodern, politicized world, the New York Graphic Workshop, Tucuman Arde, C.A.D.A., Asco, or the Border Arts Workshop (to name a few) were continued forms of this type of satisfying group enterprise. In the Arsenal, contemporary workshops and collaborations, to name a few, include Beta Local, Conboca, Atarraya Cartonera, or the Dominican York Proyecto Grafica. We can see that this type of workshop continues and thrives.
However, nothing could better affirm the idea that sharing continues as an important force than Ente’s Casa de los Contrafuertes. This living hive, this seething panal, enacts rather than reviews the many and deep meanings of collaboration. It is a messy, inspired, moving and thrilling thing to see, and I urge that if you see nothing else of the Trienal, go see this. Go with an open mind and talk to folks. Prepare to spend some time. See what the power of artists joined together can do.