September 2010

Rafael Ferrer. Notes, 1998-99
Oil on canvas
36 x 24 ¼ in. (91,4 x 61 cm.)
Montclair Art Museum, NJ, Museum purchase.

Solo Show
Rafael Ferrer
El Museo del Barrio
Issue #78 Sep - Nov 2010
United States, Miami

El Museo del Barrio

Harper Montgomery

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 narrative.
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 Clemente?
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.

Harper Montgomery