NEW YORK CITY | At first I thought he was a black man, and I thought about the recent spate of white-cops-against-black-men fracas that has bedeviled our country and renewed the belief that new forms of racism have emerged in our country. I was fascinated by Rodríguez Calero’s acrollage painting Transcendent (1999) which was hung in the first gallery among the Catholic reliquary-like works in El Museo del Barrio’s career retrospective exhibit “Rodriguez Calero: Urban Martyrs and Latter Day Santos,” which runs from July 22 to October 17.
I was so fascinated by Transcendent that I kept circling back to it, even when I had long since walked by the other galleries of this — well, if you will pardon the pun — transcendent exhibition of the Nuyorican artist who so far has virtually been unknown in our contemporary art scene.
Oh, wait. The painter is a Nuyorican. So what gives? The hunched-over man in Transcendent is perhaps Nuyorican and not African American. So I cross in front of it one more time before I left El Museo. I thought: Well, the figure in the painting could be Filipino or Mexican. You know, one of those oppressed farm workers and immigrants who picked apples and grains in the fields. This faultless painting was tucked away among the distorted religious-themed artworks — all of it are examples of what Calero calls her technique “acrollage,” a mix of painting and collage that rewards a close look at all the layers built up on the often monumental pieces.
Some of these Calero paintings look fairly Neo-Byzantine. In Saint Anthony (1999), for example, a face distorted like a Cubist character is encircled with a halo amidst red and black botanical patterns that creep all around Anthony’s shiny track jacket. In Cruz de Loisaida (1994), the image of a syringe pressing into an arm is splashed with red against shapes that suggest a cross, with the name “Loisaida” likely referencing the Spanish term for Alphabet City. These two pieces, as the dates show, were created and finished in the same year (1999). Each piece seems to capture a moment in time, even if we can’t always decipher the meaning from the lustrous density of color and materials.
It’s a Nuyorican summer at El Museum. Rodríguez Calero makes a clearer case for collage as the natural medium for hip-hop culture than she does. That theme is reinforced by an accompanying exhibition, entitled “Cut N’ Mix,” which shows us how other Latino artists advance the hip-hop aesthetic of layering in collage work.
Rodríguez Calero forges her powerful and unique style from the richly varied traditions of her own background. Born in Puerto Rico and raised mainly in New York City, she received her artistic education at San Juan’s prestigious Escuela de Artes Plásticas and the famed Art Students League of New York. Her canvases reflect a bold array of both classical and deeply contemporary elements including surrealist collage, Catholic iconography, medieval religious painting, and hip-hop street culture.
But let’s go back to Transcendent again. I can’t seem to pull away from it. I return to it again, and I’ve gone so far as to make it the cornerstone of this appreciated of Rodríguez Calero vibrant and multilayered canvases. Once again I’m convinced that it’s a black man depicted in that painting.
No, wait! It’s a Nuyorican man. Ah, not exactly. Actually it’s one of those Filipino migrants who worked in the farmed in California and Seattle in the 1920s. No, no, no, I’m wrong. He’s Mexican.
What’s the source of my confusion? Calero’s canvases defy easy categorization. In that sense, Transcendent defies figurative representation. Her work jams together the abstract and figurative, sacred and profane, the meditative and boldly graphic. And Transcendent caught my eye not just because of her unerring use of dazzling color (evident in all the works on display). In “Transcendent,” Rodríguez Calero exhibits her depth of thought, complex imagery, and humane, empathetic gaze on our racial society.
Transcendent draw us ever deeper in. Hell, it stopped me in my gallery-jaunting tracks. Look back again at that acrollage painting. The subject is very urgent and contemporary, but Calero’s old-master appropriation suggests some act of artistic ritual in glorifying ordinary people.
You know, perhaps I made a mistake in reading Transcendent as a gesture against the ills of American society. It’s a mistake because nowhere in Calero’s art is there any sort of parodying or costuming. Like the Nuyorican Lin-Manuel Miranda’s award-winning musical Hamilton currently on Broadway, which is played almost entirely by black and Latino actors, Calero samples hip hop to tell a story whose references cut from across cultures to elevate everyday identities that often slip into urban anonymity.
The title itself holds a crucial key. Transcendent is not solely a simple story about personal suffering or racial oppression in America. Yes, that man’s hunched back faces us, but his back looks strong and muscled and solid even though his head hangs low. You won’t be able to see it in the photographic reproduction above, but if you see it in person, your heart and mind will be lifted by the soulful pattern of vertical blues that frames this resilient man’s left and right sides — a dynamically painted frame that then moves your eyes higher to bask in the even thicker swathe of horizontal yellow, which seems to pour out of the back of his head.
Transcendent is a large-scale, mixed media piece about a person of color that gives forth a religious atmosphere. He might be a neglected black or Latino man framed by a cross. Calero harnesses the spiritual imagery and heritage of Catholicism that’s embedded in her Puerto Rican roots. Come to think of it the luminous band of patterned yellow color that emanates from this man’s head has the brilliance of sunlight.
Plus the symbolism in Transcendent uplifts us with the stronger feeling of spiritual wholeness and lofty personal resilience in the face of the poverty, racial discrimination and societal ills — all of it threatening to cow him and break his solid back. In fact, we need not see this man’s face. We need not know if he is black or Latino at all. What matters more is that Calero sees the struggle of people of color in light of a neo-Byzantine, old-world flourish. No. He is not a man of the old world at all. We respond to his plight because he is a person of color who exists today. Now. At this very urgent present.
The black or Latino or brown-skinned Asian man in Calero’s Transcendent is very much an urban martyr or a latter-day santos, just as the title of this superb retrospective suggests. — Randy Gener