MECA Art Fair, Old San Juan
CALLE LA PUNTILLA | NOVEMBER 16 – NOVEMBER 19, 2018
(OLD SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO)
Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico. This time last year, thousands on the island were without power, and some people in remote areas still are today. The MECA Art Fair, founded by Daniel Baéz and Tony Rodríguez, had its first iteration before trauma hit the island in June 2017, and that is why they and the galleries involved found it so important to return. For the 2018 iteration, MECA ignited San Juan: a powerful contemporary art contingent of over thirty local and international galleries took over the Arsenal de la Marina Española, and a satellite program of events and talks occurred throughout the city. The sentiment was upbeat. Galleries, such as New York-based White Columns, participating for the second time, were happy to be back on the island supporting contemporary art and something larger as well.
As a social or political gesture, MECA functioned as both. This was evident not only by their presence in Old San Juan, but also through much of the artwork on view. Contributions were at times playful, and in other moments reactionary, such as Cristine Brache’s installation made specifically for MECA at Fierman, another New York gallery. Her work focused on five Puerto Rican winners of the Miss Universe pageant—formerly owned by Donald Trump—through a display of shelves filled with handcrafted objects conceptually relating to each contestant alongside porcelain objects representing mirrors, decorated with red-lipped kisses. Accompanying her installation was a small zine titled “Fucking Attention” with the following excerpt:
Donald Trump looked at Puerto Rico.
“Come here,” he said.
She took one more step forward.
“Tell me, who’s the most beautiful woman here?”
Puerto Rico’s eyes swam around. “Besides me?” she said.
“Uh, I like India. She’s sweet.”
“I don’t care if she’s sweet,” Donald Trump said. “Is she hot?”
The lines are taken from a quote—reported in the May 2016 New York Times article “Crossing the Line: How Donald Trump Behaved With Women in Private”—by Carrie Prejean, Miss California, 2009, describing her interaction with Trump during the Miss USA Pageant. Brache adapted and appropriated the text using markov chain generator in order to create a different conversation—the version above is as it appears in the zine. Originally, the contestants were Miss California and Miss Alabama, and, inspired by William Burroughs’s cut-up technique, Brache used the text to suit her work. It questions our willingness, as viewers, to believe the absurdity of Trump’s words, and how even when changed, they are still convincing.
Other work at the fair that comments on the state of Puerto Rico post-Maria, are two small oil paintings by Karlo Andrei Ibarra shown with Ana Mas Projects, a gallery with locations in San Juan and Barcelona. This impactful work, oil-on-canvas respectively titled Osamenta #2 and Osamenta #4 (meaning “skeleton”), both from 2018, are representational, and empty, skeletal frames of billboards in landscapes. They speak to a city filled with silence—and while San Juan is no longer in this state, the paintings transport us to a time not long ago when advertisements on billboards meant to communicate prosperity were blank. These still-lives of simple desolation resonate with the famed billboard project by For Freedoms, a 50-State initiative to place artist billboards across America, including a billboard by Puerto Rican artist Esteban Valdes hosted by Beta-Local, a partner based in San Juan. While the billboard was not on view during MECA, Ibarra’s work made me think of its message, declared in vertical text: WORSHIP WANT FEAR SPEECH FOR FREEDOMS. The silence of the painted skeletons and the boldness of Valdes’ sharp text ask for the same thing: liberation.
Two San Juan-based artists who participated in MECA without gallery representation, worth mentioning are: Carlos Mercado and Keyshla M. De Jesús, a recent graduate of the School of Plastic Arts and Design of Puerto Rico. Mercado owned an interior design business, and about five years ago decided to focus on a fine art career. His ornate installation Art is My Religion (2018) was made of mirrored Plexiglass and neon-painted, store-bought religious figurines. Installed in a small chapel near the Arsenal, it was reminiscent of work Ugo Rondinone had on view in Miami last year, as well as religious art of the past, which would have been made of glass and stone; cast or carved figures. Mercado’s installation felt fleeting rather than timeless—perhaps a reflection of the precariousness that still lingers in the unspoken, quiet corners of the island after the hurricane.
De Jesús, now in her 20s, was diagnosed with cancer when she was 18 years old. Though she is fortunately in remission her experience with cancer is what led to her art-making practice. At MECA, she showed a wall sculpture with circular indentations that resemble petri dishes as part of “Artistas Fresh.” Using watercolor and resin, she delicately painted cancer cells—the same cancer that plagued her—inside each shape. At just the right angle, the piece glistened like the sea, beautiful yet also deadly.
This recent iteration of the MECA Art Fair provided a platform for recognition, allowing artists and galleries in Puerto Rico and beyond an opportunity to exhibit under one roof, attracting local and an international contingent. Bringing them all together exposed a camaraderie of mutual support for the island even if mostly expressed over drinks at the after party. Speaking to all present it was obvious that the fair functioned as a metaphorical microphone. It blasted truths in colors and offered the chance for San Juan residents and travelers alike to see art on a regional and international level. Additional stand-outs of this year’s fair included Bridget Donahue Gallery, showing paintings by Lisa Alvarado and Monique Mouton; Embajada Gallery, with a 2018 untitled, abstract painting by Rafael Vega; and White Columns, with mixed media works on paper by the late Derrick Alexis Coard and Exuberância Store by São Paulo-based artist Luisa Brandelli. The latter was an extremely minimal installation with three shirt dresses printed with large palm trees hanging on wooden hangers, a pair of bell bottom pants laid on the stone floor, a neon light (à la Donald Judd), and two black, spray-painted streaks on the white wall. Somehow it was as if these two spray-painted streaks were representative of the fair; short in length, temporary, yet impactful.
While MECA is small-scale in comparison to most art fairs, and still in a period of growth regarding infrastructure and accessibility, it was highly enjoyable. At a comfortable venue, the main section of the fair could be fully experienced within an hour, and the selection of galleries and artists alike allowed for new discoveries and—as someone coming from New York—the opportunity to commune with old friends in a much more relaxed environment.