Me prolongué en el rumbo de aquel camino errante
Que se abría en mi interior,
Y me llegué hasta mí, íntima.
Conmigo cabalgando seguí por la sombra del tiempo
y me hice paisaje lejos de mi visión.
Pilgrim in myself, I walked a long instant.
I lingered on the route of that errant path
That opened in my interior,
And I arrived at myself, intimate.
With myself on horseback I galloped through the shadow of time
And became a landscape far from my vision.
|―||Julia de Burgos|
|Excerpt from "Intima"1|
Landscape, self, and form are coupled and obscured in Julia de Burgos's poem, "Intima." Like much of her writing, Burgos's words read as confessional and urgent, referencing the independent pathways of her life and her unyielding dedication to her own expressive voice. As a poet, activist, feminist, and mixed-race Puerto Rican woman living during the first half of the twentieth century, Burgos transgressed the traditional conventions of her time, propelling her migration from Puerto Rico to New York City (with a stint in Cuba). This trajectory, perhaps presaged in the poem "Intima" by her description of a pilgrim finding her way on an errant path, casts the iconic Burgos as an apt guiding figure for approaching the exhibition Reimagined Landscapes. Throughout her oeuvre, Burgos's lyrical citations of landscape often hinge on a sense of displacement, which scholars have attributed to her nomadic subjectivity, and which parallel the diasporic identities of the six intergenerational artists featured at Calderón.2 However, beyond mere biography, Burgos's identification as "a landscape far from my vision" reflects the abstract aesthetics of visual artists Olga Albizu, Zilia Sánchez, Gisela Colón, Candida Alvarez, Nora Maité Nieves, and Luz Carabaño. Far from traditional expectations of the genre, the more than fifty years of artistic production on view represent alternate visualities that shift focus from the specificity of place to a more untethered and relational notion of placement.
Just one generation younger than Burgos, Olga Albizu similarly arrived in New York in search of personal and professional independence.3 She distilled the lessons absorbed through studies at the Hans Hoffman School of Fine Arts into her own distinct mode of abstract expressionism, culminating in works such as Untitled (1971). Characterized by compact compositions of thickly applied, layered forms rendered in distinct palettes, Albizu'spaintings are pure abstractions that lack distinct representational reference. Scholar Abigail McEwen has addressed how such inaccessibility - described in terms of an optics of concealment - may relate to Albizu's "highly specific subjectivity."4 As such, they remain expansive in their ability to accommodate multiple projected visions, yet ultimately evade definition. Indeed, though sometimes guided by a title (which more often convey a mood rather than a concrete subject), Albizu's works preserve their unknown interiority, while also inviting Rorschach-like comparisons to seascapes, sunsets, lush flora, or Caribbean architecture.
Such shifts between abstract form and identifiable referent similarly appear in the work of Zilia Sánchez. Born in Havana, Cuba, Sánchez has lived in San Juan, Puerto Rico since 1971, following periods spentin New York and Europe. This transnational pathway, as well as her fiercely independent artistic practice which "refuses to be one thing or the other," informs her declaration, "Soy Isla [I am an island]."5 Sánchez's statement recalls Burgos in its conflation of landscape and self, and is visually manifest in her artwork, whose swelling contours and protuberances conjure bodily and terrestrial associations. In Concepto I (2000/2009), Sánchez extends her canonical shaped canvases into a free-standing sculptural composition, whose echoed, organic shapes suggest an erotic relation. Ambiguously gendered, their bulbous forms evoke a fluidity that finds its counterpart in the libidinous Burgos.
The inherent sensuality of Sánchez's art serves to differentiate her work from Minimalism, with which she has been affiliated in the futile effort of categorizing her uncategorizable practice. Such attempts are often repeated in relation to the art of Gisela Colón, whose engaged "reaction to" (the artist's words) and personal relation with such movements as Minimalism and Light and Space,6 have occluded other elements of her practice - including the perspective of landscape. Born in Canada, yet raised in Puerto Rico and now based in California, the artist has cited the jungle and desert as influences for her so-called "Non-Specific Objects." Materially and perceptually, her blow-molded acrylic sculptural forms draw from both the terrestrial and celestial, including the phosphorescent waters of Puerto Rico's bioluminescent bays; the mounds and climbing vegetation of El Yunque rainforest; the astronomical visions of The Arecibo Observatory; and the vast vistas of Southern California. Characterized by their chromatic shifts, Colón's artworks create landscapes that do not stay put, but rather move and shift with the viewer to embody a sense of multi-positional (diasporic?) relationality.
As a double-sided work, Candida Alvarez's Red Puddle (2017) from her "Air Painting" series similarly offers multiple viewpoints. Working on a horizontal surface, Alvarez's application of acrylic, enamel, and glitter seeps through the loose weave of her PVC mesh substrate, producing a latent image on the painting's recto ("Side B"). This secondary side becomes visible upon the Air Painting's shift to vertical orientation, hung from a custom-built two-legged aluminum frame, which she describes as forming "not just part of the environment but become[s] the environment."7 Architecturally conceived, the physical structure of Alvarez's Air Paintings recall a potent memory from the artist's childhood growing up in her Puerto Rican family's Brooklyn high-rise tenement, from whose windows she would look onto the world below.8 Indeed, with its swirling, aqueous forms, Red Puddle may be read as a satellite-like vision of a mapped terrain, both real and recalled.
If Alvarez's Red Puddle is a window, Brooklyn based Nora Maité Nieves denies this visual permeability in her artistic practice. By embellishing the edges of her canvases, using modeling paste to add to their surfaces, and even at times cutting into the stretcher, she works to convert her paintings into objects. This layered material process echoes her conceptual interest in memory, built upon accumulated recollections. Although inspired by her life growing up in Puerto Rico, Maité Nieves's canvases forego nostalgia in their depiction of vernacular motifs, whose legibility fluctuates based on the viewer's recognition and experience. Recalling tropical vegetation, mosaic tilework, and patterned grills, such fragmented elements evoke the disjointed nature of memory and displacement, combining domestic, urban, and natural forms from Maité Nieves's past into new, recombined compositions.
Generationally the youngest artist in the show, Luz Carabaño figures as a coda to the exhibition, her Venezuelan origins a departure from the Boricua identity shared between Burgos and the featured artists. Yet, her shaped canvases reflect and refract shadows from a familiar yet mirror-like world that transcends literal geographies. Wrapped in linen, her monochromatic works depict named objects that appear identifiable yet transformed. Angled and blurry, as if submerged under water, Carabaño's subtle play with perspective prompts a sense of anamorphosis that requires movement and different angles before her images click into place. Small scale and intimate, they offer tightly zoomed-in visions that posit the limitations and possibilities of looking at the world from a particular position.
In another line from "Intima," Burgos describes how "the surroundings reconquer color and form." It is thus in a poetic inversion that the six artists featured in Reimagined Landscapes strategically reverse this action, using color and form to locate a space/place for the self within their surroundings.
Susanna V. Temkin, PhD
1 Julia de Burgos. “Intima/Intimate.” Song of the Simple Truth: Obra poética complete / The Complete Poems of Julia de Burgos. Compiled and translated by Jack Agüeros. Willimantic, CT: Curbstone Press, 1997: 6-7.
2 For more on Burgos, see Vanessa Pérez-Rosario. Becoming Julia de Burgos: The Making of a Puerto Rican Icon. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2014.
3 Pérez-Rosario’s discussion of Burgos’ migration in terms of sexile – a theoretical concept linking the migration experience with gender expectations that exceed heteronormative, patriarchal norms – seems similar to the experience of Albizu. Despite this commonality, and although the two artists’ time in New York overlapped by some five years, they embodied vastly different New York experiences, separated both by race and class.
4 McEwen theorizes this subjectivity as “border practice” related to Albizu’s outsider status in terms of both gender and culture. For more, see McEwen’s article, “Olga Albizu and the Borders of Abstraction.” American Art, vol. 29, no. 2, 2015, pp. 86–111. JSTOR, Article Link. Accessed 20 Jun. 2022.
5 Carla Acevedo-Yates. “Decoding Homotextuality in the Work of Zilia Sánchez.” In Zilia Sánchez: Soy Isla. Washington D.C.: The Phillips Collection, 2019: 67.
6 Gisela Colón. “Notes, Thoughts, Observations Towards the Development, Conceptualization and Creation of Non-Specific Objects.” Gisela Colón: Pods. Beverly Hills, Ace Gallery, 2015.
7 El Museo del Barrio. “La Trienal Talks: Candida Alvarez in Conversation with Rodrigo Moura.” YouTube, May 3, 2021, Video Link.
8 Candida Alvarez. ESTAMOS BIEN: LA TRIENAL 20/21. New York: El Museo del Barrio, 2021: 87.