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Puerto Rican Pride Shines at a Chicago Art Exhibit

Carlos Rolón makes replicas of his childhood in homage to his immigrant family.

by B. David Zarley
Jul 29 2016, 1:30pm

Trophy Den, 2016. Mixed media. Dimensions variable. Photo by Nathan Keay, courtesy of the artist.

Aspirational consumerism, rococo finery, and the pop cultural image-as-iconography of Rick Ross; a Carlos Rolón/Dzine exhbition is something experienced, not just observed. Within the multimedia artist’s canon are a variety of themes—and then there is Rolón himself, present, as a Puerto Rican, an American, a child, a person, in the works. Rolón’s latest solo show, I Tell You This Sincerely …, is the first in his hometown in over a decade. A mixture of sculpture, installation, and painting showing at the Chicago Cultural Center, the ambitious exhibition explores culture and memory through the artist’s own life.

We see an interpretation of his childhood basement, complete with his own personal boom box, boxing memorabilia, a TV set showing the Leonard–Durán fight on repeat, and a mantle full of trophies. The trophies are meant to honor the deferred dreams of immigrants—and people like his Puerto Rico-born parents—who leave their homes and put their own goals and ambitions aside so that their children would never have to.

The exhbition is purposeful and personal. “I love the idea that the place is free for the people and the public,” he says. “People like my mother and father would come here for a day trip, and that's important to me.”

Rolón gave The Creators Project a sincere tour of his favorite five moments within the exhibit:

Bochinche

27 Macrame plant holders, part of the Bochinche installation, 2015. Shell, wire, and vegetation. Dimensions variable, photo by Nathan Keay, courtesy of the artist.

Rolón’s Bochinche installation references the courtyards of the Carribbean, places which can serve as respites from the heat and hustle.

“There's a sense of invitation with them, and that's what I really love about those pieces,” Rolón says. The macrame plant holders are particularly meaningful because they carry familial as well as cultural connontations. The kitschy, crafty aspect Rolón assosciates with his family, while the history of macrame--originating in North Africa, brought to Spain with the Moors, and then spread out to the wider, Spanish speaking world—ties the plant hangers in to global history.

To Rolón, “there is a connection of macrame and macrame work connected to the diaspora, and connected to that culture of the Caribbean.”

Gild The Lily 

Gild The Lily (Decadence Upon Decadence), 2016. Oil acrylic, varnish, and gold leaf on canvas. 96 x 72 inches. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Although he works in a variety of mediums now, Rolón began as a painter, and he returns to form in a new series of floral paintings depecting flowers native to Puerto Rico. He chooses flowers as a perfect subject to bridge the gap between the personal and popular as well as the traditional and contemporary.

“When you think of an artist making work that deal[s] with the idea of flowers or flora or vegetation, there is a sense of history, and there is a sense of history that's connected with Manet, and Monet, and David Hockney. There's all these historical kinds of references, which for me is important, as an artist and a painter,” Rolón says.

Celestial I

Celestial I, 2016. Repurposed tempered glass and silicone on aluminum panel, 60 x 60 inches. Photo by Nathan Keay and courtesy of the artist.

Shattered tempered glass twinkles coquettishly, promising danger and beauty. Growing up in Brighton Park on Chicago’s Southwest Side, Rolón remembers both the exquisitness of the sun striking broken car windows in the street and the realization that something bad had happened to make that shimmering moment. These pieces in the Bochinche room take elements from the shattered window and evoke a night sky.

“I love that I am incorporating a material that's really unorthodox, that's not supposed to be used as art work. I'm not even going to an art supply store, I'm going to an auto body shop to actually acquire these works,” Rolón says. “My goal was to take that concept [beauty from tragedy] and make it celestial.”

Nomadic Habitat (Hustleman)

Nomadic Habitat (Hustleman), 2015. Vendor cart, mixed media (wood, fabric, steel, gold leaf, hanging lights, fabric trim, chair rug, table with cerami tiles), 103 x 54 x 90 inches. Photo by Nathan Keay and courtesy of the artist.

Nomadic Habitat (Hustleman) is a sculpture built to honor Chicago street vendor Garland Gantt. Gantt, better known as Hustleman, he has sold various products outside a train station on the city’s South Side for over a decade. Rolón was inspired by Casablanca’s Habitat Marocain housing project by Swiss architects André Studer and Jean Hentsch, using the structure as the template for building on to Hustleman’s cart. He then turned the cart over to Gantt to furnish.

The sculpture was originally commisioned for the Chicago Architectural Biennial and was anchored around Gantt's real life persona. By inviting people to spend time with Gantt, Rolón hoped to foster an increased sense of place in a neighborhood plagued by issues.

“When you go see that work, you look at the vending cart, listen, just so you know, I didn't embellish it, not one bit,” Rolón says. “I actually collaborated with Garland. Garland was actually my co-creator on this piece … he became the work. He became the artist, as well.”

“It really is touching on this idea of displacement and social practice and community, and actually trying to make the community into a real community,” he says.

¡Siempre Pa'lante!

¡Siempre Pa'lante!, 2016, neon, 7 x 74 inches. Afrocomb, 2016, edition of 3, 1 artist proof, high density urethane, resin, paint, 42 x 94 x 3 inches, and Statue of Libery, digital video projection of Super 8mm home film footage (all three considered here as one suite). Photos by Nathan Keay and courtesy of the artist.

The artist sees the next room of three installations as a suite; a home video, words in neon and larger than life resin pink hair pick. The afrocomb/fist, symbols of defiance and social justice, are painted pink, the same pink as the neon slogan, to speak to the current struggle for gender and LGBTQ issues.

The phrase siempre pa’lante, or “always forward,” in neon pink epitomizes the battle cry of the Young Lords Puerto Rican social movement of the 60s.

“That term of endearment was taken and adopted by the Young Lords which started in Chicago in Lincoln Park and eventually moved to New York. They were kind of an extension of the Black Panther party, but their goal was to have equal rights for Latinos,” he says.

Then there is the reflective and personal Super 8 home film footage titled Statue of Liberty. “My family shot this video on their first trip to New York, and the first thing that they shot was the Statue of Liberty. This was their idea of what America, and the American Dream, was about,” Rolón says. The film is aspirational, a testament to a couple who left their homes, moved to a distant city, and made enough of themselves to take their family to New York.

I Tell You This Sincerely … runs at the Chicago Cultural Center through July 31.

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