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Review: Beyond the Canvas at Newcomb Art Museum 

Contemporary Puerto Rican art runs through July 9

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Despite its huge influence on popular music, the Caribbean can seem removed from the mainstream art world. A few Cuban and Haitian artists have been very influential, but most Caribbean communities are relatively small and distant from culture capitals. If this exhibition of work by five Puerto Rican artists (timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of Puerto Rico attaining U.S. citizenship) initially seems reminiscent of much contemporary art, a closer look reveals its distinctly Caribbean flavor. Zilia Sanchez's shaped canvas sculptures are minimal by any measure, but instead of the industrial minimalism for which American sculptors such as Donald Judd are known, Sanchez's far more organic Amazonas (pictured) mostly suggests thorns, while wryly hinting at the pointy conical bras in 1950s movies.

Another minimalist, Julio Suarez, does recall Judd in a charcoal-hued canvas square composed of smaller gray rectangles — the only truly austere minimalist piece in the show. More typical is Suarez's OO (Infinito), in which two bright green canvas circles seem to bump against each other primly, like tentatively lascivious dancers at a Latin jazz club. But nothing is minimal or prim about Elsa Maria Melendez's mixed-media light box, Haber Sido Mas Perro — a lurid magenta phantasmagoria of wild dogs and wild women like a fever dream straight from the Caribbean subconscious. It's a classic example of her boisterous mixed-media figures, which seem to densely populate the gallery like a flash mob. But Arnaldo Roche Rabell's colorful paintings, while no less passionate, exist in a more hermetic psychic space that attains lyrical fluidity in tableaux like Isla Vacia, where the intrusion of a ghostly cow skull amid overturned place settings suggests a brunch suddenly upset by poltergeists. Pedro Velez, and some ancillary works by Newcomb students, dreamily explore community and the social realm. In the Caribbean, as in New Orleans, the subconscious reigns supreme, and the region's best artists are the ones who utilize that precious gift to the fullest.


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