There’s a new exhibit at Longwood Gallery @ Hostos, organized on the theme of boleros, music that originated in Cuba in the late 19th century, then spread to Puerto Rico, other parts of the Caribbean and Latin America (not to be confused with bolero music that originated in Spain in the 18th century). These songs of love and life, while often sad, are also about the power of love. They’re also especially good for coping with a break-up. Prominent bolero artists include José Antonio Mendez (Cuba), José Feliciano (Puerto Rico & the Bronx), Agustin Lara (Mexico), Luis Miguel (Mexico), Tito Rodriguez (Puerto Rico) and Celia Cruz (Cuba). Curator Juanita Lanzo decided to organize a show around the theme of boleros when a group of students visited the gallery and told her they didn’t know this music. While some of the artists’ work in this show relates specifically to bolero, others used the more general theme of music. At a recent artists talk, I learned more about these works directly from their creators.
Glendalys Medina, a Bronxite from Puerto Rico, spoke about her work Güiro. She was inspired by the ribbed percussion instrument of the same name made from a gourd, originally by Taíno Indians ( a stick or tynes are rubbed against the notches to create a ratchet sound). Glendalys grew up with music, as her father plays the congas. When she was young, she would listen to the music of Louis Miguel, especially on Saturdays, which was cleaning day. When you look closely at her Güiro, you’ll find symbols such as owls and coquís (frogs native to Puerto Rico). I like her use of oil-based marker, which captures and diffuses the light, giving her piece a flat, but lightly polished sheen.
A New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent, Maria Dominguez has two pieces from her Hothouse series, born of her passion for jazz, which is reflected not only in her choice of subjects (here, Nina Simone and Wes Montgomery), but also in the intensity of her colors, and the sense of movement that infuses them. Maria informed us that when she created this series, she first painted the paper until she got the texture she wanted, then she ripped it. Earlier in her career, Maria was a muralist, and discovered that pulling the paper always revealed a story.
David Gonzalez is a columnist and photojournalist for The New York Times. David, who is of Puerto Rican heritage, grew up in the Bronx with music – his father, a guitarist, would play on the weekends with his uncles. Music is what kept David sane in his youth – today it helps him work.
David took the above photo in 1979 at a block party on 140th Street (the salsa band was behind him). He pointed out that in 1979 no one cared about the Bronx, and contrasted that attitude with the way people in the photo are dressed – the dancers take pride in their appearance and are relying on their culture, especially music and dance to sustain them. David sees music as a survival skill, especially for people who are marginalized – their culture binds them together and enables them to negotiate the world.
David also had some great advice for artists – emerging, established or otherwise. He recounted how he had completely forgotten about this photo until 2009, when he was scanning his old work. This image is a perfect illustration of the intersection of skill and luck; David took only two shots. I don’t know what the other one looks like, but this one says it all. As David advised, “look back through your archives every now and then – you might be surprised how good some of your earlier work is.”
For Rafael Melendez the boleros theme of the show connected him to music, and made him think about MTV, which was his introduction to America (he is of Mexican heritage) as well as his connection to contemporary art and to living in NYC. Against one wall is a video loop of the drawings he made while bartending, and also a series of drawings that are like musical notes and the thoughts they have that makes them write music.
Norma Márquez Orozco grew up in Mexico with boleros, which her mother and sisters listened to. When she was young, Norma would sing these songs, which made her feel like she was in love. Later she discovered – as we all do – that the lyrics, which you didn’t understand when you were young, you experience differently when you’re older. Her piece is based around one of her favorite boleros, La Gloria Eres Tu by Jose Antonio Mendez. Norma wrote the lyrics on translucent paper which she cut into strips. Now, when she revisits the song and moves the box, the lyrics take a new shape and feeling.
There was always music in Blanka Amezkua’s life (she was born in Mexico and raised in California), particularly on special occasions (or after a heart break). For her, boleros connect the generations. Blanka trained as a painter for 15 years, but now embroiders. She mentioned that sometimes people have had strong reactions to her two pieces in this show, and explained that the images she embroidered came from Mexican adult comic books, and that her mother crocheted the frames on her work. This piece is entitled Maria Bonita, for Maria Felix, the wife of bolero composer Agustin Lara.
For Phyllis Sanfiorenzo, who was born and raised in El Barrio in Manhattan, bolero is romance and love that was innocent, pure and true. Her paintings are a combination of her own speculative fiction, and her take on the Renaissance, with its romantic images of solitude and study. This piece, Birdman, was was inspired by Albrecht Dürer’s picture of St. Jerome in his study. Phyllis noted how the hermit in his solitude often has a connection to an animal (St. Jerome and the lion). The hermit in her picture has pigeons, inspired by someone Phyllis knew in Harlem who kept them.
Patricia Cazorla grew up in a household of women in Venezuela. Her introduction to boleros was hearing her mother singing Besamé Mucho. The above picture is one of three she painted of a trip she took to Las Vegas. For Patricia, both Las Vegas and bolero music are full of risks: Las Vegas is where people go to get married or divorced (often spontaneously), and boleros, being songs of love and life, are full of emotional risks.
Esperanza Cortés comes from a family of singers: her father sang in the Metropolitan Opera chorus, and her sister is a professional salsa singer. Born in Columbia, but raised in the U.S., Esperanza didn’t start speaking Spanish until she was 11 years old, when her aunt and grandmother came to live with her family. They listened to boleros and cried, and Esperanza wanted to know why. For her, bolero lyrics express a belief in poetry and beauty. Her piece The Couple is about love – what you give and get, the variety of landscapes you live through when you’re in love. Esperanza detailed the symbolism of the elements of the piece: the chairs, which she upholstered herself, signify how one person is always more dominant in a relationship; the pearl necklaces represents semen; the crystals, tears; the blue brocade, our dreams of love; the 500 rings, our promises to each other, and the knitting needles, the pain we inflict on each other.
Be sure to get up to Longwood Art Gallery @ Hostos (450 Grand Concourse at 149th Street in the Bronx to see more work by these artists before Boleros closes on December 6th.