New York

Rafael Ferrer

Rafael Ferrer is an expressionist whose art contains a recurring cluster of private symbols. Despite some earlier linkages with Process and Conceptual modes, he remains more a kind of latter-day Max Beckmann than a Robert Morris. His latest show contained four continuing series of works: a group of painted and drawn-over maps hanging on the wall; a group of boat sculptures suspended by wires; a series of open-form assemblages; and an environment containing a number of works lit dimly by variously colored neon tubing. It was a powerful exhibition.

Born in Puerto Rico, a onetime drummer in Latin bands, brother of actor Jose Ferrer, and a self-aware “outsider,” Ferrer leaves nothing out of his art. I know of no other artist whose childhood, seriously viewed, seems more present in his work. The maps, for example, begin as large navigational charts purchased from official sources. Then they are crayoned over, painted, drawn and written on, until they become a palimpsest of information: the government’s underneath, visible occasionally, and Ferrer’s indecipherable markings above. His multicolored handling of the maps’ original grids, combined with his lettering and cryptic informational systems, remind me of the shamanlike procedures of Alfred Jensen. Ferrer’s maps are beautiful in a way that keeps them from seeming quite like paintings, or, for that matter, like drawings. One of his accomplishments is to make his works seem like artifacts of the Ferrer Culture rather than, specifically, paintings or sculptures or drawings. It is a triumph of idiosyncrasy over medium, a triumph similar to Lucas Samaras’s.

The boat sculptures are one of Ferrer’s most obsessive subjects, and, with the maps, refer to Puerto Rico, land masses, the sea, and the artist’s origin. They combine overtones of ethnic object in the museum and toy model in the attic. A particularly strong example in this show is the sailboat entitled YO, YO, YO, YO, YO, which drags its own painted-wood sea beneath it. The boats are constructed of a wide variety of materials, and this brings up a change in Ferrer’s recent work.

In earlier shows Ferrer tended to bring together a few extremely different substances for maximum, head-on impact: neon tubing, dry leaves, canvas and a drum set, or telephone poles, spotlights and charcoal graffiti. The collage sense of juxtaposition had maximum force, and was metaphorically powerful as a description of the stridencies of current human existence. Some of the works in his recent show, especially the open-form assemblages, seem to be made of so many things that they are in danger of appearing embellished rather than constructed. These more abstract sculptures lack the hardness of contrast the artist usually commands. The problem, perhaps, is connected with Ferrer’s need for sharp emotional focus, a need provided for in images as densely loaded as the generic “boat” or “map.” With Ferrer, beauty isn’t enough.

The most successful work in the exhibition was the environment (considering the smaller room as a whole rather than as a collection of parts). This area was closed off by canvas sheeting except for two low, narrow openings. One entered at a crouch, humbled, and stepped onto Rafael Ferrer’s turf. Again there were overtones of childhood games and hiding places mingling with something more sinister—the artist as Puerto Rican gang leader. The room was lit only by variously colored small neon tubes in a number of separate pieces. Ferrer is masterful in his use of this gaudy, peculiar light. It contrasts dramatically with the hard, primitive silhouettes of the boats and beaded sculptures, suggesting flashy Latin nightlife and the jungle, side by side. The light was helpful in reducing the over-glitter of the bead, string, fabric and wire pieces, giving their contours more power and their details less, while extending their emotional range.

In the center of the room was a huge spray-painted banner announcing “el hielo” (ice). This banner, like Proust’s madeleine, triggered a multitude of simultaneous associations: ice pieces Ferrer has done at various times; bold, illegal subway graffiti; the gypsies and their ice in One Hundred Years of Solitude (a novel in many ways the most helpful guide to Ferrer’s sensibility): a statement, perhaps, of the artist’s altered esthetic, from real ice to a kind of painting using the word “ice”—a change of venue from Marcel Duchamp to Joan Miró. And on a high perch within a tall hanging sculpture, presiding over the room, was a moth eaten, stuffed American eagle looking very vulturelike. It was a vastly more effective political gesture than all the recent bombings and proclamations of Puerto Rican nationalist groups.

Ferrer shares many concerns with Lucas Samaras, yet the strength of one is the unsteady area of the other. Both are autobiographical, highly idiosyncratic, anticlassical artists, yet each operates best on a different scale from the other. Above all, each draws his emotional fuel from an opposite source; Samaras is self-consciously intellectual and narcissistic, even neurasthenic; Ferrer is deliberately primitive, tough, and direct. I like them both.

Budd Hopkins