New York

Rafael Ferrer

Rafael Ferrer’s large drawings are done on navigational charts, so that outlines of islands and oceans of numbers show faintly through a dense layering of waxy red, green, blue, yellow and orange. One must squint to decipher the maps’ authentic geography, for Ferrer has embellished them to near oblivion. He feels no obligation to hold to definite points of view in these pictures: sailboats go by in perfect profile on water meant to be seen as the crow flies. Ferrer’s Caribbean is a fantastic, quiltlike patchwork where the island of Puerto Rico has ballooned in size, generating gaudy ripples that engulf everything for what must be hundreds of miles around. At least one of the charts shows a region in the South Pacific, but Ferrer has perversely placed Puerto Rico in the deep water somewhere west of Hawaii.

All of Ferrer’s work is concerned with locale, and all of it is as strident as these maps, but with his constructions the artist moves inland. Here certain images intrigue him repeatedly: tropical birds of impossible hues, grotesque tin men on whom Jackson Pollock might have splattered, a surrealistic clock with hands of equal length. These images mingle with each other in places, as if the poetic force of the tropics is so strong that, when one tries to remember the place, one forgets that birds, not painted shoes, belong in birdcages.

This particular shoes-in-birdcage piece is one element of a large installation that forms a major part of Ferrer’s show, Valparaiso: Hotel Aubry. It is a pink and blue neon-lit cavern where one finds oneself at once in the bedroom and the bar. A dresser dripping with Pollockian snarls stands in one corner; a drum set stands in the other, bearing a grimacing blue face behind a sort of neon snail. Though this room is empty of human figures, a crucifix dangling two gaudy ties leads one readily to imagine oneself in the company of two gangsters, or seedy musicians, or wayward tourists. Time has stopped in the Hotel Aubry, as its clock indicates with immovable hands fixed at 9:00—or is it 11:45? One looks around during what seems to be a moment when the band has paused, expecting the drums to start playing again, the tenants to emerge from the corners, the decor to seem less ominous and strange.

In a sense time has stopped in Ferrer’s work as a whole. His constructions are catalogues of past and present styles—Surrealism, Pollock, Pop and Puerto Rico mix in each piece, and even an element of pseudo-scientism emerges in his navigational chart drawings. Yet Ferrer has so ruthlessly cannibalized his sources that he has rendered them nonsensical and merely tangentially relevant to his own work. He does not subserve to the modes he exploits, but subsumes them in his local myth, parodying them insouciantly. Ferrer makes it seem as if modern Western art had existed in Puerto Rico all along, and Magritte’s birds had always screeched from rickety steeples there, and the locals were always costumed by Abstract Expressionist painters.

Thus to say that Ferrer is a conservative or inventive artist is to miss the point somehow, for his attitude toward history is thoroughly capricious. His work stands somewhere beyond cliché in an esthetic Bermuda Triangle, where the boundaries between epic and topical art, fine art, folk art and kitsch become dim and fade from view.

Leo Rubinfien