New York

Papo Colo

Exit Art

This two-gallery exhibition of works by Papo Colo was an ambitious and illuminating retrospective of an artistic career just as ambitious and illuminating. The richness and eclecticism of the work proved that Colds art is interesting enough to merit this double show, which gave an overview of his entire personal and artistic history. Evident in the body of Colds work is an involved and epic “life as art” contrived upon the artist’s invention of himself in the complex and contradictory terms of society. As is often the case when an artist’s persona becomes a mythic creation—and the most captivating element in all that he produces—most of the varied manifestations of Colds restless, searching energy are objects and activities that, outside the context of his entire oeuvre, are incomplete in themselves and rarely express the drama and conceptual intelligence of the whole.

Each private and public gesture of Colo’s existence is active in the self-invention of his identity. Colds wide body of public art activity is intentionally pluralistic, encompassing more traditional art media—painting, sculpture, photography, books, assemblage—as well as poetry, performance, and video. It is the interconnectedness of these efforts, operating on conceptual and physical planes at once, that is the key to understanding any of them. For Colo, creativity is an organism whose life cycle of conception, execution, and presentation is a continuous gesture simultaneously active in time. The act of pure imagination and the ephemeral object of its manifestation are each stages of the complete activity. Colds art leads us to his life as his life would undoubtedly lead us back to his art, for in Colo’s universe thought and action are inseparable expressions of the duality of human existence, in which we are all inescapably both observer and participant in one.

“Will, Power & Desire,” the title of Colds retrospective, refers to the artist’s reflections on the multiple impulses and perceptions of the self within society and its success and failure according to past, present, and future conditions. Colo invents his artist persona as the conjunction of his image reflected between the self and the culture, intentionally jumping among different styles and media because he does not define his art by the categories that are created (and followed) by much of the art world. He deliberately disregards the clannish territorialism that divides art up along such superficial lines as expressionism or conceptualism, painting or video, emphasizing instead the psychosocial implications of his work. However, the overview provided by this retrospective also revealed that Colds eclecticism is symptomatic of a split in his artistic identity, which ranges between two extremes: the clichéd primitivism of his paintings and sculpture, expressed in near stream-of-consciousness through the invocation of folkloric symbols and imagery indigenous to his Caribbean island culture—as in, for example, Tupac Amaru, 1985–86, and Desert Oasis, 1986—and the introspective critical observations on the faith and rituals of society in such performance pieces as Superman, 1977, or Battle Value, 1983. If he pays less heed than he should to the esthetics of technical virtuosity, it is the activity, the process, that becomes the artistic focus. Colo looks at himself and society caught in the act of recording themselves in a dialogue of rebounding values, like multiple reflections in a mirrored chamber or, perhaps more accurately, a perpectual reenactment of the myth of Narcissus and Echo.

What ignites Colo’s art is his confrontation of the conflicting values that rip the fabric of his social conscience. As an expatriate—he was born in Puerto Rico and lived for many years in Spain before moving to New York—Colo must wrestle with the alienating displacement of values that all expatriates experience. Tom by his heritage and identity as a native-born Puerto Rican as it pulls against the emotions and ideas acquired living in America, he falls into a cultural limbo between the two, feeling a sense of both belonging and loss in almost equal measure toward both cultures. Although much of his art expresses his stance as an enemy of cultural colonialization, a patriot citizen of the 51st state that Puerto Rico never became, it also betrays the fact that he leads a double life as insider and outsider only partly assimilated by the melting pot. The strength Colo draws from as an artist is fed by the psychic pain of such contradictions. Colo the artist is a choice that does not conform to the stereotype of machismo; it negates the traditional Puerto Rican role model and, in particular, his family’s expectations for him as the son of a greatly esteemed prizefighter. Unable to satisfy all of these contradictory demands on him as an artist and man, a Puerto Rican and an American, Colo occupies this sacrificial throne with great panache, ritualizing the catharsis he experiences in acting out a failure that has been predetermined from the outset. The politics that informs Colds art tells us that it is not only a test of his failure according to the terms of his cultural memory, but his own reciprocal test of such a tradition. There is no end result, no final judgment here, only action extending infinitely along the dialectic impulses of idealism and cynicism.

Carlo McCormick