New York

Anotonio Martorell

Deftly negotiating Puerto Rican cultural traditions, ambitious political issues, literary references, and personal experiences, Antonio Martorell examined how the textures of regional conditions and individual expectations construct our notion of “home.” His eclectic, often personal installations were scattered through the rooms of the museum in a circuitous path of mystery and revelation.

Educated in graphic design, printmaking, and performance, Martorell uses an alchemic mix of these traditions in his work. At first some of the pieces seemed overly dependent on particular incidents in the artist’s life—too personal to resonate beyond the idiosyncratic and autobiographical. But inevitably the images, symbols, and materials provided other points of access.

La Casa De Todos Nosotros” (A house for us all) fulfilled the bright promise of its title. These welcoming, engaging installations evoked both the comforts and conflicts of home, offering an image of it that is intrinsic to most cultures. With few exceptions, Martorell’s installations employed archetypal forms, outlining walls, doors, and windows within the shadows cast by structures resembling traditional roofs.

Casa Singer (Singer house, 1991) originated in the artist’s childhood recollections of his family’s eviction from their home. The walls were made of translucent tissue-paper sewing patterns. Both interior and exterior were adorned with sewing paraphernalia—beads, sequins, ribbons, and other colorful objects. At the center a sewing machine was set on an enormous velvet pincushion, the symbolic hearth of Martorell’s boyhood home. The repeated movements and familiar sounds, the folds of cloth passing beneath the pulsing needle, and the sight of both ordinary and extravagant creations formed the edges of vivid but incomplete memories.

In contrast to the dense, tactile projects influenced by personal narratives, La Casa Verde (The green house, 1991) was an austerely edited version of home. Martorell suspended window grilles from the ceiling and hung them on the walls of a small room. Offering a decorative response to the imperatives of security in most cities and communities, his grilles were delicate inscriptions covered with shimmering scales of pennies. Overhead, a suspended awning of woven dollar bills formed a structure emblematic of a roof. This installation was a blunt response to the economic realities of housing, which privilege certain members of communities and deprive others. The strenuous efforts to secure safe housing were articulated in the details and surfaces of this home.

Inspired by one of Luis Rafael Sanchez’s short stories, La Casa en al Aire (House in mid air, 1992) departs from Martorell’s prototype of home to consider the problematics of immigration and residency. Shaped like the fuselage of a plane bent in the form of a U, a cacophonous, mythical environment of transit between the islands of Puerto Rico and Manhattan confronted the viewer. In contrast to the dull monotony of passenger planes, Martorell’s earthbound airline was a meditation on the mismatched: vinyl floor tiles were patterned and inscribed at random; passenger seats made of wicker, ladder-back and rocking chairs were lavishly embellished with sequins, beads, and paint. The promise, passion, doubt, and despair experienced by transient immigrants formed the outer shell of this cabin.

Martorell’s spatial arrangements reflect the unruly cultural conditions that shape our experience of place. In his inscription of individual and collective concepts of home, “home” remains complex and un-categorizable—a word for myriad associations and expectations.

Patricia C. Phillips