Mexico City

View of “Radamés ‘Juni’ Figueroa,” 2017. Photo: Ramiro Chavez.

View of “Radamés ‘Juni’ Figueroa,” 2017. Photo: Ramiro Chavez.

Radamés “Juni” Figueroa

View of “Radamés ‘Juni’ Figueroa,” 2017. Photo: Ramiro Chavez.

Viewers entering Radamés “Juni” Figueroa’s exhibition “Sabroso Veneno” (Sweet Poison) might have wondered if they’d walked into a local cantina by mistake. The room was set up with eight small square tables, each draped in a pink tablecloth embroidered with the exhibition’s name. Folding metal chairs bore the logo of Indio, a popular Mexican beer. To the right, a stage, also painted pink (with accents of pale blue and yellow) jutted out from the wall, rising a foot or so from the ground. Two wide pedestals flanking the stage might have served to display sculpture—or performing bodies.

Hanging on the walls toward the back of the space were a pair of large painted portraits of noted Puerto Rican salsa trumpeter and composer Luis “Perico” one of Ortiz, each reproducing a campy cover of one of Ortiz’s albums from the early 1980s: El Astro (1981) and Sabroso! (1982), respectively. Ortiz appears in each with his trumpet and charismatic smile—and a parrot. In one he poses leisurely on the ground, in the other with a playful finger in the air, as if counting off for the next song. Monumentalizing Ortiz via images that are already celebrated in the iconography of salsa, Figueroa evokes a Caribbean popular aesthetic language defined by the empowering capacities of leisure, music, and sociality.

Inspired by the architecture and aesthetics of a 1970s salsa club, the installation offered more than pure nostalgia; it had a specifically contemporary feel as well. Most striking was the sheer pinkness of it all. The cheery hue distinguished not only the tablecloths and stage, but also the gallery’s walls, where it took the place of the usual white. It’s tempting to use the term millennial pink to describe the palette of the space, even if Figueroa’s frequent references to what some call “tropical aesthetics” suggest that the artist, who is based in San Juan, Puerto Rico, may just as well be alluding to the color of a flamingo’s plumage or hibiscus petals.

Such high-spirited architectural interventions are familiar territory for Figueroa. His 2013 project Tree House–Casa Club, a structure built with a crew of collaborators in the forest outside of San Juan, served as the site for a series of cultural events and parties throughout the year. A version of this work was shown in the 2014 Whitney Biennial. Figueroa wants visitors to enjoy their experience of the work as much as he does the creation of it.

The empty chairs and stained tablecloths of Sabroso Veneno insist on occupation and use. After visiting the show by day, I returned for a karaoke night hosted by the venerable drag queen Nina de la Fuente. The restrained atmosphere I’d experienced earlier gave way to bacchanalia. Blue, green, and red fluorescent lights transformed the space with festive yet subtle changes in hue. The stage finally fulfilled its promise of performance, with each spectator being given a turn in the limelight.

Leisure may be empowering, but is it revolutionary? Figueroa resists political pigeonholing, having stated that he would rather defer to the viewer than prescribe an agenda. Even so, his concern with quotidian life cannot help but recall modes of resistance and escape from systemic control. Puerto Rico is currently crippled by austerity measures that will only be more devastating in Hurricane Maria’s wake, while NAFTA has locked Mexico into an exploitative relationship with its northern neighbor. In considering the political potential of revelry, I am reminded of a statement by Shyboi, a music producer and multimedia artist whose work subverts the expected conviviality of dance music. “You cannot dismantle white supremacy in the club,” she explains. Likewise, we can ask: Does painting walls pink transform a white cube—by appropriating an elite space for popular use—or simply mask it? No single individual’s response yields a complete answer. The complicated choreography between cultural producers and consumers, and the systemic factors affecting their interactions, is a collective experience, just as their transformation would be a collaborative enterprise.

Layla Fassa