Juan Sánchez ¿What’s The Meaning of This? exhibition opening, image courtesy of author
I first encountered Juan Sánchez’s art while I was an intern at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Cielo/Tierra/Esperanza (1990) was included in an exhibition put together by my supervising curator. Without any previous knowledge of the artist, his work, or the socio-political issues he was speaking to, I immediately fell in love with the piece. Then, once it was off the wall, I promptly forgot about it. If I had seen the research surrounding the exhibition and all the available information specific to that work, it would have stuck in my mind better. While I have a strictly visual memory, pictures in my mind are linked to concepts and opinions, which are strengthened by facts and tidbits. While I have only just remembered my first exposure to Sánchez’s unique and complex collage-style work, this exhibition and the subsequent research it encouraged me to conduct have claimed a place in my memory; this is both a show and artist I will not soon forget.
Juan Sánchez ¿What’s The Meaning of This? is on display at BRIC House in Brooklyn from November 6th – December 27th, 2015. Curated by the VP of Contemporary Art, Elizabeth Ferrer, the show takes up the entirety of BRIC’s 3,000-foot exhibition space and unabashedly commands the attention of any viewer that chooses to walk through it. Several of the pieces are large-scale and the visual field sublimely takes up the space before the viewer, drawing them into the symbolic and colorful world of the artist. These collages, or multi-media paintings, are a welcome respite from the cliché magazine clipping collages that I continuously encounter online on the pages of several less experienced artists, on the clothing of hip Brooklynites, and even on the postcard of a popular new bar/restaurant in the LES. The cliché collages mimic the cutting edge work of world war era Germany and the Dada movement, pioneered by artists like Raoul Hausman and Hannah Höch. While at the time, the pairing of fragmented bodies with machinery, words, and cultural curiosities spoke to the atrocities of war and living in a newly industrial and technological society, seeing it now, created anew in millennial New York, I always end up thinking “I’ve seen that before.” Judgmental and mean, I know, but I’ve accepted that as part of my life now. However, Sanchéz’s collages look new to me, even though several of the pieces that I like the most were created in the late ‘80s. They are full of bright colors and painted strokes that remind me of graffiti tags that cover the façades of New York, the multi-cultural and ethnic foods, patterns, and flags that symbolize the many neighborhoods and boroughs of a city that I’ve come to call home. The symbols, which range from religious to political to biological and cover each categorical facet, dot the canvas, showing up at surprising moments. A butterfly covers the eyes of an upside-down portrait in Mariposas, Marisposas y mas Maripsas (2014). Does it signify the death of the woman, since covering the eyes of the deceased is common in many cultures and the inversion of flags or images is often meant to be subversive or show a changed state? Each piece is different and draws more questions from my mind, from the catalogue of information – both art historical and cultural – that I have, and yet each piece is clearly connected by an aesthetic and thematic oeuvre that is created by the artist.
To begin to understand and verify the meanings that I came up with on my own, I began to research the work and opinions of Mr. Sánchez. The more that I read about him, the more I liked and agreed with him and thus the more I liked and agreed with his art. BRIC’s press release reveals that Sanchez was born in Brooklyn and raised by Puerto Rican-born parents. His art has a long history of speaking to race, religion, politics and cultural identity not only of immigrants and first generation Americans in New York but also to the countries and cultures that their ancestors came from. This is backed by short biographies provided by Hunter College – where Sánchez teaches – and the Met, MoMA, and the Whitney – which all include pieces of Sánchez’s art in their permanent collections. Further, an interview of Sánchez, conducted by Susan Canning includes some very thoughtful quotes by the artist, showing his strong views and opinions about art, culture, and the state of the world. For example: “The reality is that art has always been a reflection of society, it’s always been a reflection of a particular cultural entity…I think the ‘80s really reinforced and reaffirmed that art and politics are not really separate but that art is politics, that art is about society, about culture, about the rejuvenation and the evolution of humanity.”
All of this left me wondering (as it inevitably does in any exhibition, be it at a museum, gallery, auction house, etc.) why is none of this information, this research that a quick Google search turned up, not made available by the gallery to the general public? There is, of course information on the website. A press release and two interviews are provided on BRIC’s website. A packet (or exhibition catalogue in other cases) that has a good amount of information, colored through the lens of the curator’s POV, is available on site. This is useful and important, but what about the wealth of information already available that lends insight beyond the thematic point of the show, beyond the aesthetics of the works on display, beyond the artist talks, and curated tours? Walking through the opening reception of ¿What’s The Meaning of This? I could see this deeper meaning symbolically laid out in the art, in the highly thought out placement of the pieces on the wall. Artworks next to, across from, and, as one curator I worked for put it, “speaking to” each other magnified the meaning found within these beautiful and powerful collages, but out of the dozens of people who walked through that space that night, drinking wine and eating cheese (staples at any opening, I assure you), and the hundreds that must have seen it between then and its rapidly approaching closing, how many could see what I see, what the curator and artist imagined?
My Master’s program was theory heavy, which means that I spent a year linking art to politics, economics, philosophy, linguistics, anything and everything because, to my mind and many others that dedicate their lives, talents, and passion to art and its study, art is a social practice deeply rooted in philosophy and theory where Marx’s economic theory holds as much import as Plato’s aesthetics. I see that every time I walk into a museum or gallery, but who else does? Who else, further, takes the time to search the artists they are viewing and to read the essays written on them, the interviews conducted, or at the very least, the gallery’s website? These questions are, to a degree, rhetorical, but they are not new to me and because of them, this show falls just short of what I want it to be. The art is exceptional and a retrospective of Juan Sánchez was way overdue. The exhibition was beautifully presented, well researched and demonstrates the undeniably impeccable taste of Elizabeth Ferrer. But, perhaps, in the future, BRIC and all other institutions could include on their site links to previous interviews and essays, whatever they used in their own research and anything additionally relevant that they found. Computers displaying articles and websites with information could be placed near the gallery space and books that are relevant to the show could be beside them. Granted the budget for non-profits is small and computers left in public spaces do not usually last long, but materials provided within the gallery have a better chance of being utilized. It is not guaranteed that many people will read this information, but it will at least be there, easily accessible and giving “art history goggles” to the general public who come to look at the beautiful and meaningful art on the walls of the white box.
 “Juan Sanchez Interviewed by Susan Canning,” in Interviews and Provocations: Conversations on Art, Culture, and Resistance, ed. Glen Harper (Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1998), 78.