Beyond the Canvas: Contemporary Art from Puerto Rico at The Newcomb Art Museum of Tulane University

Elsa María Meléndez, El Ingenio Colectivo o la Maldición de la Cotorra (detail), 2014, 
installation at Museo Arsenal de la Marina, La Puntilla, San Juan

NEW ORLEANS, La. – The Newcomb Art Museum of Tulane University presents Beyond the Canvas: Contemporary Art from Puerto Rico showcasing the work of Zilia Sánchez (b.1926), Julio Suárez (b.1947), Arnaldo Roche Rabell (b.1955), Pedro Vélez (b.1971), and Elsa María Meléndez (b.1974). The exhibition, on view from April 26 through July 9, coincides with the 100th anniversary of Puerto Ricans’ U.S. citizenship. 

Spanning several generations, these five Puerto Rico-based artists challenge the notion of the canvas as a flat surface for painted images. Through tension-based strategies applied on the fabric—whether pulling, rubbing, folding, slashing, ripping, sewing, or warping—they lend their works a distinctive threedimensionality. Exhibition co-curator and architect Warren James discovered this shared approach, explaining, “There is a particular way these artists in Puerto Rico are manipulating the canvas that has not been seen before.” 

Their provocative treatments also allude to the island’s current socioeconomic crisis in works that suggest rupture, tension, and escape. Puerto Rico’s staggering debt, record emigration, and referendum on political status set for this June have all garnered headlines in the mainland United States. James reflects, “This is the perfect time to take the pulse of the island—to see what artists are saying with their work.” 

Beyond the Canvas will be accompanied by a smaller exhibition envisioned, curated, and designed by Tulane students from “Women, Community and Art in Latin America: Puerto Rico.” Co-taught by Edith Wolfe, Assistant Director of the Stone Center for Latin American Studies, and museum Director Mónica Ramírez-Montagut, the class asks how Puerto Rican socially engaged activists and artists address problems of gender, food access, blight, loss of traditions, and other issues affecting their communities on the island. 

The student-curated show, Culture, Community, and Civic Imagination in Greater San Juan, will document citizen-led projects, including a community-run educational center in an industrial area of San Juan that organizes a “theater of the oppressed”; the collective painting-interventions on houses in the hillside El Cerro neighborhood aimed at increasing visibility of marginalized populations; the recuperation of lost artisanal traditions through intergenerational workshops known as Escuelas Oficios (Trade Schools); participatory urban design projects restoring blighted properties in Santurce, and the reclaiming of public space through feminist street art and performance. 

Ramírez-Montagut, observes, “Puerto Rico and New Orleans—often called the northernmost point of the Caribbean—share a rich cultural history. Tulane is widely recognized for its expertise in Latin American and Caribbean studies, especially through the work of the Stone Center, and we are fortunate enough to leverage that expertise in this pair of exhibitions exploring the current situation in Puerto Rico.” 

The show opens on Wednesday, April 26 with two events that are free and open to the public. Starting at 6:30 pm, exhibition co-curator and architect Warren James and Stone Center Assistant Director Edith Wolfe will speak in a conversation moderated by museum Director Monica Ramirez-Montagut. The talk will take place in the Woldenberg Art Center’s Freeman Auditorium. The public reception will follow from 7:30 until 9 pm in the art center’s Woodward Way Breezeway. Exhibition funding comes in part through the generous support of The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Jennifer Wooster (NC ’91), Don Peters (A&S ’81), and the Newcomb College Institute of Tulane University. 

Zilia Sánchez, Amazona, 1993

Zilia Sanchez with a career spanning sixty-five years and inclusion in the 2017 Venice Biennale,  is known for shaped canvases made of material stretched over handmade wooden frames. Her reduced color palettes and serial processes connect her to Minimalism, though her curvilinear, volumetric forms alluding to corporal topographies remain distinctive. Sánchez graduated from the Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes San Alejandro, later studying at New York’s Pratt Institute. Before her 2013 survey at Artists Space, New York, Sánchez’s work had rarely been seen outside of Puerto Rico. A solo exhibition of her work will be presented at the Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., in 2019. Her pieces are in the collections of the Walker Art Center, Minnesota; the Phillips Collection; and Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires, Argentina, among others. 

Julio Suárez, Piel Roja, 2004

Julio Suárez folds and pleats the fabric of his geometric-shaped paintings toward achieving a low-relief within the forms. His works are characterized by invisible brushwork and minimal use of color. Most recently, he has created installations that give his paintings physical and spatial dimensions. He completed his undergraduate work at the Puerto Rico Escuela de Artes Plásticas and his graduate studies at the Academia San Carlos, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico. He has had solo exhibitions at institutions such as Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico in San Juan and Museo de Arte Moderno in Santo Domingo.

Arnaldo Roche Rabell, Give Him Wings and He Will Fly (detail), 2013

Arnaldo Roche Rabell creates large-scale works using the rubbing technique of frottage. He places persons, objects, and vegetation under the canvas and builds his images through multiple layers of paint. Roche Rabell studied architecture at the Universidad de Puerto Rico and holds a BFA and MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. His work has been exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and Museum of Modern Art, among others. 

Pedro Vélez, I’m Sorry I Made You Cry, 2015, collection of Jerome O’Neill

Pedro Vélez rips and shreds the canvas to create flags and banners referencing current sociopolitical issues. Most recently, he has merged his interest in art and art criticism into “visual essays” that resemble movie or pop music posters and comment on a variety of issues, including economics, aesthetics, and race in the contemporary art world. Vélez holds a BA in Communications from Puerto Rico’s Universidad del Sagrado Corazón and an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He has participated in national and international solo and group exhibitions at numerous galleries, museums, and art fairs including the 2014 Whitney Biennial in New York. 

Elsa María Meléndez, Demasiado Civilizados, 2008. Xerox paper in plexiglass box, 
24 x 23 x 8 in. Courtesy of Elsa María Meléndez.

Elsa María Meléndez is a printmaker, painter, and creator of installations. She is known for her labor-intensive works incorporating embroidery, sewing, mending, sorting, and the accumulation of objects, fabrics, and materials. Her unconventional representations of female bodies address issues of women’s identity, sexuality, and eroticism in an open and direct way. She studied at the Universidad de Puerto Rico, Río Piedras, where she earned a BFA in 1997.


All events will take place in the Woldenberg Art Center. 

APRIL 26 Exhibition reception 5:30 pm – VIP/members reception; email to join, renew, or inquire into membership 

6:30 pm – Co-curators Warren James and Dr. Monica Ramirez-Montagut, Director, Newcomb Art Museum, will speak in conversation with Dr. Edith Wolfe, Assistant Director for Undergraduate Programs, Stone Center for Latin American Studies, Tulane University; free and open the public 

7:30-9 pm – Public reception; free and open the public 


During the show's final week we will extend our hours, closing at 6 pm on July 6; 7 pm on July 7; 8 pm on July 8; and 9 pm on July 9.