Armig Santos: Yellow Flowers at Calderón Gallery, NY

Exhibition view / Photo Calderón Gallery IG 

Calderón is pleased to present Yellow Flowers, an exhibition of large-scale paintings by Puerto Rican artist, Armig Santos. This is the artist’s first solo show in New York City and will be on view through December 17, 2022.

The works presented in this exhibition draw from Vieques, an island six miles off the eastern coast of the Puerto Rican mainland, and focus on sociopolitical events that took place there during the turn of the century. Santos’ relationship with the island first took shape when he became interested in the bioluminescence of its Puerto Mosquito Bay: a natural night-occurring phenomenon in which the water glows with turquoise light produced by the bay’s phytoplankton inhabitants. His studies of this ecosystem and its wonder became the manifestation of his spiritual connection to the island, resonating his existing obsession with the color blue, namely Lapis Lazuli and its place within the history of painting, with the phytoplankton glowing blue in the water. Santos dove into the depths of the bay, guided by his instinct toward the island’s mystical significance and its unique standing within his home’s history.

Exhibition view / Photo Calderón Gallery IG 

Santos would then find his source material through deep digs on the internet, scrolling through outdated blogs and amateur history pages, and taking screenshots from low-budget documentaries uploaded to YouTube and photojournalist archives. With this expanded knowledge of Vieques, shades of bioluminescent blue emerged as the underpainting, figuratively and at times literally, of the works that comprise the Yellow Flowers exhibition. Paired with his equally profound utilization of yellow, inspired by Wolfgang Laib’s use of pollen in his works, Santos presents his most personal, contemporary approach to historical painting.

The artist’s search would arrive at the Vieques Protests of 1999, a time in history Santos was alive for but hadn’t learned about to the full extent: In the wake of WWII, the US military expanded its army bases and naval practices throughout the archipelago of Puerto Rico. Looking to gain space for their war exercises, the Navy expropriated entire communities living in parts of Vieques and designated these lands as target zones for air-to-land and sea-to-land bombing practices. For over sixty years, the Navy dropped and detonated thousands of bombs on Puerto Rican soil, releasing dangerous and toxic elements such as cadmium, barium, lead, arsenic, and uranium into the island’s ecosystem. In the early morning of April 19th, 1999 during a live-fire bombing practice, two bombs struck an observation post, resulting in the death of David Sanes Rodríguez, a civilian security guard and native of Vieques. This accident brought to a boiling point the pain, suffering, frustration, and anger felt by the communities of Puerto Ricans who lived with the booms and tremors of war day and night. It became the turning point in opposition to US military presence on the island, and would subsequently become the catalyst for the Navy’s complete departure in 2003.

White Boat and Yellow Flowers, 2022, Oil on canvas, 66 x 54 in

In the painting Red Flowers, a group of men carries a wooden cross along the beach, indicating the religious procession held in honor of David Sanes. But the event took on more than its funeral purposes when the cross was placed on a mountain located within the Navy’s restricted strike zone. From then on, the location of that cross became known as Mount David; and around it, the first resistance camp was erected. Through this and other works, we see how Santos takes reference from historical paintings such as Gisbert’s Execution of Torrijos and his Companions on the Beach of Málaga and Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, along with works by Géricault and Titian.

Santos also draws inspiration from modernist works, namely Manet’s Execution of Emperor Maximilian, Goya’s Third of May 1808, and Picasso’s Guernica. While he is keen on the compositions in these paintings, Santos gives equal consideration to the context in which these anti-war portrayals were made. Such works were created at the artists’ own risk, as the depictions were considered subversive to the narratives being imposed by the era’s empires and fascist regimes. Taking this into consideration, Santos embeds similar intentions in his own works, bringing to light this rebellious piece of history, further emphasizing the magnitude he sees in these events through the size of his paintings. The works are grounded by a theme of transcendence, highlighting the unity and resistance that carried a people through this often overlooked and forgotten history.

Exhibition view / Photo Calderón Gallery IG 

Within the selection of works in Yellow Flowers, Santos presents an Untitled series that directly evokes the exhibition’s name: Five paintings offer the image of a woman walking with the procession, holding a bouquet of yellow flowers. The figure and background are recognizable, and although they may look identical from afar, each piece is different in its rendition of the subject. With blurred brushstrokes, the woman is captured at different degrees of motion through the plane. Repetition within the series suggests a fixation with the memory; an image altered each time it is remembered, like a song you dream about but can’t remember its name when you wake up. The struggle to discover and learn the untaught past of his own people is something that Santos shares with other artists on the island. Therefore, the representation of the woman’s motion in the Untitled series can also be seen as the movement of contested history within a disrupted collective consciousness.

 ‘Procesión (Atardecer),’ 2022. Oil on canvas. 66 x 54 inches.

This tension within the artist’s archive of the mind is materialized within the bodies painted in the largest of the Untitled pieces. The subjects are confronting their emotional climax, standing above and around the vulnerable military vehicle after it was announced that the Navy would end its operations in Vieques. The work offers an instant before imminent action, yet the composition holds a sense of ambiguity. A man in a red shirt holds a hammer and is ready to strike, while a man standing on the hood spreads his arms. Is he asking others to wait until he gets off, is he joining those with the intention to destroy, or is he looking to stop them? This painting further confirms the blurred remembrance of the collective mind, while it invites viewers to explore our relationship to violence as retaliation and expression of our humanity, and the uncertainty of taking action as a form of emotional and physical release. As the only artwork in the exhibition that portrays a scene at night, the darkness of this painting evokes the depths of the Bioluminescent Bay, offering a mirror to which the audience brings its current struggles.

Santos acknowledges that the urgency lived in these images is very present in today’s Puerto Rico and other parts of the world where people seek freedom from colonial oppression, ecological justice and autonomy, and fundamental human rights. He shares the belief that there is life and wholeness to be found within these portrayals of death, to know about being present in dire situations.

―Sebastián Meltz-Collazo

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