by Jeffrey Bussmann
showing until November 5
The title and connotation of Adrian “Viajero” Roman’s This Side of Paradise/Èste Lado Del Paraíso reminded me of a lyric from the baile funk duo Cidinho & Doca’s song “Rap da Felicidade” (“Happiness Rap”). If you watched the 2007 Brazilian film The Elite Squad, you will have heard their music. In one verse on the track they rhyme about a gringo visiting Rio de Janeiro who never sees a postcard that shows the vista of a favela (“slum”) or the reality of life and death in these largely lawless and poverty blighted zones. It is a veristic portrayal that could apply to any underdeveloped tropical nation with an economy dependent on selling itself as a tourist destination. But the title of Roman’s show is a cue that, while hinting at the desperate side of this dichotomy, he also values aspects of life on the other side of that paradisiacal illusion.
In the work shown at Taller Puertorriqueño you find the accoutrements of a humble lifestyle. There are toys of wood, salvaged scraps of paper and cardboard, tools for manual labor, and household objects that hark to the early and mid-twentieth century. Then there are the figures, either children or elders, appearing interspersed among these objects as drawings. All of the models were people Roman has met and photographed in his travels, working the “Viajero” (“traveler”) philosophy that he has added on to his professional name. The children, close to life-size in some cases, are drawn in graphite on wood cut-outs; the elders are drawn on found paper or books. His distinctive choice of materials lends a specter-like presence to the children. Even though the wood has physicality, its flatness and the way the graphite vanishes into its grain echo both the true to life invisibility of street kids as well as the fleetingness of youth. In contrast, Roman’s depictions of the elders are like aged photographs. There is a seriousness lent by the semblance of the person’s back story, but also the suggestion that these people now exist only in pictures, having since passed away.
The children are all shown at play. Again twisting the reality of paradise and thinking about the carefree nature of childhood, Roman explained to me that he based the piece Hacer tu Arte (“Make Your Art”) off a kid he photographed in Cuba. The piece of paper the kid was holding in real life had a dire message, asking for help with basic subsistence. The message transmitted to Roman was not what he read on that scrap of paper, but rather the titular text that he put into the piece: “Hacer tu arte.” In fashioning this work Roman has reciprocated his gratitude, gifting back to the same kid the luxury of play and freeing him from the worries of finding food. Roman spoke to me of the admiration he has for the unselfconscious way that children can express themselves. The tetraptych Hijos de Santiago (“Santiago Kids”) shows two close friends in an embrace and then another kid doing a handstand before a graffiti-scrawled wall. Roman mentioned that when he photographs children, there is something special about the way they react to seeing images of themselves, a quality which he tries to communicate in his work.
The elderly folk in This Side of Paradise spring from a place that is connected to Roman’s grandparents, but also to time spent with old men in Miami as they talked, smoked, and played dominoes for hours. I asked Roman about the pervasiveness of the cigar in these works. His simple answer was that the cigar is ever-present in the lives of the people he photographs. But there is also a connection to the rural economy in Caribbean nations and the people who have spent their lives working on tobacco farms, another reality on the flipside of the paradise equation. I found these assemblages to be the most affecting pieces due to the semi-fictionalized narratives he tells with found objects that possess real, albeit unknowable, stories of their own. There is the chair arranged with a man’s cane, hat, glasses, cigar, folded newspaper, and briefcase; it appears as though they were left there decades ago by someone who never returned. There are the portraits he has drawn on leaves of a found notepad, paired with a handwritten register of mortgage payments he found in the very same pad—documentation of a life by way of financial record. And there is the wall piece that incorporates a wedding portrait given to him by people whom he had only just met. Roman told me that the couple passed the photo to him rather than keeping it in their family because they felt he understood something about their heritage that their own descendants could not. It is not necessary to know any of these specific back stories to deduce his meaning in the work.
The collection of ten pieces makes adequate use of the space, in some cases blending a little too well with other surroundings. It is the first show at Taller Puertorriqueño to make use of the vestibule area which leads into their bookstore. In some way, the work is right at home amongst merchandise like books on Latino cuisine or the history of Philadelphia’s barrio. However, I thought that it diminished their impact—especially of pieces comprising multiple small objects—to be installed in a space with so many other visual distractions. A multipanel work like Hijos de Santiago was too spread out, perhaps necessitated by where wall space was available.
This Side of Paradise/Èste Lado Del Paraíso remains on view through November 5, 2011 and is intended to be an evolving show. Roman plans to make additions and changes to the show over the course of four months, which will be the result of further planned visits to Philadelphia (he is based in New York). He hopes to do workshops with children from the neighborhood and to create new pieces that will give them a presence in the gallery, and perhaps be installed on the local streets in some guerilla manner as well.
Jeffrey Bussmann works at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania. He is currently researching Brazilian cultural organizations for his master’s thesis in Arts Administration at Drexel University. He also writes for his blog Post-Nonprofalyptic.