“I call them neighbours”

by Nicholas Laughlin on August 30, 2010

Rafael Ferrer

Rafael Ferrer c. 1969. Photograph courtesy Da Wire

When a critic referred to his style as “faux primitivism,” Ferrer objected that the characterisation was based on a prejudice about the people he depicted rather than on his way of painting them. “They can call the people in the paintings natives or they can call them inhabitants of this place or the other, but I call them neighbours.”

Actually, some of the first paintings Ferrer made after his return to the medium do betray a certain primitivism. I’m thinking of works like El Cuarteto (The Quartet) or Melida la Reina (Melida the Queen), both from 1981, which almost seem like elaborations of his paper-bag mask fantasies. But by mid-decade his style had become distinctly more sophisticated, settling into a sturdy Modernism that would not have looked outrageous to any of Ferrer’s early twentieth-century heroes but with a personal inflection that could never be confused with anyone else’s. Ferrer’s brush is tough, unsentimental; he prefers to show things bluntly rather than suavely coaxing them into visibility. His pictorial space can seem almost hammered into place — as if an imprint of his work as a sculptor. His use of the word “neighbours” to describe his subjects is quite precise. In painting the people who lived near him in the Dominican Republic, he was painting neither familiars — it is telling that although Ferrer has done self-portraits, he has rarely painted his family or close friends — nor complete strangers. Wariness and curiosity register in the faces of many of Ferrer’s subjects, although others appear more ingenuous. There is no false familiarity here, but rather a distance to be negotiated. And it can be negotiated.

Barry Schwabsky reviews Retro/Active, a retrospective of work by the Puerto Rican artist Rafael Ferrer at El Museo del Barrio, in the September 13 Nation. The exhibition, curated by Deborah Cullen, opened in June and closed on 22 August.

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