Elizam Escobar-Curatorial Proposal 2020-2022
Masks of our Society- The Theater of Life
A retrospective exhibition of Elizam Escobar's mask paintings from 1985-2011.
The transmutational dialects of Elizam Escobar’s mask paintings, experienced through a retrospective exhibition of twenty (20) important paintings created between 1985 and 2011, showcasing an interplay between modern society, art and Puerto Rican culture.
Masks are among the most universal objects in existence. They can be found in almost any society. In some ancient ones, masks symbolize trickery; in others, spiritual activities. Since antiquity masks have been used to protect or mislead, represent or deceive, elate or frighten. In modern-day, masks are generally known to be a symbol of the concealment of the ego, but as the artist states:
"Masks not only hide but can also reveal alternate realities. From the perspective of art and painting, the human face is a mask, and that mask can fake or pretend to be someone else. In my art, I have worked with all of these elements, through the human face, as if they were a theater -the theater of life.”
In Puerto Rico there is a character called the "Vejigante Ponceño," a folkloric figure dressed in a colorful suit that looks like it has the wings of a bat and with a mask made of paper maché, with goat-inspired multiple horns. It's origins trace back to medieval Spain, and are an integral part of Puerto Rican religious festivals. In 1948, at the age of 7, Elizam first witnessed a vejigante (from the Spanish word vejiga - cow bladder), during a carnival in his hometown of Ponce, and it begins to appear in his artistic work in the sixties. The artists says:
“In my hometown there is a day of masks and carnival where the vejigante is the main figure. There I met that figure when I was a boy. To me, the vejigante has a lot to do with life in the Caribbean, how in Caribbean festivity is part of what forms our way of being. It has a lot to do with the psyche of the Puerto Rican.”
American art critic and curator, Lucy Lippard, recipient of the Guggenheim Award, wrote for a catalog for Elizam’s exhibit in 1988:
“Escobar’s symbols and compositions are complex tapestries of different cultures and ideas. His alter ego is the vejigante - the multi-horned mask which, like Picasso’s Minotaur, is a monster redeemed by its “humanity” - that is, the beast in all of us understood. Escobar says that “the horns are traditionally identified with the evil, paganism, wildness, etc.,” and sees the vejigante as a metaphor for the danger in which he has chosen to live. In fact, the image of horns also bears more positive meanings. (…) Whether or not the artist knows this, it is significant that this metaphor for the self has both negative and positive sides. It embodies the basic contradictions from which Escobar’s art and writings spring. In paintings like “The Vejigante” one can almost feel the dialects at work, (…) expressing the struggle between desire and necessity, oppression and freedom. Elizam Escobar the man lives beneath the cultural mask as the prisoner lives within the dignity he has forged for himself as a creator (Lucy Lippard, “On the horns of contradiction,” 1988).
In his later works, the masks are more psychological, and are related to the mental and emotional state of the character and of the viewer.
-Painter, poet, and theorist of art. In addition to undergraduate work leading to a B.A. in Fine Arts from the University of Puerto Rico (1973), Escobar studied art at the City University of New York, the Museo del Barrio, and the Art Students League of New York. He taught art in public schools, was a painter with the Hispanic Arts Association, and served as a professor at the Museo del Barrio’s School of Arts before being arrested in 1980 and accused of seditious conspiracy for being a member of a clandestine movement dedicated to the struggle for Puerto Rican independence.
He was sentenced to 68 years in prison, of which he served nineteen years and five months. During his time in prison, he published poetry and essays in magazines and anthologies in Puerto Rico, the United States, Latin America, and Europe. His art works were exhibited in New York City, Chicago, San Francisco, Toronto, Anchorage, Edinburgh, Madrid, Havana and Managua among others. And featured in world-renowned art magazines and publications such as Art in America (1994), and The New York Times- “Art in Review” (written by Holland Cotter). In 1997 Elizam represented Puerto Rico as part of the Itinerant exhibition organized by the UNESCO “Iberoamerica Pinta” , the exhibition traveled for three years throughout Latin America and other cities such as Paris, Jerusalem and Miami.
In 1999 he was freed and returned to Puerto Rico. His release from prison coincided with the publication of Los ensayos del artificiero: más allá de lo político directo y el post-modernismo, which won the PEN Club award as best creative-essay book of the year. In 2002, the book Los dobles de Elizam Escobar was published. This volume on Escobar’s art contains an essay by Joseramón Melendes. In 2006, the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture published his book Elizam Escobar: cuadernos de cárcel, a selection from eight notebooks of drawings done in prison.
In 2005, the Puerto Rico Public Art Project invited Escobar to do a work for the Plaza de la Revolución in Lares. For this, he produced a floor mosaic in marble and granite titled Homage to the Grito de Lares. In 2008, he completed a painting of Ramon Emeterio Betances commissioned by the Venezuelan consulate in Puerto Rico for the Collection of Latin American Patriots in the Casa Amarilla museum in Caracas. That same year, at the invitation of the Puerto Rican community in Philadelphia and the Mural Arts Project, he created a mural for the centenary of Juan Antonio Corretjer titled Yo sería borincano aunque naciera en la luna, a phrase taken from one of Corretjer's poems. In 2011 he created a second mural in Philadelphia, this one titled Homage to the Puerto Rican Community in Philadelphia.
In 2013, Elizam received the award from the International Association of Art Critics, for the Best Retrospective Exhibition for his Symbolic Introspective exhibition, at the Museum of Art of Puerto Rico. And in 2016 "La Campechada", a celebration in honor of Jose Campeche, Puerto Rican painter of the 18th century, considered one of the most important painters of his era, was dedicated to the artist.
Since 2000, Escobar has taught in the Painting Department at the Puerto Rico School of Plastic Arts, in San Juan. His works are in private and public collections including those of the Museo del Barrio in New York, the Casa Amarilla in Caracas, the Taller Puertorriqueño in Philadelphia, the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico, the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture, the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Puerto Rico, the University of Puerto Rico Museum of History, Anthropology, and Art, the Cooperativa de Servicios Multiples, and the Museo de Lares.
Elizam Escobar is one of the finest of Puerto Rican painters.