By Jason Foumberg
Pedro Velez fashions himself as an art world muckraker. He seems to enjoy bullying the in-crowd, stripping the tenuous links between business and art, pulling the sheets off the back-scratching orgy and generally stirring the shit till it stinks. But “I’m trying to be nicer,” he says with a smirk. After spending the past five years in his native Puerto Rico on an extended “vacation,” Velez is back in Chicago, and he marks his return with a show at Western Exhibitions.
Velez has a history of upsetting people. “You’ll never work in the U.S. again!” shouted über-collector Rosa de la Cruz at Velez after he appropriated her name for one of his artworks, a showcard for a fictional exhibition in which she was unwittingly listed as a participant. Velez’s fake exhibition announcements are one of his more potent forms of critique, and they seem to instigate the most dramatic responses. He’s been making them for years, in both Chicago and Puerto Rico. The cards and fliers resemble typical gallery press for group exhibitions, and Velez “curates” an imaginary cast, which has included art world superstars Maurizio Cattelan, former Art Institute curator Okwui Enwezor, Eva Hesse, Jan Vermeer, and often includes topical news items, such as Elian Gonzalez, the Cuban boy whose mother drowned bringing him to the U.S. in 1999, and the endangered coral reef.
Velez relates the story of Rosa de la Cruz’s upset with a bit of pride, for her outburst reveals a lot about the international art community. Certain cities hold prominence in the social history of art. Paris in the nineteenth-century gave way to New York City as the twentieth-century’s cultural capital. In the last thirty years, the number of biennials in far-flung corners of the Earth, from Gwangju to São Paulo to Istanbul, has grown steadily, giving the jet-set curatorial class a sense of purpose. Unfortunately, you’ll often see the same artist roster no matter the region. It’s a story of increased global wealth, where biennial organizers can afford the “best” artists, and, as some see it, is an iteration of the colonize-and-conquer mentality.
The biennial franchise opened shop in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 2004. Being just a hop from Miami, where the art crowd convenes every December for its massive art fairs, the island is conveniently exotic. Its unique Latin flavors, sunny beaches, favor-trading politicians and lax regulations on entrepreneurship make it easy to forget that Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory—its residents being American citizens. Surely Rosa de la Cruz forgot this when she threatened to excommunicate Velez from U.S. soil.
For being a self-made gatekeeper, de la Cruz wasn’t very knowledgeable about her terrain. Nor were the curators, says Velez, who swept in to take stock of the culture, and export it. Velez believes the art community, including curators, collectors and dealers, has a responsibility to respect its locale. But Puerto Rico quickly became an over-harvested field whose roots have been pulled, and the changing winds of taste blew away all that remained. “Puerto Rico’s art scene dried up,” says Velez. Likewise, in Chicago, he’s complained about curators who don’t bother to take stock of local culture.
As a working critic, curator and artist, it’s often difficult to parse out Velez’s various practices, although the critical edge is ever-present. Is the fake exhibition announcement his art or his curatorial work, or is it an artful form of critique? The term “remote control curators” appears in both his critical writings and his art, referring to exhibition organizers who curate via email in territorialized countries, not bothering to see either the art or the site in person. Somewhat similarly, Velez’s fictional exhibition announcements, which he hands out at art gatherings or shows in the gallery, pluck famous figures from the news feed, and the exhibition venue is never listed (leading to some frustration if you don’t get the hoax). Critic Michelle Grabner interpreted this as Velez idealistically dreaming the perfect exhibition, recalling André Malraux’s 1950 book “Museum Without Walls,” wherein a show is conceptualized using only reproductions of famous artworks.
But Velez is not sitting around waiting for some postmodern fantasy wish fulfillment; his practice focuses on uncomfortable social situations and the problem of inflated cultural capital. Many of the posters in his current show feature images of girl-next-door type porn models sporting bruises and black eyes. These girls embody the spectacle of pillaging—Velez’s art is necessarily un-beautiful. The list of implicated public figures, what he calls the “unwilling performers,” this time includes Puerto Rican condo developer Arturo Madero, Roger Clemens, even Blago. Above it all, a designer store’s shopping bag hangs upside-down in a signal of distress.
Velez is working in the tradition of the artist-as-watchdog, much like artist Hans Haacke’s 1971 exposé on underhanded Manhattan real estate sales, which was framed as an art piece. Velez says that Illinois’ current political troubles would barely make waves in Puerto Rico. Its art scene reflects widespread ill maneuverings, and while a true regulation of any country’s art dealings, from its auctions to VIP lists, would surely topple it, for Velez, to be critical is a performance itself.
Pedro Velez, “The Day of the Corrupt: Our Father’s left US shit,” shows at Western Exhibitions, 119 N. Peoria St., through February 14.