The Hyde Park Art Center and Chicago-based artist Edra Soto describe the artist’s show, “Destination/El Destino: A Decade of Graft” as a mid-project survey: Soto is definitely not finished with the series of work that is the show’s subject. The title references the transplantation, or grafting, of a piece of the artist’s Puerto Rican heritage onto her Chicago home. Although the materials she has used to create the works in the series vary—from concrete to wood to a PVC plastic called sintra—the works always use abstract, geometric designs to reference the quiebrasoles (concrete blocks) and rejas (iron screens) which she describes as familiar elements of the design of Puerto Rican homes. The site-specific works have taken many forms, mounted on walls, inserted into public parks, and have been installed everywhere from the Whitney Museum of American Art to Millennium Park.
“Destination/El Destino,” the newest entry, is the heart of the show at the Hyde Park Art Center. The large work, like an earlier structure installed at the Chicago Botanic Garden, doesn’t just replicate an architectural façade but the structure of a small family home. This entry in the series represents what the artist describes as a “conclusive point” in her exploration and installation of rejas and quiebrasoles. The design features a geometric arrangement of four-point stars made of three shades of aluminum. The star is based on one found in the Adinkra symbology, which originates in the Akan culture of Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire. Not only is the artist connecting Puerto Rican and American culture, she is also drawing material relationships between Puerto Rico and Africa, gesturing more explicitly to the African origins of the patterns of the rejas and quiebrasoles.
The installation “Destination/El Destino” acts as a home for the fragments of earlier “Grafts” on display. Pieces of earlier works, all of which the artist deconstructs after installation to recycle their parts, are installed inside the new structure while others are mounted on the nearby wall or on neighboring plinths. No clear chronology of the series is articulated, with fragments arranged in a seemingly arbitrary manner. The conflicted temporality the show creates is further deepened by visitors’ ability to literally peer inside Soto’s work through the viewfinders she often installs in the crevices and openings of the trellis-like “Grafts.” Instead of seeing the images of domestic interiors and other sites Soto that usually installs inside her viewfinders, in these iterations of the works, visitors see images of the original locations in which the respective works were installed.
The show at HPAC also pulls back the curtain on the fabrication of the “Grafts” through the inclusion of floor plans for the twenty-three works which comprise the series. The design specs serve both as important documentation of earlier works while also drawing a line of distinction between the way one might imagine these design elements to be installed by Puerto Rican homeowners as an element of vernacular architecture, and the more formal manner in which Soto designs her structures today in collaboration with her partner Dan Sullivan and his design firm Navillus Woodworks.
Soto is an artist who often works in series, iterations on a theme. “Open 24 Hours,” in which the artist collects and photographs discarded liquor bottles she finds on the streets near her East Garfield Park/Humboldt Park home, is another series Soto has been developing for years, and one which she has on at least one occasion combined with a “Graft” structure. Both series illustrate art’s capacity for encouraging us to look again at that which already surrounds us. Our everyday is already aesthetic, especially in the age of ubiquitous casual photography, but art still affords us an opportunity to realize that, or at least expand the definition of what we consider worth looking at and attending to. With the works in the “Graft” series Soto creates a complicated web of looking in and through and between that maps poignantly onto her aim of creating formal relations between geographically disparate locations. The refusal to clearly distinguish between the various relics from Soto’s previous works, or create a clear chronology of the project in the installation at HPAC, further emphasizes the fluidity of space and time that Soto’s “Grafts” represent.
Edra Soto: “Destination/El Destino: a decade of Graft” at Hyde Park Art Center, 5020 South Cornell, on view through August 6.