José Morales
Abecedario afectivo
Museum of Art of Puerto Rico
August 14th until December 28th 2014

In the catalogue text for the 1999 exhibition Asamblea, curated by Adlin Ríos at the University of the Sacred Heart, Antonio Martorell used the phrase “affective alphabet” to describe the work of artist José Morales (New York, 1947). At the time, Morales was mostly known as an expressive painter, part of the “New Latin American Figuration,” working with the cultural, sociopolitical, and syncretic iconography of Puerto Rico. While visiting his studio in New York, Ríos approached the artist to exhibit the objects that she saw on the hallway of his studio. Asamblea introduced audiences to a private facet of Morales’ oeuvre; assemblages of quotidian objects that express a quiet and elegant violence; chairs propped up on sharp machete stilts (Sillas V, 1998) and a worn metal bed frame laced with machetes at each side (Somier, 1997). Objects such as these comprise Morales’ affective vocabulary; objects that in their reconfiguration and manipulation become semiotic vessels, combining and confounding the personal and the political with formal eloquence.

Abecedario afectivo at the Museum of Art of Puerto Rico (MAPR) further examines the artist’s relationships with objects and they ways in which they are inextricably tied to memory, personal histories, and in this case, official art discourses. The exhibition features three new installations by Morales: We loved you so much, which establishes the personal tone than runs through the exhibition, The Wall, and Arte-sano (roughly translated to both artisan and art-healthy).

The Wall is set up as a binary relationship between the space of the street and the institutional white cube through the juxtaposition of flyers distributed around el barrio and the academic, and at times overly intellectual, theoretical jargon ubiquitous in art publications. Here, the emphasis is not only on form but also on language and text, intellectual labor, and the hierarchical relations developed around certain registers of language and the site of their presentation. Flyers soliciting services and announcing events are laminated and neatly mounted by the artist around the perimeter of the space to form a straight line. Inside, Morales has constructed a white cube only visible and accessible once walking around it. What is visible from the entrance of the space is the labor, materials, and process of its construction. The white cube hides the labor behind the production of an exhibition. Here, it reveals itself as a temporary constructed device, a dry wall structure sustained by sandbags, crates, and boxes. Once going around and entering the space, the phrase “bla, bla, bla” is written among the assembly of more than 4,851 pieces of art magazines. The Wall is strongly rooted within the legacy of institutional critique, but remains rather literal in its attempt to complicate the linguistic codes of the street against the institutional parameters of the white cube. After all, the space of art remains sanitized in its condition of pristine exhibitor of art objects.

The concept of labor as it relates to art production and its hierarchies is also manifest in Arte-sano. Here, a more complex set of relationships are established between objects and their spatial configuration. Most of them are culled from the life and work of Morales’ uncle, Manuel Rivera Ripoll, who was a fisherman and an artisan. Fishing nets are extended upwards from a singular point. The elasticity of these nets create conic volumes -light, airy, and yet with a commanding presence- that resemble a sacred space or refuge. Treated as anthropological artifacts, four display cases present the personal objects of Ripoll; wooden needles, lottery tickets, an almanac; hand-made fishing boats made of wood, among other curiosities, map a life’s labor, personal obsessions, and relationships with both made and found objects. A curtain of 5,000 wood machetes and knives standing fourteen feet tall feels monumental. But here, the machete, a recurrent theme in his work is sculpted in wood rather than readymade.

Two themes are highlighted in this exhibition: art as craft in opposition with the aesthetic models of contemporary art, that is, the hierarchical categorizations between popular culture and high art, and on the other hand, the derision of art as immaterial labor. And yet, perhaps the most salient theme is the affective labor involved in the production of each of these installations; each object carefully selected and displayed to call attention to our own affections and attachments to the things that surround us.