In one of the last rounds of MFA thesis exhibitions at Portland State, Joel Garcia has transformed the MK Gallery into a patchwork of dreams, hopes and memories. The exhibition is a biography of sorts, representing Garcia’s present and past heroes, musings and research into his own identity, as well as photos of friends and family and bits of nostalgia rendered by hand.
In one of the last rounds of MFA thesis exhibitions at Portland State, Joel Garcia has transformed the MK Gallery into a patchwork of dreams, hopes and memories.
The exhibition is a biography of sorts, representing Garcia’s present and past heroes, musings and research into his own identity, as well as photos of friends and family and bits of nostalgia rendered by hand.
“It’s obvious that my thesis exhibition has some ‘sentimental’ elements,” Garcia wrote in his artist’s statement, “… that come from my deep appreciation and love for the people in my life.”
In the center of the gallery is a bodega (or corner store) papered on the outside with Illinois lottery tickets. The materials for the display were collected over the last few years from Garcia’s father and other people still living in the predominately Puerto Rican Chicago neighborhood where Garcia grew up.
Visible evidence of a lost dream or hope, the lottery tickets function as a kind of currency in place of real agency, just as a bodega often sells overpriced, unhealthy packaged food instead of real options, yet often functions as a community center, gathering place and home in spite of its contradictions.
Inside the structure, a cash register filled with lottery tickets instead of money sits open, as if in the midst of a transaction, and a shelf holds empty boxes of Goya products, colorful cereal boxes and coffee brands such as Café Bustelo, a cheap espresso meant for a Stovetop Moka pot.
In one corner is a television playing a loop of speeches selected from famous Puerto Rican intellectuals, politicians and poets, as performed by Garcia. In them, he stands in front of differing backgrounds including maps and Puerto Rican and American flags. With each speech, Garcia takes on his interpretation of the character, from cool in dark sunglasses reading The Bodega Sold Dream by the poet Miguel Pinero, to quiet and precise while reading the politician Lois Munoz Martin’s speech, to abrasive and thrilling with Pedro Albizo Campos’ speech on Puerto Rican nationalism.
Covering the interior walls are drawings, slips of paper with scribbled notes and children’s books about the Puerto Rican baseball player Roberto Clemente, emphasizing the personal character of a bodega business that nevertheless sells exploitative products.
Surrounding the bodega around the gallery walls are giant photos and drawings, united by the sometimes careless, off-centered nature of a person’s favorite things.
Large cartoonish paintings in black of the figures whose speeches Garcia uses emulate the heroic status each individual has for Garcia, while facing them on the wall are a series of large-scale personal photographs showing people inside Garcia’s family row house in Chicago and outside on the stoop.
A series of maps on the back wall compare the size (and, invisibly, the economic stature) of the islands of Manhattan and Puerto Rico, while a giant dollar-store palm tree bends nearby and a “lucky lotto” candle sits on the ground outside one wall of the bodega.
Resting in one corner are two small framed images, one a watercolor of the outside of Garcia’s childhood home, and the other a map of violent murders among schoolchildren around Chicago. The quietness of these images stand in contrast to the much more dramatic loving images nearby, creating a tension between familial nostalgia and public obligation.
As a testament to Garcia’s role in this show–as a curator of his own life–one series of videos in the exhibition stands out in particular: a loop showing his family celebrating on New Year’s Eve in front of a television, then Garcia wearing a red sweatshirt and dancing alone in a Portland city park, the gray expanse of a Northwest sky behind him, exposing how far Garcia has come from home-and how much further he has to go.
The Bodega Sold DreamMK GalleryArt Building Room 2102000 S.W. Fifth AvenueCloses May 30