Joel Weinstein Review


by Joel Weinstein, Editor Rotund World

Speaking of shiners, part-time ponceño Diógenes Ballester has some radiant new paintings at the Normandie Hotel, whose extensive hallways, bathed mostly in natural light, are strung with real art thanks to Galerías Prinardi. (The gallery, once in a shopping center in Hato Rey, is now located in a tiny office near the hotel’s lobby.) Up on the seventh floor you’ll find a generous helping of works by Martín García and Ballester, whose paintings there range from the early 1990s to some of very recent vintage. These are mostly encaustics on linen or canvas, and their waxy surfaces effuse a subtle inner light while giving the artist opportunities to scratch and gouge as well as slather. As always, the new works are tightly, complexly organized, with contrasting formal and thematic elements working towards almost iconic representations of Ballester’s usual concerns: spirituality in the modern age, the African roots of Caribbean culture, the absorptive and syncretic nature of living in different worlds. This is by no means everyone’s matzoh ball, and even within what we know of Ballester’s trajectory the new works may strike some people as overly graphic, gaudily bright, and too much of the same-old same-old.

But we find the artist’s structural skills alone impressive, we’re frankly moved by his ability to fill dark tonalities with silken color, and there is something about the way he wields his vocabulary of cowrie shells, patterned fabrics, and earthy, tumescent figures—which seem a touching mixture of fecund quasi-deities and lost tourists—that strikes us as pitch-perfect. We think of most soul searching as a variety of navel-grade bilgewater, but Ballester’s images are fascinating precisely for their agility. He seems to be dealing in large part with personal history, but he avoids drenching these works with the sentimentality or histrionics that usually come with the territory. Rather, his god- and goddess-figures and totems appear to travel through a landscape where personal and national identity intersect, where the sacred rides a cheap bicycle and divine terrors resemble mortal ones, like a fear of snakes or crowds. Stark memories and guiding spirits hover in rich, earth-toned atmospheres, but so do the humdrum proscriptions of everyday life: traffic cones, the slashed circle, the highway’s white lines.

Perhaps Ballester is after the idea of transformative exchange in arranging things this way, but the true stories of his characters remain opaque and largely uninteresting to us. That plump creature with its knit cap and way too perky erection in the painting whose title we never found out (above, first image in this section), we prefer to believe it is the boy artist observing—as we, ourselves, might come upon it—the impending destruction of what he knows; excited, appalled, fascinated, unable to look away. A sac-like pool, amniotic and bloody, and an apple-headed serpent figure in Damballa, 2007, an encaustic-on-linen work measuring 40" x 50" (second above), and the womanly protagonist of Poseedora de Geus (not pictured) emerges into the charged air as if from a solid wall. (The painting directly above is titled El Protector, 2007, encaustic on linen, 40" x 50".) Even if these works have specific intentions, they also teem with a dynamic chain of associations and the charge of human connection, things that Ballester excels at putting on canvas whatever his narrative thinking.

La ofrenda (above, same datos) is named for an oblation, and the cowrie shell and cross motifs seem to call for a sober, you might even say reverent, reading of the painting. But we prefer the more amusing possibility that Ballester wanted us to blink at least once and see a lucha libre mask, the face of a character inflamed by a vortex of worldly contradictions and longing, forces easily as fierce and poignant as any emanation from the great beyond.

We certainly hope you’ll have the opportunity to see Ballester’s new works before the exhibitions change at Galerías Prinardi, although, as usual—culpa nuestra—it’s very late in the game. Their excellent website says that a new show opens on Thursday, November 15, at 7 p.m. with work by Carlos Santiago. The Normandie is always worth a visit, but phone the gallery at 787-729-2929, extension 1042, if it’s these particular paintings you want to see. The hotel is located at Avenida Muñoz Rivera #499, catty-corner from one of San Juan’s prettiest parks, and the office hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. from Monday to Saturday. Nothing’s to stop you from visiting the artworks at any time, however.