Estefania Velez Rodriguez: Time’s Passage is probably an Illusion
On ViewPraxis Gallery
July 15 – September 11, 2021
We feel disorientation and ecstasy as we enter Estefania Velez Rodriguez’s large-scale landscapes in Time’s Passage is probably an Illusion. Illuminated by fluorescent oil and spray paint, the pattern-rich paintings strip away the surface of the natural world to reveal the inner life of nature and of the artist. To create these composite worlds of landscape, architecture, ocean life and dreams, Velez Rodriguez began by painting from photographs of nature and architecture taken in her native Puerto Rico. These photos accompanied the Brooklyn-based artist during her 2020–21 self-directed residency with artist friends in Mexico City where she painted most of the work on view from a rooftop terrace. When the artist spoke with me, she characterized her time there by an intense feeling of belonging—it was the first period in her adult life during which she felt fully immersed in Latin American culture. Transporting us through an ongoing colonial history of Puerto Rico, as well as the imaginative universe Velez Rodriguez has envisioned, the paintings in Time’s Passage is probably an Illusion recount the journey of an artist finding herself and proclaiming her right to joy.
Arched windows provide a threshold leading us into Velez Rodriguez’s fantastic landscapes in several works. The window’s grilles in Acumulando Luz (2021) form a grid parallel to the picture plane, like a modernist grid mapping out the flat terrain of the canvas. We can stay on that surface, in our mundane realm, or, as the window hinges open, we can follow its perspectival lines leading us to a world teeming with fluorescent life forms. Four squares painted in orange and green gradients float in a world beyond the window that begins to resemble underwater plant life. Against a cool blue, purple, and green background of kelp and coral shaped patterns, an orange reef rises up from the ocean floor, its upward energy extending beyond the canvas.
In Amanecer (2021), two windows overlap like a Venn diagram, and with no grilles to obstruct the view, we can freely enter through their openings. Through the windows we see furrowed fields below, habitats to colorful striped worms fertilizing the earth. Aquatic skies above are filled with underwater life forms or microscopic organisms rendered larger than life. Stepping back from the windows to look at the periphery of the canvas—which presumably belongs to the same plane as our world—we see the same colors and general shape of the landscape, but the scene is dulled: the farmland barren, the skies empty. It is as if the windows show us an alternate reality—an accessible world that we could inhabit if we just had the courage to embrace it. And then in a surprising reversal, that world, in fact, begins to embrace us: vines of blue, orange, and earthy brown painted on the free-standing wall on which Amanecer hangs transport the life force of the painting into the gallery space.
The border between our world and the universe Velez Rodriguez creates completely dissolves in two mural-sized works Cascada Detenida (2021) and Tiempo y Artefactos/Time and Artifacts (2021). Cascada Detenida is an interpretation of a waterfall in Cuernavaca, Mexico, and we see its purple, life-giving waters irrigate fluorescent foliage in the background as we walk down the foreground’s flight of stone steps following the steady rhythm of its balustrade. In Tiempo y Artefactos, that same balustrade splits into two parts pushed to opposite corners of the canvas and orbiting around a gravitational center where we find the waterfall similarly doubled and in orbit. The nocturnal blue background inspired by rivers in Puerto Rico, transforms into a groundless space for scintillating neon lifeforms no longer tethered to the earth. In the slice of the infinite that the painting reveals, we fall or float—dualisms like up/down have no hold in this new world—with abandon.
In contrast to the expansive power of Tiempo y Artefactos, Mundos alternos (2020)—the smallest work in the exhibition and completed in Brooklyn prior to the artist’s Mexico City residency—depicts the doorway of a colonial building from Ponce, Puerto Rico, in ruins. What remains of the rectangular architecture provides a stable, reserved, composition in which we see layers of history revealed by the crumbling form. With no roof and the few remaining walls, the boundary between architecture and landscape blurs, providing the artist access to the spiritual powers of the land and the vitality of ancestry. The nascent idea of an alternate world, as the title indicates, came to fruition in the residency work. But to get to that world, which we now do so easily by passing through the many windows in the exhibition, it is as if the artist first had to pass through the doorway we see here, that is, to work through an ongoing colonial history both external and internalized. This painting reminds us that the joy in the later work in Time’s Passage is Probably an Illusion is a hard-won and liberatory practice.