Culture Shock: Vital Growth

516 Arts Exhibition Brings Puerto Rican Art To Abq

Maggie Grimason
6 min read
Whale over the Milla
Nathan Budoff, “Whale over the Milla,” 2018.Charcoal, oil, acrylic and shellac-based ink on canvas, 48 x 30 inches. (Nathan Budoff)
Share ::
“Defying darkness is a full-time job,” Puerto Rican artist Antonio Martorell wrote to 516 ARTS curator Josie Lopez as she was in the throes of putting together an upcoming exhibition at the Downtown art hub. “I knew immediately that had to be our title,” Lopez recalled. And so it is—Defying Darkness is an exhibition featuring more than a dozen artists working in Puerto Rico and throughout the diaspora, confronting “contemporary issues of economic struggle, identity and the vestiges of colonialism,” as Lopez put it, while maintaining a “long memory of history,” and fighting literal darkness, too, in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. “Maria was just part of a much larger story,” Lopez explained, serving to underline more pervasive problems in the island’s economic, social and political structures. It became clear to Lopez very quickly that “any exhibition on Puerto Rico would have to tackle the economic situation—a devastating debt, continued colonization and, of course, climate change and natural disasters.”

“I see this exhibition as an opportunity to raise questions and facilitate dialogue that will inform our communities about the current situation in Puerto Rico and hopefully encourage us all to find our voices on these issues,” Lopez said. To that end,
Puerto Rico: Defying Darkness will open with a formal reception on Saturday, Aug. 11 from 6 to 8pm at 516 ARTS (516 Central Ave. SW); happening in conjunction with the exhibition are a host of workshops and other events—readings, music, a pop-up lunch bar, and participating artist Chemi Rosada-Seijo and Democracy Now‘s Juan D. González in conversation (on Friday, Sept. 28, with proceeds to benefit UNIDOS Disaster Relief & Recovery Program).

Two weeks out from the opening, the gallery floor was dusted with drywall and sawdust. Artist
Nathan Budoff had just arrived to stretch a few large canvases of his dynamic island topographies. His work is executed in bright colors in oil, charcoal and other mediums, juxtaposing, for example, an octopus floating above the San Juan skyline or whales coasting across the sky as seen from his Santurce studio. “One of the really big things that I’m trying to do is kind of rediscover worlds that aren’t really visible, that we’re not seeing,” Budoff said. “My work is trying to re-contextualize how we live and where we live. … [Our environment] is such a vital place, there are all these creatures around us.”

This sensibility in his art has, in part, grown out of living on the island, where he has resided for the last 20 years. “Puerto Rico—it’s kind of a smallish place, 35 by 100 miles. But it’s really hilly—the terrain is folded, so you feel like you can really be
in there—there’s things growing on top of things, there’s all this vital growth. Every space becomes much more charged, more weighted. You really begin to see how life is all tied together, how things help each other and take advantage of each other and nurture each other all at once.” That symbiosis has been powerful for Budoff, and has generated work wherein these vastly different life forms are overlaid on top of each other, creating visual dialogues that reveal both connectedness and dislocation, resilience and tenuousness.

“In a storm,” Budoff said, of Hurricane Maria, “a lot of stuff is literally thrown up in the air. Maybe that’s something that’s also literally happening in my paintings. … There’s a literal event, and from that comes a feeling of the uncertainty of life, which is both threatening and freeing.” In the wake of the storm—and more potently, the “economic storm,” as Budoff put it—there’s a feeling of desperation. Taxes are increasing, the electrical grid has been knocked out, people are leaving. “I don’t know that that has impacted art production,” he said, “because, you know, sometimes economic duress can compel people to be more creative, because it [gives you] freedom from the idea of selling things.” More alternative spaces are opening, and the coming and going of people brings new energy and ideas in waves, but economically, it has become challenging to support the arts, particularly in the public sector, the effects of which are “more cumulative.” In turn, with fewer buyers and galleries, there aren’t as many opportunities for creatives to be validated in their efforts.

In part, that is why this exhibition is so crucial—“there are some really incredible artists in this very small territory. They deserve to be more visible, to get out and have a chance to generate discussion.” But, “not a pitying, sort of worry about ‘poor Puerto Rico,’ ” he continued, “because we already came through the storm.” Instead, Budoff would like to see more people challenged to examine the geopolitical history of the island and ask ourselves, “How do we create structures where more people are pulled up into the middle class? Where more people have a productive and comfortable quality of life? Where fewer people are living in the margins?”

From a place of uncertainty, with Puerto Rico poised at a critical juncture that will undoubtedly shape its future, Budoff’s work seems to lean on the side of hope. There’s a joyfulness in his surreal landscapes that bleed through the oil and acrylic paint. “I always have the idea that something unexpected might happen,” he said, “and that’s the whole wonder of it all. … There’s just a kind of richness and urgency to our life on the planet. We have to keep reminding ourselves to grab onto things, the beauty and the pain, or something like that. The wonder and the strife.”

Discover opportunities to engage with
Puerto Rico: Defying Darkness online at, or find more of Nathan Budoff’s work at
Cosmic Love

Nathan Budoff, “Cosmic Love,” 2017. Oil and shellac-based ink on canvas, 45 x 24 inches

Nathan Budoff

Cosmic Love

Nathan Budoff

1 2 3 234