Everywhere you look in Costa Rica, there is a guachimán watching the street. He might be sitting in a chair. He might be pacing back and forth. He might even be asleep. But rarely do you see a guachimán wearing a cape and mask, ready to fight crime.
Without looking at the artist’s statement, it’s hard to tell where Carlos Llobet Montealegre intends with his new exhibit, “Superhéroes y Sus Ficciones Urbanas” (“Superheroes and Their Urban Fictions.”) When you see the life-sized murals of guachimanes spray-painted against the wall in TEOR/éTica gallery, their bodies outlined with comic book costumes, the images could seem reverent or satirical – or maybe both.
This ambiguity has always been the most challenging aspect of TEOR/éTica, the small, avant-garde gallery in Barrio Amón. Following the pugnacious exhibit “A Chronicle of Interventions,” whose themes were clear and didactic, TEOR/éTica’s latest displays are comparatively hard to figure out. The gallery is showcasing several artists simultaneously, but there seems to be no “blue note,” no connective concept or point. There are several exhibits running concurrently, including “Superhéroes” and “Teramorfosis,” but they all blend sloppily together. Each piece must be taken individually, and even then, visitors may feel lost.
One of the more coherent works is Pamela Hernández’s “Patrones,” a quilt made of government documents. Each payday, nearly every legal worker in Costa Rica receives órdenes patronales, little receipts for their payments into the national healthcare system, and Hernández has cleverly sewn them into a single sheet of dot-matrix text. But why has she done this? To criticize Costa Rican healthcare as impersonal? To turn something dreary and bureaucratic into a joke? Hernández uses materials that are inherently political – they signify citizens’ participation in government affairs – but the product is not. If we must decide how to react, Hernández doesn’t give us much to go on.
The same goes for Michelle Ferris and Róger Muñoz’s video installation, which occupies a corner of the gallery’s first room. You step inside a small booth, which is dark except for a black-and-white video projection on the floor. As you stand there, the floor seems to slide away, disorienting the visitor. But the patterns are difficult to make out. They are too abstract to identify. Not surprisingly, this installation is called “Sin Nombre” (“Untitled”).
Despite its diminutive size and unassuming location, TEOR/éTica is one of the most respected galleries in Costa Rica. Its curators attract collaborators from all over the world, and many of its shows have been smart, edgy, and moving. They have done a terrific job representing women, multi-ethnic and LGBT artists. But this particular cycle is not impressive. Slapping a Superman logo on the chest of a guachimán is cute, but it would work better as the cover of a punk album than as fine art.
TEOR/éTica is best known for painting its exterior with a diverse range of murals. Some of these murals have been so provocative that passersby have defaced them. Various artists have decked the walls with raw data, cartoon animals, and Chinese characters. Most recently, an artist covered the walls with childish drawings, the kind of monstrous characters an angry kindergartner might dream up. These figures may be honest and imaginative, but they’re also ugly and sophomoric. In a city full of eye-catching public art, these murals are just obnoxious. Sometimes art is hard to get. Other times, it’s not worth getting.
“Superhéroes y Sus Ficciones Urbanas” and “Teramorfosis” display through May 16 at TEOR/éTica Gallery, Barrio Amón. Mon.-Fri., 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.; Sat., 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. Free. Info: TEOR/éTica website.