This is the first of a series of interviews where we talk with Puerto Rican artists. Juan Alberto Negroni was part of our most recent exhibition that opened in March 2020, titled “Topografías de campo y espacio” (“Topographies of field and space.”) Let's dive right in.
Jorge Fusaro (Matadero): What's the best piece of advice you've been given?
Juan Alberto Negroni: My father told me many times that if I ever go to jail for being reckless and stupid, I was going to stay there forever. He would never bail me out. I also had a professor who told me never to do anything for "cumplimiento." That is a compound word of "cumpli-miento", which means to comply and lie. I also had a wonderful mentor who insisted that I must learn to embrace the accident.
JF: Imagine, you could go back in time, where would you go, what year, and why?
JAN: That is a difficult question to answer because it could sound like I am not happy where I am in life right now. I would love to go back to Dijon FR, where I spent two months as an artist in residency with ENSA and Le Consortium Museum. Everything about this trip and residence was amazing. I competed with some strong artists to get in and the rewards were priceless. But I still remember the small moments, especially in Puerto Rico, with my siblings and parents. I want to go back to the Rolling Stones concert, walk towards La Escuela de Artes Plásticas in the morning with my sketchbook on one side and a crappy cup of coffee on the other. I would go to the beach every day. I would go back to many of the bars where I got drunk, but this time just drink a little less, so I'd be able to remember the endless conversations about nothing...you know? But I guess the importance of all those moments it's not so much about being able to go back to them but to embrace the "here and now." At the end what matters most to me, is that my life is filled with amazing "here and now" moments, some which I'll remember and some that I will not.
JF: What type of work do you enjoy doing the most?
JAN: I love watercolors...the results are kind of unexpected, but it also gives me many opportunities to plan. So, I guess that what I enjoy the most about this medium is that it gives me a lot of freedom while nurturing my obsessiveness with being in control. I can go fast whenever I want, and it also provides space and time to slow down. I love small formats because I like to see the images appear, and I like being close to the surface.
JF: How have you developed your career?
JAN: Blood, sweat and tears and one foot in front of the other. I never "cogí pon" (“car pooled.”) I don't owe anyone anything and I don't owe anyone any favors. I only owe my family and myself. As a kid, my mother drove me to after school art workshops and Saturday classes at La Liga De Arte in Old San Juan. I was lucky then and I am still very lucky. I have had the opportunity to learn from outstanding artists such as Zilia Sánchez, Mary Vernon and Orlando Salgado, to name a few. I work every single day. Even for 30 minutes, I at least try to start or finish something. I have traveled, met, and collaborated with amazing people. Although it has been a bumpy road, I have learned to embrace every moment, good or bad.
JF: Tell us something unique about you that few people know.
JAN: I hate frogs.
JF: What are you currently reading or watching?
JAN: I am rediscovering the poetry written by my uncle Juan Sáez Burgos, who was part of Grupo Guajana. Now, I am reading African Art by Frank Willet and, as always, watching Ancient Aliens on the History channel and stuff like that. I recently watched the series Story of God by Morgan Freeman. I've been watching a lot of architecture documentaries, which have influenced me more than those tacky art documentaries.
JF: What project(s) are you currently working on?
JAN: I am currently working on a new series of works called "Máscaracachimbas" (2020). These works are based on my family's long-suppressed African heritage and the rediscovery of our relation to the Atlantic slave trade. Drawing on our Caribbean-African heritage, I have produced a catalog of graphic images that refer to the cataclysmic history of the Middle Passage. At the same time, I keep working on my usual imagery formatted with color and shape iconography inherited from the African legacy found in Puerto Rico’s identity. It also contains architectural elements particular to the weather in the Caribbean. As a Puerto Rican artist, it is imperative to be able to try and communicate effectively what it means and how it feels to come from a place like this.
JF: What jobs have you done other than being an artist, if any?
JAN: Well I was not a lucky wealthy aspiring artist...I needed to work and had a bunch of odd jobs. I was the kid who made money by "helping" classmates with their homework from elementary school to high school. As a teenager, I would mow lawns, wash cars, and did some plague exterminating work with my cousin's husband's pest control company. I have worked in the retail industry, sold perfumes, worked in a clothing store and a music store. I worked as a museum security guard, as an exhibition designer and installer for museums and different art venues. I have worked as an admissions and promotions official, administered colleges departments, managed galleries, directed art schools, and curated exhibitions. For the last 17 years I have been an educator.
JF: Why did you choose to become an artist?
JAN: I don’t have an answer to this question. It just happened. It may have been because I was unable to play any instruments and become a musician.
JF: Name 2 artists that have served as inspiration in your career and why.
JAN: I learned about Francesco Clemente when I was an art student. The fact that everything he did seemed so foreign to me, fascinated me. Also, Terry Winters captivated me for reasons completely opposite to what attracted me to Francesco Clemente’s work. Winter’s work felt so familiar, even when I have never seen anything like his work before. His practice looked and felt natural, driven by instinct. I wanted my work to feel that natural and spontaneous.”
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