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September 18, 2023

Acquisition: Miguel Luciano

Miguel Luciano, "Cooño"

Miguel Luciano
Cooño, 2000
acrylic on canvas, over panel
overall: 182.88 x 182.88 cm (72 x 72 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington
Gift of Funds from the Ford Foundation and Lawrence Levinson

The National Gallery of Art has recently acquired two major works by Miguel Luciano (b. 1972) that explore pivotal episodes in contemporary Puerto Rican history. Luciano is celebrated for his multidisciplinary work in painting, sculpture, and public art projects that explore history and social justice through the lens of popular culture. Cooño (2000) is part of a series of paintings inspired by early advertising and commercial references to Puerto Ricans published in the United States. The second work, Shields/Escudos (2020), was created in the aftermath of several economic, natural, and political crises that befell Puerto Rico over the past two decades.

Cooño builds on a history of works by artists of color such as Robert Colescott, Joe Overstreet, and Betye Saar, who embraced pop aesthetics and unmasked the long-standing relationship between US advertising and racial stereotypes. In the painting, a raccoon attempts to steal a sweet potato in the shape of Vieques. Cartoonish bombs descend on the island while Indigenous Taínos in the circular seal on the right attempt to drown an American/Spanish conquistador. The imagery quotes a well-known story from Puerto Rico’s early colonial history—the drowning of the conquistador Diego Salcedo at the hands of Taínos determined to prove that the Spaniards were not Gods—framing the United States’ presence in Puerto Rico as an extension of this colonial legacy.  

Cooño was created amid major protests against the United States Navy bombings on Vieques, an island that is part of the Puerto Rican archipelago. Protests intensified in 1999 following the death of David Sanes, a civilian security guard who was killed by an errant bomb while working at the bombing range. Created as part of Luciano’s first mature body of work, Cooño was inspired by historical crate labels for “Porto Rican”–branded sweet potatoes from the 1940s that merge references to Puerto Rican and African American stereotypes and also speak to Puerto Ricans’ marginalized social status as racialized laborers as the island came under the sovereignty of the United States following the War of 1898. Luciano reinterprets the labels’ visual cues and imbues them with contemporary references, starting with the work’s title—a merging of a racial slur for Black Americans and a Spanish expletive. In joining the two words, Luciano’s invented term expresses outrage.

Luciano’s dedication to craftsmanship, specifically the ways in which he transforms the crate imagery and suggests its vintage through his painting style, reveals his intent to tie Puerto Rico’s recent events to its historical, 125-year-long relationship with the United States. On the bottom right and left corners of the canvas, the artist also adds two faint rabbit silhouettes, a recurring reference in Luciano’s work that alludes to the history of Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans being used in medical experiments and other types of studies, trials, and exercises.

Shields/Escudos (2020) is a sculptural installation that directly relates to the rise of Puerto Rican street activism, as residents have protested the lack of US support in response to natural disasters, government corruption, and austerity measures that shuttered basic services, such as hospitals and public schools. Amid the struggles of the island’s debt crisis, devastation in the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and María, energy crises, and food insecurity, 2019 saw the largest public protests in the island’s history, which led to the ousting of Governor Ricardo Rosselló, whose offensive comments came to symbolize government corruption and disregard for Puerto Ricans most impacted by these catastrophes. As a result of austerity measures implemented by an unelected fiscal board following PROMESA—Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act—in 2016, thousands of people have migrated to the continental United States, while those who remain in Puerto Rico face difficult everyday circumstances. Among the most devastating impacts has been the closure of hundreds of public schools and its implication for the future of education on the island. Yellow buses, which once transported children to their schools, lay abandoned in lots.

Luciano is known for thinking conceptually about his materials and he often repurposes discarded objects, allowing their original purpose to shine through while adding inherent meaning to his work. The 10 protest shields that compose Shields/Escudos were created from sheet metal stripped from decommissioned school buses in Puerto Rico, which Luciano cut and customized, adding handles and painting Puerto Rican flags on their back sides. The black-and-white Puerto Rican flag is a protest emblem that emerged during the 2016 civic demonstrations around the economic crisis, and it remains a potent protest symbol today. Luciano’s work was inspired by protesters who prominently displayed black-and-white flags and created rudimentary shields to protect themselves against rubber bullets and tear gas discharged by the police. With Shields/Escudos, Luciano turns the sheet metal of school buses that once safely transported children to school into armor for those protesting to protect the future of Puerto Rico’s education.

Luciano is one of the most noteworthy Puerto Rican artists working today. His wide-ranging practice spans painting, customized sculpture, public art, and social practice projects, many of which investigate the paradoxical relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States. Born in San Juan, Luciano grew up throughout the continental United States and Puerto Rico. He earned a BFA at the New World School of the Arts in Miami and an MFA at the University of Florida before moving to New York in 2001, where he joined an important community of Nuyorican and Puerto Rican artists. There he was mentored by Juan Sánchez and Pepón Osorio, two celebrated and established artists whose interests in migration, race, history, and politics created an important context for Luciano’s maturing practice. Luciano has received numerous awards and fellowships, including the Latinx Artist Fellowship, Joan Mitchell Foundation Painters & Sculptors Grant, and Louis Comfort Tiffany Award Grant. His work is featured in the permanent collections of the Brooklyn Museum, Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico, El Museo del Barrio, National Museum of African American History and Culture, Newark Museum of Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum, and Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. From 2018 to 2021, Luciano was an inaugural artist in residence in the Civic Practice Partnership at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and he is a faculty member at the School of Visual Arts and Yale School of Art.

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