Review of Ambos Mundos

Art is Fundamental

Before we can read or even speak, we see. The visual has the power to engage the mind and stir the heart in a way that other art forms don’t. Yet, too much of the visual arts remain inaccessible to people outside of the art community. Much has been debated about whether this is the fault of artists, curators or the public. As far as I am concerned, none of that matters. People are missing out on the opportunity to experience the benefits that can only come from exposure to the visual arts – which is why I am so excited when I can find an entry point for the public to experience art as a part of their lives.

This is precisely the type of experience that Raúl Villarreal’s solo show, “Ambos Mundos” (Both Worlds) provides. Layering traditional paintings with digitally created images and family photos, he uses his own history to explore a sense of place and belonging. Using the tension between his Cuban homeland and the United States where he lives and creates as reference points Villarreal creates art that is both accessible and bewitching.

Villarreal illuminates a world grounded in his own experience rather than the all too often romanticized tale of immigration.  A common motif in his work is the heart. Not the commercialized version used to connote romantic love and unity, but its more realistic, anatomical cousin. Villarreal often depicts it detached from its corporeal position, out of place like the symbolic heart of the immigrant. In “By Any Means Necessary,” an anatomically rendered heart, with its two halves distinguished by the oxygen content of the blood that fills them, is pierced by a palm tree-topped oar. While this speaks directly to the Cuban experience, it is stripped of any of the identifying factors of race or external appearance. This communicates the wider experience of those who not only emigrate, but actually flee their homelands.

The inherent ambiguity in the subjects of many of Villarreal’s works speaks to the feeling of displacement common to the immigrant experience and serves to draw in the observer. In No Longer (In)visible” we are left to wonder whether the blue-framed head attached to and looking down on a shadow body comprised of a circulatory system is appearing or disappearing. His human figures seem to explore the audience, challenging them to explore the works more deeply. The face of a young boy depicted in “Niño el las Alas de la Libertad” (Boy on the Wings of Freedom) from his place above a wing, detached from the bird that once used it to fly, demonstrates the worry of an adult, reminiscent of early twentieth century Ellis Island photos. The “Dark Pool” features a classically draped dark-haired woman staring back at viewers while they view her. Up to her hips in black water: is she submerging or emerging?

In the works of his Signatures series, Villarreal contemplates his heritage using symbols that link back to Afro-Cuban roots. “Shango” and “Centalla N’Doki” both evoke images of strength and power associated with Palo deities (Shango, the god of thunder and Centalla N’Doki, the ruler over winds and gates). Villarreal is adept at bringing color and texture to these digital images in a way that draws viewers in and challenges them to dig deeper in order to understand these symbols, engaging them in a new cultural experience.

I have rarely experienced a more positive complement of art works and their surroundings apart from installation pieces. The first time I walked through this exhibit at seven in the morning I was impressed with Villarreal’s work and its artistry. But viewing it a second time, in the middle of the day, surrounded by the diverse population of students and faculty gave it life and immediacy. Art at its most powerful: integrated into public life. By showing Villarreal’s work in the corridors and library of the main academic building of Passaic County Community College this show is readily accessible to students, many of whom share similar experiences of belonging in two places at once and nowhere at all.

Ambos Mundos was a gallery exhibit of the works of Raúl Villarreal at Passaic County Community College’s Broadway & LRC Galleries from
September 19 – November 5, 2009. The artist work can be seen at his website: