LUCY LIPPARD IN CATALOGUE FOR WILL, POWER & DESIRE 1986

Sometimes he has two heads, many masks four eyes or fish for genitals. Papo Colo is an island, like his native Puerto Rico, a tall, curiously coiffed island in SoHo’s Perrier waters. And like Puerto Rico, he is working for independence. In the last ten years Colo has put together an impressive body of art and has exhibited widely. More attention might have been paid to his accomplishments if he hadn’t followed his own rules. 

A self-declared eclectic, Colo suggests “pluralism as a recourse to survival.” He is an inventive painter, sculptor, book artist, performance artist, video and body artist, public, collaborative, and private artist. OCTOPUS was a giant accordion book conveived by Colo and executed in collaboration with 40 other artists; it stood outside El Museu del Barrio in 1982. Title and form were characteristic. The term expressionist is a shadow of its possible self, but Colo is the real thing. His tentacles reach out, beyond cultural confinement, under and over cultural colonialism. 

 

There is a gentle side and a dangerous side to Colo’ s exuberance. The paintings are alternatively whimsical, lyrical, mythical, ferocious. Sculptures from the late ‘70s were fragile but aggressive – intricate traps and sharp stakes and bound, protected phalluses. Monsters can rise from beneath the repeated, obsessive strokes of the brush. The magic can turn. A war is being waged down there somewhere. But what surfaces is often a generous, passionate richness fo color and form.  

“Chance is the machinery of history,” says Colo in a poem. “Blood is the cement of empires… Before all this/the world was flat./They feared the existence of monsters/and when they reached the borders/they would fall into the void/like a ripe avocado.” 

A high level of social and sexual longing pervades his art. Its essence might be this sense of being on the edge of a flat world, voluntarily evicted from the known. In 1977, Colo attached 51 sticks by ropes to his body and as “Superman 51,” ran with them trailing after him until he collapsed from exhaustion. The number 51 referred to the possibility that Puerto Rico might become the 51ststate (an idea that also seems to have run its course), and perhaps it referred to the artist burdened with more than his own past. 

Colo has crossed boundaries, with some regrets. “As all people who have come to this country”, he wrote in 1982, “I have lost and gained a paradise.” It must have been a long journey: From Francisco Colon Quintero who faked his own degree from the University of Puerto Rico in 1971, to the New York “conceptual” artist and painter Papo Colo, who remarked that, “education, where the functions of colonial mentality are more sinister, creates a mirage about identity / culture / language / history, etc. By fabricating an exact copy of the document that symbolized that perversion – the Diploma – I fulfill the dream of so many underdeveloped people – to have an education. I do it with another mirage, with another lie, perhaps more substance than the original. 

Is that art he’s talking about?

When he peers over the edge, the barrier, from his North American vantage point, Colo sees many limbed creatures, benevolent serpents, hairy faces, the pale masks of death or disguise, fierce tropical forests, the mother island rising from the waves, fish swarming into an embrace. Colo’s images are dreamlike but they are not the products of random surrealist juxtapositions. These are images with roots, a fetishistic supra-nationalism. They bear a family resemblance to the grand, desperate humours of Latin American literature, but Colo says “I read Whitman or Neruda in the same intensity in the same night.” His ambivalence fuses the hemispheric and the personal. These images hark back to a lost history, now available mostly in dreams, that bubbles away beneath culture – not just Latin culture, but the future of North American culture as well. 

An outsider, politically unaffiliated, Colo has focused his radicalism on the erotic act of art making – most notably in painting. He is a “revolutionary” by temperament if not by identity; political impotence is countered by expressive power. He mentions a “self-consumed force.” Jeanette Ingberman has written of El Colo’s art that, “It is an idealistic search for triumph constructed by a predetermined act of defeat.” Herein lies the dialectic necessary to all live art, a tension marked in multi-cultural societies or among exiles, immigrants, expatriates, who are remembering home but forgetting boundaries; “To be an exile, an immigrant, is to believe that you belong. My art is of the spirit that doesn’t belong… sometimes I believe that my art is the search for belonging.”


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