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Not Alone: The Windows of Jose Rios

“No one does it alone.” This was one of the expressions I heard from Jose Rios as I spoke with him at the gallery opening for his third solo art exhibit Windows which showed at the Gelabert Studios in New York April 19 through April 30. Windows is a beautiful exhibition featuring more than twenty paintings of portraits, cityscapes, and still lives through the symbol of the window. Rios’ paintings allow the viewer a glimpse into the world of the varied people living in this urban jungle we call a city. The loves, hopes, and struggles of his subjects, which sometimes cross geographic and cultural boundaries, are depicted through various perspectives in these works. Rios invites the viewer to look, wonder, relate, and tell stories making peeping toms out of us all. When you look around and see all the familiar faces in these frames, alone is not a word that comes to mind.

Rios has always been surrounded with familiar faces. The youngest of a family of six, he was born in Puerto Rico in 1954. Two years later, his family moved to an old tenement building in New York City. It was there that he had his first encounter with art. “Lying back in my bed with my head dangling off the edge of it, I ignored everything around me as I stared at the ceiling. I used my eyes as brushes and the cracks and shadows as paints for my canvas. Soon after, I started school where my artistic talent was quickly acknowledged and awarded.” Unfortunately, as an adult, Rios found himself in a negative environment, surrounded by drug users. He soon became one of them and was unable to function in society, eventually becoming homeless for a long ten years. In 1997, Rios put down his syringe and picked up a paintbrush going back to that which first gave him purpose. Thus, the circle of life.

This circle of life and our connection to others is continuously represented in Rios’ windows. La ninera/The Nanny (FIG.1) depicts an attractive woman lovingly looking down at a baby as she cradles him in her arms. The woman stands with her back to a window adorned by transparent curtains that seem to, in turn, cradle her. In many of Rios’ paintings there is a sense of transcendence, his transparent curtains often acting as angel wings. I wonder if this nanny isn’t being cared for by the universe as she cares for this child.

The human desire not to be alone takes us to the next four paintings. Serenata/Serenade (FIG.2) places the subject in an island context. We see a woman in a beautiful white dress with a flower in her hair, her chocolate skin kissed by the sun. Her eyes, piercing green, look at the viewer and not at her suitor who is in the foreground declaring his love through song. Carta de amor/Love Letter (FIG. 3) offers another way of communicating, through the written word. Pictured are two lovers looking at each other through their diagonally placed windows. Here, Rios’ color palette is a bit softer, the lovers’ windows highlighted as the other two fade into obscurity. Lovers’ talk, this time by way of spoken word, is the central theme of Rios’ French window paintings, Ventanas francesas – boy/French Windows – boy (FIG.4) and Ventanas francesas – girl/French Windows – girl (FIG.5). However, unlike Love Letter where the two are facing each other, these lovers do not look at each other connecting via phone. These paintings clearly represent a younger, navel-gazing, urban generation. Their devotion is further affirmed by the portraits they wear of each other. Rios’ attention to detail in these two paintings is exquisite. The painting on the male’s wall, the rows of books in the female’s apartment, and the portraits on their t-shirts, show us the importance Rios’ places on his craft as well as his subject.

Abuelita/Grandma (FIG.6) and Despreocupado/Careless (FIG.7) take us to the next stage in life, one of old age where raising children is a thing of the past and time, encouraging you to be more preoccupied with the lives of others than your own, lingers. Abuelita shows an older woman feeding pigeons through her window. Rios describes this painting as a “grandma who sits at her window in peace having overcome adversity with strength because her faith and wisdom have guided her.” The serpents above represent the demons of her past, while her ability to persevere is depicted by the Mary and Jesus scene. Despreocupado reminds me of the fate of older men who lose their wives too soon and become disheveled and afraid. This man looks out suspiciously, the viewer not aware of what peaks his interest.

There are also paintings of windows where no one appears and symbols personify the essence of human beings. Al despertar/In the Morning (FIG.8) is a beautiful painting where the warm palette, representing the light of the sun, allows a spread of typical island vegetation (avocado, tomatoes, yuca, platanos) to glow. Here, unlike the aforementioned paintings, the viewer is positioned on the inside looking out. Surrounding the window are depictions of family photos from the artist’s life. Although a person is not the main subject, the photos and food suggest a sense of family togetherness blessed by the presence of an otherworldly life source.

Pastel de manzana/Apple Pie (FIG.9) crosses cultural bounderies by depicting a window with symbols of Americana. Apple pie, an eagle, and the American flag envelop this opening, leaving no doubt as to the loyalty of the inhabitants. When I glanced at this painting I immediately thought of my husband’s Uncle Charlie and Aunt Rosemary. He, a World War II veteren and she, having grown up in the 1940s and 50s exhibit a patriotic spirit expressed in their flag laden tablecloths and portraits of Lincoln and Washington found in their New Jersey log cabin.

Café Bustelo (FIG.10) is one of my favorites. At first glance, the plant growing out of a Café Bustelo can makes the strongest impression. It departs from the cool color palette with its strong yellow and prominent position in the foreground. As you go past the can, the viewer catches a glimpse into the world of a nature lover, plants strewn everywhere. Café Bustelo takes me back to my after-school stays at the apartment of my Abuela Inocencia. The enormous leaves, from plants unknown, and tangled vines across her window, created a peaceful, safe haven, a garden in the ghetto, if you will, in my already overwhelming, urban, elementary life. What makes Café Bustelo even more intriguing is the fact that Rios paints this building in a blue hue instead of the customary brick red giving it an otherworldly, yet tender, effect.

Lágrima (FIG.11)
Lágrima (FIG.11)

Rice and Beans (FIG.12)
Rice and Beans (FIG.12)

Cadena espiritual (FIG.13)
Cadena espiritual (FIG.13)

Finally, I would like to talk about three works that, although not window paintings, were included in the exhibition; Lágrima (FIG.11), Rice and Beans (FIG.12), and Cadena espiritual (FIG.13). In Lágrima we see a man in a jail cell surrounded by a cloud of smoke. Rios describes the subject as a “somewhat hypnotized man facing unknown time who is content and at peace as he sheds one tear, for his life is not what it used to be.” This is Rios’ most modernist work as the man’s neck is disproportionately overextended as he leans his pensive head in his hand. He also appears to be floating, the bars of the jail cell lying behind him as if he is alluding to a mental, spiritual freedom. Although alone, he is at peace. Truly a positive outlook.

The viewer sees the next painting from an interesting perspective. Rice and Beans, an aerial view of a dining room, also asserts a transcendental quality as if someone were watching this family from above. The table, chairs and plates, seen from this angle, are transformed into circles, squares and cylinders giving the painting a cubist feel. The monochromatic palette and textural application of paint on the floor and food make this work truly beautiful. Lastly, Cadena espiritual depicts anonymous, nude figures, each on the shoulders of the other, ascending upwards surrounded by a glowing, warm red hue. To me, it speaks of the many people that have supported Rios, the chain of prayer that has sustained him allowing him to become the person he is today. This is exactly what I witnessed in the gallery opening as I met many of his friends and family who were so proud of him. Who would have thought that this man, whose talent lay dormant while incarcerated, would rise above his circumstances? It makes me wonder about the many people like him in the system that our society has given up on or discarded. Jose’s paintings dignify the common person. The windows surrounding his characters act as picture frames alluding to the fact that we are all works of art in the making.

Rios’ past is no secret (he tells of it on his website and the many articles featured on it, also reveal the harsh realities that came before his success as an artist.) However, this is exactly what I liked about him and what is reflected in his artwork. Rios’ vulnerability, his refusal to live by the mantra of que dirá la gente* so common in our community, is what makes his artwork connect to people. The subjects in these frames reveal a bit about themselves prompting the viewer to also elaborate on his/her life as I have about my own in this article. Jose’s story and work allows others who probably have a similar past to relate and know that they are not alone. Thank you Jose!

* What will people think

Nellie Escalante-Dumberger
Puerto Rican/Latino arts educator and writer
For more on this talented artist/painter you can read his bio at our artist page
Back to Artist main page, here


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