Invited by curators Chrissie Iles and Philipe Vergne to participate in the 2006 Whitney Biennial Day for Night, Jesús “Bubu” Negrón (Puerto Rico, 1975) presented a site-specific intervention titled Honoris Causa. The work’s mechanics were quite simple. It consisted of placing the stands of two street vendors who had been selling their goods in front of the museum’s entrance for decades—a hot dog cart and a table with ethnographic African objects—inside the museum’s lobby. Despite the intervention’s apparent simplicity it proved to be quite controversial, raising questions regarding migrant productivities in the city, the history of art, and the politics of display. The re-contextualization and re-signification of these street vendors within the official structures of American art punctured conventional distinctions between art and everyday life, the museum and the street, the artist and the migrant worker. And in doing so, Negrón made a parallel between the production and consumption of objects in the public and the private sphere, considering both spaces as equally important repositories of material culture.
Negrón’s work varies from simple gestures to site-specific interventions to labor-intensive manual work, comprising a conceptual and self-reflective practice that makes no clear distinctions between art and life. Gathering works and documentation of past, recent, and future projects, Reflection Room by Jesús “Bubu” Negrón is a site-specific project, conceptualized as a single object, informed by the gallery’s previous function as an apartment. The objects that occupy the space represent a comprehensive range of works from Negrón’s well established practice, including drawing, painting, video, sculpture, and documentation of site-specific interventions. Arranged to emulate a domestic space, the project demonstrates a confrontation between Negrón's public and popular creative practice and art’s historical existence in the private sphere. An exercise in reflexivity, Reflection Room encourages an intimate mode of viewing that eschews the alleged neutrality of the white cube while making visible the contextual and relational aspect of Negrón’s work.
The white cube emerged with the utopic ideals of modernism; a ritualistic presentation of art objects in a controlled space where all traces of referentiality and reality are eliminated or hidden. Its aspirations for neutrality, however, were eventually deconstructed and revealed as a deceptive aesthetic device. In Inside the White Cube, Brian O’Doherty argues that the white cube is an ideological space, one where the behavior of both art objects and viewers serve a social function. O’Doherty’s ideas on the white cube disclose the ways in which space codifies the objects contained in it as well as the expectations of the viewer. It is in this space, and this space only, that everyday objects have the potential to become art objects, as they are often stripped of their context to become self-contained and autonomous. And yet, before modernism’s aesthetic ideals took hold of the politics of display, art was exhibited in ways that today would be considered too decorative, domestic, and even inappropriate. During the late 19th century in Paris, artists expressed a concern with art display and interior space, in particular how the environment beyond the frame informed the viewer’s perception of the work. Impressionist exhibitions in apartments during this period created environments and installations where paintings were hung to harmonize with the interior of a domestic space. These historical experiments exemplify how context—the exhibition space and its aesthetics— shape and define our perception of what is and is not considered art.
In both Negrón’s social and material practice, collaboration is a form of collective production that places the cultural object in a position of ambiguity, one that eludes monolithic binary categorizations: the social/the aesthetic, contemporary art/folk art, artist/artisan. As a worker—in and outside the sphere of contemporary art—Negrón has labored as a street sketch artist, Dibujos de espalda (Back Portraits), 2002-ongoing; a gardener, Mi otro trabajo (My other job), 2009; and an artisan, Banco Marímbula, 2012 and The Spirit Behind the Vejigante Mask (Ethnographic Abstractions), 2015. In doing so, Negrón places himself in solidarity with people whose work he envisions not as a trade but rather as a field of cultural knowledge. In some works, Negrón appropriates and assimilates the techniques and style of vernacular artistic languages, in particular those sourced from folk objects of Afro-Caribbean origin, whose craftsmanship has been for the most part passed on through oral histories. In others, such as Mini Colillónes, 2002-ongoing, he painstakingly gathers discarded cigarette butts on the street to create a large-scale representation of the material collected. Despite the evident ethnographic perspective present in Negrón’s work, however, there is no distance between the observer and the object of study. On the contrary, there is a convergence of roles, as artist and artisan become indistinct, thereby blurring the lines between the observer and the observed and calling to question our assumptions on art and artistic representation.
In addition to referencing the place of art in the private domain and questioning its status outside of it, Reflection Room draws on the histories of exhibitions in domestic spaces in New York City, thereby emphasizing the importance former private spaces have had in the understanding and interpretation of avant-garde artistic trends that go against the paradigms of dominant culture. An immersive environment assembled to provide a space to reflect on how an artistic practice is a personal historical continuum, Reflection Room shifts the viewers’ attention from individual discrete objects to the space they occupy in a careful staging that encourages an active contextualization of the work.