Born in Puerto Rico, Medina received an MFA from Hunter College. Her work has been exhibited at such notable venues as Artists Space, Museum of Contemporary Art in Vigo Spain and the Bronx Museum. She has been awarded a residency at Yaddo in 2014, the Rome Prize in Visual Arts for 2012-2013 from the American Academy in Rome, a NYFA Fellowship in Interdisciplinary Art in 2012, and the Bronx Museum’s Artist in the Marketplace residency in 2010.
On-site Live in Las Galerías from July 20 to September 30, 2015
“Glendalys Medina is an interdisciplinary artist and her work is about transcending the symbolic systems of language and image by investigating the role they play in forming identity. For the past several years she has been working on a project called The Shank that uses self-help techniques and Hip-Hop culture as the foundation of this investigation.
In 2012, she created her own signature graffiti tag BlackGold. It is composed of 50 basic shapes taken from the face of a boom box, Hip-Hop’s quintessential image. By using BlackGold stencil as a line she constructs drawings based on the Latin alphabet in her Black Alphabet Series. While at El Museo del Barrio she intends to create a mural based on that series and perform a lyric poem inspired by rapper Drake’s “Find Your Love” and “Shut it Down”.”
A Conversation: Nicolás Dumit Estévez and Glendalys Medina
A Conversation Between Nicolás Dumit Estévez and Glendalys Medina
NDE: I have been following your work since your exhibition at Casita Maria in the Bronx, 2013, and I recall your intricate pieces dealing with graffiti. What is your relationship to this movement?
GM: I use graffiti as a tool mainly in this larger body of work called The Shank. Informed by Pop/Hip-Hop culture, The Shank is a type of self-evolution.
NDE: Can you talk about your choice of materials for the wall pieces at Casita Maria? I am referring to the ones using paint, nails and thread, as well for those artworks in which you transformed everyday items, like a microphone, into objects with a distinctive persona: things with a story to tell.
GM: The materials I choose for an artwork often connect to a personal and global history. I decided to use nails and thread in SK and Seen because I grew up looking at my uncle’s string art. I was fascinated by how he joined these two materials to create a new image of El Morro (a landmark fort in San Juan, Puerto Rico).
In 2011 I decided to pay homage to Seen, a well-known graffiti artist from the Bronx, so I outlined his tag with those materials. It was my way of monumentalizing my experience with graffiti at the time.
As for Mic, I chose sugar because of its role as a major commodity in forming Puerto Rican identity. It’s also a metaphor for the history, commodification and global consumption of Hip-Hop culture. Every piece that I make fits into a narrative of sorts, I often see my sculptures as a prop for an action.
NDE: My understanding of graffiti is that of a political and artistic form that thrives in conveying and exchanging messages, images and codes among artists who are part of the movement. The work is also shared with the mostly urban “audiences” who encounter it in the alleys, subway platforms, public bathrooms, bridges, and streets of the city, generally speaking. With the sanctioning of graffiti by commercial art spaces and museums in mind, what in the world has the confining white cube of the gallery or the constraining cubicle of art fair to offer this fugitive art form?
GM: Graffiti can mean many things. When I hear the word ‘graffiti’ images flash in my mind of political posters, NYC in the 80s and ancient Rome. For me, what the white cube offers graffiti artists is permission, exposure, and potentially sales, but it is essentially no longer graffiti. But remember there is a NY graffiti concept called “all-city,” which means being known throughout all five boroughs of New York City and essentially famous. And the white cube provides this type of exposure.
NDE: It is interesting to see how some of the outlawed graffiti artists of the 1980s are now hired to create commissions for businesses, or to produce bodies of work for galleries to peddle to buyers with enough cash in their pockets. I am tempted to say that this once radical expression has been tamed or domesticated, but perhaps this is all about due recognition to those who really deserve it, like legendary TATS CRU in Hunts Point. In your opinion, where is this trend leading graffiti?
GM: The instinctual drive to leave a mark will never leave us. When that mark becomes more than a mark but a full artistic expression that not only represents one, but a people, our humanity then has reached a level that recognition is due.
NDE: The South Bronx has been an important incubator for a great deal of the culture of New York City as a whole, such as graffiti and Hip Hop; two influential currents in your art practice. How else has the borough informed what you do art-wise? My understanding is that you are a resident of the Boogie Down B.
GM: I grew up in the Bronx within walking distance from the birthplace of Hip-Hop, Sedgwick Avenue. My older siblings and cousins would take me to block parties as a child, my sister went to high school with Salt-N-Pepa, and my older brother is a still friends with Ken Swift. Hip-Hop and graffiti surrounded me, but it was Saturday mornings that I loved. Every Saturday my dad would take out his bongo, congas, clave and maracas and play along with the Fania All Stars, Eddie Palmieri and, my personal favorite, Ray Barretto. I remember how I felt and still feel when I listen to Acid. Those mornings listening to Latin Jazz, summers at Orchard Beach listening to Salsa, going to the pool at Roberto Clemente State Park, getting a cannoli on Arthur Ave. And even the crack epidemic, which kept me inside the house drawing and listening to music, informed my practice. Although I no longer live there, I will always be from the Bronx.
NDE: You talk about transcending symbolic language through some of the conceptual work that you do. Can you explain how you achieve this?
GM: Take the Black Alphabet Series for example. The series is literally drawings of letters. But when I have a studio visit with someone who doesn’t know anything about my work or the name of the series, they don’t see the letters in the drawings at first or fifth glance. Instead they see a landscape, architecture, a cityscape, shapes, molecules, the universe, etc. Once they see the letter, the image is made and their relationship to language takes over. They have identified it and identified themselves in relationship to it. I am interested in the moments before and after that recognition. I’m asking, what is language, image, landscapes, architecture, me, you, the earth? How are these concepts formed and how do we identify them? I realized I can not escape language and image because they are the foundation of the society in which I live, whether I like it or not. But I can pull it them apart, piece them together, and make them mine.
NDE: I am aware that this will likely detour our conversation, but I can’t resist asking about boomboxes. There are iconographic of my generation. They remind me of the 1980s, but also of my long-term collaboration with María Alós. The last time María and I used one of these lovely mammoths was in 2008, during the presentation of the Passerby Museum in Claremont, California. Do boomboxes still resonate with the younger crowd outside of the arts, or are they more of an artifact, like the cassette they fed on?
GM: I’m not sure how they view it. At present, you can still go into a Best Buy and ask “Where are your boomboxes?” They still make them. I can say that 90% of the time most people know what a boombox is no matter their age. For me, boomboxes have been a tool to escape into another reality, an iconic image to break down and rebuild an often times beautiful object.
NDE: What are you doing at El Museo as part of the Back in Five Minutes residency program?
GM: I am inviting visitors to participate in #TagTheWall, which allows each participant 5 minutes to tag a large black designated area on a wall at El Museo with a gold marker of their choice. The end product is a group drawing marking a moment in which I am facilitating the “defacement” of a museum wall. Participants are encouraged to take a photo as the only documentation of their experience.
NDE: Are there significant encounters with visitors or with the staff that you would like to narrate? If so, would you consider recounting them in a song? My mention of singing relates to the enclosed box that you built at Casita María, and in which you sang to gallery visitors, one at a time, a song in the dark.
GM: Songs can take a day or years to write, so maybe this experience will inform one in the future. I will say that while being at El Museo I have spoken more Spanish than I ever have in regards to my artwork. I found it difficult because I am out of practice, and interesting because I realized that, even though Spanish was my first language, it is not my dominant one. The feeling of not being able to communicate to my full mental capacity in my native tongue about my art and my perspective as a Puerto Rican American shook me. . . but maybe that’s also a part of being a Puerto Rican American.
NDE: If you could create a permanent piece at El Museo what shape would this take and what spot would you select for it?
GM: I would like to create a curriculum for workshops that would guide participants in a series of empowerment techniques and which would take place in the theater.
NDE: Can you suggest how we can transcend the use of symbolic language as we conclude this conversation? You can experiment with your answer to this question. It occurs to me that since we are typing this Q and A, the computer’s keyboard can be the limit. Go for it!
This interview is part of Back in Five Minutes, a residency program conceived by Nicolás Dumit Estévez for Office Hours at El Museo del Barrio.