Red, white and blue… these three colors when combined elicit multiple significations and visual connotations. They can be associated with a specific country, a patriotic sentiment, or a consumer brand, but in Omar Obdulio Peña Forty’s work they embody a practice of everyday life; the barbershop and its long-standing history as a place of congregation at the intersection of differing trades. La brega plural, Peña Forty’s most recent exhibition at METRO:plataformaorganizada, gathers a selection of recent videos, sculptures, paintings and photographs that approach the barbershop as a plural space of creation and transformation, appropriating its aesthetic values and reconsidering it in an artistic context. Taking the portrait as a main reference point (including its numerous art historical and social references), as well as the colors of the traditional barber pole, the exhibition expands upon the notion of the barber as both trade and art form.
The portrait is a constant in Peña Forty’s work, albeit an altered notion of it. Organizing several ‘haircut meets’ before the exhibition, Peña Forty, a barber himself, invited people to come in the gallery and have their hair clipped. In a reversal of trades and spaces, artist/barber and gallery/barbershop, Peña Forty produced a series of portraits titled Tabla de abecedario (2011) and Rema Hormiga (2011), by clipping the first letter of the sitter’s name on the back or side of their head, to later produce, through the sum of individual portraits, a portion of the alphabet or a phrase. Generating a symbolic letter ‘stamping’ gesture that embodies a personal trait or characteristic, these portraits are unconventional not only due to the treatment of the sitter, but also for the perspective they provide. In other works such as Patrones F (2011) and Fade Horizonte (2011), Peña Forty succeeds in creating references to abstract and landscape art forms through close-up photographic shots of clipper cut details.
One of the most visually provocative works in the exhibition is Retrato de Oller con Cerquillo (2011), where the artist appropriates an image of a 19th century self-portrait of Francisco Oller, considered to be the most important Puerto Rican painter of the time, and digitally manipulates it to include a clipper design above his right ear; a comment on shifting power relations and social hierarchies. Additional works presented in the show incorporate the colors that traditionally represent the barbershop; red, white and blue. Díptico de Franjas Barberas (2011) a painting that depicts the lines of the barber pole, directly alludes to the history behind these colorful lines. In fact, before these poles became synonymous with hair cutting, they were also used to identify other trades and functions, as barbers used to perform minor surgeries such as tooth extractions; red symbolizing arterial blood, blue venous blood and white bandages. In a separate room, 3 stop motion videos, Pelo, stop motion (2011), Dibujo lineal, stop motion (20011) and Franja de barbero, stop motion, all continue the barbershop narrative.
Peña-Forty’s body of work is reminiscent of Pepón Osorio’s installation No se llora en la barbería in the ways it appropriates a functional space to comment on social and economic hierarchies. But more than presenting a social critique of machismo, Peña-Forty examines in great detail the fade and clipper cut as art form, recontextualizing this practice in an artistic framework.