Lugo blends urban America with high-end Europe at Ferrin Contemporary

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NORTH ADAMS — Upon walking into the installation currently on view at Ferrin Contemporary, there's a quality that's at once familiar yet uncommon to the works on display.

Here, the iconic faces of Frida Kahlo, Maya Angelou and members of rap group the Wu-Tang Clan are juxtaposed onto ornate ceramic teapots, urns and cups, along with canvases and sculptures.

Another image of a man, perhaps less familiar, also appears in variations: depicted as an aristocrat in a black and white sketched portrait; photographed standing in a forest wearing a chain of ceramic objects; painted on a canvas alongside Sesame Street persona Bert.

The man pictured, 34-year-old artist Roberto Lugo, is as multifaceted as his work — a person who is at once as gentle and good-humored enough to create a ceramic wrestling belt as he is an activist prompting audiences to think of shooting victims Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin whose portraits he painted onto porcelain gilded in gold.

"These people were worthy enough to have an urn, but it's not a statement I want to push on you," said Lugo.

He calls his installation, "Ghetto Garniture: Wu Tang Worcester," blending urban American culture with distinctly high-end European art forms.

Garniture is a 16th-century term used to refer to a set of decorative objects, typically embellishing a mantle or buffet, like something you'd see on the set of television's "Downton Abbey." The term Worcester doesn't refer to the central Massachusetts city, but rather the style of porcelain produced by Royal Worcester, a British china company established around the mid-1700s.

Lugo said he uses the term "ghetto" to describe "what I knew growing up."

"I love thinking of making work about where I come from," he said during a recent artist salon talk at the gallery. "A lot of my work is very autobiographical."

Lugo's parents are from the mountainous municipality of Utuado, Puerto Rico, but he was born and raised in a Puerto Rican neighborhood of Philadelphia, where he wasn't sheltered from the effects of poverty. There were syringes in his childhood playground, as well as teenage drug dealers, prostitutes and the people who patroned them. The boldness and intricate layers of lines and colors of street graffiti are present in the painting and stenciling styles he uses today.

Roberto recalled how his father, Gilberto Lugo, would regularly tinker with and recover what people had discarded as junk and find new uses for them. The artist tells a story about how his father created a makeshift food processor using a washing machine motor and used the processor to make masa, a kind of corn dough. The masa would be transformed into a traditional Puerto Rican stuffed dough staple, pasteles, and sold. The money would be sent to people in need back in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.

"We were poor and we were raising money for the poor," said Lugo. "That set the pace for a lot of what I do in my life."

After he graduated high school, the young man struggled.

"I always had a hard time being good at anything," he says in a voiceover for a video that shows him making a potter's wheel out of a rusty car tire hub in his old neighborhood.

When he looked around that neighborhood as a teen, he didn't see many options. "My generation was selling drugs and I saw myself going the same route. But I knew that's not the way I wanted to go," he said.

At age 22, he left Philadelphia to live with a cousin in central Florida and enrolled at Seminole State College in Sanford. It was there in an art class that a professor suggested Lugo try his hand at the potter's wheel. Lugo hasn't shied away since, working to study at the doctorate degree level, and molding the craft into something that's all his own.

While "Ghetto Garniture: Wu Tang Worcester" is listed as a solo show, Lugo is quick to point out that not all his works are created alone. He has painted ceramics sculpted by friends and fellow artists, and other works in the show are portraits of Lugo made by other artists.

Ferrin Contemporary Director Leslie Ferrin said that this approach and aspect of the artist's narrative is among the characteristics that make Lugo and his work so unique and attractive.

"The idea of collaboration typically doesn't exist in the fine arts hierarchy," said Ferrin, who is also hosting Lugo this summer as an artist-in-residence at her Project Art studios in Cummington.

Through the residency, he created paintings with fellow Project Art resident Alexandra "Alex" Jelleberg, a ceramic sculptor, current gallery associate and registrar at Ferrin Contemporary, and another artist friend, Mat Tomezsko.

He also collaborated with Pittsfield photographer Bill Wright. The installation features Wright's photos of Lugo and a boy named Roman, the son of local artists Sienna Patti and Leonardo Quiles. In it, Lugo and Roman are featured wearing Lugo's ceramic wrestling belt and a chain as props to a narrative.

In a Facebook post about the pictures, Lugo writes: "This ceramic wrestling belt was inspired by my brother who used to yell 'World Champion of the World' as he would pin me in our makeshift wrestling ring made of pillows and pride. When I met young Roman ... he reminded me of the spirit I saw in brother's eyes — the confidence of knowing that he would one day be the world champion of the world and was defiant to all those who opposed him ..."

He said Wright, "was able to see my vision and make it his own."

"This was definitely the first time I was asked to be involved in somebody's solo show," said Wright, who called the collaboration "exciting." For a backdrop, Wright scouted a spot along the trails near the William Cullen Bryant Homestead in Cummington, where Lugo and his family would hike during the artist's residency. Wright, who said he shares a similar inner city childhood experience with Lugo, said the wooded backdrop and artwork juxtaposed the variables in Lugo's personal journey. "I wanted to place that within the significance of his residency."

Lugo's work is definitively dynamic and invites the viewer to make a connection with it figuratively, by subject or aesthetic, or literally. One of his murals, a portrait of his late uncle and mentor, Reinaldo Ayala, is composed of individually painted ceramic tiles that are stuck with pieces of Velcro to a giant display mat. Anyone who visits the gallery is invited to take a piece of the mural away with them, a literal sort of play on the idiom "take a piece of me with you."

Now, as a husband, a father, and college professor — he just starting teaching at Vermont's Marlboro College — Lugo hopes to continue to connect with others through the sharing of his work and story about transcending the stereotypes associated with being a young Puerto Rican man, and in turn, encourage people to embrace their own potential.

In rap he wrote, Lugo sums up his mission: "I'm resourceful. I am ghetto. I am brown. I am you. Let's find each other in the dirt and create a vessel in which we can drink from ourselves, our knowledge, our experiences, on a table where everyone's invited."

Contact Jenn Smith at 413-496-6239.

What: "Ghetto Garniture: Wu Tan Worcester," an installation by Roberto Lugo.

When: On view through Oct. 12. Open daily 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Where: Ferrin Contemporary, 1315 Mass MoCA Way, North Adams.

Special events: Two events on Saturday, Oct. 3. At 3 p.m., the gallery will host museum curators and artist Roberto Lugo in a discussion called, "Clay is Hot!" Explore current trends in artistic and curatorial practice involving historic reinterpretation and contemporary intervention. The talk is free and open to the public.

At 6 p.m., the gallery will host a limited seating catered dining and wine event served on handmade dinnerware by local studio potter Eric Smith with Roberto Lugo. Cost is $75.

Info: http://ferrincontemporary.com or 413-346-4004.

More about the artist: http://robertolugostudio.com


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