Drive along Downtown Jacksonville’s Riverside Avenue and it’s nearly impossible to miss the seven-foot-tall mosaic sculptures standing sentry in front of the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens. Chicago-based multi-disciplinary artist Carlos Rolón’s sculpture collection Lost in Paradise hints at home yet draws inspiration from the natural landscapes, architecture, and the parallel histories of Puerto Rico and the American South. They beckon one to stop and stay a while, promising stories deeply riveting.
“Lost in Paradise deals with Diaspora and cultural identity and I’m really interested in how that works within the institution,” Rolón says, “For this body of work, one that began with my solo exhibition at the New Orleans Museum of Art, I’ve been using repurposed tile from the turn of the century. Some of it dates back even further. I’m using the tile as a reference and as a metaphor to how culture arrived in certain parts of the world, including the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico, and Florida. They represent a story. Originally created in Spain, Morocco, Belgium, and England, the tile made its way to the South and was used by aristocrats. The ceramic tiles talk about colonialism in the New World. They tell a visual story on their own.”
The ethereal beauty such masterfully collaged tiles create is instantly captivating. Each tile is a distinct, proud testament to its past, yet combined the effect is startling. “My hope is that people really enjoy the works from a visual point of view because they’re stunning and beautiful,” Rolón says, “But there’s a deep-rooted message behind each of these works.”
Ponce de Leon’s legendary quest for gold and the Fountain of Youth—as well as his resulting death and the catalyst he provided to the colonization of the Americas—inspired the exhibit’s title. “It’s partly fable, but at the same time there’s this reality of colonization in search for gold and minerals,” Rolón says, “They brought culture. But in turn, there were a lot of terrible things that happened. There’s an underlying beauty, but behind the work, a very real story.”
Family, storytelling, memory, and the concept of home are reflected in Rolón’s work, as is his personal quest for identity. “When my parents moved to the US from Puerto Rico, they made it a point to only speak English and I had to relearn Spanish in high school,” he says, “I speak the language alright, but it’s something that’s always made me self-conscious. I work on my Spanish to get in touch with my sense of identity.”
The artist’s favorite piece is Untitled 4 (Lost Paradise II), a breathtaking fusion of blues, whites, and reflective surfaces. “I incorporate mirror as I want people to have self-reflection in the piece, with the hopes the viewer can view the work on an intimate level and the realization the history of the tiles tell a story,” Rolón says, “It has a hybrid and fabric-like pattern of blue and white English tile of Caribbean and Spanish influence. In the age of the selfie, I like the idea that people can see themselves immersed and reflected.”
“I want people to have a visceral reaction to the work,” he continues, “I want to create a discussion and a dialogue, whether it’s good or bad. People can like it; they don’t have to like it. As long as they can look at the work and they can have a conversation about it, that’s important to me.”
Out of the five Rolón originals gracing the Cummer Museum of Art and Garden’s Sculpture Garden, four are tile mosaics. Untitled 5 stands out. A maze of gold-painted cinder blocks adorned with ceramic tile fragments and leaves, it’s a poignant reference to Spanish gold fever and its lasting local impact. “The large blocks of gold represent when people came in search of minerals,” Rolón explains, “It’s a beautiful work, incorporating gold with mosaic sculptural vegetation. The vegetation represents historically what covered the landscape. Basically, what was uprooted to source minerals.”
“Enough gold was mined until 1530 to establish over $4 million in Spanish bullion, hence the use of gold on the sculpture,” he says, “These new works are meant to carry hope that contains melancholic notes of the past that were created by pillaging natural landscape to find gold and currency. This is my re-imagined replacement of untouched territory that contained magical moments of natural beauty that lived and breathed on top of minerals that eventually brought wealth and abundance to a particular culture.”
The chance to work with Guest Curator Aaron Levi Garvey brought Carlos Rolón’s work to Jacksonville. “I really wanted to work with Aaron,” Rolón says, “This is my second time working with him. I respect him as a curator and I appreciate his eye and his direction.”
A site visit to the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens also sealed the deal. Rolón visited Jacksonville to get a sense of its identity and history and tailor-made his art for the institution and space. “I think the works complement the museum very well,” Rolón says, “I’ve never had the opportunity to make an outdoor sculptural work that would be up for an entire year at a major institution. This is a great opportunity.”
Rolón personally understands the power great art has to transform lives. He recalls seeing a poster in elementary school from The Art Institute of Chicago featuring Paris Street; Rainy Day by Gustave Caillebotte. The complex scene left a lasting impression on Rolón and when he was 13 or 14, he took a bus alone to the Art Institute of Chicago to see the painting in person. “I literally stood in front of that painting for hours,” the largely self-taught artist recalls, “I kept going back to that gallery and sketching. I must have several renderings from that painting. I had every intention of being an artist since the age of 14. I’ve always been a dreamer.”
Paris Street; Rainy Day influenced him to such an extent that he shared an art studio in Paris with a friend in his 20s and spent several years traveling back and forth between France and the United States creating work. “In retrospect, I believe that painting has had a major impact in me becoming an artist,” Rolón says, “It was something I was attracted to and I also believe that’s where the idea of memory comes into play.”
Since then, Rolón’s art has appeared in solo exhibitions and group shows all over the United States, Europe, and Asia, and he’s published several art books over the years. The artist also finds meaning in community service and improving communities through artwork. He’s currently working with Project Backboard, which renovates public basketball courts and installs large-scale works of art around the world to build up underprivileged communities. “It’s a great concept and a form of social practice,” he says, “We’re investigating sites in Puerto Rico with the hopes of also redoing the surrounding landscape destroyed by Hurricane Maria. It’s important on a personal level to give back to the community.”
Carlos Rolón brings a fresh voice to The Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens. The outdoor exhibit runs from through October 21, 2019. Guests are encouraged to reflect on the stories, architecture, history, memories, and sense of belonging the art inspires. For a city in the midst of its own identity quest, Lost in Paradise is a powerfully pertinent reminder of who we are and how far we’ve risen.