Roxana Pérez-Méndez’s installation at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts began with sly theatricality: the gallery entrance was half-covered by a thick red drape swagged open to one side, very like the red curtain hoisted by Charles Willson Peale in his iconic painting Self Portrait of the Artist in His Museum, which hangs in the same institution.
This gesture informed and framed the rest of her exhibition, titled “Este Es Mi Pais” (This is My Homeland)—a freighted statement for this first-generation American artist of Puerto Rican descent. Along with her own multimedia, performance-based work (all 2010), the gallery space was salted with 19th- and early 20th-century American paintings from PAFA’s collection, in an artist-as-curator strategy that by now is familiar. By inviting us into her cabinet of curiosities as Peale did in his self-portrait, she transformed the traditional canvases into exotic objects. The artist has a capacious bag of tricks, and deployed them in service to her own ends, as she situated herself in this most American of institutions, which Peale cofounded in 1805.
Several works use a Victorian-era technique involving reflections off angled plate glass that create the illusion of floating phantasms. Called Pepper’s Ghost, this technique is combined with a digital video loop in Selva (Forest) to create the ghostly action inside a 6-foot-long terrarium reminiscent of natural-history museum dioramas. Among junglelike fronds and lichen suggesting an unspoiled island interior, despite the occasional hanging tinsel, the small figure of an Indian woman (performed by the artist) enters, “drinks” from an invisible pool, looks around as if for intruders and then leaves. The figure’s hologramlike translucency underscores her tenuous existence as a figure of memory or wishful imagining; the effect is delicate and moving.
In another video work, Pérez-Méndez takes the persona of an earnestly flirtatious fan dancer. Shot in raw black and white, and playing to the sounds of a kitschy Latin band, this funny and affecting piece calls up the casual American stereotyping of Latin culture—Desi Arnaz, Carmen Miranda, Looney Tunes’s Speedy Gonzalez and Disney’s Three Caballeros—in the mid-20th century.
Dressed in a long white shift, the artist stands under a waterfall in the video Bautizo (Baptism), her head and body pummeled by the steady barrage of water. This image captures a poignant longing for redemption via a richly ambiguous role: Pérez-Méndez as adult baptizee, would-be water nymph and perverse endurance artist, all in one. Extending the performative strategies of individuals like Ana Mendieta into pop-culture and art historical territory, Pérez-Méndez makes work that is simultaneously sophisticated, multilayered, witty and deeply felt.