"In New York, people feel tense that they have to go to openings and meet people," says gallerist Francisco Rovira Rullán. He's best known as the man behind San Juan's Roberto Paradise gallery, a space so well-regarded amongst art world aficionados that most simply assume his name is Roberto. "In Puerto Rico," he continues, "you can really be creative without having a knife under your throat. Here, you can give yourself the luxury of what you need to do: focus on the work."
Since the gallery's beginnings in 2011, the exhibition space has become a fixture of the local contemporary art scene. From his original second-floor location in the rundown warehouse district of Santurce, Rullán watched the area transform into the city's cultural hub, where many artists and designers have studios, including Karlo Andrei Ibarra, whom the gallery represents. Many restaurants have opened up—Tostado bakery and Axoloto being Rullán's favorites—and art spaces are taking root, most notably the Berezdivin Collection. In August, the gallery moved to a 1,600-square-foot storefront in a 1930s Art Deco building.
In New York, people feel tense that they have to go to openings and meet people...In Puerto Rico, you can really be creative without having a knife under your throat.
Having championed local artists like Radamés "Juni" Figueroa and Jesús "Bubu" Negrón, both of whom have shown internationally and been featured in past Whitney Biennials, Roberto Paradise can now expand its focus. In the past two months alone, Rullán has shown works by New York artists Caroline Wells Chandler and Chris Bradley, and, most notably, hosted painter Katherine Bernhardt for a month-long residency last summer. The area clearly made an impact on the artist, who recently bought an old colonial building in Old San Juan for an upcoming project, and is currently looking for a studio space near the gallery. The work that came out of her time at Roberto Paradise has "really put her on the map," says Rullán of her buzzed-about figurative paintings.
Bernhardt named her most recent New York exhibit at Venus Over Manhattan after two of the artists she met in Puerto Rico: Pablo and Efrain del Hierro, twin brothers who lead the collective Poncili Creación. The young artists, best known for their experimental performance art, joined the gallery last year, with their first major exhibition opening just last week. Titled 4, 3, 2, 1…, the show is described as "post-apocalyptic" but "absolutely hopeful." It includes four "worlds," each a different color and completely made from recycled materials like foam, canvas, and wood.
Frugality is a theme found in the work of many Puerto Rican artists: "There are diverse reactions to the economic crisis," Rullán says. "For example, Poncili made a point of not spending a dollar in the production of their exhibition." Even in the face of economic woes, the gallery managed to have its best annual sales ever in 2015. That's most likely a credit to the fact that Rullán travels as much as he can to international art fairs, and has collectors all over the world. The gallery has already hosted numerous big-name visitors this year: MoMA PS1 director Klaus Biesenbach took a tour of the gallery earlier this month (he's also rumored to be looking at real estate on the island), and MoMA PS1 founder Alanna Heiss attended the Poncili opening last Thursday.
Up next, Rullán will be heading to Mexico City for the Material art fair where he'll be showing Caroline Wells Chandler and Chris Bradley, and then to ARCO Madrid where he'll be showing José Luis Vargas, Karlo Ibarra, and Chandler once again. In March, he is bringing two American painters to the gallery for the first time: Richard Hull and Josh Reams. They'll be exhibited alongside the work of Puerto Rican painter José Lerma, an artist the gallery has long represented who is also a professor at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Rullán's focus and ambition is truly singular for the island. He's been a major force in strengthening the local arts community and giving it an international edge by collaborating with American and European artists and galleries. It's no surprise that it keeps the outside art community coming back, and looking to set down roots of their own: "My experience with artists that come here," says Rullán, "is that the island really positively affects their creative process."
4, 3, 2, 1… will be on view through March 12. For more information about Roberto Paradise, visit robertoparadise.com.