Shellyne Rodriguez’s terrific debut exhibition at PPOW is forthrightly political art warmed by tender personal detail. The artist was born in the Bronx in 1977. That’s the terrain she focuses in her photographically precise color pencil drawings on black paper. And a wide terrain it is, global in population, rich in cultural history.
Rodriquez broadly charts it in three big word-and-image pieces generically titled “BX Third World Liberation Mixtape.” Stylistically, they’re modeled on early 1980s hip-hop event fliers designed by the Bronx-based handbill artist Buddy Esquire. Compositionally, they’re action-packed interlaces of figures and words: lyrics, rap group names, magical numbers, and place names spelled in Arabic, Chinese, English, Hindi, Spanish and Twi.
Each “Mixtape” functions as a nodal point for a gathering of large portraits. Several are of Rodriquez’s neighbors — bodega owners, barbers, playground kids. Others are of activist friends and mentors: the abolitionist scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore; the queer theorist Jasbir K. Puar; the former gang matriarch, now community leader Lorine Padilla. As in Baroque paintings of saints, each is depicted with symbolic attributes: Gilmore and Puar with books; Padilla with a compact Santeria altar.
Just as art and life meet in the paintings, so they do in the gallery. A real altar sits on the floor near Padilla’s portrait. And Rodriguez has turned the space into a study center, a reading room, with a table holding revolutionary literature, and pens and paper for taking notes. Pull up a chair. You’re in awesome company. HOLLAND COTTER