At the opening two weeks ago of the Kendell Geers and Carlos Garaicoa exhibits at the Aspen Art Museum, I had pleasant surprise No. 1. Walking around Garaicoa’s architectural studies, I spied a face from my early years in Aspen, a surpassingly likable guy I waited tables with at Explore Bistro whom I knew only as Milton. After greetings, I asked what Milton was up to, and he said that he had just come over from the Baldwin Gallery, which had an opening that night. My question was meant to be more of a bigger picture “What are you up to?” but if he wanted to talk about what he’d been doing that evening, that was fine with me. It was just good to see Milton.Then I had a sudden flash: surprise No. 2. In the most recent press release from the Baldwin Gallery, I had seen that among the latest round of shows was one by someone named Milton with a Latin last name. This was that Milton; I got that. But how could that be? My Milton had been not only a waiter, but an architect – but not an artist. And surely in the few years since I’d last seen him, he couldn’t have risen to the level of having a show at the Baldwin Gallery. But he did.Last March, Rosa-Ortiz, a 37-year-old Puerto Rican native who lived in the Roaring Fork Valley for most of the ’90s, got a call at his Brooklyn studio. A collector was interested in his piece “La Aparición de la Fama” – the apparition of fame – a takeoff on the infamously revealing green dress Jennifer Lopez wore to the 2000 Grammy Awards ceremony, made of broken glass bottles. Rosa-Ortiz hustled over to the Seventh Regiment Armory, where his piece was included in the prestigious Armory Show. There, surveying “La Aparición” with sharp interest, was a face almost as unexpected and familiar as Milton’s was to me: Harley Baldwin. Baldwin bought the piece – it now hangs from the ceiling over the dining table in the late gallerist’s downtown Aspen apartment – and arranged with Rosa-Ortiz to create a work for the Baldwin Gallery.Walking past Glenn Ligon’s stark black-and-white drawings currently showing upstairs at the Baldwin Gallery, down through the collection of James Lee Byars’ sleek sculptures and drawings in the main lower space, and into the downstairs corner space, I came upon surprise No. 3. Rosa-Ortiz’s sculptural installation “The Seven Deadly Sins” lights up that smallish, darkened recess of the gallery with a colorful, incandescent glow. The first sensation is a delight for the eyes: Rosa-Ortiz’s seven individual but related pieces, an assortment of broken bottles, glass beads, mirrors and more, lit from underneath, splashed greens, reds and blues around the room.
But there are heavy issues to contend with; the exhibit is, after all, titled “Seven Deadly Sins.” Each sculpture, its parts ingeniously suspended from the ceiling by monofilament, represents one of the seven sins conceived by the 13th-century theologian St. Thomas Aquinas. Rosa-Ortiz arranged the seven sins in a circle, after Hieronymus Bosch’s painting of the same name. Each sin is represented with a combination of image, materials and concept; Rosa-Ortiz has used the Latin name for each sin: “Acedia” (sloth) is made of old TV vacuum tubes. The shape is patterned after one of the melting clocks in Dali’s famous “The Persistence of Memory.” The suggestion is of the way television turns us into a semi-solid being melted into a couch.”Gula” (gluttony) is made of sugar cubes. The negative space constructed by the sculpture resembles an ice-cream cone.”Avaritia” (greed) uses black onyx beads to create an image of a drop of oil. “So it’s about petroleum, oil and greed,” said Rosa-Ortiz.”Invidia” (envy) is perhaps the most clever and controversial of the group. Rendered in green beads, it perfectly replicates a large penis. “It’s green, green with penis envy,” explained Rosa-Ortiz, pointing out the one red bead “a birthmark.”
“Ira” (wrath) is made of Depression-era broken pink bottles. “That whole idea of smashing plates against the wall in anger,” said Rosa-Ortiz. “And it’s in the shape of a mushroom cloud. I really like the contrast of this really delicate pink glass and a nuclear explosion.” He continues to demonstrate the pretty, slightly chilling, tinkling sound made when he blows on the glass pieces of “Ira.””Superbia” (pride) is made of pieces of broken mirror collected from Brooklyn, where Rosa-Ortiz has lived since 1999. The backs of the pieces are painted with the image of the American flag. “So it’s about American pride, and maybe looking at ourselves before we go out trampling into the world,” he said.”Luxuria” (lust), using red glass beads and glass pearls, is the most ambiguously shaped, and the artist’s favorite sculpture in the exhibit. “It’s reminiscent of a lot of things: fruit – pomegranate, cherry – a heart, a vessel, a seed. And the light works so well. The light goes through and it glows and glitters.” Logo, an MTV-affiliated, gay- and lesbian-oriented channel due to launch in June, will include videos of “Luxuria” and “Invidia” as between-show programming.How do you square the beauty, and the sense of humor and fun, that is Rosa-Ortiz’s “Seven Deadly Sins” with Aquinas’ original conception of sin? Or with a more recent work that addressed the subject, David Fincher’s horrifying 1995 film “Se7en?” Rosa-Ortiz says Aquinas defined the seven deadly sins in the context of the relationship between man and God. Bosch, he notes, did so as well: “He laid out the sins and placed God in the center of the circle,” said Rosa-Ortiz.
But in the latest take on sin, the artist has taken God out of the picture, refocusing on man’s place in society. “This time, the viewer is at the center,” said Rosa-Ortiz, noting how the exhibit literally outs the viewer in the midst of the sins. “The seven deadly sins, normally a religious concept, becomes more about the individual in society than about God. It’s about sitting on the couch, eating sugar, wanting a bigger penis.”Far from “Se7en,” in which the most extreme sinners paid with gruesome deaths at the hands of Kevin Spacey’s psychopath, Rosa-Ortiz has a gentle take on sin. “Where I’m coming from, is we all have these sins in us,” he said. “It’s so easy to point fingers and throw stones, but we have a little bit of all of this in us. There’s an acceptance in this show. More than deciding what’s right, what’s wrong, it’s about reflecting on, being aware of these concepts.”In his Aspen years, which followed his earning a degree in architecture from Kansas State University, Rosa-Ortiz worked for Scott Lindenau’s Studio B, then for Harry Teague Architects, where he contributed to the design of the Benedict Music Tent. Seeking to advance his understanding of steel, he took a welding class at the Anderson Ranch Art Center.”Not to make art, but just to learn how to weld, how to work with steel,” he said. “And a piece came out of it, ‘Rosa Papillionidiae Defunctus,'” – which translates to “dead butterfly” – “that really touched people. Me as well. That was a shocker to me.”Around the same time, Rosa-Ortiz assisted in the installation of “The Edge of England,” a work by English-born artist Cornelia Parker that involved hanging pieces of chalk, taken from the famed White Cliffs of Dover, from the ceiling of the Aspen Art Museum. After moving to Brooklyn in 1999, dropping architecture in the process, Rosa-Ortiz has been hanging things from various ceilings ever since.
In 2000, he created an installation, “How Long Is a Moment,” of black rocks that run along the ceiling of Jody Guralnick and Michael Lipkin’s Castle Creek house. He is currently working on two more pieces to be displayed in New York: “Alexander the Great,” made of AK-47 shell casings, to be shown at the gallery Exit Art, and “The Fountain of Youth,” made of empty Botox vials.While the concepts are high, Rosa-Ortiz is aiming to place his art on a low enough shelf where anybody can view it. With “Seven Deadly Sins,” he’s succeeded: My initial thought was that I couldn’t wait to bring my 5-year-old daughter to see it.”I’m going after making art accessible,” he said, “not putting it so high on a pedestal. You don’t have to have a masters in art to say, ‘Yeah, this is good.'”Milton Rosa-Ortiz, “The Seven Deadly Sins,” multimedia installation, is at the Baldwin Gallery through March 16. Also showing are Glenn Ligon: Drawings, and James Lee Byars: Selected Works.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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