Picturesque charm and political energy characterize Eddie Arroyo’s paintings. Arroyo often portrays political action, including protests at the Whitney Museum and The New Museum, and in Miami’s Little Haiti, as well as activist ephemera, including posters and buttons. One of the eight artists to request (on July 20) their work be withdrawn from the Whitney Biennial in protest of Warren B. Kanders’s seat on the museum’s Board of Trustees, he thoughtfully intertwines his activism with his art.
Arroyo reimagines the tradition of history painting with his political subjects; rather than powerful figures or famous battles, he depicts ordinary people. A recent painting series records protests he attended in New York on May 17, 2019, in Chinatown, and at the New Museum and Whitney Museum. This day of action, which coincided with the public opening of the Whitney Biennial, was meant to draw attention to art institutions’ complicity in the gentrification of Chinatown and downtown New York City and to continue protests against then-Whitney Board Vice-Chair Warren B. Kanders. Safariland, Kanders’s company, manufactures weaponry and tear gas. Five days after Arroyo and the other artists requested their works be withdrawn from the Biennial, the protests culminated with Kanders resigning from the Whitney’s Board. The eight artists subsequently chose to leave their work on view.
Arroyo is also deeply involved in activism in his Miami neighborhood, Little Haiti. He frequently paints its architecture, which is rapidly changing with rampant real estate development. The Whitney Biennial website describes his work as reminiscent of Edward Hopper; his spare portrayals of deserted buildings and his somber colors certainly evoke a Hopper-esque quiet loneliness. But Arroyo decidedly updates the genre of American landscape painting, capturing the flux of contemporary urban landscapes. He explained to Hyperallergic that landscapes paintings are traditionally “relegated mostly to souvenirs for tourists, mostly appreciated as posters or postcards in gift shops. Miami is seen through this lens. … I found it to be an appropriate platform to speak about my curiosities and concerns.”
The four works included in this year’s Whitney Biennial, all titled “5825 NE 2nd Ave. Miami, FL 33137 (Cafe Creole)” (2016-2019), depict the same storefront painted over the course of four years. In the 2016 canvas, the building’s façade and awning are bright orange and emblazoned with the café’s name, accompanied by a few posters and a mural by artist Serge Touissant of a local rapper and community activist, Mecca, dressed as Henri Christophe, a leader of the Haitian Revolution. By 2017, the awning is gone and the mural has been painted over; the 2018 canvas reveals a smattering of multicolored paint marks on the building, along with some graffiti. In 2019, the building and window grate are a pristine white, suggesting that a new tenant has moved in. Individually, each painting contains a stillness that seems poised for human activity. But together the four canvases clearly show a neighborhood in transition through the demise of one community restaurant. In conversation, Arroyo elaborated on these themes in his work: “I began to take interest in the surrounding areas of rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods presented as new American landscape paintings, a developer’s survey.”
On how his artistic practice and political work are interconnected, he stated, “As the work unfolded, I began to ask the question, ‘Who do the paintings speak with?’ Community outreach became an important component. Activist organizations are vital because their mission is to speak with, [and] many times for, an existing neighborhood.” He noted that recent decisions in his neighborhood have not favored the protection of existing residents: “On June 27th, rezoning approval passed for the biggest mega-development project in Little Haiti, the Magic City Innovation District. This approval will encourage other global investors. There is an ongoing ‘Not for Sale’ movement in many metropolitan cities around the world.” He concluded, “Time will tell if and how it grows….”
The work of Eddie Arroyo is on view at the 2019 Whitney Biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art (99 Gansevoort Street, Manhattan) through September 22.