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Urban Artist Sofia Maldonado Sets the Record Straight

"Urban Art." The term flies around creative communities constantly, but few can really put their finger on it. Is it graffiti? Is it street art? Can it exist in a gallery? In many respects, the jury is still out. But that's exactly what makes this movement so appealing, so current, and so alive. Because the truth is: we can't absolutely say - the definition's still up for grabs.

Ad Hoc's Queens mural project (detail) 2010
© Sofia Maldonado

The work of artist Sofia Maldonado smacks sweetly of this elusive genre. Growing up San Juan, Puerto Rico, Sofia got involved in the local street art scene during her sophomore year of high school and has been at it ever since. With tenacity.

Her electric colors and wild lines breathe life into predominantly portrait-based paintings, which are miraculously able to rest as comfortably in a Chelsea gallery as they are along the gritty alleyways of Old San Juan.

"Beyond Bling: Voices of Hip-Hop in Art" exhibition, Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, Florida, 2011 © Sofia Maldonado

Confronting her Caribbean heritage with liberal doses of rugged and distinctly urban femininity, coupled with an undeniable fascination with cultural distinctions that are based on class, Sofia, 27, gives her audience plenty of reasons to talk. Last year her 42nd Street mural in New York's Times Square became the topic of heated debate, particularly for minority communities living in the area. Celebrated by some and disdained by others, the ensuing discussion forced locals to address their identities and to articulate clearly just how they feel they are ‘supposed' to be portrayed.

Sofia Maldonado Sofia Maldonado

Sofia spoke to us about dealing with controversy in the public eye, climbing out of San Juan's grunge street art scene and into the chic limelight of Chelsea, and plans for her upcoming series. She's introspective, eager and open, and definitely one to keep on the radar.

Where are you living now and what brought you there?

I got my MFA at the Pratt Institute in New York, then while living here I got MagnanMetz Gallery and decided to stay. I really don't want to go back to Puerto Rico to live, but I have a lot of projects and collectors and friends there.

For some reason when I look at your work I can't help but think of Dr. Seuss, it's somehow playful despite its heavy content.

Haha, yeah people say that a lot. Maybe there's a vague memory of Dr. Seuss from childhood, but it's not like he's a direct source of inspiration. I would say more it's from the Caribbean landscape and ocean I grew up with, merging together.

"The Bowl" in El Yunque rainforest, in Puerto Rico. Part of the "Tropical Storm" series © Sofia Maldonado

Your style is so distinct. Where exactly does it come from?

I started with this aesthetic since living in Puerto Rico. And then through the years since living in New York, it's become more graphic. It's hard to say if this change is maturity or if it just reflects New York culture. I think it's a little bit of both. The characters I do were really related to Puerto Rican culture. When I still lived there I was looking a lot at fashionista style and infusing that into my characters. Now that I'm in New York, I'm looking back to Puerto Rico for inspiration.

Last spring you painted a huge mural on 42nd Street in Times Square that generated quite a bit of controversy. How did you respond to this?

I've been doing these characters for a while, but when the controversy came I was thinking a lot about them, like, why do I do them exactly? I pretty much stopped doing them for a while because I thought if I do them again I have to be really calculated, because they're in such a public eye.

42nd Street Mural
Sofia's controversial 42nd Street Mural Project in New York, 2010 © Sofia Maldonado

I do a lot of street art, right? In street art you do a lot of characters, you do something, right, and when I was in Puerto Rico these women were my characters- like my tag. But when you take them out of the street art culture and make them for a publicly funded commission, I think you have to be a little bit more careful. So they're on hold. For now, haha. They'll come back in a really strong way.

Detail of Detail of "Que paso mai!?" (What's up girl?) mural in Hartford, Connecticut, 2009 © Sofia Maldonado

It sounds like those who reacted negatively really made you pause.

Well yeah, but I'm also really happy about it, because even though it caused a lot of controversy, I think it was good. And through that controversy, the mural went to the Ringling Museum show in Sarasota, Florida. It helped give the mural a life of its own. It's now separate from me, the artist.

Like I said, after the controversy I put a hold on those types of characters. I thought I needed to go back to the source, to underground hip-hop females. Before 42nd Street, I did a mural in Connecticut, I really think that mural gave birth to the one on 42nd Street. I got a commission to do a mural on this very Latin, Puerto Rican street. For the commission I did these characters on wood cutouts, and while walking in the neighborhoods with them, I went in to do my nails at this salon, and I decided to have the girls from the nail salon paint the nails of the painting. I gave them freedom, like "Do whatever you think she needs, use whatever colors." I gave them freedom. "You want to give them piercings? Do it." It was awesome. I want to go back to something like that project.

In contrast, 42nd street it was kind of a random street where all kinds of people work. But somehow they had to relate to it. I think that's what made it difficult. I love dealing with girls from the street, but living in New York, I need to be more conscious about how I use them.

Compared to the girls depicted on the Times Square Mural, your series Concrete Jungle Divas portrayed mega-stars, like Beyonce, Rihanna, Lady GaGa, J Lo, and M.I.A. Why the change?

Yeah, for the mural I painted the girls from the street that tried to mimic the super stars. And the females that I painted for Concrete Jungle Divas represented a deconstructed idea of what those women on the street see in music videos and magazines, a sort of merging of divas into a series of icons. When you put on the radio, you can immediately identify the divas. And then you see the girls on the subway, listening to that music and dancing, and I think: they want to be the divas.

From "Concrete Jungle Divas". Beyonce, Rihanna, Lady Gaga, J-Lo, and M.I.A. © Sofia Maldonado

Do you bring a different style to the street compared to more public exhibition spaces?

It all depends, there's not too much of a difference, unless you have a private commission, because with a client it's a little bit different. But I always stay true to my colors. When I go bumming, I like to do the female characters. But I also have to separate. When I do more graffiti related events I like to do the girls, but when I do more fine art and all that, I go more towards abstraction. I went through this period when I did these girls all spread, like showing their vagina, but I would never do that on a canvas. I can get away with more dirty stuff when I'm bumming. I have more freedom, like nasty, more sexual; not all the time, but I have that freedom on the street.

Live paint at the exhibition (R)amped in Madison, Wisconsin
Sofia paints for a crowd at the exhibition (R)amped in Madison, Wisconsin © Katie Garth

Your work first appeared on places like abandoned swimming pools in San Juan and has since moved onto Coca-Cola cans and into pristine white gallery walls. You recently did a collaborative exhibition with curator Nicole Rodríguez in Madison, Wisconsin that blurred the barriers of these exhibition platforms. Tell me a bit about this collaboration.

I would say that with the show with Nicole, she had a really specific idea of what she wanted with the show and I was really open to that. As an artist, I flow. If I understand the curator has a specific idea and I like it, I go with it. She had this idea of placing a half pipe skate ramp inside a gallery and another quarter pipe ramp turned sideways against a wall, which I thought was really great. It was great to experiment. It was the first time I did a live painting over this sort of abstract surface. And then the skate ramp, even though it was not usable, that also made it interesting in a way because every other time I do a skate show the ramp gets ridden on. So this was a little ironic because it made it like a canvas or a sculpture. We didn't do the same thing that everyone does for every skate show. It took street art to a gallery. Then the live painting, super fresh, made instantly there- it wasn't a typical art show either, there was real group dynamic between building the ramp, the artist working during the opening, the live filming, it was a vivid project. I think it was a show that really came alive.

Sofia Maldonado before the opening of (R)amped
Sofia taking a moment for pause before the (R)amped exhibition opening © Adeline Peck

What's on the horizon?

Right now I'm going to focus on studio work because I have a solo show coming up in Puerto Rico. Now from July until November I'm going to focus on a new body of work. That whole controversy made a very introspective year for me. Now I've gone back to the studio and I think it's going to be very different from what I've been doing for the past five years. It's not going to be super different, but the theme of the girls and the foliage is changing. It's becoming more minimal, especially for the big commissions. It's getting more about color than form itself. I feel a switch in that side. I mean, for example, I've never used orange and now I'm using orange, the greens are turning bluer and I'm also introducing the black as a form again, not just as an outline. I'm getting rid of the graffiti outline. It has to be more than a painting. It has to be a project. It's not just like, "Oh I'm going to paint these girls I see in the hood." No, they have to be more than that. I need to relate to these girls I represent.

Click on a picture to launch the image gallery (12 images)

Check out more of Sofia's work on her MINI Space profile, sofiamaldo, and get registered yourself (if you haven't already) to begin building your own creative portfolio!

Sofia Maldonado homepage

Sofia on MINI Space
MagnanMetz Gallery
Ringling Museum
Beyond Bling

The Times Square Public Art Program
"Art21" coverage of the 42nd Street controversy


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Comments (1)

Landon Nothnagel

posted by Landon Nothnagel | 02/01/2012 04:03 am

your work is amazing!

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