Olga U. Herrera, PHD
Art Historian, Modern and Contemporary Arts of the Americas
Tin canning for food preservation has existed since the early 19th century helping to usher an industry of label illustration design, branding, and marketing. As canvases for creativity, product labels became visual and textual devices to sell products by reflecting contents and often associating them with places, geographic sites, and people with idealized renditions of masculine and feminine figures. Food labeling has fascinated artists for decades. In the early 1960s, Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans (1961-62), a series of 32 paintings of the Campbell soup varieties—branded for each flavor—came to exemplify the American pop art movement. Embracing the visual representation and appropriation of mundane commercial products, imagery, and advertising language, Pop Art prominently emphasized a fascination with mass production of goods, consumer and popular culture, including product logos, advertising, comic books, and an obsession with food and food labeling among others.
The American Supermarket exhibition held at the Bianchini Gallery in 1964 in New York transformed its space into an installation, a veritable small ordinary supermarket of food and artworks, some as indistinguishable replicas of food complete with white paper shopping bags with printed Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans.1 The canonical artists of the pop art movement were present among them Jasper Jones with Painted Bronze (1960), a sculpture of beer cans cast in bronze with painted Ballantine Ale labels, and Warhol with Del Monte Boxes, Kellogg Boxes, Heinz Boxes, Mott Boxes, and Brillo Boxes (1964) as precise copies of the cardboard boxes but screen-printed on wood, in addition to 25-cent Campbell’s soups cans signed by him and sold for six dollars each. In addition, Robert Watt presented his Fruit and Vegetable Stand (1964), with multicolored wax and chromed eggs, vegetables, and fruits; Billy Apple with Watermelon (1964), a half-eaten watermelon slice cast in bronze; Roy Lichtenstein with Hotdog (1964), an enamel painting on steel; and works by the only woman in the show, Mary Inman with wax Prime Meats and Roquefort Cheese, (1964).
Although male artists tended to dominate early 1960’s Pop Art, women also adopted the style’s characteristics of every day, with some manipulating it to fit a social justice artivism that considered significant issues of the time. Corita Kent, a nun head of the art department at the Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles, became interested in text/image serigraphy in the 1950s, prefiguring Warhol’s. Her embracement of ads, billboard aesthetics, and typography in the early 1960s is present in her captivating artworks with profound messages. Slight alterations to appropriated food Jingles, logos, and slogans informed such artworks as Del Monte’s tomato sauce which inspired the serigraphs the juiciest tomato of all (1964), a salute to Virgin Mary as “Mary Mother is the juiciest tomato of them all,” and makes meatball sing (1964). The ubiquitous Wonder Bread brand and colorful wrapper with balloons informed the serigraphs In that they may have life (1964) and enriched bread (1965), this last one echoing Gandhi’s call for world poverty and hunger awareness with a Christian spiritual turn in her use of white circles as symbolic transubstantiation of bread into the body of Christ. The famous General Mills’s Big G cereals of the 1960s became the inspiration for the serigraph for eleanor (1964), where G stood for God and spiritual goodness.
This shared fascination by artists with the aesthetics of consumption, food, and food branding has not abated. On the contrary, it captivates contemporary artists such as Bibiana Suárez, whose deep interest in jingles, slogans, logos, typography, finds affinities with the 1960s Pop artists and Corita Kent. Suárez’s embracement of a Neo-Pop aesthetic in her new series De:Lata (What Gives Us Away) brings into focus gender issues and erasures of difference in renderings of women in labels and food products, dismantling idealizations, stereotypes, and confronting the patriarchal objectivizations of women. Thus, the captivating and visually gripping series becomes an affirmation of the new archetypes of contemporary women embodying diverse aspects of success as revealed in each of the ten elaborate portraits. It becomes, in a sense, a game of I spy with my own eyes.
The title of the series, a play of the words lata/can, delatar/to reveal, is inspired by a radio jingle by La Costeña, a Mexican canned food company. The series assembles a remarkable collection of nine recent paintings and one inkjet print on aluminum as a fascinating anthology and celebration of extraordinary women whose lives are linked to Chicago. Shaping her distinct visual investigation is the intertwined notions and critiques of commodity culture's social and economic dimensions and the branding and commercialization of identities of Latinos and Latino/a/x in the United States
At the beginning of each series, an artist-researcher at heart, Suárez, conducts extensive investigations into the topics and themes she will engage in her paintings. Developing the series De:Lata was no different. She researched images and aural jingles of commercial products, including actively collecting Hispanic food labels featuring feminine brand names and images. She analyzed the practical and symbolic layers embedded in product names and labels: the origin, format, and material used to convey a message in a medium that is mechanical in its reproduction.
In this recuperation of the label as a painterly image, she focuses on the pictorial space as one inspired by the aesthetic of labels. It is not a recreation but an investigation into the various visual elements that make up a commercial label and its embedded identity and utilization of women as the graphic symbol of brands that appeal to the consumer. The artist engages the multiple layers of meaning and consumption, paying attention to gender, stereotyping, naming, and the unrealistic rendition of women's bodies in labels. As a commodity present on bodegas, supermarkets, or online, Hispanic/Latino canned foods and their labels could easily be dismissed without a close cultural object reading of the imbued message and the careful marketing processes of identity, representation, production, and circulation.
De:Lata (What Gives Us Away) marks Suárez’s return to portraiture, a genre she explored in the early 1990s at the height of multiculturalism with a self-portrait diptych inspired by the famous poem Y tu agüela, aonde ejtá? by the Puerto Rican poet Fortunato Vizcarrondo. The pastel drawings ¿Y Tu Abuela A’oende E’htá?/What Color is Your Grandmother? (1991) and La Blanquita/The White One (1992) engage in a visual dialogue and narrative of race, identity, and colonialism to reveal hidden socially constructed ethnic and racial bias and the nuances of language in Puertorricanidad. The diptych, since 1992, has been in the Collection of the City of Chicago Public Art Program and can be found at the Humboldt Park Branch Library.
Bibiana Suárez, ¿Y Tu abuela A’oende E’htá? / What Color is Your Grandmother? 1991 (right), La Blanquita / The White One (left), 1991-1992. Pastel on paper, 84 x 60 in. (213.36 x 152.4 cm). Collection of the City of Chicago Public Art Program, Humboldt Park Branch Library. Image courtesy of the artist. © Bibiana Suárez.
With a particular cultural lens on television and radio jingles that have entered the colloquial language in her native Puerto Rico, Suárez has long been fascinated by the incongruencies of commercial representation. So as she completed her series Memoria/Memory in 2011 in her studio in Chicago, she would listen to the radio and advertisement jingles or sound branding with slogans promoting specific products. One of them, La Costeña, a Mexican company with canning factories in Minnesota and Arizona, was heavily advertised in U.S. Spanish radio as it was seeking to expand its market share in the United States. Its catchy jingle combining La Costeña (a woman from coastal areas) and La lata que delata (the can that reveals) propelled her into thinking about the normative notions of women in domestic spaces and how constructed visual signs and often idealized renditions of submissive and devoted feminine figures could play into a sense of nostalgia for a home-cooked meal, a mythical nurturing figure who prepares authentic meals, and long-gone family magic mealtimes nourishing mind and souls.
In the bold and striking oversize paintings that comprise De:Lata (To Give Us Away), Suárez mimics yet subverts the mechanical printing method, infusing each painting with a painterly quality. In bringing to the fore real women, Suárez reveals the multiple layers and meanings, interpretations and understanding of images, visual effects, and perceptions subverting unreal and idealized feminine images. The series becomes an array of new archetypes to reject and replace outdated, objectifying, and fictitious constructions of women. The self-identifications and personal characteristics in eye-catching neo-pop designs draw attention to the specifics of the portrait: the image, the name, and the typography, each revealing an aspect of the sitter's personality and snippets of their lives.
In the rendering of paintings as labels, each woman becomes her brand – treasured, memorable, and unforgettable – standing out from the crowd into a space of womanhood, admiration, appreciation, and lasting impact which connect them all. These aspects are integral to creating a felt sense of kinship and community, recognizing geographies and food become processes of cultural affirmation and identity. What sets them apart, yet connects them, is the identities encoded and the details that create a narrative for the viewer to understand the important biographical and relational aspects of these women who have made substantial contributions. As a collaborative effort between artist and sitter involving interviews, photographing, sketches, and approval of the final rendition, the paintings distill specific attributes that make them individually unique, yet celebrating them and giving them all away as a lata que delata as Fajonas, Fieras, Servidoras, Tortilleras, Juanitas, Pilares Nobles, Tropi-Cándidas, Ganduleras Rubias, Dulce Dulces, and Tang Spacewalkers.
Although Bibiana Suárez has explored the representation of women in other series such as Domino/Dominó that looked at the acculturation and assimilation and the cultural relationship of Puerto Rico to the United States, La Suárez (Gandulera Rubia) from her series Memoria (Memory) (2005-2011) marks the artist’s early specific interest in the representation of women in product label design and aesthetics. As a self-portrait, the artwork references her last name and date of birth as the brand, the photograph of fresh ubiquitous gandules, or pigeon peas as a reference to Puerto Rico, her place of birth, and the moniker of gandulera rubia with her weight. As a digital inkjet print on aluminum, the self-branding as La Suárez since 1960 retains the mechanical reproduction quality of an actual product label.
Bibiana Suárez, La Suárez (Gandulera Rubia) from the series Memoria (Memory), 2005-2011.
Archival digital inkjet print mounted on aluminum panel, 23.5 x 23.5 in. (59.69 x 59.69 cm). © Bibiana Suárez.
One of the early paintings in the series De:Lata appropriates the typography of Juanita's Foods, a California-based corporation, to portray Juana Iris Goergen, a Puerto Rican poet who has garnered critical attention who, until recently, lived in Chicago. Sharing visual affinities with La Suárez in branding and images, a band of gandules reappears in a painterly manner connecting artist and poet to the place of birth. Poems become authentic nourishment for the soul underscoring Goergen’s award-winning poetry writing in Spanish and her as Puerto Rican. Seals of approval as a Latina with premium quality work complement the composition rich in semiotic signs and local signifiers such as the “estilo puertorriqueño” found in labels of Puerto Rican canned food products by La Criolla and La Criada companies. Yet painter and poet are also connected in the process of creation. As Suárez painted the portrait, Goergen wrote the beautiful poem KAIRÓS, found in these pages, in response to her painting and being.
A reference to a universal product code or UPC appears in the upper right side of the composition, adding vertical linear elements interrupted by a connection to the ocean and island, where Goergen now resides.
Bibiana Suárez, Juanita’s Poems (Los Poemas de Juanita), 2020-2021. Acrylic on canvas, 47 5/8 x 71 3/4 in. (120.96 x 182.24 cm). © Bibiana Suárez.
The experience of relocating from a lush tropical landscape to a geographical location marked by cold and snowy winters informs this painting. It also connects Suárez’s Puerto Rican experience with that of Antonia Marroquín, who migrated from Guatemala to Chicago. Her portrait, rich in warm sepia and copper tones, appears as a Baroque oval dome illusion where she seems to float while looking down at us. Inspired by a label from the 1900s, the sitter emerges amid a green Guatemalan landscape that transitions into a wintery grid-like plot flatness of the Midwest as seen from a plane. Unlike other paintings in the series, the rich abstract background with references to landscapes, buildings, and neighborhoods contrasts with the carefully delineated font of the name.
Bibiana Suárez, Su Servidora (At Your Service), 2020-2021. Acrylic on canvas, 60 x 63 3/4 in. (152.4 x 161.92 cm). © Bibiana Suárez.
In a vertical format composition that retains the proportional dimensions of a soda can and evokes the colors and design of the sparkling Tropi-Coco coconut soda popular with Latinos in the mainland, Suárez pays tribute to her fellow artist Cándida Alvarez. Tropi-Coco becomes Tropi-Cándida, a reference to her effervescent and friendly personality. Three sections define the pictorial space: a generic bar code is set against the blue skies at the top. In the middle section, an abstracted map connects Suárez’s experiences as a child traveling the mountains of Puerto Rico and Alvarez’s inspiration in the area’s landscapes for her large-scale abstract paintings featured in the retrospective Cándida Alvarez: Here held in the Chicago Cultural Center in 2017. Her portrait emerges in the same prominent place as the actual soda can logo and the oblique and oscillating bands of greens and yellows. As with Juanita’s Poems, the painting underscores Puerto Rico as the geographic and local nexus in the relationship between these two artists. Although born in Brooklyn, Alvarez’s parents live in Jayuya, the highest peak in Puerto Rico where lush vegetation contrasts with the rich and intense orange clay soil and mud cut by the blue-gray bitumen roads which Suárez often traveled as a child.
Bibiana Suárez, Tropi-Cándida, 2021-2022. Acrylic on canvas, 43 3/8 x 19 1/2 in. (120.48 x 54.16 cm). © Bibiana Suárez.
Also inspired by drinks and its labels, in this case, the powder mix drinks Tang, Suárez deploys a more graphic style of superheroes in the branding of a product that in the early 1960s was associated with NASA crew spaceflights such as Project Mercury and Gemini Programs. Tang evokes the early advertisements in Puerto Rico as the choice drink of astronauts, one easily mixed with water. Interested in portraying Gladys Rosa-Mendoza, an accomplished strategist, design researcher, and children book author, Suárez affirms a woman archetype with memories of a childhood in Puerto Rico. Tang was the drink Rosa-Mendoza’s mother proudly would serve her in her aspirations for her daughter’s success. She is depicted as an astronaut set to complete a spacewalk against a red Martian or orange Tangian background, becoming the face for the drink in a contemporary adaptation of the starburst ad craze and space exploration aesthetic of the 1960s.
Bibiana Suárez, ¡Tang!, 2021-2022. Acrylic on canvas, 60 x 63 ¾ in. (152.4 x 161.29 cm).
© Bibiana Suárez.
A painting rich in color, texture, and symbolism, Dulces Dulce (Dulce’s Candy) becomes a play of Dulce, and the word dulces (candy). Surrounded by a sea of candy, the portrait of Dulce emerges in a decorative oval frame. An array of sweets from Puebla, Mexico, and hidden references to the relationship between artist and sitter appear. The bar code becomes a safety pin like those used by dry cleaners, the place where the artist and sitter first met. The inclusion of barcodes as an element of design present in most of the paintings further points to the objectification as a sold product. Subtle references to Dulce's family and arrival in Chicago include the three blue bars representing her children and an icy winter boot next to the brand. The gray band divides the painting into two. The lower area depicts a plate of chile relleno en Nogada, meat-stuffed poblano chiles with a walnut sauce garnished with pomegranate seeds and parsley, reminiscent of the Mexican flag colors.
Bibiana Suárez, Dulces Dulce (Dulce’s Candy), 2021-2022. Acrylic on canvas, 77 ½ x 71 3/4 in. (196.85 x 182.24 cm). © Bibiana Suárez.
In a horizontal rendition of a label, the artwork Tortilleras makes direct reference to the book Tortilleras: Hispanic & U.S. Lesbian Expression, the groundbreaking anthology of queer readings of lesbian literature, culture, and performance published in 2003. Gathering multiauthor works dating from the 16th century to the late 20th century Spain, Latin America, and U.S. Latinas, the book complicates the multiple dimensions of gender, ethnicity, race, class, identity, and lesbian histories and practices. Here, Lourdes Torres, one of the co-editors, is portrayed emerging from a circle where the words "with Hispanic" complement the cursive Tortilleras, Expressions, and Since 2003. An arrow pointing to the Bronx in New York adds a geographical locality where she was born. The composition underscores circles and round forms as a reappropriation of the once derogatory slang Tortillera to affirm identity and empower it anew with pride. The cursive typography connects the portrait and a stack of tortillas as signifiers for the bodies of women who menstruate, female homoeroticism, sexuality, and same-sex desire. A universal product code (UPC) makes a subtle appearance as a gray/orange beneath a light blue polka dot pattern on a reddish background, amplifying the voices of lesbianism and the intellectual lesbian presence rendered visible in the literary canon.
Bibiana Suárez, Tortilleras (Lesbians), 2021-2022. Acrylic on canvas, 50 1/2 x 76 5/8 in. (140.27 x 212.84 cm). © Bibiana Suárez.
As a personal brand, La Fiera is a wordplay between the artist and María de los Ángeles Torres as a term of endearment easily exchangeable between the two, which alludes to strength and resilience. Rich in detail, the painting reveals personal aspects such as a shared love for food and the creation of unique recipes which reflect cultural adaptation and belonging. The portrait of Torres, a distinguished professor of Latin American and Latinos Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is set against a red and yellow circle as an ornate saintly halo with the word La Fiera below in an appealing band and all caps typography. Biographical references to family, place, and exile are found in the lower register. A serving of rice, beans, and jalapeño chile, this last a reference to Texas where Torres grew up, is presented in a Seder plate used during Passover, signaling the encounter between her Cuban background and her in-laws Judaism. To the right, a red Flamboyan tree in bloom is set against the blue tonalities of the Caribbean Sea and a UPC bar in a horizontal format. The sticker with a plane becomes an allegory to Operación Pedro Pan. This U.S. Catholic Welfare Bureau-led evacuation sent 14,000 unaccompanied Cuban minors to the United States, among them Torres, who left Cuba at age six.
Bibiana Suárez, La Fiera (Untamed), 2021-2022. Acrylic on canvas, 86 x 65 in. (218.44 x 165.1 cm). © Bibiana Suárez.
This very linear and exact composition is accentuated by a black photo corner on the upper left, which holds the painting as a photograph. This direct reference speaks to the medium in which María Martínez-Cañas has worked as an artist and has profoundly influenced. Her experimental techniques and approaches to photomontages and digital manipulation of images draw from her Caribbean roots and familial memory. On the right, set against a linear UPC background, is her expressive portrait presented as if engrossed in conversation. To the left is a plate of savory shrimp in a rich tomato sauce or mariscada de camarones, alluding to her other passion—that of cooking. The sedulous seasoning sprinkles the painting, further emphasizing Martínez-Cañas’ diligence and dedication.
The color scheme refers to her work of the early 2010s. The typography of La Fajona with its round corners borrows from the Cubano font, a bold sans serif typeface, a reference to her place of birth. Yet Puerto Rico and Chicago are the geographical locations that connect painter and photographer. After leaving Cuba in the early 1960s, Martínez-Cañas' family settled in Puerto Rico in 1964. La Fajona can easily define all women in the series as a brand, a term widely used in Puerto Rico to indicate a hardworking, committed, and high-impact individual.
Bibiana Suárez, La Fajona (The Hard Worker), 2021-2022. Acrylic on canvas, 49 1/8 x 75 ¼ in. (124.77 x 191.13 cm). © Bibiana Suárez.
Rather than a name, Pilar Noble (Noble Pilar) refers to the nurturing and generous women whose presence positively sustains familial links. The composition breaks the pictorial plane into two sections in this beautiful painting. A richly rendered paella in its traditional steel pan full of shrimp, mussels, clams, and peppers in saffron rice is held by the artist's sister Marinés Suárez. She holds the pan as if offering it to the viewer with great warmth and pride as a generous and noble gesture. Pilar, a feminine name meaning strength, is also associated with pillars, tall vertical elements that sustain structures, monuments, and buildings. However, here the word is not architectural but refers to graceful persons who become pillars and vital cornerstones in families and communities in a moment of their lives. Her portrait is set against a bright white background like a light that shines around her with a contrasting floor of red with blue rectangles representing the blue FEMA tarps covering dwellings affected by Hurricane Maria as seen from a plane.
Bibiana Suárez, Pilar Noble (Noble Pilar), 2021-2022. Acrylic on canvas, 60 ½ x 74 5/8 in. (153.67 x 189.54 cm). © Bibiana Suárez.