The idea of a gallery-based artist making saints and martyrs of recent hip-hop artists feels almost anachronistic these days. Walk into any t-shirt or poster emporium from here to the Wildwood Boardwalk and you’re sure to find a whole host of sanctimonious portraits of 2Pac, Biggie Smalls, and Bob Marley.

Why then should we care about Rodriguez Calero‘s “Urban Martyrs and Latter Day Santos” show, currently at the Museo del Barrio on the Upper Westside?

For one, her portraits are not nearly as specific. Key hip-hop figures like Mos Def are recognizable and elevated to saintly status even as they sit comfortably next to more obscured portraits of female cut-ups. Calero’s “acrollage” stylea mix of acrylic painting, printmaking, and collagetakes from a number of 20th century styles (cubism, abstract expressionism, pop art) to bring the overall image into its relationship with the ancient.

Past and present collide. A female face from Mati Klarwein’s cover of Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew album appears next to the aforementioned Mos Def. She is actually his bride in the pictureboth of them dressed in Middle Eastern-style robes. The faces are unrelated except for the cultural heritage and pictorial relationship Calero gives them. Her technique is so powerful that the image becomes instantly pregnant with spiritual symbolism. The past is a fragmented trail leading to the present. We are its inheritors.

Calero’s brushwork is never the focus, though her loose strokes are at times gestural, at others almost cloissonistic in their use of hard line and expressionistic color. A pair of female eyes, likely chopped from a contemporary fashion magazine, are pasted onto a large canvas surrounded by grey-colored silkscreens of Middle Eastern floral tiles. To the right and left are piles of human skulls; a pair of female hands are collaged in. Loose orange swirls surround the upper half of the composition, framing the collaged female eyes, whilst a hard aqua blue line traces a kind of habit or burka around her head. It transforms the erotic and fetishizes the eyes into something mystical, withdrawn and spiritually sensual.

Shepard Fairey has similarly transformed everyday faces into politically-charged icons using exotic patterns and a bold silkscreen technique, though he rarely reaches this far into mystic history with the same emotional levity. The Puerto Rican-born Calero draws on a strong Catholic background that is not learned in text books.

Her icons, like that of Fairey, are charged with identity politics. “Icons,” in fact, might not be the correct term for Calero’s style. Each composition vacillates freely between representation, symbolic meaning, and index to the artist’s own idiosyncrasies, with the most important factor being each character’s transformation. (Brian Chidester)