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Roland Santana: the gum beneath your shoe at Baby Blue Gallery

Upon entering  Mana Contemporary building wearing a cloth mask, my temperature is taken before I am invited to sign in. My healthy temperature is recorded and I am now able to enter the building and be brought to the fifth floor. Exiting the industrial elevator, I follow the instructions given to me by the masked elevator attendant and walk down the hallway until I find the door marked 518. Walking into Baby Blue’s new gallery space I am immediately struck by the natural light that pools over colorful paintings and gestural works. Already recognizable to me are the large scale paintings and modest-sized painted sculptures by Chicago artist Roland Santana.

the gum beneath your shoe is Roland Santana’s first solo exhibition at Baby Blue Gallery. Santana has a prolific studio practice and a strong entrepreneurial mindset that has helped him gain momentum as an exhibiting artist in recent years. In addition to his career as an artist, Santana works in art administration and developed RUPTURE, a Chicago BI-POC Maker/Visual Artist Directory alongside designer Ashley King. RUPTURE launched last month and aims to create opportunities and representation in the fine art sectors of Chicago—including galleries, showrooms, museums, creative studios, and more. Santana hopes to aid in the discovery of BI-POC artists and plans to begin micro emailing campaigns to approach galleries, studios, and industry professionals within Chicago limits. 

I am very familiar with Santana’s work, between exhibiting in local galleries and project spaces, and his active social media presence. Over the past five years, Instagram has become the platform for visual art. Online audiences are growing rapidly, and the draw to social media has only increased since the global outbreak of COVID-19. Navigating the art world as an early career artist, Santana has developed his voice and an aptitude for this platform.

Image: The image shows a view of the gallery facing the entrance of the space. Hanging on the white gallery wall are three three-dimensional paintings by Roland Santana. Each piece is similar in scale and made from foam and acrylic silicone carved into organic shapes. These pieces look like slabs of concrete with a flat surface facing the front. On the left is a purple piece with grey markings with a brown border. In the center hanging on a round pillar against the wall is a three-dimensional painting with overlapping patches of color: greens, yellow, black and grey makeup up the bulk of the composition. To the right of this is a grey three-dimensional painting with black spray paint scribbled across the surface. Photo by Roland Santana.

When asked about his social media, Santana  tells me, “It’s good to have a ‘no one is going to do it for you’ mentality, which just means that it is up to you to be your own manager, marketer, and dealer. In a world where content on social media translates to professional opportunity, it is important to the best of your ability to document your work and present yourself as if you already had millions of followers.” This is just what Santana does—operating under the abstract Instagram handle @iii.___.iii, Santana updates his followers on new works, studio installations, and peppers in artistic selfies while calling attention to important issues and artist opportunities over Instagram stories. I’ve had the pleasure of following Santana’s career for the past four years, and have watched as his online aesthetic grew to mirror his studio practice—that is to say, diligent, colorful, and calculated, with an instinctual handling unique to his style.

After months of quarantine and shelter-in-place, it is so rewarding to see Santana’s work off-screen and in-person—where the surfaces of his paintings and painted sculptures almost radiate the life of their marks. Santana’s most recent body of work deals with the intersection of painting and sculpture. The push to move in this direction came after a period of drawings and paintings that explored atmospheric space within the traditional rectangle. Santana tells me “the minimal-marks and doodles demanded to reach out of their confinement, entering the space of the viewer.” Without entirely leaving the canvas behind, these sculptural works have a unique physical presence as they gently encroach off the wall, as colorful slabs cut into organic shapes, tempting the audience to be touched. 

Employing similar brushstrokes and expressive sensibilities as his canvas paintings, Santana’s three-dimensional mounted works deal heavily with materiality. In terms of process, Santana transforms humble materials such as foam core, through layered applications of acrylic silicone, latex enamel, and acrylic paint. Santana carves sheets of foam core into three-dimensional organic shapes that are painted and hung on the wall, existing somewhere between painting and sculpture. Santana uses an electrifying color pallet, playing with hot and cool colors of equal color intensity, accompanied by marks in lighter hues and stark contrasting colors.

Image: Anemone, 2020, by Roland Santana, Acrylic, Ink, and Polystyrene Foam on Wood, 8″ x 10″. This three-dimensional painting carved from foam looks heavy in appearance, resembling a geometric rock formation with a mostly flat face. The surface is painted patches of bright red and blue, light pink, teal, and seafoam green with dark blue squiggly brushstrokes overlapping white. Photo by Roland Santana.

Santana is eclectic in his use of tools and artistic mediums. Last year he began using silicone as a gestural mark, which has slowly engulfed the entire surface of his three-dimensional works. Silicone, mortar mix, and other industrial materials have tied into Santana’s current aesthetic, relating to his upbringing working in construction with his father. Having an affinity for ‘chunkier paintings,’ Santana works with polystyrene foam and upholstery foam, adding thickness and curvature to the shape of his surfaces. 

His most recent experimentation comes in the form of glow in the dark dyes and paints. A medium which “hints back to a culture and time of growing up first generation in suburban America, going to malls, and entering shops like ‘Spencers’ and ‘Hot Topic.’ Seeing the black light, fluorescent psychedelic posters, and thinking how cool they were.” Santana reduces his nostalgia for these materials in his work while making space for his own lexicon of expression. 

Stay Up Forever 106 is a mammoth painting where flat pastels meet opaque marks and translucent brushstrokes of various color, hue, and scale. Its clear counterpart is a dense sculpture titled Beach Impediment, composed from mortar mix, gravel, and paint. The two share a strong color relationship and bear similar markings. Visual and tactile, paint is the physical subject of both compositions. Santana subconsciously paints with chroma that matches his surroundings in his home studio. Within Stay Up Forever 106 is a meta moment, where Santana appears to depict a painting within a painting. The bottom left corner of the pictorial frame depicts a square composition incorporating many of the colors seen throughout the painting, now diminutive in scale.


Image: A gallery view taken from a corner angle. A large window casts light onto the grey concrete floor. Tucked into the crevasse between a white pillar and the white gallery wall sits Roland Santana’s semi-sculptural painting titled PEEL. This piece is two-liner rectangles touching on one side. The rectangle on the left is positioned slightly below its counterpart and is painted grey with three black stripes, the other rectangle is painted pink with a white border and sits higher on the wall. On the wall to the left of this piece is Roland Santana’s painting titled Red Hot (Isolation Red). This canvas painting has a red and white pattern where red stripes fan out in various directions covering the white canvas, creating thin white triangles in the negative space. 

Some of Santana’s canvas works and three-dimensional paintings relate to one another in a similar manner, employing the same visual motif. This can be seen in Santana’s two monochromatic paintings—Untitled and RedHot. Both paintings depict a pattern where gestural lines fan out from a single point in multiple directions and stop only before colliding to the point of overlap. The fanning gestures create rectangles in the negative space. Santana’s three-dimensional work titled Gotika explores this pattern, but this time with glow in the dark paint. “Viewing the evolution of the painting throughout a day, you may think the piece is monochrome, but at night it takes on a new monochromatic form where the glow in dark paint becomes the primary subject.” 

Roland Santana is a captivating abstractionist, exploring the roles of color, texture, and shape in contemporary painting. Collectively, we are living through a bleak moment in history in dire need of playfulness, experimentation, and color. 

Roland Santana, the gum beneath your shoe is on exhibit at Baby Blue Gallery now through October 4, 2020. 

Baby Blue is open by appointment only.

Featured Image: An installation view of Roland Santana’s exhibition at Baby Blue Gallery. The image shows a view of the gallery from a corner angle. Leaning on two cinder blocks against the wall to the left is Roland Santana’s large scale painting titled Stay Up Forever 106. The painting is an array of different colors and hues scribbled across a white canvas in various marks and gestural abstractions. In the foreground of the image is Santana’s sculpture titled Beach Impediment sitting atop a small rectangular pedestal. Beach Impediment appears like a hunk of rock and is painted similarly to Stay Up Forever 106 with similar colors (pink, orange, black, teal, etc) with markings. On the wall to the right of the pedestal hangs an orange abstract painting with white ray markings crossing in all directions. This piece is untitled. On the wall to its left is Roland Santana’s three-dimensional painting Anemone, smaller in scale but bright in color with notable dashes of bright blue, red, and dark blue. Photo by Roland Santana.


Lauren Iacoponi is an artist, curator, writer, and arts administrator living and working in Chicago, IL. Iacoponi received her MFA from Northern Illinois University with a Certificate in Art History and her BFA from Columbia College Chicago with a Minor in Art History. Iacoponi is the Director and Founder of Purple Window Gallery, an artist-led project space coming soon to Avondale and the Director and Co-founder of Unpacked Mobile Gallery.
Instagram handle:@lauren.ike