art seen in san jose

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In mid-January we had a chance to spend a couple of days in Costa Rica’s capital city, San Jose. We visited two public art galleries specializing in contemporary art, and later found that not all the art in San Jose is hanging in galleries.

We were staying in the Sabana Norte area, so our first stop was the Muse de Arte Costarricense. We quickly learned the building was once an airport terminal, complete with an ornately decorated room upstairs for visiting diplomats. That explained why the nearby futbol pitches were so flat – that’s where the planes used to land. It also explained the unusual tower emerging from the center of the gallery.

Art exhibitions are housed in what we imagine were originally waiting rooms, refitted of course for displaying Costa Rican paintings and sculptures. When we were there the work of two artists was being featured: large and dramatic wooden figures carved by Manuel Vargas (Estrategias del Recuerdo), and paintings and scaffold-inspired installations produced by Manuel Zumbado (Transversal).

The building itself is a work of art, small panels describe some of the original features of the building, and of course the intricately craved panels in the diplomat’s room are worth a visit themselves. They vividly depict the colonial history of Costa Rica, from “discovery” by Columbus on through to the mid-twentieth century. Behind the building, where airplanes used to pull up to load and unload passengers, is a modest sculpture garden – several large artworks that look rather dated and not nearly as interesting as the artwork on display inside.

After grabbing a coffee downtown, we found the Museo de Arte y Diseno Contemporaneo. It’s located in an historic building that was once part of a massive distillery – other buildings in the compound house cultural offices and various workshop and performing spaces. The featured artist was Salvadorean Simon Vega who offers a fascinating and fantastical exploration of space and tercer mundo — the third world. The exhibition, on three levels, included in intriguing vodka bar, photo-booth beach rover, a submarine-shaped encampment, and an artist’s studio — adorned with hundreds of drawings and artifacts, and loaded with fun and imagination.

From the old distillery we headed for the Mercado Artesenales, a market primarily for tourists. Although most stalls featured the same mass produced goods for tourists as the next, it was still interesting to wander through and pick up a few things for people back home, knowing that the airport souvenir shops have exactly the same items at 10 times the price.

About two blocks up hill heading south, we came across a wall of murals, then another, and around the corner, yet another wall of murals – leading us along old railway tracks and in the direction of the trendy El Escalante neighbourhood. When we were in San Jose two years ago, there was very little street art, just a few tags and stencils, but this was like an explosion of art – some of it possibly commissioned or at least sanctioned, some of it probably produced in the dark. We enjoyed it all!

Oh yes, we also sampled local art in the form of craft beer. Tried a few, our favourite: the Majadera. It is described as a Pale Ale but tasted more like a west coast IPA. Yum!

A sample of the street murals and stencil graffiti art we encountered in San Jose: