A regular bus stop on 116th Street and Broadway is covered with two poster-sized paintings depicting demonic-looking bodies. One is called Beyond the Boundary and features a grotesque, two-legged, thorny figure vomiting flames from its mouth. The anthropomorphic being stares with its upturned white eyes. These are the newest paintings of Mexican artist Felipe Baeza.
On Sept. 27, the Public Art Fund (PAF), the largest non-profit art organization in New York City, hosted a discussion at Cooper Union with Baeza and Gayatri Gopinath, a researcher in transnational queer and postcolonial studies. The speakers talked about the ongoing exhibition called Unruly Forms, displayed on public buses and newsstands across New York City since August till the end of November.
Baeza’s identity as an undocumented migrant in the United States played a pivotal role in his artistic approach, technique, and the realization of this exhibition. “What is it like to live outside of citizenship? That’s where I’m at in my practice,” he said.
PAF has exhibited more than five hundred artists, including world-renowned figures such as Ai WeiWei, through large-scale free exhibitions in unconventional settings, like public parks, free of charge to the public.
Baeza’s eight collages were displayed in more than four hundred JCDecaux bus shelters across three cities in the United States and three in Mexico. JCDeceaux is the largest outdoor advertising company globally and has been collaborating with PAF since 2017, to bring art beyond the white walls of a gallery. “We are able to imagine bus shelters as homes for public art,” Jenée Strand, the assistant curator said.
In New York City, almost one hundred bus stops spanning all five boroughs display Baeza’s work, with over half of them in Queens and Brooklyn.
“I come from a family that never felt invited into those spaces,” said Baeza, who aims to dismantle the often elitist nature of art exhibitions. He sees bus shelters as “in-between spaces,” where people can pause and reflect while navigating the city on their way to work.
The artist migrated to the United States when he was seven years old and has been able to remain thanks to his DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) status. “I have had to carve out a space for myself in conditions that don’t allow that,” he said regarding his experience as a queer immigrant.
Baeza’s personal experience as a “fugitive who also refuses to belong,” inspired the theme of unruliness in his exhibition. This is echoed in the fragmented nature of the figures in his pieces, embodying both human and mystical elements, in a perpetual state of flux.
Church visits during his childhood inspired Baeza’s curiosity for Catholic iconography, which is evident in the sacrificial elements of his pieces, which he also defines as “homoerotic.” Combined with an interest in Mesoamerican “living artefacts” found in museums, he explored the notion of displacement and how an object or person transforms depending on the space they occupy.
“The energy is still there, and I want to reanimate them,” he said.
Baeza enjoys the fact that the public sees the work without any preconceived context, allowing them to freely experience and interpret his pieces. “I just want the viewer to walk away thinking differently about the world they live in,” he said.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the number of U.S. cities in which Baeza’s art is displayed.