New York City artist Mario Sostre offers a mixed media recipe for keeping everybody in the know about HIV/AIDS
by Alina Oswald
Sofrito is a combination of onions, peppers, and cilantro. Mix them in a blender or food processor, and you get a paste that Latin cultures use for cooking. “Sofrito” is also an artwork series by mixed media and collage artist Mario Sostre, which was later published as an e-book. With “Sofrito,” as it happens with most of Sostre’s pieces, the artist was debating what to call his new series….And then his mother told him that they were out of sofrito—that magical mix of ingredients used in recipes. “I thought, ‘Ah, it’s a mixture of everything, [just] like mixed media,’” Sostre recalls. And that’s how he named his new work.
But what exactly is mixed media for him? “Photography, painting, collage, text…,” the artist explains on the phone. Born in the Bronx to Puerto Rican parents, Sostre has an impressive résumé, which covers the evolution of his artwork from Manhattan galleries to Vienna art shows, and from Visual AIDS exhibits to other prestigious AIDS fundraising events throughout the country.
“I was in school and they used to have students draw,” Sostre says, recalling the beginning of his becoming the artist he is today. “I used to draw a lot of steamboats with the smoke stack because I used to live by the Hudson River and I would see them. I guess that was one of the influences, because I’d never been on a ship. Then I went to high school and lost interest because then I became a teenager. You know how it works.”
But then he got a tiny brown camera and started photographing at random. Someone mentioned to him that he had a good eye and that he should take a photography class. He enrolled in one of the local evening adult photography classes. Shortly afterward, armed with more confidence, Sostre decided to go to FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology). “I didn’t get a degree or anything,” he explains, “because I thought that if I took everything seriously and study it then I would lose interest. And for me it was a hobby anyway.”
He just took classes. Yet, he has always liked to paint and do collages or paintings of people. And he started combining painting and photography.
In time he discovered new influences, like Robert Rauschenberg, a twentieth-century painter and graphic artist who was part of the neo-Dadaist
and abstract movements. “It blew me away,” Sostre recalls about his first impression upon attending one of Rauschenberg’s exhibits. “I thought, ‘Wow! That’s what I wanna do’ [and] started experimenting.” Several people noticed the similarities.
Sostre sometimes uses text in his art pieces. That’s because his artwork has been inspired by Jean-Michel Basquiat, an artist whose work became part of the new expressionism, primitive movement and who, in turn, had also been influenced by Rauschenberg.
Yet no matter its influences, Sostre’s artwork is unique, powerful and sometimes mysterious. It is a visual dialogue that the artist engages in with his audience in hues ranging from deep and dark tones to lighter accents. Through globs of rich colors dropped on the background seemingly at random, without rules or explanations, Sostre offers an enriched and enhanced reflection of our world, an expression of life and related reality. Sostre’s artwork touches on sensitive subjects like racism, the AIDS pandemic, economic crises, our liberties, and our trust in officials or the media.
While the artist doesn’t always use titles, when a name pops up in his mind, he scribbles it on the back of his work. For example, the “Black
Celebration” series happened because Sostre had bought a bunch of canvas boards, threw them on the floor, and started moving from one to another, while listening to Black Celebration, an album by Depeche Mode. He started dancing with the songs, while painting—with black at first, and then gold. “I sweated on them because I was perspiring,” he says, explaining the process. “It was my exercise.” He adds that people can use their imagination to make out figures, like the one resembling a demon with a golden mask. “I don’t purposely do it,” Sostre explains. “They just come out like that.”
It always seems that Sostre’s artwork just…happens. He puts pencil to paper and does a few swivels, and then goes over with a marker to color in dark shapes. Like with Strange Fruit, something the artist calls “my little swirls.” The art piece reminds him of an eggplant. “I kept looking at [the dark shapes] and thought to myself, this is strange fruit,” he explains. He named his work after Billie Holiday’s song, “Strange Fruit,” one of the first anti-racism songs.
“Totem Myths” is what he calls his warriors, because, lined up, they look like soldiers. In 1994, “Totems,” his current event series, went to Galerie Seghaier, in Vienna, Austria. The body of the totem is the soul of the abstract figure he draws. “First one I did was the yellow one with the hand,” Sostre explains about the making of “Totems.” “I didn’t know what I was doing…and this shape came out. And I thought [it] looks like a totem. From there I did the second one. And then I started incorporating current events…that affected me.”
Talking about current media events Sostre brings up the current AIDS situation. Old memories come rushing in, taking him back to the beginning of the pandemic and of his interest in covering it in his work.
A regular art donor to Visual AIDS’ Postcards from the Edge, a New York City-based event, and other AIDS fundraising events in Miami, to mention only a few, Mario Sostre sees a benefit in donating and contributing to galleries showing AIDS-related work. “I tell myself, why am I keeping the work?” he says. “Better to donate it.”
He does it in his own subtle, quiet way, but the reason behind it is much deeper and, in a way, more personal. “I’ve known one of the first statistics of this disease,” Sostre explains. “A model for GQ. From one moment to the next, you saw this stunner, and then he came in a wheelchair in a hotel, and looked like death. We were all with our mouths open. [And asked ourselves] what is this? What happened? But nobody knew. And before you knew it, it was all over.” Recalling those days, he adds, “It was scary. People that I knew were gone.” He pauses for a brief moment. “I don’t want to be political. It’s just a disease and it needs to be taken care of.”
Nowadays Sostre looks at the current AIDS crisis in the context of the economic crisis. The result was an art piece he donated to last year’s Postcards art show. “I was thinking what can I do, what can I do,” he recalls. “I had a picture of the Statue of Liberty and I thought [to myself] I’m gonna gel transfer this on the card.” At the time the economic crisis was on the news; therefore, he Photoshopped a one percent and a ninety-nine percent on the card, underneath Lady Liberty and called the work 1% vs the 99% “because it was liberty,” he says, “but liberty for whom and how much?”
Talking about current events as a source of inspiration for his work, he mentions that AIDS has become an almost non-existent subject in the
news. “Some people forgot [the early years of the epidemic],” he comments. “And a lot of young kids [today] are doing what [started the epidemic in the first place], what others did when they were young [in the eighties],” he continues, pointing out the alarming HIV infection rates among our youth. “That’s because AIDS is not in your face. When [AIDS] started, it was everywhere. Now they treat it like it’s a common cold,” he says, adding that he always advises people to be careful, to be responsible.
Always the optimist, Sostre maintains an unbelievable overall sense of humor because “there’s so much anger and hatred, why add to it?” He hopes for a brighter future when it comes to HIV/AIDS. He only wishes the progress would have come sooner than later. “But because it happened [primarily] to the homosexual community, the administration at the time just didn’t care. And they thought that’s [the gay community’s] problem and it’s not gonna affect [anybody else]. And look what happened. Now [everyone is affected], not just one segment of the society.”
Sostre uses his optimism to emphasize that it is important to support causes like the fight against AIDS, however possible, doing it little by little, each person in whichever form. The important thing is that the word is out on HIV/AIDS. It’s not quiet anymore.
Alina Oswald is a writer/photographer and the author of Journeys Through Darkness, a biography of AIDS. Contact her at www.alina-arts.com or follow her blog, Unconventional, at alinaoswald.blogspot.com.