Contemporary Cuban art is caliente: hot. There are a number of reasons for this. With so much of the U.S. art world suffering from a self-induced case of the blahs as a result of an over-emphasis on concepts and techniques and not enough focus on real inspiration or poetry, something -- anything -- new and unexpected is welcome. And then we may also wonder how a place where ordinary staples are in short supply can even manage to have an art scene. But the eight artists in this Made in Cuba show offer proof of the resilience of human creativity in improvised works that employ found objects as much out of necessity as for reasons of style.
Even toothpaste tubes are fair game. It seems that Cubans get a monthly allotment of toothpaste in aluminum tubes, which Rene Francisco Rodriguez recycles and reconfigures into the all-too-human forms seen in his Tubo Sutra, in which they appear contorted into a mass of suggestive positions resembling an acrobatic modern dance performance of the Kama Sutra. Trashcan, a full-sized trashcan sculpture, is similarly fashioned, recalling the densely figurative Indian temples of antiquity. Which is rather humorous, yet quite ironic because of the identification of humans with disposable consumer items in these whimsically executed commentaries.
It's a theme repeated throughout the show. Angel Delgado's Personal Soap series of small soap sculptures harks to his time in prison, where he was sent for violating public decency laws in one of his performances. There he traded soap carvings for cigars and other items, and these tragicomic little pieces, including heads attacked by razors, boots and hypodermics, are his comments on what he encountered. Expression and repression appear also in Ezequiel Suarez' New Swiss Art installation of sandpaper squares embroidered with decorative motifs on the front, and curses or incendiary comments on the back -- a sly take on the "official" and "unofficial" versions of Cuban experience.
A related sensibility is seen in Ernesto Leal's Sound of the Stone, a mixed-media triptych of three canvas panels like graffiti-covered walls. The first reads What You See is What You Get and the last reads Down with the Fatherland. The middle panel, containing information that might explain the other two, remains mysterious. By contrast, Eduardo Ponjuan does things by the book -- or books -- which he makes himself from classic texts and old junk; lenses, gears and bits of tools. Reborn as totem-like heads, they are wryly expressive explorations of his notion of "knowledge as a mask."
Irony becomes more pointed and personal in Lidzie Alvisa's Magnet Series of photographic nudes in which a nubile maiden is seen with pins and needles aligned within the shadowy recesses of her back and inner thighs, or even, in one image, poking out of her bikini briefs. In theory, it's all about the harmful, if not fatal, attractions of women, yet the look recalls the classical surrealism of Man Ray, among others. A sense of injury on a grand scale appears in Ibrahim Miranda Ramos' Metamorphosis, a series of topographical maps of Cuba painted expressively with mercurochrome. The resulting abstraction garishly evokes a wounded body attempting to recover from massive injuries.
Like blood and mercurochrome, rust is associated with damage and things that happen over time, hence, co-curator Damian Aquiles employs rust as a medium. He says authentic art is "a carefully thought out elaboration of profound and vast intervals of silence," and the rust that defines his Lost Metaphor series of acrylic figurative paintings seems to reflect that sentiment.
Aquiles' heads and figures suggest mythic super heroes, phrenology charts and pop culture personas, but it is clear that they are not to be taken at face value as the effects of age appear in their cracked, weathered surfaces tinted red-brown by exposure to rusting objects under water. "With the erosion of mediums and circumstances, I make marks and take contemplative steps, isolating a series of acts ... an accumulation of daily exercises." And we are left with a strong impression of time, enforced, perhaps, by a place where a clash of ideology, human nature and pop culture has left much on hold.
All of which makes for a challenging, yet provocative, environment for creativity. Made in Cuba is a witty and innovative testimony to the resourcefulness of artists and the human spirit.
- Made in Cuba co-curator Damian Aquiles' Lost Metaphor series is shaped by his use of rust to communicate an authenticity marked by 'vast intervals of silence.'