Consuelo Casteneda, Untitled #1 (Speed Split Series)
A group of Cubans together spells trouble. Inevitably, conversation turns to politics; to El Caballo, one of the nicer nicknames for Fidel Castro; to differing ideas of government; essentially, to often warring or at least dissimilar sets of memories. I've come by this information the hard way. Many of my friends are Cuban, and of these, most are artists, a group innately obsessed by the rightness of an image, as good writers are by the idea of the mot just. The possibility of eight million people producing different just images for two or three generations is an irresistibly threatening one, particularly when viewed from the shores of a country insanely generous in its hostility towards Marxist Cuba and its thirty-nine year legacy.
"CubaOn," an integrated exhibition of Cuban photographers is, therefore, most definitely an event: The artists are drawn from the farthest reaches of acá y allá, the over here and over there from which so much political and curatorial hay has been made. The exhibition includes six United States-based artists, three Cuban-based artists, one from Monterrey, another from Barcelona, and one from the Dominican Republic. The show's stated aim is to explore the "extraterritorial artistic coincidences" among these artists. What it does do is simply present the similarities or dissimilarities their work engenders, though the exhibition studiedly avoids dwelling on the reasons for either.
Manuel E. Gonzalez, the show's curator and the Director of the International Art Program at Chase Manhattan Bank, can hardly be blamed for taking this cautious approach. Cuban politics, either on the island or stateside, can turn ugly in a flash. Having said this, Gonzalez has put together a complete, well-balanced, and most importantly, representative show, that includes--for the first time ever in the United States--many of the most important Cuban photographers anywhere.
The show's subtitle, "11 Conceptual Photographers," turns out to be a bit of misnomer, first because the exhibition numbers twelve artists, thanks to Luis Mallo's late entry, and second, because the work hardly looks conceptual, by the yardstick of, say, Richard Tuttle or Antoni Muntadas. Less Idea Art than art in which the artist's thinking plays a significant, even literary role, these photographers use the medium to conceive of objects notable, in light of their conceptual character, for their high level of affect. Rather than mimicking their better-known counterparts, the works of these artists are developed in the smithy of complementary and competing traditions--those of Cuba, Latin America, the United States, and Europe--building on and deforming, by turns, idea driven work produced primarily in New York studios over the last two decades.
The work of Consuelo Castañeda, perhaps the most "conceptual" artist of the lot, is particularly illuminating in this respect. Both untitled #1, a diptych of two balled up fists suggesting growth, genesis, flower buds, and even rage, and untitled #2, a long, computer-generated scroll of the artist and her mother posed nude in a fetal position, operate at levels both emotional and visual, rather than being overdetermined by their conceptual catalyst, a reading of the work of Paul Virilio.
Arturo Cuenca, a U.S.-based artist, examines the philosophical underpinnings of perception in pieces like "Dreaming Leftwing-New York", a series of eight transparencies over a blurry film still, that has Barbara Streisand and an actor playing Fidel Castro engrossed in unlikely conversation. The politics of this and other pieces of Cuenca's are clear, sometimes stridently so, but the formal character of his work is well-fashioned and object-centered, again hardly reminiscent of the severity of '70s Conceptualism.
Carlos Garaicoa, a resident of Cuba whose work made something of a splash two years ago in New York, also mines Conceptualism's North American vein, reappropriating it, this time to reexamine Havana's crumbling cityscape, its elegant, ornate past, and its wasted, needy present. His stylish rotogravures imaginatively reminisce on the run-down architecture of the city, reconstructing it, like an archeologist, and drawing out its nearly lost possibilities, while at the same time concocting an eminently substantial "cartography of desire."
Luis Mallo's "Reliquary", a series of dark, brooding photographs bring to light the photographer's idea of the museum, suggesting for it--via shadows, mottled tones, and weird and imposing statuary--a less than enlightening and brutish role. Quisqueya Henríquez's work, titled cruz de luces (cross of the lights), examines the relation between a Catholic monument in Santo Domingo and another monument designed by Albert Speer, finding in their likeness a sort of apotheosis of hierarchy and order. Doubtlessly, it is Henríquez's work, the most conceptual of the exhibition, that fully bears out the show's dedication to the late Felix González-Torres.
The other artists--Juan Pablo Ballester, María Martinez-Cañas, Abelardo Morell, Eduardo Muñoz Ordoqui, Marta María Perez, and Manuel Piña--are unfortunately too numerous to comment on here, except to say that their work also investigates the limits of photography as a practice, tracing out its borders with cinema, photojournalism, philosophy, memory, and--need one say it--politics. It is precisely the politics that are unavoidable when speaking of Cuba and things Cuban. Manuel Gonzalez himself admitted this to me as he raised an accusatory finger out the gallery window at the Statue of Liberty looking on from New York harbor. That symbolism should be lost on no one.
New York, New York