Jhe is the first on the horizon contemporary Cuban art exhibition opens with a painting that speaks to the nightmare of the struggle to survive – or perhaps even escape – an authoritarian state. The painting depicts a crew of desperate people piling into a rickety boat and hitting the ocean with their wooden oars, trying to escape the grip of Cuban communism. The painting by Kcho (born Alexis Leyva Machado) is untitled and the passengers on the boat have no discernible facial features. The erasure of personal individuality is a cornerstone of the ideology of communism, and Kcho’s painting is an eerie evocation of what it is to live – and creatively resist – in a place where people no longer recognize themselves as unique people motivated by internal inspirations and desires, capable of acting freely on them in a liberated society. Kcho reminds us that, in a place where personal culture is erased for mass culture, everyone is nobody.
Kcho’s emphasis on erasing individual consciousness is emblematic of On the horizon’s the “Individual Landscapes” section, which features works that explore memory and emotion through symbolic examinations of nature, politics and religion. If we think more literally of an “individual landscape”, the “horizon” of the exhibition title can be seen as personal hopes, dreams and ambitions. For everyone, personal dreams and ambitions are alluring and motivating, but for citizens crushed under authoritarian rule, their warm dynamism may forever drift beyond the reach of any individual across an ocean. dark and deep dystopian control.
Cuban islanders, of course, are also imprisoned by the current Atlantic. Painter Luis Cruz Azaceta depicts the shame of a fleeing refugee by depicting him with a demon’s face. The man’s boat has been surrounded and a cage crashes down on him. “Caught” is a hellish evocation of the paranoia aroused by the restrictions of tyranny.
Yoan Capote’s “Island” reiterates threats to would-be refugees who might attempt to float the 90 miles from Cuba to Miami. “Island” is a huge mural of the Atlantic Ocean. Capote created the light and dark highlights in the choppy waves by mounting thousands of large hooks to the surface of the work in varying concentrations. The sharp hooks point directly at the viewers, and the pink hues in the sky above the looming waters of Capote are colored by the actual blood the artist and his team shed while creating this work.
This first section of the exhibition includes the darkest and most mysterious works in the exhibition, and is the most compelling part of the exhibition. “Halloween” by Julio Larraz is my favorite piece in the series. The oil painting depicts a group of costumed children accompanied by an adult woman as they embark on a quest for Halloween candy. An uncostumed child gazes in the foreground, and the woman directs her stern gaze directly at the viewer. The children are only lit by the lanterns they carry, and their dramatically lit costumes and masks are made more mysterious and monstrous by the deep shadows surrounding them. The inclusion of children always makes scary art even scarier, and the formal splendor of this work contrasts with the implicit terror of its content. Like the untitled painting that opens the show, this work is another commentary on individualism: the unmasked boy stuffs his hands in his pockets and stands confidently apart from the group while the other children are bewildered and made monstrous by mass consciousness zombie-making powers.
This sprawling survey also does a job when it comes to describing the history of modern art in Cuba. The “Abstract History” section of the exhibition explores the impact that modernist European styles like neoplasticism, constructivism and suprematism had on Cuban art from the 1950s. In direct opposition to the position of the Cuban government , many artists abandoned the social and political messages associated with group and mass identities in favor of individual expressions that embraced the poetic and the abstract. Waldo Díaz-Balart’s “Neoplastic Trilogy” is a triptych of paintings of rectangles in rhythmic arrangements of primary colors. The work is a direct homage to Piet Mondrian and the idea that abstract painting can distill the complex contradictions of consciousness into fundamental transcendental truths made of colors, shapes, forms and lines. The ‘Abstraction of History’ section is an engaging exhibition of dynamic mid-century works that creates a fascinating conversation about how we integrate different human values into diverse artistic styles, techniques and concepts.
The exhibition’s final section, ‘Domestic Anxieties’, features contemporary works and includes another of the exhibition’s most memorable pieces: Lázaro Saavedra’s ‘Cuban Software’ is a parody of diagram software that is painted directly onto the gallery wall with acrylic and ink. Instead of solving a computer problem, the colorful geometric diagram depicts the choices and consequences facing contemporary Cubans who might “accept”, “resist” or “escape” the restriction of their lives under authoritarian communism. Saavedra’s work is often critical of Cuban government authorities, but he still managed to win Cuba’s National Plastic Arts Award in 2014.
We share the sky with our Cuban neighbors, but we look towards different horizons. Art won’t let us walk in their shoes, but an exhibition like this allows viewers to see the world through their eyes.