Cuban artists, like those in other countries, are under no obligation to make political statements in their work. But Cuba isn’t like most countries; it and North Korea are the world’s last two unreconstructed communist states.
Fairly or not, visitors may be on the lookout for hints of defiance, or at least dissent, when viewing “Puente: An Exhibition of Cuban Artists” at the Helen Day Art Center in Stowe. Yet seeing these works by seven contemporary artists — all of whom were in the 2012 Havana Biennial — as a barometer of artistic freedom might preclude seeing them as an aesthetic sampler from an isolated island.
Inquisitors seeking political content will find it in “Puente,” but they may be disappointed that it’s so tame. “None of the work is especially threatening,” concedes curator Rachel Moore. The show contains no bold challenges to repression; its politically inclined pieces instead make their points through indirection and implication.
Sandra Ramos, for example, has created a fantasy passport in the form of an accordion book with a few pages that appear persuasively official and others that are gently seditious, such as the Havana street scene dominated by a Coca-Cola billboard. Another nonconfrontational painting by Ramos gives the show its title. A female body is here deployed as a bridge (puente) between two landmasses — presumably Cuba and the United States.
In notes accompanying the show, Moore describes the work of Arlés del Río as “very political.” He’s represented here by an ordinary living room couch that’s been chopped in half, exposing its stuffing and springs. Stenciled on the floor between the jaggedly sundered parts is the message: “What separates us also unites us.” (Del Río produced this installation during a residency at the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson.)
The curator plays to tendentious interpretations by hyping cautious commentaries as daring. But just because José Angel Vincench has titled two of his works “Exile” and “Dissident” doesn’t mean they transmit “astoundingly strong political messages,” as Moore claims. “Exile” actually seems more mordant than militant. By arranging brown paper shopping bags (hung on a gallery wall) to spell out “EXILE,” Vincench may be suggesting that some Cubans abandon their homeland in order to go shopping in Miami.
In an interview, Moore does make the valid point that “not too long ago work like this was not allowed to be made in Cuba.” Any break with socialist realism could therefore be viewed as “a political statement,” she argues.
While the individual pieces may not do much to undermine Cuba’s status quo, there’s no doubt that the show itself highlights a profound, though unheralded, shift in political dynamics. Helen Day encountered “no issues” in importing these 30 or so pieces from Cuba, Moore reports. Even in the recent past, work like this could not have entered the United States, in keeping with a trade embargo that the U.S. imposed in 1960.
The Cuban artists represented in “Puente” can now be admitted to the U.S. as well, Moore says, citing recent visits some of them have made to Miami. None of the Cubans are coming to Stowe, however, because, she explains, “we couldn’t find enough funding to bring them here.”
Some of the work on display at Helen Day demands to be considered aesthetically rather than politically.
Abel Barroso’s “Eye Phone” and “Eye Pad” look like the brand-name homonyms — except they’re oversize and made of wood, with images and icons etched in ink. The Apple logo rises like the sun between a pair of swaying palm trees in a drawing on the “screen” of the Eye Pad.
Dalvis Tuya creates enormous charcoal portraits consisting of tiny stick figures, or “micro-icons.” The artist himself is either screaming or singing in one of these works. Tuya’s technique bears strong resemblance to that of Chuck Close, the veteran American artist who assembles giant portraits by means of pointillism.
The slow bending of rigid strictures during the past 30 years has not only opened creative space inside Cuba, it’s enabled Cuban artists to become acquainted with the work of artists such as Close and his venerated 83-year-old contemporary, Jasper Johns. Vincench’s “Dissident” — a group of four canvases with that word painted in English, Spanish, Russian and a highly stylized Chinese — does have an obvious political dimension, but even more eye-catching is its layered lettering à la Johns.
And what are we to make of the perplexing suite of photographs by Adrián Fernández titled “Epilogue I & II”? They appear to be straight-up shots, albeit dramatically composed, of sexy showgirls at Havana’s Tropicana nightclub. The show’s notes, however, suggest that the artist is interrogating stereotypes of an “exotic” Cuba that caters to leering tourists.
The decision to exhibit Cuban art was made prior to Moore’s arrival at Helen Day two years ago; she neither conceived the show nor traveled to Cuba to survey artists’ studios. Instead, to compile this selection, Moore had to rely on catalogs, digital images and visits to a few galleries in the U.S. that show Cuban work.
“Puente” doesn’t pretend to be definitive in any respect, however. And it certainly doesn’t approach the encyclopedic exhibit of Cuban art mounted in Montréal five years ago. But a show of contemporary Cuban paintings, drawings, photos and sculptures by emerging and established artists is hardly a common event in Vermont. And that’s reason enough to go see it.
“Puente: An Exhibition of Cuban Artists,” Helen Day Art Center, Stowe. Through November 24. See the gallery’s website for Cuba-themed lectures, films and concerts in conjunction with the exhibit. helenday.com