Cuban Art after Historic Venice Biennale Return

By Cynthia Artin, edited by Jim Luce.

New York, N.Y.  Curated by Rachel Weingeist, “Adjoining Islands: The Cuban Pavilion in Manhattan” came to Chelsea from Cuba’s first official participation in the prestigious Venice Biennale in over fifty years. The works include painting, sculpture, works on paper, and light forms that draw one into an intoxicating, dimensional interaction with cultural and pop-culture references.


The City That Stopped Dancing, Watercolor on Paper, Alexandre Arrechea, 2010.

Works from artists Alexandre Arrechea, Yoan Capote, Duvier del Dago and Eduardo Ponjuán were featured, and during the last week of the show, The Stewardship Report spent time with Ms. Weingeist, artist Alexandre Arrechea (in New York from his home in Spain preparing for the opening of a show at the nearby ManganMetz gallery), and Donald Rubin who, with his wife, established The 8th Floor to promote cultural and social initiatives.

As is fitting work being shown in one of the world’s finest international exhibitions, the quality of every work is stunning, rich with texture, story and context. While diverse and even eclectic, the pieces connect around what is both ancient and modern, from old books and mechanical gears, typewriter keys, and chains transformed into sculptures, to paintings embedded with fish hooks, to an extraordinary three dimensional piece made of string wound tightly around a three dimension frame and lit ocean blue.

“In many oppressed cultures, art is a way out, a way of expression that transcends politics,” Ms. Weingeist said. “Sometimes it is the only way out.   Extending access to this work on the island of Manhattan, the cultural capital of the world, allowed us to recognize the artists’ individual achievements while also celebrating the landmark significance for Cuban contemporary art achieved by the Venice Biennale pavilion.”

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Various Buildings, Painted Wood and Pewter, 2011.

Moving through the gallery is a dance, starting with Alexandre Arreche’s finely detailed spinning toy tops carrying miniature models of significant buildings, including the 32-floor Someillan luxury condominiums built in Havana before the revolution, the Ministerio de Educaccion in Caracas, and several New York City landmarks. With maps of Africa and the Middle East, reconfigured in paintings as origami boxes exploring the shifting boundaries in areas of oppression, and a series of video pieces which have illuminated landmark buildings around the world (and shown in Times Square on massive digital billboards), also Mr. Arreche’s works, there is equal pleasure in the beauty of the art and consideration of social shifts.

“There is movement and possibility all around us,” Mr. Arrechea said in a brief interview. “There is a desire for control in the midst of chaos, a desire to live the dream even in the middle of decay. And there are bridges that connect us, when we refuse to allow politics or conflict to define us.”

When asked about his own tremendous level of control and craftsmanship, Mr. Arrechea noted that while there is great joy in creating objects and paintings that are finely crafted, his art will always be in motion. His spinning tops, for example, will be expanded to somewhere in between his current, relatively small pieces, and life size, and shown on Park Avenue in early 2013.  This expansion and contraction, continual evolution, and expanding global vision and sensibility are all part of a joyful approach to even the darkest topics, a playfulness that welcomes the eye and mind into the story behind what are simply beautiful objects, paintings, and moving pictures.

Along two facing walls, an evocative series of sculptures made from old wood and metal, cigar boxes, phones, typewriters, gears and other parts by Eduardo Ponjuan draw one in with their fascinating reconstruction of things that continue to work and rework over time.

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Ten In One The Human Races, Installation of Books Objects Chained Together, Eduardo Ponjuan, 1998, and other book objects, mixed media, 2000.

Adding a perpetual and mysterious glow in a darkened space, is mixed media sculpture by Duvier Del Dago, which draws one in as a life-size three dimensional visualization of aircraft hovering inside of a grid made of string.   The piece changes with ever millimeter move of the viewer, intricately engineers strings upon strings to support models of objects.   His sculpture is back-lit causing a magical effect. Produced specifically for The 8th Floor, “Black Box” displays a stealth fighter hovering above another form that appears to be its reflection, but is in fact a graceful stingray.

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Black Box, Installation from the series Castles in the Air, Mixed Media, Duvier del Dago, 2009.

Del Dago’s work often plays with military and political power, often superimposed against sexual images as is the case with a painting from his series “Political Iconography.”

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From the series, Political Iconography, Acrylic on Canvas, Duvier del Dago, 2009.

Yoan Capote’s The Garden of Delights combines a playfulness of experience with meaning, challenging the viewer as they draw closer into the richly surfaced monochromes carrying the logos of Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips de Pury & Company. True to their corporate logo fonts, up close one realizes the names are made from thousands of black fish hooks, luring affluent art buyers provocatively toward the work, while the artist considers his own work in the oceanic art world.

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The Garden of Delights, Oil on Canvas and Fish Hooks, Yoan Capote, 2010.

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Close-up of The Garden of Delights, Oil on Canvas and Fish Hooks, Yoan Capote, 2010.

Mr. Capote likewise draws one towards ears carved into three blocks of rubble from buildings in Havana, walls with ears, and a statement on constant surveillance as society continues to crumble.

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Mass Portrait, Carved Stone & Metal, Yoan Capote, 2010.

“The world’s greatest art comes out of oppression,” Donald Rubin, whose Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation supports The 8th Floor space and programs. “As we’ve witnessed in collecting and sharing thousands of paintings, sculptures, tapestries and objects from Tibet, we beauty and depth surface as a means of expression and individualism. Cuba connected nationally again with the international art world when they participated for the first time in over fifty years in the Venice Biennale, and we are very pleased to have been able to extend these works and support these fine artists here on the island of Manhattan.”

The 8th Floor is a private gallery and event space established by Shelley and Donald Rubin to promote cultural and philanthropic initiatives. Exhibitions range from historic propaganda art from China to contemporary video art works by Cuban artists.

Down the street from The Rubin Museum, The 8th Floor is open by appointment.  A new exhibition opens in May, 2012: Armando Mariño: Recent Paintings from the Year of the Protester.


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About Cynthia Artin: An American in Afghanistan

View all posts by Cynthia Artin: An American in Afghanistan
Cynthia Artin: An American in Afghanistan
Cynthia Artin has been writing for The Stewardship Report since 2011, starting with her column AN AMERICAN IN AFGHANISTAN. Back from Kabul, but still very active in supporting Afghan social entrepreneurs, she is now inking a weekly column on leaders in humanitarianism who are creating innovative and efficient models for positive change and sustainable impact. Cynthia is Founder and President of Artin Arts, and a James Jay Dudley Luce Foundation Global Advisor.