An Ap­proach to the Taller Ex­per­i­men­tal de Grá­fica in Ha­vana

Art On Cuba - - Index - Niurma Pérez Zerpas

Any ap­proach to the his­tory of en­grav­ing in Cuba must take into ac­count the cre­ation of the Taller Ex­per­i­men­tal de Grá­fica de La Habana (Graphic Ex­per­i­men­tal Work­shop, TEGH in its acro­nym in Span­ish) in July 1962, which marked a turn­ing point in the devel­op­ment of this ex­pres­sion in the is­land. An im­por­tant step had al­ready been given by Carmelo González and a group of artists in the Cuban En­gravers As­so­ci­a­tion (1949) when es­ti­mat­ing the aes­thetic qual­i­ties of the genre and en­dow­ing it with a value in the na­tional artis­tic panorama since, as it is well known, from the be­gin­ning of en­grav­ing in Cuba in the 18th cen­tury it was al­ways dealt with prej­u­dices.

With the Rev­o­lu­tion of 1959, and all the changes in the cul­tural field this brought with it, a true take-off of graphic art in the country could be ap­pre­ci­ated. The TEGH be­came the space that made that mo­men­tum pos­si­ble. In it, the best of the for­mer tra­di­tion, but en­dow­ing en­grav­ing with a much more con­tem­po­rary na­ture, es­pe­cially with a trend to ex­per­i­men­ta­tion, was de­fended. Artists like José Con­tino, Rafael Zarza, José Gómez Fres­quet (Frémez), Al­fredo Sosabravo and oth­ers, be­gan to give new airs of ren­o­va­tion to the art of the press, from tech­ni­cal and con­cep­tual in­quiries. Pain­ters and even sculp­tors be­came habitués in the Work­shop and took on the space as a sort of lab­o­ra­tory al­low­ing them to ex­per­i­ment with new lan­guages and forms of cre­ation.

Also, teach­ing be­came a tra­di­tion. The en­vi­ron­ment pro­pi­ti­ated teach­ers to train the younger stu­dents, which was ac­cen­tu­ated with the pro­gres­sive in­ser­tion of grad­u­ates of the San Ale­jan­dro Academy and the High In­sti­tute of Arts. An­other fact that fa­vored the con­ti­nu­ity and pro­mo­tion of the works was the cre­ation of some events which high­lighted the role of this ex­pres­sion in the is­land. They were the “Vic­tor Manuel” First En­grav­ing Tri­en­nial in 1979, the First Na­tional En­grav­ing Meet­ing in 1983 and the La Joven Es­tampa Award, spon­sored by Casa de las Améri­cas in 1987; be­sides, the Ha­vana Bi­en­nial also re­served a space for Cuban en­gravers to di­a­logue with artists from other lat­i­tudes. First and fore­most, na­tional events planned the­o­ret­i­cal dis­cus­sions with an ex­tra­or­di­nary value for the up­dat­ing of the genre, through lec­tures, prac­ti­cal classes and ex­hi­bi­tions.

Not ex­empt from vi­cis­si­tudes, the Work­shop has known how to main­tain it­self with the pass of time, ne­go­ti­at­ing the lim­i­ta­tions of an eco­nomic na­ture and try­ing to re­new from the pos­tu­lates that gave place to its foun­da­tion. Its present di­rec­tor, artist Oc­tavio Irv­ing, who as­sumes the chal­lenge of re­cov­er­ing the vi­tal­ity that has char­ac­ter­ized this in­sti­tu­tion, projects him­self with this per­spec­tive after sev­eral years of some in­er­tia. The Eighth Na­tional En­grav­ing Meet­ing, held in 2013, six years after its for­mer edi­tion, al­lowed a re­flec­tion on new con­cept re­gard­ing graphic art and the way it is brought up to date with the new times.

In a con­ver­sa­tion we held, Oc­tavio Irv­ing high­lighted that in the­o­ret­i­cal sub­ject mat­ters there is still a de­bate on the tech­niques and nega­tion of some given stereo­types in the order of mak­ing the en­grav­ing. There is al­ways a bet to dis­cuss the value of the work as a re­sult fur­ther away from the pro­ce­dures them­selves, that is, their aes­thetic and con­cep­tual val­ues over and above the method­ol­ogy it gave rise to.

Nowa­days, vis­it­ing the TEGH, re­trac­ing the steps be­tween ma­chines and desks, be­comes a pleas­ant ex­pe­ri­ence when dis­cov­er­ing a staff of artists from var­i­ous gen­er­a­tions, whose works stand out be­cause of the ex­per­i­men­ta­tion with di­verse tech­niques and sup­ports and, above all, by a great cre­ative sense. Although the­matic mo­ti­va­tions and aes­thetic con­cerns are di­verse in each of them, the mas­tery of the trade and the need to make from en­grav­ing an ac­tive man­i­fes­ta­tion which also trans­forms and adapts to its times joins them to­gether. So be­sides from im­pec­ca­ble xy­lo­gra­phies, lithogra­phies, chalcogra­phies or colo­gra­phies, we find mixed me­dia works ex­pe­ri­enc­ing with sev­eral of them, or com­bin­ing them with pho­tog­ra­phy, dig­i­tal print, in­stal­la­tion or video.

Many of these en­gravers have been able to con­quer a sym­bolic uni­verse and a way of do­ing that iden­ti­fies them and re­veals the ob­ses­sion, whether by tech­ni­cal ex­per­i­men­ta­tion in func­tion of the visual ef­fect, by a given idea or dis­course, or by both at the same time.1

Or­lando Mon­talván cen­ters on the ob­ject as a sym­bol bearer of mul­ti­ple mean­ings in its re­la­tion­ship with men; that is why he re­sizes them from the in­crease of their real size, turn­ing them into the main—and at times unique—char­ac­ter of his works. An­other younger artist, Jesús Hernández (Güero), com­bines ob­jects on a large scale with a to­tally new one re­sult­ing from them. Although for both of them the point of de­par­ture is gen­er­ally xy­log­ra­phy and chalcog­ra­phy, they turn to new pro­pos­als to present the final re­sult whether, re­spec­tively, ap­peal­ing to the use of the ma­trix or the union with ob­jects.

Not ex­empt from vi­cis­si­tudes, the TEGH has known how to main­tain it­self with the pass of time, ne­go­ti­at­ing the lim­i­ta­tions of an eco­nomic na­ture and try­ing to re­new from the pos­tu­lates that gave place to its foun­da­tion in 1962.

On the other hand, Oc­tavio Irv­ing is par­tic­u­larly ob­sessed by an in­di­vid­ual el­e­ment: the boat, rep­re­sented as a land­scape. With time, the artist has been cleans­ing his speech on an idea, on a syn­the­sis strip­ping this sym­bol from its tra­di­tional as­so­ci­a­tions and al­low­ing it to be ap­pre­ci­ated as an en­tity in it­self. At times, the in­ter­est in the form has even made him reach ab­strac­tion.

The lib­er­a­tion of the stroke, the line ex­tended be­yond its lim­its, stand out, as also hap­pens in those pieces where the an­i­mals— an­other of his top­ics—take up the cen­ter.

In other en­gravers, the visual im­pact is achieved by the color ef­fect. The xy­lo­gra­phies by Dairán Fernán­dez, who cov­ers en­tire lev­els of col­ors de­riv­ing in very per­sonal and ex­pres­sive com­po­si­tions, are ex­traor­di­nar­ily at­trac­tive. At times, his works re­mind those of Marcelo Po­golotti, a clas­sic in Cuban avant-garde, when rep­re­sent­ing fac­to­ries, in­dus­tries and the smoke of ships and trains cross­ing the air. Also, the en­grav­ings by Ale­jan­dro Saínz, with scenes of divers, loaded with irony, call at­ten­tion and dis­play a great mas­tery of the trade.2 Rafael Paneca, an en­graver with a larger tra­di­tion, and Nor­berto Mar­rero, also make use of color as an ex­pres­sive el­e­ment. In the last one, hu­mor and sar­casm go hand in hand, as in the se­ries Imagí­nate Durero, made in the tech­nique of il­lu­mi­nated chalcog­ra­phy, for which he takes the Asian cul­ture as a ref­er­ent.

And what can we say about Julio César Peña's work, in which the for­mat de­notes a tech­ni­cal dis­play, demon­strat­ing the mas­tery of the craft he has ac­quired even with­out at­tend­ing the academy. With a great sense of hu­mor, his lead­ing char­ac­ters— the skulls—recre­ate in the most di­verse spa­ces and at­ti­tudes; they do not make us re­mem­ber death, but in­cor­po­rate into the world of the liv­ing. In sev­eral oc­ca­sions the artist makes use of the con­text, its in­di­vid­u­als and sit­u­a­tions, to build scenes with a cer­tain air of lo­cal cus­toms where char­ac­ters and en­vi­ron­ments are rec­og­niz­able.

An­other vi­su­al­ity is con­trib­uted by works of Yamilis Brito,

Edgar Echevar­ría and Án­gel Rivero, who work en­grav­ing with other tech­niques and sup­ports. Yamilis Brito makes dig­i­tal prints and in­cor­po­rates on them pieces of en­grav­ings; Edgar Echevar­ría trans­ports pho­tos to the litho­graph plate and then works on them achiev­ing var­i­ous visual ef­fects, while Án­gel Rivero cre­ates in­stal­la­tions as Lito luz II, in which he in­cor­po­rates light boxes to the pieces.

Un­doubt­edly, those who are younger do not only guar­an­tee the con­ti­nu­ity of the genre, but also con­trib­ute to en­rich the visual di­ver­sity ap­pre­ci­ated in con­tem­po­rary graphic art. Xy­lo­gra­phies by Mar­cel Molina, who was awarded in the Eight Na­tional En­grav­ing Meet­ing for his large for­mat works re­lated to the topic of the sugar mills, thus il­lus­trate it. In this se­ries en­ti­tled Raíz que no flo­rece (Root that Does Not Bloom), the han­dling of the tech­nique is high­lighted, to­gether with the per­spec­tive from which he presents the is­sues. In an­other sense, Des­bel Ál­varez, who works mixed tech­nique be­sides colog­ra­phy—he used this last one in the re­cent se­ries where he builds the de­stroyed fa­cades in Ha­vana—; and Ed­uardo Leyva, con­fronting the prac­tice of en­grav­ing from the ideas sug­gested by the as­so­ci­a­tion with graphic pro­cesses tak­ing place away from the artis­tic field as, for ex­am­ple, wood pack­ing used for the trans­porta­tion of cer­tain prod­ucts.

In short, and although I have only men­tioned some of the most rep­re­sen­ta­tive ex­po­nents of the work in the TEGH, I may say that this space con­tin­ues to be es­sen­tial for the ac­qui­si­tion of knowl­edge, ex­change and ex­per­i­men­ta­tion.

Lastly, it is worth­while to point out the link the in­sti­tu­tion main­tains with the teach­ers and artists of for­mer gen­er­a­tions.

When re­fer­ring to this, Oc­tavio Irv­ing high­lights the pres­ence of Pablo Borges, who is con­sid­ered a master of chalcog­ra­phy and is al­most per­ma­nently there, as well as Án­gel Ramírez, who is still ac­tive; also José Omar Tor­res, Rafael Zarza, Pe­dro Pablo Oliva, Nelson Domínguez, Zaida del Río, Ernesto Gar­cía Peña, Choco, among oth­ers, who fun­da­men­tally visit the TEGH to work on lithogra­phies or chalcogra­phies. Some of these artists, to which oth­ers add up, come claim­ing for il­lus­tra­tions of texts or trib­utes that the TEGH, from its art codes, gives to cer­tain per­son­al­i­ties.

Just to men­tion some of them, the il­lus­tra­tions in El In­ge­nioso Hi­dalgo Don Qui­jote de la Man­cha, an edi­tion for the fourth cen­te­nary of the novel, are of sin­gu­lar beauty, as well as those cre­ated to ren­der trib­ute to Lorenzo Ho­mar, il­lus­tri­ous Puerto Ri­can en­graver.

Many are the chal­lenges the TEGH still has, not only artis­tic, but also eco­nomic,3 es­pe­cially be­cause of the non-ex­is­tence of a na­tional in­put mar­ket, thus re­quir­ing to make or­ders from abroad— gen­er­ally in an in­di­vid­ual way—to be pro­vided with ma­te­ri­als. Any­way, the main in­cen­tive con­tin­ues to be the tech­nique in it­self as a point of de­par­ture for ex­per­i­men­ta­tion, which was made vis­i­ble in the ex­hi­bi­tion Todo INK (All INK) in the Twelfth Ha­vana Bi­en­nial.

It is not my in­ten­tion to over­es­ti­mate the ac­tiv­ity in a space which is in a re­vi­tal­iza­tion process, re­cov­er­ing that en­ergy char­ac­ter­iz­ing it for decades, but to ac­knowl­edge in its fair mea­sure the aes­thetic val­ues of Cuban con­tem­po­rary en­grav­ing and the role this has had in the TEGH, an in­sti­tu­tion that tries to honor its name after half a cen­tury of his­tory. ƒ

1. The ref­er­ences to works and artists that will later be made have to do with their most re­cent cre­ations, es­pe­cially what is at present in the gallery of the Graphic Ex­per­i­men­tal Work­shop. This is why all the top­ics, tech­niques or sup­ports with which these en­gravers have ex­per­i­mented are not dealt with.

2. The se­ries Veinte mil leguas de vi­a­jes y men­ti­ras (Twenty Thou­sand Miles of Trips and Lies), in which the char­ac­ters are divers, is par­tic­u­larly at­trac­tive.

3. Ac­cord­ing to what Oc­tavio Irv­ing told me, with the changes in the eco­nomic order that have op­er­ated in Cuba, the Na­tional Coun­cil of Visual Arts has asked the TEGH to re­think new forms of man­age­ment.

The pos­si­bil­ity of chang­ing the struc­tures and nomen­cla­tures has been con­sid­ered so the in­come it may yield can be used in the in­sti­tu­tion it­self.

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