THE SURPRISING RETURN
I always thought that an open studio was something for youngsters, for adolescents, an occasion for the recently initiated artists to show their new and egomaniac creations to the boys and girls of their age in an intimate, domestic environment
—more informal than that of the galleries—where they may know new people, have some drinks and perhaps share some toxic or rarefied mouthfuls of smoke. But it seems I was wrong. The young artist Nelson Villalobos is about to be 60 years old (although he really seems to be 80 because of his long white beard) and has just invited me to an open studio in his old big house in Apodaca 260 between Factoría and Aponte, in Old Havana, just some blocks from the Train Terminal and the Fountain of the Indies.
At first sight, I would not have to feel surprise. It is nothing strange that Villalobos, or whomever, organizes an artistic event at home (that we do not necessarily always call “alternative” or underground), instead of a more serious exhibition in a gallery (something that, incidentally, he programmed to do in the Centro Cultural Hispanoamericano—Spanish American Cultural Center—, before the Havana seafront). And I say it is not strange because, in all fairness, open studios have always existed, although without that little name, in English even when we are speaking Spanish. All those who are used to visit the artists in their own homes and not find them already cleanly dressed in the openings may enjoy there that marvelous performance where, for the first time, what is private begins to be public, where the works begin to timidly flirt with the look of the others, with the opinion of the others, with the “I like it” or “I don’t like it” to which all the matter is later reduced. It perhaps is the only instant in which one can see real, authentic works, alive and kicking, in a state of evolution, of effervescence; things really artistic but do not knowing it yet, which have not completely turned into artworks, where that process of oxidation and deterioration which they suffer when entering into contact with the opinions, speculations, definitions, theories, good and bad criticism, have not yet begun since they still lack dedication, that veneer of unreality, of that false mystic halo they acquire when they are placed on a white and well illuminated wall. We can examine brilliant sketches that don’t have enough to be any other thing; projects that since the beginning definitively were declared unfeasible and, of course, also ugly, frustrated, ill-fated works that were saved from destruction because they had “something”, an “I don’t know what”, as well as beautiful works that, in spite of it, never were able to cross the threshold, because they exclusively belonged to those intimate spaces. In those moments one can be witness of the artistic universe in its pure state, with greater perfection, before the Big Bang, previous to the formation of planets and satellites, that is, of the critics, curators, assistants, agents, dealers, officials, spies, politicians, gossipmongers, censors, parasites, swindlers and other asteroids and cosmic garbage which complete the system of art. There the works may be seen in the most perfect and democratic chaos, leaning on the bed, with a t-shirt or some socks on top of them, full of dust on a wardrobe, studded behind a door or next to the little mirror in the bathroom, while from the kitchen the artist shouts to you whether you want a sip of coffee (“It is Pilón, man. I brought it from Miami”) or a shake (“Mango or guava?”), which allows you the privilege of observing the squid (or the she-squid) joyfully moving inside its ink. But I do not know if that is what we can be able to see in Villalobos house or if it will be something more tidy and foreseeable. But, isn’t surprise one of the ingredients of these close encounters the open studios propitiate?
It is neither too strange that Villalobos had been living and working in Spain for 30 years, in a Galician city called Vigo, that is, nothing more and nothing less than 4350 miles from Havana, since it is a migratory experience he shares with several hundreds, perhaps thousands of Cuban artists, writers, intellectuals, poets, musicians, singers, theater actors, dancers who are scattered on the four corners of the planet. (Let’s see, do you seriously believe it is not strange that such a large number of Cuban artists live out of Cuba during such a long time and that their works have to be admired, studied, collected in other countries instead of in their own one? Dear Lord!, of course it is totally anomalous, grotesque, because what is normal is that they may live and work in the country where they were born, remain together with their family and their friends, and make their paintings, their sculptures, their poems, their films, their symphonies within their own environment, talking in their language, repeating their local swearwords, feeding and enriching their own culture and, of course, with the possibility of travelling through the world without being compelled to permanently live away from their country.)
Of course I consider scandalous, sad and unusual that the work of the painter, sculptor and draftsman Nelson Villalobos is almost totally unknown in Cuba. Or that it has been forgotten so soon because a mechanism (perhaps governmental, ministerial or something like that) does not exist preventing those physical withdrawals (voluntary, involuntary, political, economic or of any other type) depriving Cuban society from enjoying the work of its creators. In this case, that disregard and that oversight not only make reference to the works Villalobos made in Spain, which would have some logic, but covers everything, or almost everything, he made in Havana before he left, during those long and hectic 1980s. With this I want to say that Nelson Villalobos is now so unknown as when he was a young artist, recently wet behind the ears, while now he has on his back a glorious bulk of works that in 40 years his compatriots have not seen. Because of that reason, his open studio should be considered a real debut, a world premiere. And a real “Swedish table”, because of the variety of artistic dishes that would be at the disposal of the visitors.
I, for example, have been slobbering with the outlandish assembles he made in 1985-1986. I am sure that, for many, to see Villalobos works will cause the same emotion wine collectors experience when uncorking a bottle matured for 30 or 40 years—one of those auctioned in thousands of dollars. These archeological discoveries within the fields of contemporary art are some of the many surprises this beautiful and dilapidated Wonder City that we call Havana hides, although it may seem difficult for some that something can be marvelous in such a given state of deterioration.
However, I think that those artistic debuts with a retroactive nature, with retarded effect (as those bombs programmed to explode many hours later) more than representing “revelations” contain very many and profound mysteries. Why does Villalobos works were not really known and acknowledged at the end of the 1980s? Was it perhaps a too classic work, attached to the canons of old modernity, perhaps too “artistic” to combat with the brazen and irreverent impulse of the aesthetics surrounding him?
Definitively, it was not because the market rejected him, since the art market was barely starting in Cuba. Neither was it punished by censorship, as happened to other artists who openly criticized the system and were repressed and finally excommunicated. Or perhaps he was so absorbed in his creation that he did not mind to exhibit what he had produced? I don’t know.
We both coincided for a brief time in that beehive that was the “René Portocarrero” Workshop of Artistic Serigraphy, which belongs to the Cuban Fund of Cultural Assets, organized and directed with skill by artist and art critic Aldo Menéndez, and not even that proximity allowed me to know his works better. Only briefly I had the chance to see some. On one occasion I proposed him (or he asked me, now neither of us remembers
it) to write a text on his painting, that is, on the few works I sporadically had seen. I started the text with enthusiasm, absorbed in an analysis on what it seemed to me an original system of creation, but I was compelled to throw the towel in the first round when commenting it with Nelson and noting a quick frown that, more than surprise or confusion, denoted true amazement and inconformity. He seemed to say: “Are you nuts, buddy!? Don’t even think on it!” I admit the title was rather uncomfortable: Elogio del camaleón (Praise of the Chameleon), where, with entire clarity, I tried to analyze and celebrate the appropriateness of that interest of Villalobos (perhaps unpremeditated, unconscious) not only because of “arranging” but of devouring, of imitating, of drastically appropriating the aesthetics of others, the style of certain universal and
Cuban masters for which he felt deep admiration, empathy, identification, as were the case of Julio Girona, Antonia Eiriz, Antonio Vidal and, of course, his idol, Pablo Picasso, among those I now remember. In no way my text tried to accuse him of committing a dishonest plagiary impulse, but to validate those appropriations as gestures of admiration, of respect, of tribute to other artists, in a period in which the concept of “originality” began to be seen as something old-fashioned. But Nelson was not ready to run the risk that someone misinterpreted my words. Perhaps I would have done the same.
I am very happy that Villalobos has returned. Or that he is doing a long visit. His return seems to be part of a relatively recent phenomenon within the Cuban artistic and intellectual circuit, and probably of many other areas of our society, which has been called “repatriation”. For some (not for all) an alarm announcing the return, some form of return, the “return to the native land”, the “return of the prodigal son” has fired an alarm. Not only because of the accumulation of nostalgia, nor because local conditions have improved, but there are rumors that the Cuban art market will again have its center in Cuba (that is, in Havana) and being here may offer its rewards. Many collectors and art dealers have discovered that mangoes are tastier (especially if they are “low mangoes”) when they are eaten beneath the tree and not in a 15th or 20th floor of NY, to which the bonus of directly knowing the artists in their work places should be added. Well, it does not matter if this has to do with incomplete returns. Or if they have motivations different from those we imagined. It does not matter it may be nostalgia or any other thing. Let us hope they will all return. So we have to thank that the hangover of this long and sad history of Cuban emigration once in a while leaves us on the shore presents like this one.
All those who are used to visit the artists in their own homes may enjoy there that marvelous performance where, for the first time, what is private begins to be public, where the works begin to timidly flirt with the look of the others…
Untitled, from the series Cosmovisión placentaria del vientre maternal / Acrylic on canvas / 118 x 78¾ inches / Courtesy the artist Untitled / Acrylic on canvas / 33 x 6½ ft. / Courtesy the artist