THE SUR­PRIS­ING RE­TURN

Art On Cuba - - In This Issue - OR­LANDO HERNÁN­DEZ

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. ƒ

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

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