WORDS ARE WIND
Raul Cordero presented in Milan Words are wind, eight new oil on canvas paintings in different sizes, some of them organized in the classical layout of diptych or triptych. It is an exhibit conceived for his first solo show in Italy after having accepted the invitation made by the Venezuelan gallerist Federico Lugo, active in the city since 2005 and who recently started sharing his own exhibition seat with Gallery Pack, in a common project named Spazio22.
Cordero’s exhibition, opened to the public until May the 28th, 2017, was located in a secluded salon, enclosed and with thick walls that used to be the vault of a well-known antiquarian. The artist’s works therefore profit from a more reserved and intimate enjoyment, because they are also isolated acoustically from the rest of the adjacent salons that gather works from other authors.
While I was waiting for Cordero to arrive, I studied the canvases attentively. More than ten years have elapsed since our first meeting in Havana and since then I have only been able to follow his trajectory from a distance. At that time I was carrying out some research on the Cuban production of artistic videos and Cordero was among the most prolific authors of his generation. However, no video accompanies this exhibit because since 2006 the artist decided to devote himself exclusively to painting:
“the primary language of art”—he points out. Our conversation started with this statement, and Cordero continues: “Many technologies can be taken as a means of artistic expression, but only drawing, painting and sculpture are born with this specific purpose.” In the past, when comparing the characteristics and limits of audiovisual expression in relation to the pictorial image, the artist recognized that he still saw in painting a wider range of possibilities to be explored and what is as important, a greater arbitrariness in its interpretation. Now, he adds a critical consideration: “It seems to me that the proliferation of video works and their urgent request in various exhibition events around the world corresponds, at least in part, to precise functional requirements: the immateriality of these pieces made them be very desirable when there are not enough resources to organize the transportation of the works and guarantee the presence of the author. In fact, if we consider the logistics that regulate the current art market, to devote yourself to painting is a daring and revolutionary act. In these times that are marked only by urgency, taking a moment to face up to the canvas, often a large size one, contradicts any reasonable expectation.
The idea of an art that is intangible, repeatable and quickly transmissible is the difficult heritage left by the artistic movements of the late 1960s to the next generations. “The easiest risk that might happen lies in the risk that young people, driven by the anxiety to enter hastily into the sales market, adhere to these “rules” in a utilitarian manner, and in this way, linking them to the formal result of their works.” Cordero speaks from experience as professor, first in Cuba, at the Higher Institute of Arts in Havana and after in the USA at the San Francisco Art Institute and The Art Academy of Cincinnati.
“Teaching has become more and more problematic. The reality never corresponds to the expectations of the students I meet.
It is a fact that very few will be able to make a living from their work without accepting commitments.”
In contrast, Cordero was formed in an isolated cultural context in which learning something through direct experience and having access to updated news of the art world was a very hard effort, though it might have motivated his generation to defend their own freedom of expression.
He remembers there used to be very few books of history of art, many times passed from hand to hand and so worn out that the illustrations of masterpieces were barely recognizable. These memories do not fit in with the total immersion into updated information existing today from which he feels the urge to move away. Being a coherent and mature artist, his personal reference points are quite solid. A conceptual legacy is, for example, to include the text in the work, a recurrent procedure in his production. In his works there is always something to read: the written word, which can be presented isolated or as part of a proposal of a finish sense, sticks out in his painting, is enhanced in the video and goes together with the photographic installations. Besides, the word assumes various communication genres such as comic strip stories, film close-captions, neon signs, solutions to games or puzzles, list of instructions, etc…
“In these new works, and for some years now, the written word interests me as a subsequent graphic element, having an abstract character that is superimposed over a figurative image in an accumulation of meanings.” The text, that also constitutes the title of each canvas, is not easy to read because the characters are traced with a series of dots painted with polyester resin so separated from each other that they do not permit an immediate identification of the letters.
In the titles of the eight new paintings that were displayed each phrase ends with ellipsis (three dots), and that makes the spectator wonder if those discourse fragments could acquire new meanings according to their different combination. On the other hand, his fondness for the linguistic game has been one of the distinctive features of the artist’s work, who even today prefers to elude a univocal interpretation of his pieces, leaving them open to more options without the help of a theoretical explanation. Cordero has always been interested in researching the additional information that the written word may give the image, the manner in which the two languages can be integrated or can clash, abandoning any juxtaposition of a descriptive character. The text does not necessarily clarifies the meaning of the image, while the image is no good for illustrating the text. The two sign systems rather than completing each other, remain separated like water and oil.
This impossibility of amalgamating them evidences problems of a perceptive kind instead of immersing us into a narrative.
In his most recent works this stratification between the visual code, in the background, and the verbal code in the foreground is even more visible thanks to the silkscreen technique, that clearly separates some words from the background, including them within an abstract ground of flat and semitransparent colors. “These are not random shapes—he states—rather they make reference to some precise elements of some paintings by Wifredo Lam that I copied and turned into templates. A concealed tribute to the Master.”
Cordero has always been interested in researching the additional information that the written word may give the image, the manner in which the two languages can be integrated or can clash…
The quotations from the history of art are also a constant in Cordero’s work. In Autoretrato dentro de un cuadro de Eric Fischl (Self-portrait within a painting by Eric Fischl, 1995), for example, Cordero portrays himself in the version of Fischl’s piece, and replaces one of the original figures with his own portrait.
In A painting the same size as Jackson Pollock’s Number One (2008) all that remains from the reference to the original is only the size of the canvas. In these cases painting in itself becomes the research object and even though a figuration is kept, a direct relation with reality is not necessary.
In the past, the repertoire of chosen images as the subject of his paintings was based on a mass media and heterogeneous imaginary made of scenes from films, photographic files, and video stills, all of them already representing a filter from reality and that had been chosen for the mere visual pleasure they aroused. In his recent works there is no longer a mark of the human figure, instead, landscapes prevail, and among these many tree-lined avenues are repeated very often. Then I asked Cordero if in these cases it is also about “stolen” images from a pre-existing source and used in a new context, his answer surprised me: “No, it is not about extractions in these subjects. They are recurrent elements that I keep in my mind and that I use continuously and re-examine many times while I am constructing new compositions. They do not refer to any particular place because they are a product of my imagination. However, in my creative process I follow some steps that also contemplate the use of technology. In fact, I use graphic softwares to prepare the sketches, after I print the drawings and transfer them onto the canvas using the traditional system of oil painting. I have deliberately recovered the classic genre of landscape, precisely because it is obsolete, that is, it is totally useless within the context we live in; it is something that has no relation whatsoever with our everyday life and simply interests us due to the visual data it conveys.”
Cordero’s pictorial style is extremely personal and recognizable. The outlines of the shapes are deformed by evanescent effects, almost out of focus, that in the past seemed like the perennial vibration of the electronic pixels and that today looks like low resolution impression in which the image definition yields its place to a de-composition in horizontal lines.
With nothing else to say, we said goodbye. Before leaving I stopped again before the large canvas The race progressed between the monotonous security of the know and the dread of doing what had been done before… in which several sailboats are piled up, saturating all the space. I think that nothing but the sea can give back as a metaphor the instability surrounding us. What should we found our knowledge on if everything runs fluidly? Knowledge and information are not equivalent; to comprehend it is necessary some time for the news to sediment so that they become a solid base on which an opinion can be set up. This is no longer the time to wait and mature; novelty is an everyday condition because everything changes at a great speed and as Cordero says, words are just wind, they float in the air and no one wants to retain them any longer.
Untitled (The race progressed between the monotonous security of the known and the dread of doing what had been done before...), 2017
Oil, polyester and wax on canvas
46 x 46 inches
Courtesy the artist, FL Gallery and Mai 36 Galerie
Total view of the space, FL Gallery
Untitled (The wise who knows not…), 2017 Oil, polyester and wax on canvas
46 x 46 inches
Three Pastorals, 2017 Oil and wax on canvas 69 x 57 inches (each)