TOMAS ESSON: MIAMI FLOW
From March 23rd to April 20th, Fredric Snitzer Gallery, located in Downtown Miami, presented the imposing exhibit Miami Flow by the Cuban American artist Tomas Esson, who is settled in Miami. Composed of six paintings and a series of drawings belonging to the Wet Painting series, Miami Flow not only captivates for the undeniable mastery of the technique that characterizes the work of this artist, but also for its sensuality and conceptual solidity.
Tomas Esson Reid (La Habana, 1963) is without doubt one of the most forceful painters that contemporary Cuban art has generated. Esson’s excellent technique always turns into delight the observation of his work. Paradoxically, the pictorial ecstasy generated by his savoir-faire is always shaken by the subjects he approaches, in which kitsch, eschatology and violence materialize as leitmotiv. Tomas Esson’s pictorial entities are an instinctive portrait of that caged anguish which is the human existence itself: vulvas, penises, horns, ejaculations, gobs of spit, pubic hair, indescribable beings that share the tormented condition of beast and demigod, that are animals uttering a mating call and spiritual entities at the same time.
Esson majored from the Instituto Superior de Arte (Higher Institute of Arts, Havana) in 1987 and he is one of the key figures of the second wave of what is known as the New Cuban Art Movement or the Cuban Renaissance (terms coined by Gerardo Mosquera and Luis Camnitzer respectively). Esson’s “exasperating” proposal, rooted in the centennial tradition of the grotesque, sets sex up as the perfect exponent of an identity—a social and sociopolitical one—which is based on authoritarianism and obscenity. His solo show A tarro partido II (Galería 23 y 12, Havana, 1988) that also transcended as ESSONSISEHACE,1 shook the permissive limits of puritanism and the political power in Cuba and clearly pointed out the course of the at that time young painter: harshness of signs having political and sexual allusions that are interwoven in a lewd and personal hermeneutics incarnated in the talisman, that unique archetype resumed in flesh and teeth that as fate will always go together with the artist’s work.
Miami Flow, as its title well suggests, is a constant pouring, idea that is stressed by the intrinsic nature of the pieces included in this exhibit and particularly by the series Wet Painting, whose drawings expand beyond the physical limit of the frame to become an immersive installation that floods everything surrounding it. Miami Flow alludes to that sensual trend that as icon, characterizes—and at the same time stigmatizes—Miami city, and on a quite personal level it introduces a third sense or meaning, closely linked to Tomas Esson’s proposal. In slang, Flow, refers to hair, the kind that is coarse and curly and livens up with the wind. This meaning that comes from hockey is now given another connotation: that of pubic hair, so dear to all the artist’s trajectory.
Although Miami Flow is focused on Esson’s most recent series, which gives title to the exhibit, it also includes a necessary flashing glance to previous series that function as an essential complement for the comprehension of this artist’s complex universe.
Throughout many years Esson’s fertile proposal has been integrated by a tangle of all kinds of parallel series that like communicating vessels are interwoven and feed one another. For example, Retrato No. 6 (Portrait Num. 6, 1995), included in Miami Flow, permits us to enter into that very particular bestiary: the portraits of Esson’s creatures. Since he was very young, Esson has been exploring the portrait genre, which enables him to research on the psychological features of the insular idiosyncrasy at that time. During the late 1980s the portrait theme enables the artist to plunge into this new entity that obsesses him: that creature of mythological nature—because of his halfway condition between human and animal—but whose designs are not empirical but rather earthy. Its figures, always pure, grow more stylized. Many times the low-angle perspective prevails, which ennobles the portrayed creature at the same time that emphasizes its belly and sex, and its tiny head crowned by horns seems relegated. In these portraits made by Esson in which reasoning yields to instinct, the treatment of flesh is worthy of Rubens’ painting, and it enhances the erogenous component so dear to these beings.
Wet Painting # 54 (1998) and the installation Wet Drawing Series (2017), also included in the exhibit, permit us to gain access to these two vital series which Esson has been developing since the 1990s: Wet Drawing and Wet Painting. In them, the talisman, which is still present, splits into what for Esson are the five fundamental elements of human existence: vagina, breasts, mouth, anus and penis. The humidity quality is a sine qua non condition of this sort of erogenous pentagram that loses every gravitational center and like ivy is reproduced uncontrollably as it springs from the painting frame and seizes the gallery walls in a kind of uncontrollable orgy. In these series the presence of Pop Art and specifically the impact of Umberto Peña, another great Cuban artist, are fundamental.
Beach (2016), Cachumbambé (Seesaw, 2016-2017) and Oráculo (Oracle, 2017) that feature at the central gallery, are exponents of the artist’s most recent series: Miami Flow. Full of the entities that have characterized all Esson’s trajectory, in this series the human figure looks as though it has transformed into a vegetal element. We can see exuberant biomorphic landscapes the “allover”, so dear to American expressionism, prevails. The colors are definitively torn off previous series like Wet Painting, in which the palette was determined by what Esson calls “fleshy colors” and that are limited to colors directly associated with what is human and to the five elements that compose Esson’s erogenous pentagram. Now, however, the palette is illuminated, and “The South Beach Palette”, created by Leonard Horowitz, prevails.
The serialized element is imposed and it banishes the central point of interest, as it makes the eye jump from one part of the painting to another, like a feast of never ending forms. The notion of fluid associated to this series has a lot to do with sensuality and instability. The flower (vulva) is erected as the central element, while the lianas, stalks and pistils (the hair) support it.
Oráculo is a colossal piece that invariably recalls two masterpieces in the history of art: one of them is Claude Monet’s series
The Water Lilies and the other one is Wifredo Lam’s The Jungle.
The bursting landscape we observe is composed of a thoughtfully chosen palette that emphasizes the chromatic vibration resulting from the proximity of colors. The Miami Flow series also draws on going back to the same subject, over and over again, which permits Esson, the same way it did Monet, to convey ecstasy through the chromatic quality of the landscape. However, in Oráculo the apparent clam soon gives way to voracity and exuberance that, like in the case of The Jungle turns into a psychic state. Sensuality and eroticism turned into survival and debauchery at the same time. Although Beach and Cachumbambé were made using industrial paint, in the case of Oráculo Esson uses oils again to focus on the chromatic and brightness quality of the piece.
Miami Flow is an excellent exhibit that permits us to go into the very personal universe of Tomas Esson and the same time it is a sublime portrait of the constant flow which Miami city is.
Oil on canvas
120 x 228 inches
Courtesy Fredric Snitzer Gallery
Retrato No. 6, 1995 Oil on linen
68 x 68 inches
Wet Drawing Series, 2017 Installation
Drawings / Charcoal on paper 11 x 8½ inches each
Wet Painting #54, 1998 Oil on linen
67 x 49 inches