Vicente Hernández, The Tower of Babel, 2013
Courtesy LaCa Projects

A deep vein of fantasy has nourished the imaginations of artists from Hieronymus Bosch to the likes of René Magritte and Salvador Dalí. That’s true for the contemporary art scene in Cuba, where a taste for the fantastic can be seen in the work of several artists. At LaCa Projects, a recently established center for Latin American art in Charlotte, North Carolina, Cuba: Art of the Fantastic presents four emerging artists who call the island home.

Here are excerpts from the catalogue essay for Cuba: Art of the Fantastic by curator Abelardo Mena Chicuri.

Four Cuban artists have landed in Charlotte, thanks to the effort of LaCa Projects. The visitors from the largest Caribbean island include Juan Carlos Verdial, Alicia de la Campa, Alexander González, and Vicente Hernández.

Verdial, De la Campa, González and Hernández are bound by their eagerness to freely reinterpret symbols of Cuban culture—its geography and history, Catholic and African popular religions, and the idiosyncratic proverbs of Cuban popular culture—as well as by their deep knowledge and intertextual play with iconic works of the Western, European, and U.S. painting in which they gathered their artistic momentum. These “high” and “low” elements are integrated in the creation of their fantastic worlds, of beings with human and animal aspects, mixed with amazing machines. The inspiration for these worlds comes from the artists’ close relatives, from their intimate obsessions or traumatic situations, where good sense and delirium are merged without transition.

Far from the surrealism of the Cuban artists of the 1930s and 1960s, and from the invocations of science fiction or lysergic acid trips that characterized the Cuban visual arts during the 1970s, the construction of these fantastic worlds undoubtedly stems from the rupture with a troublesome and uncertain social landscape. Deprived of the political optimism that nurtured Cuban society during the last half century, but rooted in a solidly expressive tradition, the work of these four artists is focused on art as an individual, democratic, and recognizable utopia.

Juan Carlos Verdial, The Four Cardinal Points, 2013 (detail)
Courtesy LaCa Projects

Verdial: The Fluid Condition of Cubanidad

In 1942, in his poem “La Isla en Peso,” the Cuban writer Virgilio Piñera described Cuba´s condition of being an island as “the curse of water everywhere.” Piñera´s verse, frequently cited by contemporary Cuban artists, noted Cuba´s “natural” isolation from the mainland continent—a geographical certainty that has undoubtedly left its mark on Cuban history and culture.

However, in Juan Carlos Verdial´s work it is precisely the opposite:  the liquid, fluid condition of our country is what features in his fantastic worlds, as if the painter were a survivor of Waterworld, the futuristic dystopia described by American filmmaker Kevin Costner. In Verdial´s universe all remains underwater, or relates to this element—as if the island would definitively immerse itself in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

In these visions the human beings are always female, challenging riders able to transmute into anemones, bringing their heads gently to the surface or emerging freely from the thick mouth of a noble fish. These nymphs of a liquid space derive from the Nereides of Greek mythology, symbols that nourished the European Symbolist painting of the late 19th century, which Verdial has taken and transformed. Cuban art bounces in time, and rediscovers its latent links to Western mythical thinking.

Alicia de la Campa, La vidente del puerto de mar (The Seer of the Seaport), 2014
Courtesy LaCa Projects

De la Campa: Women in the Canvas

A writer and illustrator for numerous cultural publications, Alicia de la Campa prefers charcoal drawing, which she learned during her time at San Alejandro, an art academy located in Havana since the 18th century. Using a precious, suggestive drawing, she creates numerous paintings depicting women, for which she often uses her own body as inspiration and model. Under the general series title of “Habaneras,” these beings reflect a 21st-century Cuban woman´s feelings, concerns, and dreams. “Definitely,” she explains, “the women I paint or draw are like my alter ego, living in my dreams, my inner world, symbols of life, beauty, knowledge…”

Alicia´s autobiographical expression is not new in Cuban art. Rather, it is a trend shared by artists such as Magdalena Campos-Pons, Aimée García, Marta María Pérez, Lidzie Alvisa, Sandra Ramos, Cirenaica Morera, Alicia Leal, and Isolina Carrillo. However, we won´t find in de la Campa’s paintings an apparent chronicle of Cubans´ daily struggle. Alicia often uses scenes, poses, costumes, or characters she finds in books of Western art history. In this way, her painting is a  bridge to Baroque European painting of the Rococo era. Her women are conceived as half-naked goddesses, dressed with fruits, butterflies, and birds, attempting to share through visual symbols “a feeling that is to be revealed.”

Vicente Hernández, Still Life, 2013
Courtesy LaCa Projects

Vicente Hernández: A Painter of Solitude

In 1990, the Soviet Union, which had been Cuba´s main economic and political support for decades, collapsed. Cuba declared a so-called “Special Period,” as there was a brutal economic shortage in terms of food, materials and power. Cubans began to use Chinese bicycles for transportation and sustained themselves by drinking glasses of water and sugar to combat hunger and fatigue. Power blackouts lasted 8 or 12 hours.

A new graduate of the art-teacher training curriculum at Ciudad Libertad, Vicente Hernández decided to return to his homeland, Batabanó. Founded in 1688 to the south of Havana, next to the gulf of the same name, Batabanó flourished early in the 20th century. But when he returned, Vicente found a ghost town. The typical production activities of the region were replaced by the construction of rafts and vessels: Batabanó inhabitants decided to emigrate and become rafters, and let the gulf current take them to a better place.

The town became an improvised shipyard. To that end, they used an excellent raw material: their own houses. Until the 1980s, Batabanó was an outdoor museum, with a “balloon frame” architecture typical of the Far West and U.S. colonies set in Cuba. Vicente was astonished to see how his neighbors used their walls to build rafts and boats. Old movie houses and wood-frame hotels — the refuge of lovers — disappeared with the urgent need to get out. The artist had an epiphany and reached for his brushes. As if he were motivated by Ernest Hemingway´s phrase, “Every artist owes to the place he knows best to either destroy it or perpetuate it,” Batabanó became the geographic and sentimental focus of his work.

Hernández became an architect of ruins who depicts in painstaking detail an edifice built on worn wooden houses and illuminated by grotesque, deformed towers of Babel. One of his favorite subjects is the act of flying. The whole town—streets, church, residents and all—are portrayed while taking flight, swollen and transformed in a dirigible similar to the Hindenburg, navigating the stormy clouds. It is a metaphor for mobility, for flying without a plan, because in Hernández’s images nothing stays grounded. Everything seems ready to take off.

Alexander González, Satanas yoyico, 2011
Courtesy LaCa Projects

Alexander González: The Sweet Violence of Sincerity

Among the artists selected for Cuba: Art of the Fantastic, Alexander González is the youngest, born in Trinidad, a town in the middle of the island founded by the Spanish in the 16th century. His art functions as a remixing machine fed by numerous images from the world of comics, literature, Christian and non-Western religions, and neo-pagan occultism. The artist anneals them in the fire of an almost tormented, romantic spirit, which gives birth to his unique worlds. His canvases, whether large- or small-format, are carefully finished and recall the art of Frida Kahlo. But they have been charged with an underground, Freudian energy that denies the viewer any calming decoration. Alexander is able to organically meld Mexican David Alfaro Siqueiros´ grandiloquent dimensions, African-American Jean Michel Basquiat´s intimate nature, and German Expressionist Otto Dix´s grand social critique into a deeply visceral, torn, and postmodern art.

He models almost-mythical, desert, or airborne scenarios, through which processions of nameless beings, prophets and desert tribes, hominids mixed with animals, arcane symbols, and transmuted literary characters move. These characters are possessed by an unstoppable movement, as if they walk or fly to an unknown destination in a hurry. His faces are hard; sometimes they do not have eyes. In one of his works, the artist makes reference to his native landscape by including Trinidad’s colonial landmark, the Iznaga tower, transformed into a de Chirico construction. In the foreground, he places a young man who has mechanical tentacles for eyes. He loads a basket full of human eyes, which he gives to those who cannot see reality. Alexander is, somehow, the boy whose mission is  to let us see behind the masks of the everyday things—an unrepeatable world.

Cuba: Art of the Fantastic runs through May 2 at LaCa Projects – Latin American Contemporary Art in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Abelardo G Mena Chicuri (La Habana 1962) Formerly a curator at the National Museum of Fine Arts, Havana, he is curator of the Farber Collection, Miami. He recently became CEO of RM Estudio, an arts advisory company in Havana for private and corporate collections.