José Bedia brings new energy to Second Street Gallery (Charlottesville)

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A review by Jackson Landers for C-Ville.

A new exhibit at Second Street Gallery might represent the start of a new era for the gallery. José Bedia, a renowned Cuban painter and sculptor, will visit the gallery February 3 for a solo show and other events.

Born in 1959 in Havana, Bedia studied Palo Monte, a branch of Congo-derived religion brought to Cuba by slaves. The religion evolved through the slaves’ contact with colonial Spain, Native Americans and other Caribbean cultures. One of Palo Monte’s most salient features is the use of a consecrated vessel called a caldero that functions like a small altar.

Bedia’s work is replete with references to Palo Monte, Cuban history, Native American spiritualism and tensions between imperialism and traditional cultures. The sacred calderos appear as regular motifs. He fills canvases with black silhouettes of slim human figures and animals that could have stepped out of European cave paintings, and he mixes perspectives like Salvador Dalí, sometimes adding sculptural elements to his paintings that reach out from the wall into the room toward the viewer. You’ll see rifles, aircraft carriers and airplanes being shot at with arrows.

“I don’t think he is critical of technology,” says Tosha Grantham, curator of Second Street Gallery and an accomplished scholar of Bedia’s work. “I would look at the difference between critical and critique. He calls it like he sees it. There are kindnesses in the world and there are cruelties. They each find a place in the work. Because he is a veteran, because he was a soldier [drafted to fight in Angola by the Cuban government], there’s a lot he has to say about warfare.”

According to Grantham, this is a big get for Second Street—or any gallery in any city.

“He’s very widely celebrated both within and outside the country,” Grantham says. “He’s one of the best-known Cuban artists working in the States right now. And he’s very modest about that. He is widely collected.”

Bedia is an art collector himself. He has traveled around the world, meeting indigenous peoples and learning about their religious and artistic practices.

“I think Bedia would claim his influences to be found in international indigenous artistry,” Grantham says. “People who are very close to whatever the energetic forces are that order the universe. …He’s very much like a field researcher or anthropologist. He spends time traveling and connecting with people.”

One of Bedia’s most well-known paintings is his depiction of a frog carrying a scorpion on its back, a reference to a fable that originated in the 1950s and has resonated in cultures around the world. The eye-catching piece is among the works featured in the show at Second Street.

“The scorpion is on the back of the frog and they get halfway across the river and the scorpion stings the frog,” Grantham says. “There’s an inevitability that there is a tendency to return to one’s nature. There are certain forces you can’t control. But then there’s also a great respect for nature.”

Grantham first became familiar with Bedia through a happy coincidence. His work had just been shown at an exhibition in Paris, and Grantham, an undergrad at the time, saw his Barcelona show in 1990.

It was that exhibition that caused Bedia to begin to blow up in the international art market and attract the attention of collectors and museum curators from around the world. Grantham would eventually devote part of her dissertation as a Ph.D candidate at the University of Maryland to Bedia. When she was first hired as Second Street’s curator in 2013, this was exactly the type of show she wanted to bring to Charlottesville.

“At the time I applied for the position it felt like this great bursting-at-the-seams moment where there was a lot of support for new ideas,” says Grantham. “So I mapped out the kind of program that would feature local, regional and national artists. Also, the gallery’s mission is to show art that might not otherwise be seen in Charlottesville.”

Grantham’s personal relationship with Bedia is a major part of how Second Street was able to draw him to Charlottesville, and Grantham hopes similar relationships with other artists will enable the gallery to continue punching above its weight class.

“We would certainly need a larger budget to keep doing this kind of show,” Grantham says. “This is possible in part through José [Bedia’s] generosity.”

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