Cuban art catches a wave

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MFAH exhibition, gallery show and importer all capitalizing on new access to island nation’s underknown artists–A review by Molly Glentzer for the Houston Chronicle. Follow the link to the original report for a gallery of photos.

Ella Fontanals-Cisneros remembers a Cuba that disappeared decades ago: fancy people out in Havana late at night, a vivid scene lit by street lights. Cars everywhere. Stately Colonial architecture. o She left at 16, one of the so-called gusanos, or worms, who fled after the revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power in 1959. Although her brother stayed behind, she came to think of herself as a Venezuelan. o She married young and well, spending 33 years as the entrepreneurial and philanthropic wife of billionaire Oswaldo Cisneros, one of the richest men in Venezuela. o When she was finally allowed back home to visit her brother, in the late 1980s, Fontanals-Cisneros didn’t recognize the place: empty, dark streets. Dilapidated old cars. Crumbling buildings. o She began visiting once or twice a year but only for three-day stretches.

“A week was too much. I was crying all the time,” she said.

This went on for more than 10 years, while Fontanals-Cisneros also built a huge collection of Latin American art and established herself as a queen of Miami’s contemporary art scene.

Then, in 2010, her brother died, and the Fine Arts Museum of Havana invited Fontanals-Cisneros to show works from her collection. The negotiations necessitated longer stays, and Fontanals-Cisneros began to feel her homeland’s magnetic force.

She already knew a handful of Cuba’s leading artists who showed their work internationally. But diving into Havana’s scene, Fontanals-Cisneros was amazed to see so many others working in isolation, without access to collectors or even decent materials.

‘Adiós Utopia: Dreams and Deceptions in Cuban Art Since 1950’

When: 12:15-7 p.m. Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursdays, 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, through May 21

Where: Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet

Info: $7.50-$15; 713-639-7300, mfah.org

Julio Larraz

When: 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays, through April 15

Where: 2201 Westheimer

Info: Free; 713-526-1201, artoftheworldgallery.com

The Gite Gallery

When: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays

Where: 2024 Alabama

Info: Free; 713-523-3311, thegitegallery.com

 

The sculptor Yoan Capote urged her to stage a U.S. exhibition that would finally bring Cuba’s art history to light.

That historic show – “Adiós Utopia: Dreams and Deceptions in Cuban Art Since 1950” – is on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and travels to Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center in November.

Supported by the European and U.S. branches of the Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation, three Cuban curators compiled the show. Each specializes in a different period.

The museums couldn’t accommodate anywhere near all that they wanted to include, so the foundation published a book to encompass a broader story.

For an island that doesn’t stretch as far as Texas and has been politically and economically isolated from the U.S. for nearly 60 years, Cuba has played an outsized role as a nation of artists. The country has an astoundingly rich tradition across the visual and performing arts, as well as cinema. It boasted the first art academy in the Western hemisphere, and since the modern art era, it has had a distinctive visual art scene, on a par with those of Mexico and Brazil.

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The revolution placed the small Caribbean country at the vanguard of an experiment in social justice, education, health and the arts that didn’t end well, especially after the Soviet Union pulled out in the 1990s.

“Like the Russian and Mexican revolutions, it was full of hope … but also was fraught with contradictions, paradoxes and, ultimately, failures,” MFAH curator Mari Carmen Ramírez said. “From the beginning, artists participated in the revolutionary process. In the 1960s and ’70s, there was euphoria: They documented leaders and heroes … and constructed iconic images we all know today. But artists were also among the first to speak truth to power and expose the contradictions of the government and the revolutionary struggle.”

Those artists also were technically innovative and often employed humor and parody. Ramírez characterizes Cuba’s recent art history as “one of the most brilliant chapters of late-20th-century art.”

“Adiós Utopia” encompasses more than 100 works across a broad range of media, from painting, graphic art and photography to conceptual sculpture and video. Not since the Museum of Modern Art staged “Modern Cuban Painters” in 1944 has so much under-known work from Cuba been gathered in the U.S.

The works are installed thematically, to illustrate how Cuban artists promoted, then eventually criticized, their country’s failed experiment in socialism.

Contemporary Cuban boom

Interest in all things Cuban has surged since the U.S. restored diplomatic relations in 2015.

The opening of “Adiós Utopia” coincided with the MFAH’s Latin American Experience gala and its live auction. Nine mostly contemporary Cuban works were among the lots this year and sold for exceptionally high prices.

A work on paper by Carmen Herrera, who recently had a solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art, set a record of $160,000. Other works sold for $17,000 to $85,000.

Auctioneer August Uribe, of Phillips, said the prices equalled those of recent New York auctions, thanks largely to good curation by Ramírez and the generosity of MFAH supporters, including about 200 out-of-town visitors who regularly attend the Latin Experience weekend.

An earlier boom, in the 1990s, Uribe said, introduced buyers to modern Cuban art. Now the interest has shifted to contemporary, living artists because more curators are able to visit and discover new talent.

For some, it looks like a mixed blessing. Gerardo Mosquera, one of the three Cuban “Adiós Utopia” curators, is concerned about opportunism.

He fears good artists will be tempted to fulfill the expectations of U.S. collectors. Or they might produce “political art for exportation,” he said – “stereotyped political art following certain clichés. That’s even worse, to my view, than painting landscapes.”

On the plus side, Mosquera said, a number of young Cuban artists are still working “very seriously, in a quite radical way,” he said.

Their methods range from spectacularly complex – such as Reynier Leyva Novo’s “Nine Laws,” a series of prints made using software that calculates the area, volume and weight of the ink in manuscripts and printed documents – to utterly simple, as in Glenda León’s “Longing,” which consists of a single, smallish butterfly pinned high on a wall.

Some of Cuba’s established artists, such as the famous duo Los Carpinteros, are supporting the noncommercial work of others by opening art centers and sponsoring residency programs.

“This is a very important thing, and it’s quite admirable,” Mosquera said. “They see the problem, and they are contributing financially, and they look for sponsors abroad.”

A surreal world

Some of the collectors in Houston for the Latin American weekend also visited the blue-chip commercial gallery Art of the World, where a show of paintings and sculpture by Julio Larraz fills the large downstairs space.

Larraz left Cuba in 1961 as a youth, the son of a newspaper editor who went into exile. Unlike Fontanals-Cisneros, he never returned.

His figurative paintings contain a recurring cast of imagined characters who inhabit a Caribbean world that is not specifically Cuban – dictators and rich people, mostly, who are often portrayed in somewhat surrealistic situations.

Gallery co-owner Mauricio Vallejo, who loves the artist’s mastery of white paint and shadows, calls Larraz’s work “the top of the Cuban arts.”

Sotheby’s will be offering the large canvas “The Spy” during a May auction, and the auction house expects it to sell for $120,000 to $180,000, Vallejo said.

His own expectations are higher.

“We think it’s going to be a new record for Larraz – over $300,000,” he said.

At the other end of the spectrum, Houston dealer Lloyd Gite, who has sold African art from his Third Ward gallery for more than 20 years, is also riding the Cuban wave. He has visited the island twice.

“I wanted to get there before there was a McDonald’s on every corner,” he said.

Surprised and impressed by Cuba’s museums and art galleries, he went looking for bargains in Old Havana because he buys work outright, for resale.

Gite sold the first 70 works he brought home in 2015 for $100 to a few thousand dollars. Last year, he rolled up about 60 more canvases to carry home on the plane. He said they are selling well, too.

Among his favorites are the surrealist, santeria-inspired paintings of Eduardo “Exposito” Gonzalez, which feature primitive-looking figures on highly textured, layered and glossy canvases. Gite is also thrilled to have limited-edition prints by the internationally known Choco (Eduardo Roca Salazar), who graduated from the Cuban National Art School. Choco’s originals are already beyond his price range, Gite said.

“People like Choco are making a killing right now. His work is expensive even by U.S. standards.”

With others, however, Gite feels his business is necessary. “When we buy from these artists, we’re putting food on their tables,” he said.

He appreciates the conceptual works of “Adiós Utopia,” some of which are monumental and suited only for museum display. “But that kind of art is not for everybody,” he said. “Our average buyer is upper-to-middle-income professionals.”

Yet even at the level where he operates, Gite expects Cuban art prices to rise. “I will not be able to afford these works in a few years,” he said.

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