Art Cuenca: Artist & Philosopher
Arturo Cuenca, once declared himself "the least known of today’s great artists".
This controversial figure certainly has had moments of glory as well as a fair share of tumbles. First exalted & then exiled by no less than
Fidel Castro, Cuenca remains an important figure in Cuba despite an absence of exactly a decade now.Banished to make his own niche in the capitalist jungle, he won few friends in politically conscious New York art circles - his outspokenness rubbed them up the wrong groove. And sadly for him, left was in, so "la vie boheme" was evasive, as well as the free wine & the parties.
Fighting spirits don’t stand still however, & though in semi-isolation Cuenca worked quietly & steadily to gain a sturdy foothold in national & international art scenes. His recent participation in high profile shows like LA’s "In Site2000", the Paris Art Fair & the upcoming Armory Show
In New York have gained him prestigious corporate collectors in Paris & London alike. His time has finally come.His work is futuristic yet Zen-like, with a sense of aestheticism that is more Japanese than Hispanic. It reminisces of delicate Monet-waterlilies, Fritz Lang metropolis, & Dick Tracy scenes of circumspect evidence left behind in accidental pools of water.
His macro- microcosmic cityscapes on tableaus sometimes as large as 15" by 4" are decorative enough yet with the intellectualism to outlast many a transitory trend in this often irresolute world.
His technique - a combination of photography, industrial printing & traditional painting on canvas - in the past often drew comparisons with Gerhard Richter, but more recently reminds one of Tokihiro Sato’s lunar landscapes with their alien lights. Cuenca, in contrast with the Japanese artist’s straighter, photographic process, has more control over the light & shadows due to an extra step of painting.
There he has an advantage since his original forte as an art student in Havana was photo-realist painting. When he later moved into photography, he did so with the vision & intent of a fine artist.
When he had no access to dark-rooms in Miami & New York, he made do, setting up with rough & ready tools on bedroom floors - but always his work has been credited with an elegant finish, the pain he takes with each of the pieces is laborious & he has a right to call them "his children", as he does.
They are true enough his issue - extrapolations of his psyche: concretized. Now that he has embraced technology, his Mac & industrial-sized printer are as essential to him as camera & airbrush, & the quality of the work remains elegant.One remarkable aspect of his technique is how his paintings resemble screen projections: when I visited Arturo’s studio for the first time I remember thinking to myself "how exquisite! he has amazing shadows made by the trees & the lamplight outside his window" - & then was struck that this delicate patterning of light & intricate shapes was actually one of his works - "Ship-Smoke-Ships" (1995) stretching along the length of his wall.
His symbols of boats, fumes, journey, water, & different reflections & refractions on water are recurrent; they form a visual vocabulary that familiarizes the viewer with his work but are clearly personal too.
On a very simple level one can deduce that the steamships symbolize work & industry, the smoke is the corruption that comes with added wealth, the motif of journey is change, water a form of death & new life.From a broad palette of sepias, pastels & stark black-and-white, with an occasional use of typography, even multi-layered light-boxes in technicolor, Cuenca’s work embodies a range of emotions: irony, kitsch, satire, humour, a sense of nostalgia for the past & a feeling of loss of the simple life. Just like the person, the work attempts to be didactic, instructive, complex & philosophical, realistically cynical yet idealistic, & never taking refuge in blurred mysticism or other fakery.
As he explains his work & his raison d’etre:
"The objective of my work is knowledge, my art is a quest, a means of arriving at a spiritual enrichment of myself" from his "Practical Aesthetic", a bold, complex manifesto which sets out the parameters of his artistic practice.Recognized as "one of the experimentalists whose directions changed the course of Cuban art" (Julia Herzberg in her catalog for a show at INTAR "Arturo Cuenca: A Decade of Photography 1993"), his modus operandi dictated his direction into all sorts of philosophical queries in the past. Indeed reading through all the literature, scholastic & journalistic, that has been written about this philosopher-artist, one receives the impression that his ambition as a thinker foreshadowed his work.
Even an older, jealous rival seeking to diminish his achievements questioned whether Cuenca’s work "accomplished the complexity that he strives for in writing", & conceded that "over the decade it (had) systematically come closer to (it)" prefacing this edict with a safeguard: "not to preclude a future possibility of success" - Luis Camnitzer in "New Art In Cuba".
With hindsight it is evident that the enemy paid a greater compliment than the allies: in predicting something great not then completely achieved, like the critic of a beautiful jigsaw who could neither envision nor understand the whole complicated picture. Similarly we may yet acclaim Cuenca as an intellectual heavyweight who has set himself on an exacting path investigating paradoxical phenomena, equipped with the mind of a sophist & the intentions of a teacher, to give us lessons in the guise of paintings.
L.-D. Geh, Feb 2001