Ataraxy (February & March, 2004)
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- Article 1

The Revolution Downstairs
Text: Marilyn Zeitlin : Photo: N/A

African Abstract
Ed.’s Note: In 1998 ASU Art Museum director Marilyn Zeitlin organized the exhibit “Contemporary Art from Cuba: Irony and Survival on the Utopian Island” which, at the time, was the largest exhibition of Contemporary Cuban art ever shown in the United States. The exhibition was a huge success and ended up traversing across the United States as a traveling show for the next four years. Now, six years after this groundbreaking exhibition, Zeitlin has given a solo show to one of the original artists, Pedro Alvarez. Zeitlin feels it was time for such a show because Alvarez “addresses questions of importance not only for Cubans and those interested in that work and place, but issues of perennial and global concern including colonialism and ways in which we perpetuate colonialism without even being aware of it.” Now living in Spain, Alvarez agreed to an email-interview with Zeitlin exclusively for shade magazine in order to explain and illuminate his work.

MZ: How do you re-invent the works of art of the past to deliver your own message?

PA: The iconography in my paintings is a collage of found images. Clips from art catalogues, magazines, books, old postcards, bank notes are intuitively collected and stocked for some time until they are used, in a more or less fragmentary way, as backgrounds, characters or plain referents. It is a process very close to the one described in Freud's studies on jokes. I have to be "half way through" those clips and into the realm of ideas, concerns and intuitions. From that tension, the new ideas are born. The execution phase has its own rhythm and tensions, but in a general sense, the majority of the important decisions has already been taken before painting starts.

MZ: I see a trend among the best of the artists of the so-called Generation of the 90s to loosen their focus on questions of what it is to be Cuban in order to participate in the international dialogue about contemporary art. Do you see that happening in your own work? Has travel, living in Spain, made that transition more rapid or deep?

PA: Traveling widens the view. It is like passing from a regular lens to cinemascope. It is healthy because you usually isolate the experience of your identity, which makes you more conscious of how different you are, but also how similar peoples and cultures are. Traveling is a lesson in humility. In a way it makes you feel just another ant. And it enriches the field of references and arguments. Of course that depends on whether you are prompted to do so. For me it has been easy--- the passage from engagement with the ideological function of my painting in Cuba to concerns about the position of art and artists in the world at large, conceived of as a landscape, of course.

MZ: Who among the artists practicing today--- or in the past--- interest you and have meaning for your own work?

PA: I would mention in the very first place Velázquez. As a viewer I cannot help but staring enviously at Velázquez's paintings in El Prado. They are the model of my "intentionally aesthetic sight." Mark Tansey's work served as a loose, fresh model to face painting when I saw his works in a magazine while at school. I thank him for pushing me doubtlessly into painting with my own -simplistic- conclusion: what I cannot solve within this blank square is not my business. And Ed Rucha is the artist I would have liked to be if I were American. His combinations of words and images are often playing ping-pong inside my head. There is something to unveil that is apparently simple, funny and pervasive, though always elusive. There is a bunch of small canvases in the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de La Habana that I kind of know by heart. They were painted by Victor Patricio Landaluze, a Spanish painter who lived in Guanabacoa (across the bay from Havana) in the second half of the nineteenth century, and are a powerful reminder of what images can do for regular people like me. These paintings opened a door that I had right in front of me but couldn´t see. They taught me to "look at" and be in love with reality.

MZ: I often hear the Cuban artists who, like yourself, work so hard, speak of leaving Cuba in order to "oxygenate" for a while. Is this the case for you?

PA: Though I feel pretty well "oxygenated" in Spain, it is always a privilege for me to change ambience, whether in Cuba, the States or Turkey. Every place has its own odor, and there are always things that you cannot get in any other place but one in particular. And you realize that when you are far away from your own country for a long time. And the reasons to be in Spain are personal as well as professional. I suppose that the "cultural operation" I carried out in Havana with my paintings was threatened to get stale or, to put it in different words, it was about to become a formula. It annoyed me that that circumstance would have diminished its cultural value, its force as referent -or at least the value I believe it has.

MZ: Humor is crucial to your work, but it is serious as well. Why is humor so crucial to your strategy?

PA: I suppose it is a matter of character. I have always considered my own paintings as "painted jokes." Besides, humor can be a civilized way of getting attention for a discourse that might otherwise be considered rude or disrespectful, or simply insignificant or impertinent. Everybody knows that jokes are a pretty complex way for establishing balance, getting back or getting healed, also important for experiencing freedom. Humor is also an important strategy for dealing with stress. Humor is free in the economical sense or the word. It is a value constantly produced and exchanged at no expense at all--- except the psychological.

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