b. 1958, resides in Cuba and Canada
In the early 1980s, the publication of Tonel’s “caricatures” in humor magazines led to his being erroneously classified as a humorist. Nevertheless, with the 1989 exhibition Yo lo que quiero es ser feliz (All I Want is to Be Happy), his art parted ways with the publishing circuit and started flowing through a variety of media—drawings, sculptures, installations, prints—that expressed his vision of human beings and society. In addition to being an art historian and the author of indispensable texts on contemporary Cuban art, Tonel has contributed to a revival of thought-provoking conceptual humor in Cuban art, as seen in the work of Rafael Fornés, Chago (Santiago Armada), Carlucho (Carlos Villar), Alberto Morales Ajubel, Manuel (Manuel Hernández Valdéz), Osmani Simanca, Félix Ronda, and Reinerio Tamayo, among others. Over the years, he has intensely promoted this artistic direction through exhibitions and publications.
Tonel’s own creations draw inspiration from the countercultural comics of the 1960s, including the work of R. Crumb; from artists like Saul Steinberg, Philip Guston, and Peter Saul; the tautologies of 1970s conceptual art, as well as from the international “new image” art of the 1980s. His works do not attempt the mass projection of American superheroes à la Marvel Comics, or the narrative dimension of Japanese manga; instead, they address a viewer who can accept complicity in Tonel’s caustic vision of humanity, his detailed exploration of bodily functions, and his anti-romantic concept of sexuality and sentiment: Sex and the City minus the credit cards, sweating in the tropical heat. The artist has created works that “without being caricatures or illustrations, retain some expressive resources from those manifestations marginalized by high culture; and at the same time uses those communication models for the sake of an autonomous body of work, rigorously intellectual” (Montes de Oca, 2000, 12).
The interaction of people and animals is not a frequent subject in Cuban art; rats, even less so. Tonel keeps in mind the cultural connotations of that mammal—associated since the ancient Greeks with sickness and pestilence, plague and decadence, greed and the demonic—and makes an original contribution to a cross-cultural iconography that includes works by such artists such as Vincent van Gogh (Two Rats, 1884) and the aquatints of the German novelist Günter Grass. In this case, instead of turning rats into discomfited witnesses to urban modernity, or leaders of an apocalyptic, Terminator-style end, Tonel chooses to present an extreme case of voracious hunger, a descent into hell.
The human being who opens his mouth to crush and gulp down the animal’s head, in a desperate gesture, is a schematic representation of the artist himself, whose likeness has been captured in numerous drawings and sculptures. It is a stark self-portrait, created with no more than a simple line—a functional solution that expresses the idea without falling into tear-stained melodrama. Sanctioned by the obvious reiteration of the title, the strange situation distills an excessive, grotesque chronicle of scarcity and helplessness, and transforms the image of the artist into a symbol of humanity enduring physical and moral degradation.
Autorretrato como barco (Cuatro pirámides) [Self-Portrait as a Boat (Four Pyramids)] is one of the essential pieces that Tonel dedicates to the subject of Cuba and its insular self-image. It belongs to a cycle of work, begun in 1989, that has since intertwined with other aspects of his oeuvre. Installations such as Bloqueo (Blockade, 1989), Mucho color (A Lot of Color, 1992), País deseado (Desired Country, 1994)—exhibited in that year’s São Paulo Biennial—and Mundo soñado (Dreamworld, 1995, MNBA) have engendered “a profusion of contradictory meanings surrounding such concepts as homeland and nation” (Montes de Oca, 2000, 21). In an attitude common to such artists as Sandra Ramos, Kcho, Ibrahim Miranda, and Osvaldo Yero, representation of the island does not reflect a theme of exalted patriotism, nor does it vindicate its isolation from the world. This reference to the geographical map seems to translate into a “critique of insularity,” understood as a limit and a border—a natural wall that separates Cuba from the mainland and generates deep tensions in the individual, the family, and the nation.
Autorretrato... is a drawing of exceptionally large dimensions, measuring almost five feet by eight. In a way that has become characteristic of Tonel’s work, line plays a fundamental role. It is not, however, a matter of magnified illustration, but of drawing as the quintessential protagonist, the expressive tool par excellence. By such means, the artist effects a transmutation of matter: his head becomes a figurehead, a boat, a small Titanic that follows its own solitary route, rocked by winds and storms. The artist’s body becomes a space in which the merely testimonial transcends itself to become metaphor.
In his 1989 drawing Hemingway, su técnica (Hemingway, His Technique), Tonel had used the submerged head of the American writer, peeking just a few centimeters above the water line, as a reference to his literary technique of the “iceberg.” In Autorretrato... , however, the boat-head has sunk to the bottom of the ocean and it is supported by reefs: four rocky pyramids, previously depicted as funerary monuments in his drawing La isla en peso (como los egipcios) (The Whole Island (Like the Egyptians), 1992, Ludwig Forum collection, Aächen). The terrain of Cuba, called a “cork island” by geographers because of its cyclical movement of oceanic ascent and descent, here defies its floating nature and sinks exhausted to the boat’s deck. The transparencies between the long archipelago and the ship suggest their fusion, as if the destinies of the artist and his nation had tragically become one under the warm waters of the sea. Oblivious to the turbulence of History roiling the ocean surface, the man and his island rest with open eyes on the sea bottom, supported by the pyramid-reefs. Perhaps they have been transformed into a new Atlantis, the ruins of a civilization to be discovered again in the future.
In Tonel’s works the human (Cuban) body seems to become conscious of its own odors and fluids, with a sensory intensity even more compelling than Andrés Serrano’s Piss Christ (1989). Unlike some of his compatriots, Tonel is not interested in deconstructing historical narratives. He is a visceral explorer who ventures into territories that are taboo in art, setting his gaze on inconsequential, everyday moments: the anti-epic of respiration and sex, promiscuities of the flesh, the daily routine evacuations, senseless phrases, and insignificant miseries. The characters in his stories seduce or repel us through their absolute lack of modesty; they seem to live right before us as before the cameras of Big Brother. They impel us to share in their misfortunes and contradictions with absolute calmness, without the slightest trace of drama.
Unlike some contemporary artists, who freeze instants of their lives by incorporating real objects into their works, Tonel employs the same old-fashioned tool used by the archaic artists of Lascaux and Altamira: the simplicity of the line, free of decorative arabesque. It is an essential trace that defines the boundaries, the limitations, of the paper, and projects itself into three-dimensional space through sketches of sculptures and installations. In this fashion, Tonel demonstrates the integrity and complexity of his conceptual thought, an inexhaustible well from which he “extracts” his artworks, which are then fleshed out in various formats as he finds technical solutions that satisfy him.
A precursor of La silla (The Chair) is the drawing El vómito es cultura (Vomit is Culture, 1990, Jurgen Harten Collection). In that work, “a clever pun announced the inexhaustible and pregnant spew that will alleviate the man, temporarily restoring his insides” (Valdés, 2000, 30). In the center of this banal scene—which every common mortal has experienced, one night or another—is the image of the artist once again, his self-portrait passing from face to face like a mask. Half naked, the figure leans on the wall to ease the brutal push of his own regurgitation, over which he will float like a messiah.
In this corresponding sculpture, a profuse arch emanates from mouth to floor; but the body assumes a seated position, as if to serve as a platform for a visitor still unknown. Cut and assembled from recycled wood—what Cubans call “plywood”—it belongs to a series of large-format sculptures, made to be hung as wall reliefs or placed in space as if inviting interaction, virtual or real, with the viewer. (Other works in this series include El Puente (The Bridge), and Atalaya (Watchtower), both made in 1993.) The design of the chair emphasizes its “linear” origins, and at the same time emphasizes the implausibility of its function. The seat has no arms; the character depicted here is one of those mutilated beings that populate Tonel’s universe, marked by “severed arms, stumps, eyeless faces, penises as long as they are useless, macerated torsos” (Montes de Oca, 2000, 18). The torturers of this ailing humanity, the executioners of so much flagellated flesh simply do not exist. Tonel’s beings are victims of themselves alone; they bear the stigmas of their own apathy and frustration, of the disjunction between their purposes and their methods, their failure to act according to their beliefs, and their profound discouragement. For them there are no self-help manuals, no therapies against the clock. They seem definitively condemned to vomit their own frustrations over and over again.
References: Valdés, Eugenio, Catalogue, Utopian Territories, New Art from Cuba, Vancouver, Canada, 1997. Block, Holly, ed., Art Cuba: the New Generation, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2001. Valdés, Eugenio, “Solitude Laid Bare in the Garden of the Madhouse,” essay in cited catalogue, p. 30.
—Abelardo Mena Chicuri
b. 1958, resides in Cuba and Canada