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Carlos Estévez

About Carlos Estévez

b. 1969, resides in the United States

Between the 1930s and the 1960s, the dynamics of visual art production in Cuba focused on the creation of images that would vindicate Cuban subjects through a reworking of avant-garde trends. Within the canon established in the art capitals of Paris and then New York, Cuban modernism appeared as a “secondary” adaptation of the “original” sources. But with the landmark 1981 exhibition Volumen I and the generations of artists that followed, contemporary Cuban art has overcome its “peripheral” condition and its inferiority complex, producing a modern art that does not limit itself to the easy recourse of the “national.” Cuban art now circulates unabashedly through the global contemporary art world. The active diaspora of artists from Cuba—as émigrés or via the nomadism institutionalized by international biennials, residences, workshops, and scholarships—has contributed to this process. Shaken out of an undemanding, comfortable pigeonholing into groups or trends, Cuban visual arts are nowadays an archipelago of many islands. Generic categories of “kitsch,” “postmodern,” or “rebellious” art, which in the past were useful in discussing similarities between artistic processes inside and outside Cuba, have since exploded under the pressure of strong personalities who defy any attempt at classification.

Carlos Estévez is certainly one of those personalities. Initially considered a disciple of the artist Elso Padilla because of his use of natural materials and a preference for iconic representations of humanity, Estévez has developed a coherent personal mythology, anthropological in flavor. His sources are not the 19th-century costumbrista chronicles of everyday Cuban life and customs, or the cynical parody of History’s rituals, or a commitment to defending minority cultures. Instead, it is a fusion of “anthropology, existentialist literature, syncretic cults, ontology, medieval codes, popular cultures, religion, the knowledge summarized in encyclopedias, the philosophy of Kant and Nietzsche, Asian spiritual beliefs, and Ernst Cassirer’s Neo-Kantism” (Pino, 1995, 33).

Estévez’s visions transcend everyday experience, as if the bankruptcy of future utopias had forced him to create a realm of beliefs and knowledge anchored in the solid bastions of universal history, culture, and myth. We are not, however, confronted with a neo-medievalist who appropriates icons and representations for decorative purposes, but rather an artist whose work is rich in substance, conceived as a bridge between philosophy and poetry. This aspect of his art gives rise not only to the ritual character of the pieces’ creation and development, but to their references to Christian art, Baroque sculpture, compass roses and navigational charts, sacred texts, and images of animals and the human body.

If, in the polychrome sculpture A través del universo (Across the Universe, 1992, Farber Collection), a Christlike figure prepares to fly off in search of freedom or knowledge, in La Verdadera Historia Universal (The True History of the World, 1995, MNBA) the linear concept of history is subverted by placing the viewer literally in front of a wooden puppet theatre where he can eliminate or add heroes, historical figures, and villains. Since the 1995 exhibition El destino es tuyo (Destiny is in Your Hands), Estévez’s drawings and canvases have combined images of animals, human anatomy, and mechanical blueprints within the fixed grids of cartography. He does this by means of transparencies that recall treatises of esotericism, alchemy, acupuncture, or da Vinci’s anatomical codices. “My main concern has been to create images that are at the same time thinking tools,” he has stated, “metaphors of man’s existential questions—for instance, his power, his weakness, his essence, and his mission in the universe” (Pino, 1995, 34).

One of these thoughtful illuminations is El mundo en que vivimos (The World We Live In), an image that was later reproduced on a five-meter high banner. The hand—appendage connected with work and prayer, but also with aggression and punishment—has been transmuted into a metaphor of the universe. The lines inscribed on the skin are the routes of an extensive geography that must be traversed with only the aid of a compass rose, guided by knowledge and common wisdom. In Ciudad Secreta (Secret City), the artist apparently describes an ancient island-city, surrounded by strong walls and medieval alleys. To help the traveler find his or her way, compass roses have been placed on the possible access doors, indicating the ways in and out of the walled citadel. But in this curious urban map we cannot find street names, nor do we glimpse the incessant toil of the multitudes. What Estévez describes with a beautiful analogy is simply the human heart, whose shape outlines and encloses the image. On it, all possible experiences are inscribed—drawings of animals and mechanical devices that have been integrated into the complexity of human nature, all executed in a subtle, intricate lines. The heart is the intimate realm of every person; for some it will slowly disclose itself in the course of their lives, and for some it will eternally remain secret. 

—Abelardo Mena Chicuri

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