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Eduardo Ponjuán-René Francisco

About Eduardo Ponjuán-René Francisco

Eduardo Ponjuán González (b. 1956, resides in Cuba)
René Francisco Rodríguez (b. 1960, resides in Cuba)

In 1988, in the relaxed setting of a bar in Havana, two students at the Superior Institute of Art in Havana (ISA) decided to form a creative duo, based on an already well-established friendship and a similarity of ideas about art and culture. And so the Ponjuán-René Francisco collaboration, whose active artistic life would span a decade, was born.

In Cuba, the concept of collaborative work was already in the air. Books on contemporary art theory and criticism were carried to the island by friendly hands, to be photocopied and distributed among art students and teachers: works by Umberto Eco, Jean Baudrillard, Michel Foucault, and Benjamin Buchloh; October magazine, Gregory Battcock’s The Idea as Art, and others. And let’s not forget Gerardo Mosquera’s Exploraciones en la Plástica Cubana (Explorations of Cuban Visual Arts, 1983) and El Diseño se Definió en Octubre (Design Was Defined in October, 1989), or Cultura y Marxismo: Problemas y Polémicas (Culture and Marxism: Problems and Polemics, 1986) by Desiderio Navarro, editor of the magazine Criterios.

Conceptualist critiques against the cult of individual style, the negation of “authenticity” in materials or process, the rejection of art as passive or merely decorative: these theoretical currents stimulated the emergence of artistic groups whose duration and purposes varied dramatically. In Cuba, artmaking collaboratives were an expression of a cultural logic still in full swing as the 1990s began. If theory provided the conceptual foundation, in the pages of Art in America and Art News Cuban artists discovered such “foreign” artmaking teams as Komar and Melamid and Group Material, as well as American activist groups like Grand Fury and General Idea.

With Artista Melodramático (Melodramatic Artist, 1989), Ponjuán and René Francisco placed their work on the borderline of what was considered “paintable” and “tolerable” for Cuban society at that moment. Making references to public personalities and social events, to professional artmaking and its risks, and to the contradictions between political and aesthetic ideologies, their work strived to communicate directly with the Cuban public. At the same time, they wanted to confound the impulse that would reduce their symbolism to the usual dull chatter of political pamphlets. Through the inventive use of pictorial and sculptural materials, and the appropriation of kitsch elements from both everyday images and art history—ironically directed toward art itself, and toward systems of ideological representation—the duo’s work revealed itself in multiple layers of meaning that interacted dynamically with each other, making a single, unequivocal interpretation impossible.

Outside Cuba Inside was created in 1993 during a prolonged visit to Mexico by the artists. Laid out like a billboard, the triptych makes no attempt to tell a story. Instead, it is a visual inquiry or thesis to be decoded by the viewer. On one side is a Soviet peasant woman copied from a painting by Malevich; on the other, the muscular image of Norman Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter sits before a rippling American flag. Created in 1943 for the Saturday Evening Post, Rockwell’s image was a popular icon of American women and their contribution to the war effort. In the duo’s earlier Productivismo (Productivism, 1992), the paint had been applied with a mason’s tool, in a parody of the picture’s title and its connotations. Here, the surface texture of the two side images was achieved by applying oil paint with a spatula, again conceptually converting the labor of artmaking into one more layer of meaning.

Between the two images, a digital sign creates a double spatial dislocation—“inside” and “outside,” above and below the word “Cuba.” The structure of the triptych makes no attempt to link the texts and the female figures; it’s up to the viewer to match the meanings. Do the nostalgic representations of “Soviet” and “American” visions imply two alternative roads for Cuba’s future? Or do they refer instead to a current dilemma that the Cuban artist faces: having to abandon all utopian attitudes and start producing for the art market and its decrees?

References: Scott Fox, Lorna, “Different Lies,” p. 4, illust. p. 14, cited catalogue.

—Abelardo Mena Chicuri