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Kcho (Alexis Leyva Machado)

About Kcho (Alexis Leyva Machado)

b. 1970, resides in Cuba

The son of a carpenter and a visual arts teacher who rigorously taught him his first notions about drawing, Kcho obtained his degree in Painting and Drawing at the National School of Art (ENA), founded in 1961. In 1991, he was included in the influential exhibition Los Hijos de Guillermo Tell (The Sons of William Tell), among such prestigious artists of the 1980s generation as José Bedia, Flavio Garciandía, Gustavo Acosta, Glexis Novoa, Tomás Esson, and Marta María Pérez.

La Isla de mis sueños (Island of My Dreams) reflects Kcho’s expressive concerns early in his career. With obsessive descriptiveness, Dutch and French engravers of the 18th century recorded in navigational charts every detail of Cuba’s geographical features, noting each mountain and cove. The young artist took a much riskier route; rather than describing Cuba, he wanted to symbolize it. And so he fuses the country’s insular condition with the vicissitudes of his own time into a multilayered metaphor, in which the island has ceased to be terra firma and is transformed into a lifesaving device: a truck tire, similar to those used by Cuban rafters in their hazardous journeys toward the coast of Florida. But in 1990, it is not only the rafters who feel the precariousness of their own destinies. The Soviet Union has evaporated, and in the midst of the Caribbean Sea, heeled over with no lights, an entire nation struggles to survive, and waits.

The title of the work—almost nostalgic—has been laid out in calligraphy in the lower area of the print, and the viewer’s eye reads it while taking in the work itself. The effortless but firm line of Kcho’s drawing brings out the textures of the natural materials he uses, without bowing to the two-dimensionality of conventional drawing. For Kcho, a blank space is merely a workbench that surrounds and directs his three-dimensional concepts. More than just drawing, he sculpts on paper. As extrapolations of his phrase, “the drawing is the foundation of the idea,” these works stand on their own as autonomous drawings; at the same time, they are studies for possible sculptural works. They are the marks of a thought process, and of the possibility of the artist’s own utopia. Starting with Kcho, an appreciation for drawings as the artifacts of larger projects gained currency in contemporary Cuban art (and among its collectors).

Although some critics have likened Kcho’s work to the work of Juan Francisco Elso (one of the pioneers of Volumen I) or to Arte Povera, the artist’s low-tech approach fit in effortlessly with the post-conceptual explorations of 1990s art. Sculptors like Alejandro Aguilera and Alexis Somoza investigated the “ideological” connotations of classic sculpting materials, deconstructing the official depictions of patriotic symbols and historic figures. Kcho took the expanded field of sculpture a step further with his emphasis on nature in its “pure” state, and with the use of artisanal production techniques. “The works fashioned with branches and fibers taken from Cuban nature fall into the category of grand format sculpture, yet are light and transparent at the same time. The representation, as nonchalant as it is precarious, of a semiotics of the island, as well as of emblems of nationality, parodies the rhetoric used by the orthodox hierarchy to supposedly safeguard the values of the Cuban social project...” (Noceda, 2001, 31).

But the artist’s quest pointed toward deeper connotations in the Cuban sociocultural identity. Representation of the insular landscape had not undergone such a radical transformation since Wifredo Lam’s The Jungle (1943). Lam had turned Cuban nature into a myth, overcoming the limitations of a positivist, white-skinned criollism. Half a century later, with Kcho, the Cuban countryside was stripped of all sentimentality. In Island of My Dreams, the royal palm—the natural standard bearer of cubanidad, the Cuban essence, for the romantic poets of the 19th century—has become a vertical symbol of the island’s solitude.

By 2001, Kcho was already a champion in the “heavyweight division” of Cuban artists, with works exhibited in important museums and collections worldwide. His incessant production of sculptures, drawings, engravings, and even jewelry traverses a steady repertory of imagery: boats and rafts, oars and propellers, mobiles, infinite columns, docks, unorthodox assemblages. The artistic career of this Isle of Pines native seems to be driven exclusively by his inner need for expression, on principles that he apparently shares with Amelia Peláez, a modern Cuban artist from the past century: “She moved towards the future, but constantly looked for references in her own past; time and again, she would take up motifs or approaches she had not exhausted, and include them in the dominant direction of her work, which could then turn into an all-encompassing spiral, or veer off in a sort of momentary arabesque, only to return afterwards, enriched, to its primary course…” (Vázquez, 1996, 13).

The artifact represented in La conquista del espacio… is an icon of 20th-century avant-garde architecture: the Monument to the Third International. Designed between 1919 and 1920 by Soviet artist Vladimir Tatlin in homage to the Communist International, it was to be erected in Saint Petersburg, where it was intended to house an array of administrative offices. It was conceived as a steel structure taller than the Eiffel Tower, but the technological realities of Leninist Russia frustrated its construction, and in the end it became a symbol of the failure of architectural as well as social utopias.

The first “close encounter” between Kcho and Tatlin had occurred nine years before, when Kcho was working on A los ojos de la historia (In the Eyes of History), which was exhibited at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (MNBA) in Havana. A spiral tower assembled from twigs and plant fibers, it has an unstable, flimsy look, and is topped by . . . a rustic coffee strainer, Cuban country-style. “It’s a symbol of the socialist utopia that does not work,” said Kcho in Flash Art. “It was something like: let’s make coffee with that spiral. It has to be good for something!” (Budney, 1997, 6). This ironic take on the subject, absolutely purposeful, mirrored an extreme social imbalance. “Those were the years of nonstop migration of the most important visual artists in Cuba towards Mexico, Miami, and Spain . . . For many, the death of all utopias had been decreed” (Acosta, 2001, 7).

Nevertheless, the work of the Russian designer left a deep mark on Kcho’s sculptural conceptions (Llanes, 1995, 6), and he revisited it repeatedly as time went by. At the Valencia Biennial in 1995, he exhibited structures similar to A los ojos de la historia; by the end of that year, Tatlin’s towers had fused with Wifredo Lam’s Third World myths in Kcho’s exhibition, La Jungla (The Jungle) at the Museo Nacional. To make his sculptures, Kcho had recycled driftwood found near the seashore, as in Regatas (Regattas, 1994); now, he used the works of Tatlin and Lam as raw material for this process.

A peculiar remix of Tatlin’s tower, La conquista del espacio… caps off the thematic cycle initiated in A los ojos de la historia. The large-format paper has been turned into a notebook. In a stream-of-consciousness-like flow, the artist accentuates the unfinished character of the piece: he proposes technical solutions, details mechanisms, and annotates unconnected phrases, in the manner of the flying machine plans found in the codices of Leonardo da Vinci. In a technological miracle that would puzzle NASA experts, the failed Monument to the Third International has been transformed into a spaceship, an orbital vehicle capable of flying thanks to solar panels added by the artist. The betrayed utopia, as well as the massive architectural weight, are made to levitate despite the challenges of an incoherent technology. And thanks to the imaginative creativity of Kcho, assembler of impossible artifacts, the heady aroma of Cuban coffee will invade the vast immensity of astral space.

References: Cited catalogue, p. 51, item 123.

—Abelardo Mena Chicuri