The Farber Collection
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Los Carpinteros

About Los Carpinteros

Dagoberto Rodríguez Sánchez (b. 1969, resides in Cuba) and
Marco Antonio Castillo Valdés (b. 1971, resides in Cuba) and
Alexandre Arrechea (b.1970, resides in Cuba). (Arrechea left the group in 2003.)

In the 1990s, Dagoberto Rodríguez, Alexandre Arrechea, and Marco Castillo were christened “Los Carpinteros” (The Carpenters) for the paintings and sculptures they made using self-taught carpentry techniques. The wood came from nearby forests and abandoned houses. This was the time of the “Special Period,” when any materials—even those of illegal origin—were invaluable for the making of art. With absolute fluidity, they created and lived together in student residences. Their self-portrayal as “craftsmen” proved attractive to cultural institutions, and today Los Carpinteros are important international ambassadors of Cuban art.

Their travels, exhibitions, and sojourns abroad expanded the horizons of the team (now a duo), and encouraged them to adopt new materials and production techniques. Watercolors replaced oil painting, and, as they put it, “we focused on making furniture. In other words, we focused on the idea of furniture, metaphors for things, objects, thoughts, but everything expressed through furniture and design” (Lowinger, 1999, 38). They were inveterate readers of Popular Mechanics magazine; in their sketches a topsy-turvy world was born. A logic based on incoherence and contradiction transformed buildings, tools, household objects, furniture, swimming pools, and coffeemakers. Frequently aided by engineers and architects, Los Carpinteros produce an anti-design that cloaks the Cuban flair for improvisation and humor in extreme sophistication and refinement. Considered surrealists with liberal doses of Groucho Marx, they have argued: “...we are realistic, but in a ludic way” (Anselmi, 1998, 98).

Los Carpinteros’ ideas are nurtured by lateral thinking and caustic metaphors. In Embajada Rusa (Russian Embassy, 2003, Guggenheim Museum) and Someca (2002), a peculiar architectonic critique transforms buildings into chests of drawers. Mueble Gordo (Fat Furniture) depicts a different process. This piece of furniture was conceived in similar fashion as the rest of its species, but its profile has undergone a sudden deformation. The objects and people painted by Colombian artist Fernando Botero enjoy their own obesity from a perspective, at once satirical and tender, that flirts with the viewer. In Mueble Gordo, an unusual engorgement causes the chest’s supports to buckle outwards and its very nails to tremble. It is the work of a merciless hand that wants nothing less than to challenge the grammar through which we apprehend the world.

For Los Carpinteros, watercolor is an ideal medium. Since the Renaissance, it has been commonly considered a sort of laboratory or sketch medium—to be used before creating the finished piece in oil, the real star in the salon hierarchy. These historical connotations, as well as watercolor’s relative ease of execution, come together in the duo’s large-format drawings. Here, freshness and spontaneity—as if the works had just been dashed off moments ago—coexist in paradoxical tension with the meticulous depiction of the objects being portrayed. Rendered with the fastidious detail of a technical manual, these objects form a peculiar, post-human landscape, where things frequently exchange functions, transform themselves into hybrid items of dubious utility, or shed new light on ambiguous metaphors.

The subject of Cosmos is the cinder block, a veritable philosopher’s stone for popular construction in Cuba. Faced with the extinction of the clay brick, Cubans started making cinder blocks in their homes and workshops, using rudimentary technology. Symbolic of a low-tech, broadly democratic approach, the cinder block has appeared in the works of Tonel, for example in Bloqueo (Blockade, 1989), as well as in previous pieces by Los Carpinteros themselves. In Proyecto de acumulación de materiales (Project for the Accumulation of Materials, 1999, MoMA), as well as in Proyecto de Bloques (Block Project, 2001), the blocks look as though they’ve been lifted out of a snapshot. In Piscina-Bloque (Swimming Pool-Block, 2002, Farber Collection), the block design is transferred to a pool, forming a strangely hybrid object.

The cosmos as conceived by Los Carpinteros does not belong to the natural order described by Alexander von Humoldt, nor is it part of Carl Sagan’s poetic visions. In a veritable tour de force of visual artistry, the cinder blocks levitate in weightless space like stray pieces of a Lego set. They rotate to avoid collision with nearby blocks, but do not orbit as meteorites, planets, and starships would. Rather, they most likely seem to be the remains of a sudden explosion, a Big Bang captured by a high-speed camera. The drawing appears to describe an impossible process with the serene objectivity of an eyewitness. It is the apotheosis of anti-architecture, a tropical version of Monsú Desiderio’s visionary fantasy, Explosion in a Cathedral.

In his chronicle “The Great Blue River,” published in Holiday (1949), Ernest Hemingway described in “slow motion” the entrance to the harbor of Havana and the lighthouse at the Castillo de Los Tres Reyes del Morro, or Morro Castle. Admired by Cubans and visitors alike, this symbol of the city had had a profound impact on Hemingway. In the 1960s, the phrase “Cuba, lighthouse of Latin America” reflected the influence of the island on a rebellious continent. And in 1989, the artists Ponjuán-René Francisco again took up the lighthouse motif in their canvas Las ideas llegan más lejos que la luz (Ideas Travel Farther Than Light).

Working with the same theme, in 1997 Los Carpinteros (The Carpenters) created a lighthouse surrounded by water in a wooden basin. Three years later, they installed Ciudad Transportable (Portable City) in front of Havana Bay. Like balloon-frame houses, this ensemble of lightweight, aluminum-and-fabric buildings was designed for easy transport and set-up. A lighthouse was one of the structures chosen for this ideal city, intended to be erected in the shortest possible time. In their Mundos de faros transparentes (Worlds of Transparent Lighthouses, 2001), the accumulation of towers underlined a loss of geographical reference points, while the structures’ translucence contrasted sharply with their usual solidity.

For Los Carpinteros, the drawing has a function as ambiguous as the object it portrays. It records a creative process of a metaphoric nature, beyond any logic. “It seemed to represent a view of an object that already exists, even though only on paper.” (Hoptman, 2003, 34) In this sense, Los Carpinteros’ imaginative capacity knows no bounds. Their drawings for projects pile up and are exhibited as autonomous pieces until a moment or circumstance makes production feasible. Faro Tumbado includes measurements and notes for possible construction, as a sketch for a later sculpture. In this case, the dream did materialize: during the Ninth Havana Biennial in 2006, Los Carpinteros exhibited a colossal concrete and metal lighthouse in Havana Gallery, which was later acquired by the Tate Modern.

Isolated from any context, the tower in Faro Tumbado hovers diagonally over the picture plane. The realistic representation, as well as the subtle transparencies of watercolor, accentuate the weirdness of the situation. In Spanish, the title lends an ironic touch: “tumbado” could mean that the object has fallen due to an external force, or that it has simply lain down to sleep. The dual interpretations contribute to the ambiguity of this singular situation. Collapsed like an exhausted animal, its Fresnell lamps turning toward the floor, the stone tower that kept Cuban nights company for centuries no longer illuminates the way for seagoing craft. And a blind lighthouse points to a city that has disappeared from ocean maps.

References: Just in Time, Subastahabana auction catalogue, La Casona Gallery, Havana, 2004, illust. p. 65.

—Abelardo Mena Chicuri