The Farber Collection
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Pedro Álvarez

About Pedro Álvarez

1967-2004, resided in Cuba and Spain 

As the Berlin Wall was vanishing into thin air in 1989, a Cuban student was discovering the American artist Mark Tansey in an old issue of Art in America. Pedro Álvarez studied at the Havana University’s School of Artistic Education in a feverish era. Street performances of Arte Calle, fleeting art exhibitions only briefly open to the public, hot news about perestroika published in Soviet magazines, and the anti-establishment protest songs of Carlos Valera gave everyone at that moment the sense of being part of a great, revolving wheel—not of Fortune, but of History.

In the art schools, magazines and catalogues circulated featuring the works of Sandro Chia, David Salle, Julian Schnabel, Georg Baselitz, and the German trans-avant-garde—all obreros, so to speak, workers in the art of painting. For the most part, though, the attention of critics and artists alike was caught by installation art, process art, and charismatic figures in the style of Joseph Beuys. To think in terms of traditional resources and materials did not seem terribly avant-garde or original, but Tansey’s painterly heresy had an impact on Álvarez. “I told myself at that point: If this man is still painting nowadays and saying such interesting things, why not? After all, I have always loved to paint, and I have always loved to tell stories” (Sánchez, 2006).

Álvarez discovered new approaches to painting. His stance was shared by such art school colleagues as Alexis Esquivel, Leonel Borrás, Armando Mariño, the Mora brothers, and Alejandro Mendoza. The analytical education received by the “Columbia generation” (so called because the School of Artistic Education was based in the old military camp of that name) gave them a subtler vision of art, as well as an acute awareness of tradition and métier.

In his work, Álvarez began making references to Víctor Patricio Landaluze, the most celebrated Spanish painter and caricaturist ever to take up the subject of Cuba. In the mid-1800s, Landaluze produced albums of engravings, costumbrista paintings of everyday life and traditions, and satiric images of black slaves and servants. Álvarez took from Landaluze’s work the conventions of European genre painting, as well as several characters—among them the ireme, or dancing imp, of the Afro-Cuban Abakuá sect. The young artist frequently inserted the ireme as a symbol of popular culture; in these works, the deliberate frisson between title and image offered satiric commentary on Cuban current events and cultural obsessions. The idyllic vision of the colonial past was deflated by parodies that percolated from contemporary art into society at large.

By the time Álvarez participated in the Fifth Havana Biennial in 1994, his work reflected a mature and highly personal vision. The titles of his watercolors and canvases—Buenos días, por favor, su carnet de identidad (Good Morning, Your ID, Please, 1993, from the After Landaluze series), El Fin de la Historia (The End Of History, 1994), Martí’s Everlasting Speech, Chevrolet I Pineapple (1994), and Cecilia Valdés y la lucha de clases (Cecilia Valdés and Class Struggle, 1995), among others—introduced a veritable cocktail of eras, historical personalities and everyday objects. The pictorial space became a sort of carnivalesque video clip where Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, the father of the nation to many Cubans, and George Washington (from the reverse of a one-dollar bill) discussed the future of Cuba while strolling Havana’s beachfront promenade, and Landaluze’s mulatto girls sported the Phrygian cap of the Republic of 1902, while Norman Rockwell and Cuban painter Marcelo Pogolotti, French-born Cuban lithographer Frédéric Mialhe and a bottle of Coca Cola joined hands in a hilarious rumba in the gardens of the White House.

Álvarez’s narratives employed an analytical assemblage of fragments and images extracted—as if from a data bank of images—from Cuban and international art, commercial and political advertisements, as well as from 19th-century engravings. He intuitively selected and stockpiled clips from art catalogues, magazines, books, old postcards, and bank notes, using them in a more or less fragmentary way, as backgrounds, characters, or reference points. He seamlessly reproduced those images and followed, like a parodying chronicler, the spatial conventions of 19th-century historical painting. The irreverence of his method exposed the ideological nature of all visual “representation,” and undermined, with a postmodern sensibility, the linear character of historical time. The optimistic (positivist) concept of the future was reduced to chasing its own tail, stuck in a blind alley.

What Álvarez addressed was not the end of history as announced by Francis Fukuyama in 1992, but the impact of Cuba’s “Special Period” in the early 1990s. This era saw the end of the U.S.S.R. and of the belief in “Socialismo o Muerte” (“Communism or Death”); legalization of private enterprise and the possession of U. S. dollars; the revival of prostitution and the art market, a boom in tourism and widening social differences; the postponement of the collective utopia and the desperate search for individual solutions. Cuban reality became a tunnel through time, where historical signs interacted simultaneously, becoming incoherent fragments extracted from cultural and historic memory. All sense of a future was lacking; stripped of their aura of authority, the ghosts and myths of the past reincarnated themselves to mingle with the painful present.

Around 1997, Álvarez’s intense use of multiple visual references in a single composition seemed to dwindle. His collage method became focused on the juxtaposition of central figures, generally placed in the foreground, and a background selected from the artist’s “stockpile of images.” Domestic interiors showcased in such magazines as Better Homes and Gardens, and glimpses of American car and truck interiors from the 1940s and ’50s were arranged like tapestries, without the dramatic chiaroscuro and other theatrical conventions common to the artist’s previous work.

In Winter is coming…, the foreground characters are taken from the many propaganda images that appeared in the pages of Harper’s Weekly and William Randolph Hearst’s daily newspapers at the start of the Spanish-American War, which began with the explosion of the USS Maine in Havana Bay in February 1898. While Vitagraph Studios turned the Battle of Santiago Bay into a newsreel for nickelodeons—complete with special effects simulated in a bathtub—newspaper artists created inspirational scenes illustrating the friendship between Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders and the Cuban troops known as los Mambises. In Álvarez’s piece, the warriors, carrying their respective flags, shake hands ceremoniously before a background copied from a Disney cartoon. Their insertion in a dream environment, and the frank disregard for proportion, create an ironic commentary on the relationship of Cuban and American cultures throughout history: a relationship marked by mutual attraction and lack of understanding, by the search for “exoticism” in close proximity, and by the struggle to escape being co-opted.

Folklore, Homenaje a Öyvind Fahlström (Folklore: Homage to Öyvind Fahlström) imitates the Cinemascope movie format, which had been imported from the United States and very popular in Cuba during the 1950s. Two white explorers enter a luxuriant tropical forest. The woman, in the classic attire and pose of ancient sculpture, bears the attributes of St. Barbara, a Catholic figure transmuted in Afro-Cuban Santería into Shangó, god of thunder. Dressed in stars and stripes, the man carries an enormous hypodermic syringe labeled with the word ‘Folklore.’ The presence of three black characters, who frolic through the jungle dressed in hot-hued fabrics, is evidently incongruous with the rest of the scene. Coined in the 19th century, the term “folklore” was related to the search for and classification of “inferior,” “savage,” and “primitive” cultures by European and American anthropologists. Álvarez theatricalizes the concept, transforming it into an Indiana Jones-style saga that reveals the artificiality underlying the idea of escaping civilization in a quest for the primitive world.

—Abelardo Mena Chicuri