Arte por excelencias 4 (2009), pp. 76-77, illus.
Kelly Crow, “Cuba Now,” Wall Street Journal (3/27/09), p. W12. Rubén del Valle Lantarón, et al., eds., Décima bienal de la Habana 2009 (Cuba: Artecubano Ediciones and Centro de Arte Contemporáneo Wifredo Lam, 2009), p. 476.
b. Niquero, Cuba, 1968
Reynerio Tamayo’s art has been commanding attention since the late 1980s, touched by the all-inclusive, postmodern vocation that permeated Cuban art in that era. From the start, humor has been one of the real foundations of his painting, standing in transparent relationship to popular culture and kitsch. Tamayo partook of the liberating merriment offered by a cultural environment notoriously fond of appropriation, quotes, and parodies, merging them with different forms of humor (and typical Cuban mockery, or choteo) and the visual language of comics. These strategies became integral to the works’ conception and essential elements of his art.
In the catalogue for Tamayo’s exhibition Gótico, neogótico y estrambótico (Gothic, Neogothic and Bizarre, Wifredo Lam Center, 1988), Cuban artist Jesús González de Armas commended Tamayo’s works for their exquisiteness and minute preciosity, and likened his skill to that of medieval manuscript illuminators, while on the other hand pondering the artist’s exceptional sense of humor. The virtuosity of Tamayo’s craft, together with his ingenious imagination, became the hallmarks of his style, and their evolution may be followed through drawings, ceramics, posters, watercolors, paintings, installations, and sculptures.
The elements of absurdity and satire inherent to Tamayo’s aesthetic—based on recycling, quoting, and lampooning the entire history of art—merged with his flair for choteo to sketch a unique caricature of society. His works became a singular chronicle of sorts, taking shape in the mix of wit and lyricism with which he depicted well-known types, everyday life, popular customs, and national scenes in the late 1980s. These elements are also present in his ironic, incisive reflections on the multiple absurdities of life on the island in the 1990s, when his paintings gained in intensity and importance. The turn toward more universal themes became more pronounced during his years in Spain (1996-2006), and his most recent works reveal a humanist vocation focused on critical observation of the issues that besiege the contemporary world. The nature of his artistic discourse led him toward more complex forms of humor, from the predictability of satire to the stifled laughter common to pastiche.
Related to this aspect of his current work are several sculpture projects, some of them only recently fabricated. His watercolor La lámpara maravillosa de Aladino (Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp, 2006-2008) could be considered a preview of what not much later would be the metal sculpture of the same name. Created in collaboration with sculptor Eulises Niebla, it became one of the cardinal pieces of the exhibition Magma mía!!! at Villa Manuela in 2008.
Though done in different mediums, both works gave free rein to Tamayo’s vision of modern times, which stems from the central power struggles that define them. Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp denounces those who hold the reins of the world in their hands without caring about the cost of the constant wars waged for control over Middle East oil. The idea, previewed in the watercolor and then fully realized as a metal artifact, used the lamp as a symbol of the Arab world, borrowing it from the tale of Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp in The Arabian Nights. The story’s universal appeal worked in the artist’s favor; emblematic of that region of the globe, it resonated widely in Western culture.
The two works play on a hybridization of the magical oil lamp from the tale and modern warships. Both images meld into a single figure, dominated by a display of artillery. The corroded steel details suggest oxidation as a symbol of the ravages of time, and the rose tints on gray evoke the blood spilt in more than one war, whose real motive was the control of the considerable oil reserves in that region—among other strategic reasons.
The propulsion of a lamp like the one depicted by Tamayo constitutes the axis of the modern world in political, economic, and environmental terms. That is precisely what makes Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp a metaphor for globalization.
The watercolor Buque Petrolero (Oil Tanker, 2009) and the acrylic painting of the same name are parts of that portrait of the modern world Tamayo is interested in creating. The watercolor sketches the idea in a single image: one of those massive ships designed for the transport of oil merges with the undulating body of a snake. Tamayo made the painting for a presentation to the selection committee of the Tenth Havana Biennale. It rounded out the details of the sculpture project he later created in collaboration with Eulises Niebla, establishing the scale of the piece and its relationship with the viewer.
Oil Tanker is related to the same energies that Tamayo channeled in Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp. In both mediums, Oil Tanker is, as Tamayo and Niebla described it, “a kind of monster slithering over the waters of the world, looking for the fuel of life,” a trope that suggests the global dependence on hydrocarbons. This narrows down its symbolism, as well as the role of such a ship as a facilitator or a barrier to development, in being the way the fuel is transported. The analogy between the vessel and the reptile signals the capacity for destruction inherent in the transported fluid, at the same time underlining the dangers of warring over control of the planet’s oil reserves.
Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp and Oil Tanker embody new profiles of the planet: hybrid, crossbred bodies, with which Reynerio Tamayo has created a metaphor that represents the essence of contemporary times.
—Caridad Blanco de la Cruz