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Toirac & Marrero

About Toirac & Marrero

José A. Toirac (b. 1966, Guantánamo, Cuba)
Meira Marrero (b. 1969, Havana, Cuba)

Toirac's works could be easily defined as a non-official chronicle of Cuban history in the last half-century. The artist proceeds in the manner of an archaeologist, compiling and processing the images of historic events and personalities presented by the island's news media.

Along with J.P. Ballester, in the second half of the 1980s Toirac was part of a collective called ABTV (Angulo-Ballester-Toirac-Villazón). As a group, they bet on a post-conceptual approach to art: for them, what was essential was not images but their symbolic economy, the way society generates and circulates them in pursuit of a collective consensus or the isolation of the “other.” Indispensable to the development of this point of view was their discovery of American artists Louise Lawler, Sherrie Levine, and Richard Prince; the Canadian group General Idea; and German artist Hans Haacke. ABTV brought to Cuban art a self-critical perspective that it lacked, as well as an urgency to explore the possible limitations of art in a Communist society situated in the Third World.

The intense but short-lived presence of ABTV caused a shift in the artist's role, from an emphasis on technical skills and individual style to a redesigning of the politics of exegesis through curatorial actions. Consequently, parody, pastiche, and public exhibitions became their favorite weapons for exposing the contentious links between the art market, political institutions, censorship, and social simulations.

Toirac uses painting and video as low-tech tools to exemplify how Western religious myths survive in the political images broadcast by mass media. In the context of the history-painting genre, his art is revulsive rather than affirming: he is not interested in reasserting official narratives, but in turning them upside down and exposing the artificiality of their discourse. For this reason, he tends to forgo individual pieces, opting instead for lengthy series that allow him to establish deep connections between the images he reproduces from the news.

For his paintings, he has appropriated the “Gerard Richter technique,” a personal take on the blurring that the great German artist has been using since the 1970s in his series on politicians and historical personalities from that European nation. This blurring, related to the wear of time and to a palette of grays born from black-and-white movie nostalgia, is a distancing mechanism used by Toirac to preclude any complacency in the viewer, to sabotage any certainty or transparency in the meaning of the images. He also nods to Richter in such series as Presidentes de Cuba (Presidents of Cuba), reproducing from the pages of Bohemia magazine monochromatic images of Cuban leaders, from Tomás Estrada Palma to Fidel Castro.

The sheer multiplicity of Fidel Castro's and Che Guevara's images in Toirac’s repertoire has in some instances triggered the disqualification of his works as “official” art, and in others prompted the intervention of censorship. However, these images are essential components of the iconographic universe that Cubans have been fed over decades; they have been basic tools in the hegemonic building of their subjective lives.

Eternity is part of a series created in 2000 about the new socioeconomic realities introduced by the decriminalization of the U.S. dollar, the broadcasting of commercial ads, and the drive to incite consumption. The fusion of the emphatic photo of Fidel Castro with a Calvin Klein ad comments on the commodification of History and the breaking with the Franciscan ideal imposed by the revolution—a critical emphasis that Toirac shares with Chinese artist Wang Guangyi, who began his “Great Criticism” series in 1990. The visual imprint left by Che Guevara, the Argentinian who left his middle-class life to become a guerrilla fighter and an anti-imperialist leader, is another series of icons to which Toirac returns continually (Che). It allows him to approach the themes of death, sacrifice, traditional painting themes such as the vanitas, fragmentation of memory, and the shared spaces of politics and religion.

Atlantes—conceived with his partner Meira Marrero—is a series of four life-size paintings. They reproduce snapshots of the leader of the Cuban revolution at various moments of his life, from the photo taken by Alberto Korda in the Sierra Maestra in 1960 to a recent picture after he renounced his role as head of state. The selected images reproduce in turn original photographs, in which Castro appears alone, pensive, seen from a lower level, as if he were engrossed in a dialogue with the heavens or the supreme forces of History. The title, taken from Greek mythology, is a symbol of the Titans condemned by the god Zeus to hold on their shoulders the pillars that separated the Earth from the heavens.

In an interview for that exhibition, the artists explained their point of view: ”We focus on those events that have shaped the life of present-day Cuban society, and at the same time are points of cultural interaction with human history in general.”

                                                                      —Abelardo Mena Chicuri