b. Havana 1963, resides in U.S.A.
Tomás Esson Reid is one of the most significant artists to have emerged in Cuba during the 1980s. Creator of provocative works, and something of a controversial figure himself in the Cuban context, Esson participated, along with Carlos Cárdenas and Glexis Novoa, in the exhibition Patria o Muerte (Fatherland or Death), presented at Havana’s Castillo de la Fuerza in 1989. Like them, he chose to emigrate in the early 1990s.
In Cuba, Esson began a body of work that critics tend to label as grotesque, mythological, and vulgar. Beast-human hybrids and sheer monstrosities, often in distorted poses, populated his paintings, drawings, and sculptures. Those hideous figures took center stage in universes devoid of apparent contextual clues. Their rotund forms made them appear almost too corporeal, even telluric, for their two-dimensional plane. A sense of fleshed-out volume was Esson’s mark of visual belligerence.
Above all—as he confessed to art critic Gerardo Mosquera—Esson’s main interest as an artist was the visual effect in itself. It did not concern him whether his works were in sync with postmodernism, a mainstream current that, needless to say, he cheerfully ignored. He did not delve in postmodern quotes, appropriations, or pastiches.
An admirer of Goya, van Gogh, the Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros, and fellow Cuban Servando Cabrera Moreno, Esson shares with those artists an expressionistic essence. Isolation, alienation, deformity, and violence are vectors of a heightened expressivity in those masters’ works, as well as in Esson’s. With Cabrera Moreno in particular, Esson has in common a loving treatment of flesh and a daring focus on certain parts of the human anatomy, as Mosquera noted in the catalogue for Esson’s first solo exhibition, A tarro partido (Horn, Tooth, and Nail), 1987. Esson’s focus on deformity and the grotesque could border on caricature, but it is first and foremost a personal, deeply felt stylistic approach.
Spoulakk (1987) and Talisman (1989) have a few points in common. One is the figure viewed from the back; another is the emphasis on the female derrière, so highly valued since the earliest cultures. As a matter of fact, Esson’s female figures show a steatopygic tendency à la Venus of Willendorf, made contemporary with the exuberant voluptuousness of a typical Cuban woman.
In creating his monster-women, Esson did not allow himself to be seduced by the “body-building” stereotypes of the 1980s. His intention was not to paint beautiful or pleasing figures. His archetypes were coded reflections of the crassness and vulgarity prevalent in Cuban society, the aggressive crudeness that prevailed on the streets and in the home, which he did not represent directly.
Esson’s gaze was further saturated with a jesting, scatological humor. With typical Cuban cheekiness, he used as a title a seemingly Russian word, Spoulakk, which, spelled out, is the phrase ese pe-o (h)u-ele a ca-ca (“that fart smells like doo-doo”). In this, Esson follows the example of Foo Foo Fooo muchas veces (Phew, Phew, Phew Many Times), a 1967 painting by Cuban artist Umberto Peña.
Looking from the back—but not in flashback—the viewer does not find in Spoulakk and Talisman an adoration of the female derrière, but a strong visual impression, not necessarily erotic or ritualistic. Buttocks and horns seem to coalesce into a sort of good-luck charm—an “artistic amulet”—as well as a signature motif that shows up again and again in his work. One way or the other, Esson reminds us that the viewer of a work of art is always a voyeur.
In Talisman his virtuosity—with the sculpted form, and with visual synthesis as well—is evident. Spoulakk shows off his gifts as a draftsman and painter. His brush deftly traces black contouring lines while giving volume, gestural expressivity, and chromatic nuance to what is essentially a gaseous form.
For Esson, painting means attacking the canvas with a loaded brush, fleshing out a “sketched structure” to give visual form to an idea. An idea, however, that is most definitely better seen than smelled.
—Israel Castellanos León