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Umberto Peña

About Umberto Peña

b. Havana 1937, resides in Salamanca, Spain

Umberto Peña spells his first name the Italian way, like his famous namesake, the Futurist painter, sculptor, and theorist Boccioni. Peña, however, is Cuban, and renowned above all as a painter and graphic designer, two professions he pursued simultaneously until 1969.

For Peña’s art, the 1960s were a productive decade. In 1960 he had his first solo show at the Center for Contemporary Art in Mexico. In 1964, he received a special award at the Havana Exhibition, a Latin American art competition organized by House of the Americas, and in 1967, another at the Fifth Paris Biennale of Young Artists. That year, the city of Havana hosted the Salon de Mai and an International Festival of Protest Song. Through such routes, the latest art trends, such as Pop Art and the neo-figurative movement, found their way into Cuba, along with a more rebellious spirit. Unfortunately, the dogmatic mindset of cultural officials would prove a strong deterrent to the creative freedom announced by Fidel Castro in his 1961 speech, “Words to Intellectuals.”

Peña was disinclined to paint the epic themes that artists were directed to tackle, leaning instead toward the erotic and the scatological. In 1965, he began alternating between his own highly personal art and his official work as book designer for House of the Americas. In any case, his painting and design work were parallel but very different endeavors. The abstract, geometric style and calm, ascetic approach he favored in designing books and magazines diverged sharply from his paintings of the same period.

Foo Foo Fooo muchas veces (Phew, Phew, Phew Many Times), for instance, reconciles the chromatic stridence of Pop Art with caustic neo-figuration and grotesque expressionism. The work could easily be considered part of a larger series of kindred paintings. The design of this particular piece transcends the semantic dimension of the Italian word disegno—outline or drawing—and its original Renaissance meaning as a sketch or plan, intended to crystallize an idea in expressive terms of visual effect, morphology, syntax, and composition. Peña resorted to bilateral symmetry to divide, in a tidy, balanced way, the top and bottom halves of the painting. The figure is in the very center of the canvas, becoming its vertical axis. The resulting composition could not be more balanced, almost to the point of stasis. Nevertheless, the work is pure imbalance—sheer passion.

The use of a psychologically serene pigment like green for the horizontal dividing line contrasts with the aggressively red background—its complementary color, prevalent in this piece. The emotions associated with the color red are accentuated by the literally fleshless figure that unites, in an antagonistic, dislocated manner, both a expansive opening and an implosive clamping shut.

Such violence may be understood as an expression of an existential conflict or dilemma between the outer persona dictated by society and the inner being of the artist. It may be seen as the need to communicate versus the external or self-imposed need to stifle such expression. This painting may be seen as a portent of the crisis that came two years later, when, faced with the pressures of that era, Peña gave up painting altogether to devote himself to graphic design—a discipline that did not offer the complete freedom of expression possible in painting or printmaking.

In Peña’s paintings the scatological and the repulsive found visible manifestation not only in the grotesque representation of certain signifiers such as toilets and human innards, but also in emphasizing their meaning, in a perhaps tautological manner, through text added to the composition. In some cases these were strings of words or names, at other times onomatopoeias or ejaculations.

Foo foo (phew, eww) is a Cuban expression, now somewhat fallen into disuse, that denotes a reaction to stench or fetidness. In the painting, it is a cry that seems to arise from the bowels. The repetition emphasizes its strength, its belligerence. However, what stinks? What is the source of such an expression of disgust? One can only speculate. Although Peña can be very graphic (in all senses of the word), and his insistence borders on the reiterative, the meaning of his paintings is never transparent; rather, it is recondite, encrypted, polysemic, teeming with questions.

This use of text should not be strange in a professional book designer, someone with the ability to integrate words and typography as elements of composition. Some specialists, however, consider the inclusion of texts in Peña’s paintings as a legacy or appropriation of the language of comics, which in Pop Art was most notable in the work of American artist Roy Lichtenstein.

                                                                                     —Israel Castellanos León