Suppression vs. expression: Cuba's Muted Voices

Art Review 

Suppression vs. expression: Cuba's Muted Voices

Growing up in Cuba, Augusto Bordelois used to create art by mixing pine sap, kerosene, and pigments to make paint. He had to: The real stuff was only available in state-run schools or on the black market, and it cost a fortune anyway.

Like many artists given the chance by the Cuban government to exhibit internationally, Bordelois opted for a one-way ticket out of his homeland. Now settled in Cleveland, the proprietor of Augusto Fine Art on West 80th Street says he'd rather not be pigeonholed as a "Cuban artist" or "Cuban art dealer." As he puts it: "It's not my responsibility to educate."

But when one of his buyers in Boston was hosting a showcase of Cuba's greatest living print artists — some of whom Bordelois had worked and drank with himself — he became bent on bringing their work to Cleveland.

Pieces from 14 of the embargoed isle's masters now make up the current show Cuba on Paper. The collection represents a wide range of styles, from realism to fantasy, but many are informed by a spirit of protest. As Bordelois explains, decades of repression forced Cuban artists to express grievances through shrouded symbolism. "We couldn't say things straight," he says.

Ever Fonseca's screen print "La Garto en la Luna" (pictured) is an apt representation of the phenomenon. At first glance it's an energetic forest scene, rendered in deceptively simple primary colors and African-influenced mannerism. But then one notices that the titular garto (lizard) is wide-mouthed as if in a scream, suspended from the trees over a rushing river below — a perilous position that offers no escape.

This need for subtlety drove Cuban innovations in magic realism, represented here by Nelson Domínguez's scratchy, askew figures and Arturo Montoto's charcoal-black nails bent by use — yet still usable in a nation where fresh nails are hard to come by.

Bordelois says that "social understanding" animated many of the works, but no such insight is required to appreciate them: Their attractiveness, and their ability to speak to their own experiences, carries the day. The exhibition runs through April 20 at 1305 West 80th St., including this week's Third Friday celebration at 78th Street Studios. Learn more by calling 216-548-9798 or visit augustofineart.com. — Joseph Clark

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