Los Carpinteros, Sala de Lectura (Reading Room)

Drama Turquesa (Turquoise Drama), the first exhibition in Madrid by the Cuban art group Los Carpinteros (Marco Castillo and Dagoberto Rodríguez) hit the headlines in the Spanish cultural press well ahead of its May 4 opening. Popular newspapers such as ABC.es and El Cultural (of the El Mundo newspaper)  have already released interviews of the artists as well as comments on the exhibition, which is presented by Ivorypress Art+ Books, the organization run by Madrileña cultural mover Elena Ochoa Foster.

Ochoa Foster, CEO of Ivorypress and Ivorypress Art+Books cultural center (and former wife of British archiitect Sir Norman Foster) has been at the helm of the institution from its beginnings. The organization was founded to promote outstanding design, architecture, photography, and contemporary art. Its activities include publishing limited editions and stocking out-of-print art-books. Housed in Art + Books’ handsomely renovated former garage, Drama Turquesa features ten large sculptures and nine drawings by Los Carpinteros, who are among the most acclaimed contemporary Cuban artists. It is the largest European exhibition of their work in the past decade.

The title of the show is inspired by one of the works on view, the watercolor Turquoise Spillage—which, according to the artists, is itself an ironic reference to the current situation in Cuba. Installed as site-specific art, the large sculptures incorporate a range of materials, from wood (Reading Room, a structure based on the panopticon), plastic (Patas de rana, or Frogs’ Legs), and 16m, an exaggeratedly long clothing rack hung with an endless line of men’s black jackets over white shirts—each with a fist-sized hole in the exact same spot, making it possible to view a distant vista through the perforated clothing.

Along with Carlos Garaicoa, Fernando Rodríguez, Sandra Ramos, Ibrahim Miranda, Esterio Segura, and Alberto Casado, Los Carpinteros were part of the 1990s generation of artists, who have since gained recognition worldwide. Los Carpinteros’ works are held by such institutions as New York’s MoMA, the Tate Modern in London, and the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. The duo has also shown its work in such galleries as Fortes Vilaca (Brasil), Selwyn Grant (New York) and Ángel Romero (Madrid).

Madrid has personal significance for Castillo and Rodriguez. In 1994, when they arrived in the Spanish capital on their first trip abroad, Cuba had lost its Soviet subsidies and had plunged into the so-called Special Period, a time of severe economic hardship. “The country was suffering from hunger and Havana seemed to be a place where everyone wanted to fly away from. Spain was quite the opposite. There was a strong energy. That trip was like to rediscovering the world,” the artists recalled in a recent interview.

At that point, Los Carpinteros’ artworks stressed artisanal techniques, along with canvas and wood as the basic materials (hence the name of the group). Scrap wood and junked furniture was scavenged from houses abandoned by wealthy Cubans fleeing the country, especially in the Country Club neighborhood of Havana, near the Instituto Superior de Arte where the duo studied. With the artist Alexandre Arrechea as part of the group until 2003, Los Carpinteros produced works ranging from paintings and sculpture to the design of “impossible objects,” which they first envisioned in watercolor, then outsourced for fabrication. With Groucho Marx-like humor touched with surrealism and a sly eye for the “found object,” Los Carpinteros emerged on the international art scene with an unique personality, evident in their earliest museums and gallery exhibitions.

Creators of such classic installations as Ciudad Transportable (Portable City), La Mano Creadora (The Creative Hand), and the series devoted to modern architecture in Havana, Los Carpinteros’ fascination with objects of everyday use—and the metaphors that emerge through their manipulation—may be a reaction to the material shortages they have experienced in Cuba. However, their work also criticizes consumer mentality, which no one can escape from. As the artists themselves put it: “ If you want to produce art you must concentrate on your own metaphors, on your own language. Our work is an evasive fiction. It’s like The Lord of the Rings, tropical-style.”