«Painted» with fish hooks: Yoan Capote, American Appeal (detail), 2010
Courtesy Jack Shainman Gallery

This past week, Cuban Art News caught up with Yoan Capote, in New York for the installation of his exhibition, Mental States, opening tonight at Jack Shainman Gallery in Chelsea. Following up on last week’s short video interview with documentarist Ketty Mora, here Capote talks in greater detail about works in the show, and what it’s like to be an international artist based in Cuba.

To begin, maybe you could give us an overview of the show and the themes you’re exploring in these pieces. 

Mental States is a compilation of works and ideas that came to mind after my first encounter with American culture. That was in 2002, when I came here for the first time. I was writing several ideas and concentrating on the psychological issues of that. In this case I was attracted to and interested in the relationship with fantasies, obsessions, and seduction.

The show includes three large pieces that were ‘painted,’ so to speak, with fish hooks. How did those come about?

After my experience in America, I was analyzing objects that have some relationship to this theme. And it happens that one of them is an ancient object, very common in Cuba, and that’s the fish hook. It’s a symbol of seduction and attraction, the trap. In the first work in that series, called American Appeal, I reproduced the first postcard I received from New York.

It’s made with a thousand fish hooks. The process of creation is very, very obsessive. It’s very meticulous work. And there’s an interesting relationship with the energy of the painting, because it’s painted with a lot of impasto, a lot of thick oil, and the brush strokes have a lot of energy. And in opposition, you have these fish hooks attached by hammering nails one by one, in a very mechanical and craftsmanlike way. From a distance the fish hooks look like the lines of a drawing or an etching—I was inspired by all the prints and photographs of New York in the 1930s. From a distance it could be like a drawing, but close up, it’s like a sculpture or a painting.

I’m also very interested in how I had to use people to produce that piece. A lot of assistants—like, twenty people—were working with me. And this gives another content to the piece, because [in this show] I’m talking about collective obsessions—like migration, like the American Dream, the myth of American real life. That’s why I consider this exhibition to be a site-specific project, because it’s meant to be shown in America. In that context, of course, it could be that there are pieces that are more universal, in the same way that a Hollywood film could be universal.

These are really big pieces.

In my case, scale is usually a conceptual element. I decided to use this scale [for American Appeal], because it related to the megalomania of the city. The same with another piece I did, called IslaIsland. It’s the biggest piece in the show, eight meters—big, huge scale. Because the first image that Cubans have of America is the sea. They look at the sea and imagine what is beyond. With obsession. Some with the obsession of escape, some just with [the obsession of] knowing.

There’s an analogy, a connection between the sea and the fish hook. But in this case, it’s the sea that traps people. It’s the drama of people, the risk of people who cross the Caribbean Sea. And you look at that surface—it’s a dangerous surface. And yet from a distance, it’s ancient.

Other artists, like Vija Celmins and Felix Gonzalez-Torres, have used the image of the sea, of water. But in this case, I’m giving a more tactile and more multisensorial experience to that representation.

There’s another piece in the show, called Beautiful People After Party, that goes in a different direction.

Yes, it was inspired by another of the discoveries that I made in this society, and that’s the industry of sex and sexuality. It’s about the contradiction behind the minimalism of a piece that is very polished and very finished. For me, minimalism is the symbol of social control, social stereotypes of good taste, social stereotypes of high art, of everything that is clean and perfect.

And when you open the piece, you access all the mutations and changes that are happening with sexual behavior in contemporary life. It’s like a big orgy, with a lot of elements that, from a sculptural point of view, are interesting. But also was inspired by all this sex-shop industry. When you open the piece, it’s like this—penetrations, one part of the piece to the other, fingers, other parts of the body. It’s a work that Louise Bourgeois could have done, could do maybe if she had another… (laughs) you know… Because it is the new perspective of sexuality in contemporary life.

I did a piece like this before, called Love After Brancusi. But here, it is extreme. All this complicated new world of sexuality is expressed in this piece. When it’s closed, it’s very, very minimal. Very, very correct. It’s is done to be shown closed.


People could open it, yeah. But if a collector or museum has it, it must be closed.

Quite a temptation…But let’s shift now to a broader perspective. What do you see as the most interesting challenges for Cuban artists of your generation?

I belong to a generation of young artists in Cuba that have a big challenge [to negotiate] between local concerns and an international perspective. [It’s important to] recognize that in the future, maybe the political exoticism of Cuba is going to disappear, but art is forever. That’s why every time we do a piece of art, we try to create multi-layers. It means [making] work that can remain after all the interest in Cuba is finished. And of course, every piece of art must be understood in its historical and geographical context.

In my point of view, the big challenge of Cuban art is to create art that is deeper in the human sense. That’s why I decided to [focus on] the neuronal or psychological analysis. I’m talking about, or talking from, an international language of the body, an international language of the human experience. Jorge Luis Borges said that what is important to one human being is important to all.

What’s it like to be an international artist based in Cuba these days?

I belong to this group of artists in Cuba, as I say, this new generation that doesn’t consider leaving Cuba as the only solution. I am one of those artists who [put] all their effort and budget into having a good—how would you say—command post in Havana, because it’s the place that I learned to live in and handle.

Some other people, some other artists who emigrated, I think did this because they came from the 1980s, in a different society. And when the 1990s arrived, it was a very special period, very very difficult. They couldn’t support it. But I grew up in this Special Period. I learned how to survive, how to handle myself in this context. And I have my friends, I have my family [in Havana]. I don’t think that in contemporary life, you have to live in only one place. Life today, the world, the internet… If you have a gallery representing your work in different countries, you don’t need to live in one place. But in my case it is there [in Havana] that I have the best solution to the production of my works.

Artists right now have a lot of liberty [in Cuba]—about opinions and about mobility. It is a privilege. In 2010 I went to Lisbon, I went to Spain, I went to Rome, I went to different places this year. And other years, too. I have been moving around a lot. Although I am an artist who doesn’t… I am very close to my studio, because my work needs a lot of craft, and a lot of physical attention. That’s why I don’t consider myself an artist who travels a lot. I just go to the opening, or I just go, like now, in the moment that I have the exhibition. But most of the year I am in my studio in Cuba. I have been constructing that studio for four years. It is a good space for doing any kind of work.

Mental States is on view at Jack Shainman Gallery through November 13.