Abel Barroso, Visa to El Dorado (2007)

At the Marlborough Chelsea gallery, Abel Barroso, Roberto Diago, Kcho, William Pérez, and Ernesto Rancaño have filled two floors of gallery space, with works ranging from drypoint-etched plexiglass to installation art crafted from everyday objects. In all cases, notes exhibition organizer Pablo Vallecilla, the works examine what it means to be an artist “living in Havana.”

For sculptor and printer William Pérez, the challenges to be overcome included a severe light-bulb shortage in Havana over the past year, which he solved by illuminating his pieces with sophisticated fiber optics. It is the sort of paradox, writes art historian and curator Corina Matamoros in her catalogue essay, that is “pure Havana.” Ernesto Rancaño’s thorn-covered ladder and hammer and shovel bristling with nails speak of a transformative sensibility that is both poetic and confounding. Roberto Diago uses welded metal sheets and recycled wooden boards, among other materials, to evoke Cuba’s African cultural ancestry, while Kcho’s works contemplate the isolation of an island nation and the perilous ocean flight of its citizens across the Straits of Florida. His installation work The Way/El Camino (2010), which dominates the first-floor gallery, consists of a poverty-stricken shack on one end and its more prosperous twin on the other, linked by an ominous-looking tunnel of oversized truck inner tubes—a common vessel for Cubans desperate enough to attempt the 90-mile journey.

Although three of his colleagues in the show were expected to attend the opening, Abel Barroso was the only one to have made it through the visa gauntlet in time for the reception in late May. “This happened to me with another show,” he commented at the reception. “I did get the visa, but not in time to make the opening.” One of Barroso’s works in the show deals quite literally with this bureaucratic conundrum: Visa to El Dorado/Visa para el Dorado (2007), a machinelike sculpture made of carved wood and incised plexiglass, in which a stamp-wielding hand hovers over a passport, ready to grant or deny entry with the turn of a crank.

Despite the missing artists, the exhibition opening was well attended and, says Vallecilla, the show has generated strong interest among collectors, arts professionals, and artists. “There is a tremendously rich art scene in Havana,” says Vallecilla, “and a lot of art schools. Artistic development is very much fostered by the educational system.” It is a situation that is “humble in access to materials,” he says, “but very rich creatively and conceptually.”

“For us, living in Havana,” said Barroso,”this exhibition is of course a very good opportunity, a good way of promoting our work. And a good way for people here [in the U.S.] to see what we are doing in Cuba, right now.”

Living in Havana runs through June 18 at the Marlborough Chelsea gallery in Manhattan.