Last month, Cannibal/Carnival: Elio Rodríguez and Douglas Pérez Castro opened at London’s Breese Little Gallery, where it runs through July 21. In this two-part series, Orlando Hernández, the exhibition’s curator, shares his reflections on the artists’ work: their commonalities, their differences, and their contributions to contemporary art in Cuba. Look for Part 2 tomorrow.

Douglas Pérez Castro, Competitive Market, 2011
Courtesy of Breese Little Gallery, London

The modern concepts of “carnivalization” and antropofagia (cannibalism) were both taken from ancient cultural practices and transformed into metaphors of rebellion, anti-formality, and freedom by the Russian theoretician Mikhail Bakhtin and the Brazilian poet Oswaldo de Andrade. As momentary tools of exploration, these metaphors help identify common features in the work of two contemporary Cuban artists, Elio Rodríguez and Douglas Pérez.

Both these artists “carnivalize” everything they touch, turning it into celebration, chaos, performance, entertainment, and humor. They are capable of “cannibalizing” and devouring everything in their path in terms of style, language, expression, and even with regards to authors and movements in the history of art, which constitute a quick recap of their own artistic techniques and approaches.

Such observations, while not adequate in characterizing these two artists, serve to distinguish them from their peers, and to establish a more or less stable reference point from which to further explore their work. But when considering art works that are full of concrete images—works that have nothing abstract or conceptualist about them—it is not accurate to base our theories on these all-encompassing concepts. After all, once we arrive at a certain point, concepts are as useful as a rotten banana skin. At that point we should discard the skin to savor the fruit—that is to say, the work of art—bit by bit. Which ultimately is what really interests us.

The truth is that, in order to get closer to the work of an artist, it’s best to do the opposite. That’s why I want to start again, this time with a more direct approach:
Douglas Pérez is an extremely versatile and unpredictable artist. His wide knowledge of subjects as diverse as history, literature, film, caricature, computer science, and even stamp collecting, zoology, and astrophysics (just to mention a few examples) means that he can explore a great range of themes and styles within his work. These extreme deviations often make it challenging to foresee what he will do next.

Just when we think he is going to continue to reflect on scenes and characters from the infamous history of African slavery in Cuba (a theme that recurs throughout his practice), Pérez produces a selection of works dealing with prostitution in Havana that are more European—specifically Dutch—in style, rather than Cuban. Then he does another series using animal metaphors: large, muzzled alligators representing the absence of free speech and public dialogue, and the stagnation of national politics.

Pérez’s intellectual, imaginative, and creative restlessness gives rise to work that jumps from one historical period, scene, or style to another, and from one point of reference to another, completely distinct. He moves from historical reportage to literature to science fiction film to the North American (and Cuban) commercial propaganda of the 1950s. Yet everything unfolds with absolute ease, and an accomplishment beyond his years.

Through this “new age” encyclopedism, reminiscent of Encarta and Wikipedia, Douglas Pérez has become the contemporary Cuban artist whose work seemingly fits into the greatest number of repertoires, collections, and disciplines. And when one door opens, the others don’t close—they’re all kept open simultaneously, as if he were fusing them into one vast panorama.

There’s just one small element that seems to contradict this audacity: Pérez’s use of oil-painting, a tradition from which he has rarely strayed. Beyond that, the rest is pure fantasy and freedom. It is the presence of a coherent intellectual discourse and an ethical position that is the steel backbone of his work, ensuring that this vast universe does not become entirely chaotic and incomprehensible. He has always been aware of the most delicate problems in the social, political, and cultural reality of Cuba, and by extension, the world.

Lastly, together with the artist’s intelligent sense of humor, verve, and satire, the prevalence of exuberant color plays on the tropical condition of our country (“the eternal summer” as local tourist publicity continually states). Such use of color seals a strong, anti-corrosive veneer on Douglas Pérez’ work. This, along with the strong sense of belonging to the culture and history of his country, protects his oeuvre from the premature aging that so often endangers works of art. Despite the fact that his work may be inspired by figures supposedly distant from our culture, like the English painter and printmaker William Hogarth, Pérez is a mischievous Cuban who, just like Hogarth, knows only too well how to satirize the behavior of his contemporaries.

Tomorrow: A close look at the work of Elio Rodríguez and reflections on the two artists’ contributions to contemporary art in Cuba.