09 June 2015

artists books and atriums

Back in the late 1990s, I bought a small artist's book at Printed Matter when it was still on Wooster Street. It was only a couple bucks and had no identifying text. The clerk said that the artist came in every once in a while, dropped off some copies of a book, didn't give his name, didn't ask for reimbursement, just left the books and left. Actually, it has no text at all; it is just drawings of geometric shapes looking like flags, floorplans, architectural details, or objects.

When I was at the Estudio Carlos Garaicoa in Havana a couple weeks ago, there was an artist's book that had a similar feel but rather larger in size and with less busy pages. It also had a title page and statement of authorship: Loidys Carnero.
I thought maybe I'd found my artist even though the geographic difference argued against it. I checked Carnero's webpage and he wasn't born until 1982 in Havana so not at all likely that he was dropping off books at Printed Matter as a teenager.

What I also discovered at Carnero's webpage were some pictures of his Visita Guiada (Guided Tour) project from 2012 in which he revisited the sites in a 2004 Stan Douglas photographic project which had appropriated the settings of a 1968 film "Memories of Underdevelopment" by Cuban filmmaker Tomás Gutiérrez Alea. Talk about layers of memory and revisiting. One of the images in the Visita is identified as the Presidio on the Isla de la Juventud.
(You can see a bigger version of the photo on the artist's webpage, this being the thumbnail from the webpage.) Those of you that followed me on the road trip in March will not be surprised that I was reminded of the West Baden Springs Hotel in southern Indiana.
For accommodations, I imagine the hotel beats the prison.

05 June 2015

old cars

Last week, I was in Cuba where old American cars are part of the mix on the streets. It wasn't all American convertibles. There were also Russian Ladas and other rather plain compacts. Generally speaking, the shiny ones were taxis for cavorting tourists.
And here it is, just a few days later, and I'm in Oneonta for a VRA chapter meeting and it's old car night on Main Street. Most of them are pretty shiny but they're just for show.
I'm still feeling Cuba plenty and the next book, just started, is The other side of paradise: life in the new Cuba by Julia Cooke (Seal Press, 2014). Published last year so she'll probably have to do a new edition on "life in the new new Cuba." Meanwhile, I'm finding out what I missed.

03 June 2015

Cuba: the postmodern National Art Schools?

Something I read described the National Art Schools, built in the early 1960s to designs by Ricardo Porro, Vittorio Garratti, and Roberto Gottardi, as postmodern. It seems to me that they are a continuation of Le Corbusier's brick and concrete houses with a good dose of expressionism as practiced by Eric Mendelssohn, which is not to say merely derivative. For me, postmodernism involves a conscious use of historical motifs. Seeing the schools was a major inspiration for my desire to visit Cuba and they did not disappoint. It was wonderful to be able to meander all about the halls and classrooms of the School of Plastic Arts, to see the rather ordinary mid-century modern of the blue dormitory, and to walk about the ruins of the School of Music, to say nothing of seeing the opera "Cubanacán" in front of the arched entrance tubes of the School of Plastic Arts.

Much has been written recently about the schools and Revolution of forms: Cuba's forgotten art schools by John Loomis (Princeton Architectural Press, 1999) is probably the starting point.

02 June 2015

Cuba: the 12th Bienal de La Habana

Our trip to Cuba was timed to be during the Bienal de La Habana. We visited several group venues as well as individual shows. My favorite spaces were the Bicycle Factory and the Pabellón Cuba.

The Bicycle Factory show included works by about a dozen artists. I did like many of the works on display though the building was perhaps the star. The miniature landscape "Holy Place" by Shimabuku fit right in. I also enjoyed his "Cuban Samba," water pinging on cans as it fell from the rafters. One of those "my kid could have done that (but he didn't)" works. Simple but beautiful.

The Pabellón Cuba show was much more diverse and chaotic. The space was kind of Corbusian.
Works here included some funny videos by Casey Neistat (instructional videos on how to, for example, make your own Dr Dre Beats headphones) and a santería celebration of Ana Mendieta.

The group shows at the fortresses at the mouth of the port were also interesting. There, the spaces were more separated, like galleries with one or more artists in each room. There was also a fine show from the Bronx Museum of Art at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, familiar stuff but in a new and particularly relevant setting.

Many of us went to the apartment/studio of Carlos Garaicoa. The works there included some newspapers with most of the text blacked out but the papers were on newspaper sticks and you could "read" them like you were in the newspaper room of your local library. The paper was very sensuous to the touch.

Barbara Hoffman and I got a chance to talk at length with Felipe Dulzaides at his show in a FOCSA penthouse. He is a junior and came back to Cuba from San Francisco after Raoul Castro became President a few years ago. Dulzaides created scanned "collages" of images from his father's archive. His father was a jazz pianist and the "collages" mixed portions of the pictures with the verso captions. He then did drawings based on the collages. One simple drawing, kind of minimalist AbEx, was my favorite.

You might enjoy reading "The Havana Biennial is running at full throttle" by Holland Cotter in the New York Times for May 29th. 

01 June 2015

Cuba: music and opera, and using what you have

Our Cuba tour package included one of the first performances of "Cubanacán" -- the first new Cuban opera in fifty years, according to their website. It is based on a book about the building of the National Art Schools on a former golf course. Michael Cooper wrote about it in the New York Times on the day before we left for Havana. The opera was intriguing, the singers were good, and we saw it in front of the triple arch at the front of the School of Plastic Arts. Talk about context.

The worst moment of the trip for me was the evening at the Buena Vista Social Club. Tourist trap, and I felt trapped in the club when I would have loved to escape. The performers were good enough but seemed mostly to be going through the motions.

Far more exciting than Buena Vista was the music that greeted us at several sites along the way or during a meal. Here's Alabao playing at Las Terrazas:
I bought their CD and it is very evocative for me. You can google "alabao cuban band" and find several videos of them. Las Terrazas (The Terraces), by the way, is an ecopark and biosphere with reforestation and new housing. We got treated to music by a family troupe at lunch that day. Very fine.

The regular greeting drink was a mojito but these had little or no rum. Now, the Hotel Nacional bar made a yummy mojito for those late-evening discussions. My swizzle stick collection includes a turkey with drumsticks on a platter; there must have been a special on them at Walmart. Or, rather, you use what you have. I was amused to see French-language signs on a couple school buses, presumably because the buses came from a francophone country. It is more important that you have the bus than getting it repainted.
The sign above the windshield says "Ecoliers" and I saw this bus in the neighborhood around Kcho's studio. He has done a lot of neighborhood improvement and community work there (aka social practice) and pays for a wifi hotspot.

Cuba: being high up, getting the long view

 View of the Centro and beyond, from the 8th-floor restaurant of the Hotel Parque Central.

 View from the fortress at the head of the port, across from Old Havana.

View to the West from the 29th floor of the FOCSA building, over the Vedado, Miramar, and Playa.

View of the Hotel Nacional de Cuba (1930, McKim Mead & White) where we stayed, from the 29th floor of the FOCSA building.

Cuba: houses

The eclectic mix of houses in Havana was delightful. Lots of Hispanic influence, not surprisingly. Mostly in stone and plenty of decorative elements. The condition of the houses varied quite a bit. Some were in good shape and consistent style.
Others showed evidence of extra floors being added or inserted.
Since many houses are home to multiple generations, it isn't surprising that more space on the same footprint has to be figured out.

We passed this house at least twice while on the bus. Its dusty rose exterior and long rectangular shape reminded me of a villa in Vittoria, Sicily. Not similar in style or even size but evocative.

Apartment houses varied considerably too.
Courtyard building on the Malecón, near the Hotel Nacional where we stayed.
There was an installation of works by Felipe Dulzaides in a 29th-floor penthouse in the green-and-white building in the background. The show was great and the views were stupendous.
(there was an art opening on the third floor of the building on the right so we got to see the interior of that apartment and go out on the balcony for a view over the neighborhood)

The buying and selling of houses is one of the reforms enacted in the past few years with the presidency of Raoul Castro. This may be part of the reason that you see a broken-down house or empty lot left between other houses; no one could buy the lot for (re)construction.

Cuba: overall impressions

Cuba had been on the list of places I wanted to go for a long time, particularly since my co-worker at NYU, Janet Alicea, went in the early 2000s. Then, in 2004, I learned about the National Art Schools in a show at Storefront for Art and Architecture. The buildings thrilled me with their domes and circular plan. My desire increased as my friend Moira Kelly and I discussed going on the SAH trip about three years ago. College Art announced last fall that they would do a trip in May during the Bienal and I leapt at the opportunity. A few days after I sent in my deposit, President Obama announced that the U.S. was finally going to normalize relations, political and socio-economic, after fifty years of enmity and embargo. Since then, Docomomo US has announced that they are doing a trip in October 2015 that I bet will be delightful.

All that excitement and desire doesn't mean I wasn't somewhat apprehensive. It would be my first extended trip to a developing country. I did get to Mexico a couple times when I lived in Texas, once to a conference in Guadalajara and once for a couple hours on my bike, both fairly restricted in space, time, and coverage. This would cover more ground and involve more diverse circumstances.

The guidebooks described the double currency of convertible and common pesos. It seemed confusing but actually works easily as we tourists mostly didn't see any of the pesos that Cubans use. All of my dealings were in the convertible pesos (CUCs, pronounced kooks which was the source of much amusement, as you can imagine). One of our group members bought an ice cream cone when we were at the National Art Schools and that was in street pesos. By the way, it was melting so fast that he lost control and didn't finish it.

Our CAA group included 39 people, including executive director Linda Downs and president DeWitt Godfrey. Alison Fraunhar of Saint Xavier in Chicago, who has published numerous articles on Cuban art, was there for guidance. I would guess that there were slightly more artists than art historians/curators along with other art professionals and assorted spouses, spices, and companions. I was the only man traveling alone but there were several women traveling alone.

As we rode into the city from the Havana airport, I was thinking about how I'd take some photos of old cars and colorful houses, not yet realizing that both of those would be seen everywhere.
The cars didn't always match. The freshly-scrubbed cars seemed to be mostly those serving as taxis for tourists. There were also metered yellow cabs and rather ordinary cabs in various colors and conditions with spoken prices that presumably were negotiable, not that I did any of that. Five of us did take a ride from Casablanca back to the hotel that was faster and more dramatic than we wanted, and expensive to boot. Having survived, it makes a good story. Another time, the taxi ride was slow and you wondered if the driver would get the gears shifted. Fast and slow, a real mix on the streets including the occasional horse cart or farm equipment.
Not all of the houses were this colorful. This one is the doctor's surgery in the fishing village of Jaimanitas, on the outskirts of Havana. When artist José Rodríguez Fuster started decorating his house in homage to Antonio Gaudí of Barcelona, the neighbors asked Fuster to also decorate their house. Now there are several dozen houses and fences with mosaic and painted decoration. Even this street name marker got mosaicked.

I have posted all of my Cuba pictures on Flickr but have lots of stories to tell. I'll try to get some more blog posts done before the memories get drowned in real life. Being there was perhaps transformative. I know we were rich American tourists and our guide was a government employee but I really did feel, through observation and the guide's words, that there was a greater equality and richness and diversity of social interaction than in the US. Perhaps I read too much about income inequality here but we could use a good dose of income compression as long as it was toward the middle. Gretell Sintes (our guide) said that the important people did get better housing but not immense salaries so they don't drive flashy new cars (how can you compete with a '57 Chevy convertible?) or have McMansions. I just realized that I didn't see a single stretch limo full of shrieking tourists. We did, however, go to supper one night in an entourage of old convertibles, honking and yelling at each other and smiling.