ARTPulse Review: The Silent Shout: Voices in Cuban Abstraction by Margery Gordon

Aside

ArtPulse Front Cover: Ai Weiwei, Stacked, 2002, 680 stainless steel units. Installation view Pérez Art Museum Miami. Photo: Daniel Azoulay Photography.

ArtPulse Front Cover: Ai Weiwei, Stacked, 2002, 680 stainless steel units. Installation view Pérez Art Museum Miami. Photo: Daniel Azoulay Photography.

The Silent Shout: Voices in Cuban Abstraction
ArtSpace/Virginia Miller Galleries – Miami
Curated by Rafael Díaz-Casas, Janet Batet and José Angel Vincench
By Margery Gordon
Published by ArtPulse Magazine No. 18

Abstraction has become such a widely applied and accepted mode of art-making that it can be hard to perceive the threat it has repeat- edly presented to prevailing artistic practices and cultural norms, extending to their political underpinnings in some volatile and re- pressive climates. Yet the trajectory of “non-objective art” over the last century highlights how radical the advent of avant-garde move- ments were amid the escalation of the Russian Revolution; how risky the gestures of Abstract Expressionism were in confronting initial resistance from American institutions, critics and audiences; how po- tent the progressive stance of geometric abstraction was in pitting its South American proponents against dictatorial regimes.

The tactical measures these artists employed and the reactionary op- position they provoked set precedents for their less-renowned counter- parts in Cuba. Their strains echo in “The Silent Shout: Voices of Cuban Abstraction 1950-2013,” which resonates with the persistent rhythm of the island’s own variations on such international styles. The nine paint- ers’ diverse strokes and tones could have become discordant in concert, but the arrangement composed by gallerist Virginia Miller—who has honed her installation artistry over 40 years of conducting contempo- rary showcases in Miami—riffs on formal affinities and harmonizes complementary hues. Set against a rousing score of historical upheaval and artistic suppression that strike a chord with audiences, this sym- phony honors the artists’ individual and collective accomplishments.

The Silent Shout: Voices in Cuban Abstraction 1950-2013

The Silent Shout: Voices in Cuban Abstraction 1950-2013

When the eye-opening show opened in November 2013, one of its three curators, Miami-based Cuban art historian and critic Janet Batet, articulated their ambitious mission: “to vindicate the role of abstract art in Cuban art history” by redressing “the extended misunderstand- ing of the abstraction in Cuba that as a tendency has been reduced by the Cuban historiography to a punctual phenomenon or a transitional moment (generally associated with the 1950s).”

Abstraction first appeared in Cuban art circles in 1950 at the “IV National Salon of Painting and Sculpture” in the galleries of the Capi- tolio Nacional headquarters. Its pioneers officially announced their ar- rival on the Havana scene with two high-profile exhibitions in 1953: first “Quince Pintores y Escultores” (“Fifteen Painters and Sculptors”), quickly winnowed to “Once Pintores y Escultores.” The latter figure stuck through further fluctuation in the membership of “Los Once” over an intense succession of shows in a short span of time—particu- larly impressive in spite of a mixed reception from art professionals aligned with the representational and nationalistic traditions of the dominant academic and modernist styles. Regarding the vaunted van- guardia with attitudes ranging from subtle irreverence to open disdain, Los Once and their contemporaries in the more geometrically oriented group that emerged in 1957, dubbed “10 Pintores Concretos” (“Ten Concrete Painters”), positioned themselves as outsiders uncompro- mised by upper-class patronage or state sponsorship.

The Silent Shout: Voices in Cuban Abstraction 1950-2013

The Silent Shout: Voices in Cuban Abstraction 1950-2013

This professed independence—verging on outspoken activism by some of the troupes’ members— endeared them neither to the cul- tural figures who lost influence as political turbulence mounted, nor to those who gained power in the 1959 revolution. While no official
decrees dissolved these alliances, the ensuing emphasis on Socialist Realism and iconography modeled upon and intelligible to the hum- ble masses created an inhospitable environment. As opportunities for exposure and sustenance dried up at the outset of the 1960s, abstrac- tion withered or burrowed underground. Its adherents sublimated their abstract muses by channeling those creative urges into figura- tive studies and scenes, keeping their artistic endeavors private, or seeking freedom of expression beyond Cuba’s boundaries.

“Cuban abstract artists of the 1950s clearly suffered an ideological rejection [in] the sixties,” wrote Kevin Power in a 1997 catalog essay for the landmark exhibition “Pinturas del Silencio” (“Paintings of Si- lence”). He attributed pejorative populist interpretations of the visual language of abstraction in part to guilt by association with concur- rent movements abroad—notably in New York, where some Cuban abstract works reached receptive audiences in the 1950s and ‘60s. At a time of increasing isolationism on the island, abstract artists were branded as internationalist, even imperialist, bourgeois and deca- dent. Observed Power, “They were seen as ambiguous, potentially critical, and irremediably elitist.” Ironically, the Consejo Nacional de Cultura, an agency of the Revolutionary government, sponsored a historic 1963 exhibition at the Galería Habana entitled “Abstract Expressionism”—which turned out to be the swan song of what had essentially dwindled to “Los Cinco.”

The Silent Shout: Voices in Cuban Abstraction 1950-2013

The Silent Shout: Voices in Cuban Abstraction 1950-2013

They were nearly relegated to a historical footnote by the time “Pin- turas del Silencio” (“Paintings of Silence”) opened at Galería La Acacia during the VI Havana Biennial. The first exhibition in Cuba devoted to abstract work in 34 years resurrected this lost art form by demon- strating that it had never really gone missing, just unrecognized. Cuban artists José Angel Vincench and Ramón Serrano curated a cross-section of 18 artists that encompassed their emerging peers, the preceding gen- eration whose break with modernist traditions in 1980 was heralded as “New Cuban Art,”and former members of Los Once and 10 Pintores Concretos. The landmark survey revealed that not only had some of the trailblazers surreptitiously resumed exploring abstraction, but sub- sequent generations had inherited these timeworn tools and integrated them into eclectic arsenals—in keeping with global trends that eschew dogmatic movements in favor of interdisciplinary flexibility.

Wide-ranging practices understandably attract less attention, but the relaxing of earlier constraints also suggests that over time scrutiny of non-literal forms has been superseded by censorship of conceptual art- works that test the vigilance of Cuban cultural watchdogs by embedding political commentary in subversive visuals. Courageously reopening the cold case of Cuban abstraction and introducing new evidence, “Pinturas del Silencio” emboldened others to investigate Cuban abstract art. The intervening years have seen numerous exhibitions, including several at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes since 2002, sending a liberating sig- nal to artists experimenting with the potential of abstraction to impart meaning on many levels, from the personal to the political.

Still, much of that work has not been seen in the United States— let alone placed in the historical context enabled by the scope of “The Silent Shout.” Conceived as a belated sequel to “Pinturas del Silencio” it continues the revisionist campaign launched 17 years ago by Vincench and Batet (who wrote an introduction to the previous show’s catalog while teaching at Vincench’s alma mater, Havana’s Instituto Superior de Arte, ISA), collaborating now as co-curators with the art writer Rafael Díaz-Casas. The illuminating Miami edi- tion has a more concentrated roster (five of the nine artists have par- ticipated in both shows) but a longer time span that straddles seven decades of work and nine decades of life. It even offers a glimpse of abstraction’s future with the addition of a vast oil painting of pastel bubbles by Luis Enrique López, who was only 9 at the time of “Pin- turas del Silencio” and just graduated from ISA following a semester at Stockholm’s Royal Institute of Art and a series of proposals for the XI Havana Biennial. Of the three dozen works on display, two- thirds were created in the 21st century, 17 in the last year alone.

The Silent Shout: Voices in Cuban Abstraction 1950-2013

The Silent Shout: Voices in Cuban Abstraction 1950-2013

Some of the freshest samples come from the show’s oldest living art- ist, the 82-year-old Pedro de Oraá, whose compositions pulsate with a vibrant energy and technical expertise that add dimension to the shift- ing shapes of his “Diversion” series. The vivid purples of Divertimento 2 give way to myriad shades of gray in Divertimento 1. The latter’s overlapping silhouettes play well against the contrasting rainbow mo- saic of multifaceted shards that meet at sharp edges and perpendicu- lar angles in 78-year-old José Rosabal’s Transversal. By hanging these 2013 works side-by-side, Miller animates an unspoken exchange be- tween the two surviving members of “10 Pintores Concretos” in “The Silent Shout,” reviving the rapport of these two compatriots.

The large new works by de Oraá and Rosabal update the geomet- ric legacy of the “10 Pintores Concretos,” putting in perspective works from the 1950s by fellow members Sandú Darié and Dolores “Loló” Soldevilla that are among the oldest in this show. Their smaller can- vases share a Suprematist sensibility with balanced arrangements of circles and rectangles that would have fit right into early 20th century St. Petersburg. Soldevilla served as an unofficial ambassador for the movement, founding Color-Luz Gallery with longtime partner de Oraá in 1957 and introducing their like-minded peers to Havana audiences.

The late delegates from Los Once take a more expressionistic, organic approach. Elements arrayed in Hugo Consuegra’s 1955 El Recuerdo Golpeado (“The Beaten Memory”) suggest unidentifiable utensils or cubist instruments akin to those played by Picasso’s mu- sicians in 1921. Five of Consuegra’s paintings from 1955 to 1964 are juxtaposed with untitled works by Raúl Martínez in similarly modest proportions but distinguished by thick swaths of gritty oil paint that build up a textured surface reminiscent of Dubuffet. Martínez’s murky palette extends to an undated piece hung sepa- rately, but its translucent washes evoke a ghostly presence.

The Silent Shout: Voices in Cuban Abstraction 1950-2013

The Silent Shout: Voices in Cuban Abstraction 1950-2013

Born when those works were being created, Carlos García names his surprising influences in raised letters nearly obscured by layers of yellow, red and black pigment. The large 2012 canvas “Cuatro Arboles de Fuego” (“Four Trees of Fire”) pays tribute to the masters of color (Monet), light (Turner), shadow (Hopper) and line (Twombly). The last inspiration is the most visible in García’s half-dozen pieces, marked with scratchy trails and bold splotches or more defined droplets that allude to leaves, “plumage” or the “Cardinal’s Tears.”

The most cryptically conceptual and slyly political of these nine tal- ents, Vincench traces triangles, crosses and curves from the fragmented spaces created by superimposing the capital letters that spell out the loaded title “Exilio,” which he calls a “dirty word” in Cuba. Gilding this verboten term on stretched linen and carved cedar in regal 23-karat gold leaf, he symbolically summons absence, transmitting coded mes- sages across closed borders.

By amplifying the voices that emanate from 64 years of Cuban ab- straction to a level audible above the white noise of communism, “The Silent Shout” ultimately sounds a hopeful note.

(November 1, 2013 – March 31, 2014)

Margery Gordon is a freelance arts journalist and regular contributor to ARTnews, Art+Auction, ArtInfo.com and the official Art Basel Mi- ami Beach Magazine, among other publications. She is a professor at Barry University in Miami.

Download PDF version of the article HERE

PAMM, Virginia Miller exhibits explore abstraction

Aside

The Silent Shout: Voices in Cuban Abstraction 1950-2013

The Silent Shout: Voices in Cuban Abstraction 1950-2013

By George Fishman
Special to The Miami Herald

The coincidence of distinctive, but kindred, exhibitions at the Pérez Art Museum Miami and ArtSpace/Virginia Miller in Coral Gables, one of the region’s longest established galleries, provides a valuable opportunity to “compare and contrast.”

Besides opening its doors to the community during Art Basel with such international draws as Ai Weiwei’s exhibition and the museum’s initial special project commissions, PAMM also took its first steps in showcasing selections from its permanent collection. These are presented in six “overview galleries” through a series of thematically linked exhibitions called AMERICANA, composed of art produced in South America, North America and the Caribbean since the 1930s.

The organizing principle of AMERICANA’s Progressive Forms section is the legacy of Constructivism, whose European origins in the early 20th century commingled with industrialization, social progressivism, daring new architecture and rationality. With that came an affection for the purity of abstract form, “liberated” from representation.

Tobias Ostrander, PAMM’s chief curator, explained the connection between “construction” and Constructivism. “Construction was put in contrast to the idea of creation,” he said. Creation implied more subjectivity, while Constructivism leaned away from emotion and embraced objectivity.

The work of such European Constructivists as painters Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg — known for geometric grids imbued with color blocks — and sculptor Antoine Pevsner influenced the works on view both at PAMM and ArtSpace. Constructivism’s advocates considered abstract design better suited to a forward-looking society, and their work influenced subsequent movements such as pop and op art, kineticism, abstract expressionism and minimalism.

Constructivist aesthetics and social ideas were carried across the Atlantic by artists including Romanian-born Cuban émigré Sandú Darié and the peripatetic Uruguayan-born Joaquín Torres-García, who was responsible for extensive and passionate “evangelizing” in Latin America. Exhibitions and publications in Europe and the Americas helped both disseminate and diversify Constructivist images and ideas. PAMM’s Torres-García Construction with Two Masks incorporates pre-Columbian pictograms, as well as informal modern texts and symbols within box-like compositions.

DYNAMIC BRIDGE

But it is Darié’s work that bridges the PAMM and ArtSpace exhibitions. He is represented at PAMM by his Transformable Structure. A Mondrian-like geometric composition of black, white, red and yellow, it is both painting and sculpture and can be displayed in various configurations. Darié’s interest in dynamic geometry carries to his Untitled 1950s painting at Virginia Miller, where an even more exuberant palette of Mondrian colors, lines and color blocks plays against concentric rotational rings.

The ArtSpace exhibition, The Silent Shout: Voices in Cuban Abstraction 1950-2013, is notable for several reasons. The works were selected by a trio of curators: José Angel Vincench (one of the exhibiting artists), Miami-based Janet Batet and New York-based Rafael DiazCasas. It includes Cuban artists’ works created in a diversity of abstract styles since the 1950s. And though it is shown in a commercial gallery, it includes works loaned by collectors and not for sale. This unusual arrangement was apparently necessary to realize the multigenerational curatorial vision Miller was keen to assemble. “I’m very happy to have presented this show, so that others may marvel, as I have over the years, at how one island in the Caribbean has so enriched the world,” she wrote in an email.

ArtSpace has exhibited Latin American art, including from Cuba, since the mid-1970s, but it was Vincench who interested Miller in presenting works by members of Cuba’s most renowned associations of artists working in the abstract idiom, Los Once (The Eleven) and Diez Pinturas Concretos (Ten Concrete Painters).

In Cuba, following the Castro revolution, abstract art was discouraged — despite its original connection to the Russian Communist revolution. It was characterized as bourgeois, and its practitioners were stifled, with minimal exhibition opportunities. In 1997, Vincench co-curated a breakthrough show in Havana called Pinturas del Silencio (Painters of Silence).

Batet, who wrote the Pinturas catalog essay, explained to Miller that the mid-century Cuban abstract painters, influenced by European Constructivism and the Bauhaus, were working alongside a vanguard of new architects, creating a modern city within colonial Havana. “Abstraction in Cuba was reflecting our new identity as one of the most modern cities of the Western hemisphere at that time,” Batet said during a 2013 seminar in Miami and printed in the show’s notes.

That affinity was lost on the Castro cultural leadership. Vincench, a Cuban conceptual artist, consistently expresses dissent. Explains Miller: “His works in this show are from his series on exilio [exile]. In these works, Vincench takes the outline of the letters in exilio, superimposes the outlines and then extrapolates abstract shapes from that.”

With a little study, the “hidden messages” can be picked out, and he uses gold leaf on both his sculptures and paintings to underscore art’s often-conflicted relationship to commerce — especially in a Cuban context.

SILENT SHOUT

Whereas variations of rectilinear scaffolding underpin many of the selections in PAMM’s Progressive Forms, fewer of those in Silent Shout are geometrically conceived. Despite the five decades that separate them, paintings by Carlos García and Raul Martinez suggest a distillation of natural forces and forms. Nuanced overlays of thick and thin paint create scumbled surfaces that glow darkly, evocative of both man-made and earthly objects.

They provide the bass notes in a presentation that also contains clarion calls of hard-edged, brilliantly colored zigzag compositions by José Rosabal. These somehow balance the quieter arcs and angles of the Vincench Exile series and the circle motifs shared by the 1956 Soldevilla and 2013 Luis Enriquez López.

An especially painterly work, Four Trees of Fire (2013) by García, contains both text and representational reference. Four artists’ names are painted with varying degrees of tone and texture against a bright orange-tinged yellow background. “When we asked him why, he explained that as he painted this canvas, he was thinking of the extraordinary way J. M. W. Turner brought out the light in his paintings,” Miller said.

He also was inspired by Impressionist Claude Monet’s sense of color and light, and the dramatic use of shadows in the work of American realist Edward Hopper. American Cy Twombly, known for his “scribbles,” also influenced the work, he told Miller.

On another level of reading, the figure “4” is formed by horizontal shadows crossing and connecting the vertical trunks.

The Silent Shout’s display gives each painting just enough room to sing its distinctive song, but judicious orchestration of colors and contrasts lends an overall harmony to these quite disparate works. “Because the older work is so different and darker than the later work, we tended to hang that in one area,” Miller said.

The challenge was to showcase the individual works while providing a unified mood to the gallery. But Miller has done this before, having hung more than 300 shows in her career. “Sometimes I can actually hang the show while I’m going to sleep or when I’m waking up. If I know the pieces well enough, I can hang it in my mind.”

FORMS AT PAMM

At PAMM’s Progessive Forms, geography ranges across the region in works by Hélio Oiticica and Lygia Clark from Brazil, Mexican sculptor Damián Ortega and Venezuelan photographer Alexander Apostól — among others. But it also extends to New York Minimalists and Canadian-born Julia Dault.

The extensive wall texts provide valuable context.

In Latin America during the post-World War II economic boom, the use of geometric forms was closely associated with economic prosperity and the planning of ideal cities. However, some members of later generations of artists eroded, fragmented and destabilized these forms to critique the many unrealized dreams.

Ortega is moved by Mexico City’s juxtaposition of extreme poverty and wealth. He uses the cement of ubiquitous construction sites to model the ideal form of a cube, but he does so in Ioni with “soft,” irregular segments that undermine that pristine notion.

Apostól’s photos bleakly present abandoned high-rises on the Venezuelan resort island of Margarita, revealing their grid-like structures as skeletons. Leonardo Drew’s arresting wall relief assembly of burnt and stained wood fragments reveals a dystopic vision within the United States, Ostrander says.

“He’s talking about the projects in New York or other major cities. Developed in the ’50s or ’60s, they were meant to provide a better life for people and quickly turned into problematic social situations. Planning the world in that way didn’t work at all.”

The gallery provides excellent opportunities for visual juxtapositions among the freestanding sculptures and wall-mounted works.

For example, while standing in the Progressive Forms show, one can look into the Sackner Collection of Concrete and Visual Poetry, where many examples of text and graphic arts also show the Russian Constructivist legacy. “We’re very specifically trying to make those conversations and juxtapositions,” Ostrander said.

Not all the exhibited works are historical — one sculpture was actually created within the gallery by Dault. “She’s an artist whose very much thinking about the legacies of minimalism and, particularly, the use in minimalism of industrial materials,” Ostrander explained.

Dault takes large sheets of mirrored acrylic plastic and uses them in a kind of performance. “She ties and pushes and curves these Formica pieces … and then she ties them and attaches them to the wall, creating these very dynamic kinds of mirrored curving structures that feel like they could burst,” Ostrander said.

Stylistic contrasts abound, but many affinities of structure and intention cross the generations in these ambitious exhibitions. Encompassing broad geographic and historical examples, both shows demonstrate that abstraction remains an intellectually challenging and sensually appealing vein of work with unbounded potential.

Go to here to hear Virginia Miller describe her installation process.

Go to here to hear Tobias Ostrander’s comments about Constructivism and the grid motif.

The Silent Shout: Voices in Cuban Abstraction 1950-2013 by Richard Speer

Aside

The Silent Shout: Voices in Cuban Abstraction 1950-2013

The Silent Shout: Voices in Cuban Abstraction 1950-2013

By Richard Speer
ARTnews March 2014

Historically significant and visually rich, this exhibition showcases paintings and sculpture by three generations of Cuban artists. The “Silent Shout” of the show’s title refers to the 1997 exhibition “Pinturas del Silencio” (Paintings from the Silence), mounted during the sixth Havana Biennial to illuminate the lineage of Cuban abstract painting, long repressed under the Castro regime, and to bring to light the work of painters whose voices had effectively been silenced since the 1950s. As this current exhibition demonstrates, what was once a muffled cry has since grown into a hearty esthetic shout.

Curators Janet Batet, Rafael DiazCasas, and Jose Angel Vincench guide viewers through 63 years of work made by four historic artists— Hugo Consuegra, Raul Martinez, Lolo Soldevilla, and Sandu Darie—and five living artists. The paintings from the ’50s and ’60s are notable for their compositional finesse and the abundance of amber and earth tones, lending the canvases a chromatic gravitas, most strikingly in Consuegra’s paean to organic forms, Privilegio (1960).

But it bodes well for the current state of Cuban abstraction that the show’s strongest and most vital pieces were painted only last year. Luis Enrique Lopez’s Pupilas de Santo V is a sumptuous triptych of circular forms that contrasts vibrantly with Jose Rosabal’s untitled suite of brightly hued architectonic planes. Pedro de Oraa’s virtuosic Divertimento 1 and Divertimento 2 depict a compelling interplay of nested shadows, while Vincench’s own paintings and sculptures employ gold leaf to transform the letters of the politically charged word exilio (exile) into abstracted forms.

Viewed together, the works in this rigorous yet buoyant exhibition affirm Cuba’s importance within the evolution of post-World War II abstraction. The show itself signifies the passing of the torch to a generation of Cuban artists for whom abstraction is no longer taboo but one among many modes of artistic expression.

El grito silencioso… , itinerario histórico y estético de la abstracción en Cuba

Aside

By Dennys Matos
Especial – El Nuevo Herald

The Silent Shout: Voices in Cuban Abstraction 1950-2013

The Silent Shout: Voices in Cuban Abstraction 1950-2013

El grito silencioso: voces en la abstracción en Cuba (1950-2013) es una muestra colectiva que contempla nueve artistas cubanos, cuya obra se ha desenvuelto por los cauces de la abstracción. Está formada por más de una veintena de obras entre pinturas y esculturas y abarca a tres generaciones de arte cubano, que cubren tanto el periodo prerrevolucionario como posrrevolucionario. Estos artistas son: Loló Soldevilla, Pedro de Oraá, Sandú Darié, Hugo Consuegra, Raúl Martínez, José Rosabal, Carlos García, Luis Enrique López y José Angel Vincench.

Esta exposición comisariada por Janet Batet, José Angel Vincench y Rafael Díaz-Cazas, constituye una excelente oportunidad para acercarnos a una de las tendencias artísticas menos conocidas del arte tardomoderno cubano. Entre otras cosas, porque practica una revisión historiográfica (y también estética) de aquellas exposiciones y autores que a finales de los años 1940 y 1950, abrieron el espectro de las artes visuales cubanas a la poética de la abstracción. Es así como, por medio de los autores presentes en El grito silencioso: voces en la abstracción en Cuba (1950-2013), esta cita intencionalmente aquellas muestras anteriores en las que muchos de ellos participaron, y que ahora son un hito en la historiografía de la modernidad artística cubana y una referencia esencial para su comprensión. Ejemplo de ello son Quince pintores y escultores en 1953 y, en ese mismo año, Once pintores y escultores. Pero también aparece citada Diez pintores concretos, de 1958, con artistas como Soldevilla, Oraá, Darié y Rosabal. De paso El grito silencioso…”, 2013, en su alcance historiográfico reivindica la figura de Darie como artista pionero de la abstracción cubana.

Hasta aquí podría hablarse de exposiciones vinculadas a la abstracción antes del triunfo revolucionario citadas en El grito silencioso…, pero la muestra no se queda ahí y también cita exposiciones relacionadas con la abstracción en el periodo revolucionario, en el que queda al descubierto una desidia sistemática por parte de la política cultural revolucionaria hacia las manifestaciones del arte abstracto. Y en ello enfatiza el texto curatorial del catálogo de la muestra firmado por Batet y Díaz-Cazas, cuando refieren la exposición Expresionismo abstracto, de 1963, como inicio de un periodo de invisibilidad o silenciamiento de esta poética durante un largo periodo. Porque tendrán que pasar más de tres décadas para que, en 1997, durante la VI Bienal de La Habana se inaugurara en Galería Acacia, la exposición Pinturas del silencio, comisariada por Rafael Serrano y Vincench con 18 artistas.

El grito silencioso: voces en la abstracción en Cuba ahora relaciona autores, con particularidades inéditas en la selección de obras, de la primera hornada de la abstracción como Darié, Soldevilla, Consuegra y Raúl Martínez con otros más jóvenes como, por ejemplo, Carlos García y Vincench. Y en esa articulación descubrimos que la abstracción, como una tradición dentro del campo de producción artístico cubano, no es algo homogéneo ni en su visualidad ni tampoco en su estilo, por decirlo de alguna manera. Que hay acentos poéticos que se desplazan desde recursos de lenguaje más abstractos con soluciones geométricas, hacia otros más figurativos, en los que lo narrativo emerge con fuerza ante el simbolismo. En el primer caso tenemos, por ejemplo, las obras de Darié ( Untitled), Soldevilla ( Untitled), Vincench, Oraá y Rosabal. Aquí los elementos abstractos geométricos son enfatizados, aunque Darié y Soldevilla arman más el espacio pictórico a la manera constructivista. Mientras que en obras como, por ejemplo, de Consuegra ( El recuerdo golpeado), García ( Cuatro árboles golpeados) y Martínez, los elementos abstractos dan paso a un informalismo, (abstracción pero no geométrica) por el que se cuela tanto la figuración como la pintura matérica en su versión más lírica por la presencia de trazos expresionistas.

Resulta muy interesante y, también, muy oportuno esta especie de itinerario histórico y estético que plantea El grito silencioso porque, como exposición, habilita vasos comunicantes entre esas generaciones que, en su expresión espacio temporal parecían separadas, permanecían como escindidas una de otra, para encajarlas de lleno en la tradición de vanguardia artística tardo moderna cubana. Las rescata de la oscuridad a la que sistemáticamente las condenó la burocracia y los extremismos de las instituciones culturales revolucionarias. Arroja sin duda nuevas luces sobre el proceso histórico y estético de la abstracción, como lenguaje renovador e importante patrimonio artístico de las artes visuales isleñas del siglo XX. •

Dennys Matos es crítico de arte y curador independiente. Reside y trabaja entre Madrid y Miami.

“El grito silencioso: voces en la abstracción en Cuba (1950-2013), ArtSpace Virginia Miller Gallery. 169 Madeira Avenue. Coral Gables, www.viriginiamiller.com. Hasta el 31 de marzo.

Read article here.

Abstraction and the Once-Silenced Shout

Aside

The Silent Shout: Voices in Cuban Abstraction 1950-2013

The Silent Shout: Voices in Cuban Abstraction 1950-2013

Visual Art Source
Editors’ Roundtable
by Richard Speer

“The Silent Shout: Voices in Cuban Abstraction 1950-2013,” installation view at ArtSpace Virginia Miller Galleries, Coral Gables, Florida.

Recently I took in an exhibition in Miami that documented an era when abstract art was thought so radical and dangerous that it incited censorship. “The Silent Shout: Voices in Cuban Abstraction 1950-2013″, currently at ArtSpace/Virginia Miller Galleries, features paintings and sculpture by three generations of Cuban artists. The eldest of these, now in their 80s, were driven into underground art movements during the regime of Fidel Castro.

As the exhibition’s co-curator, Janet Batet, explained in a lecture about the show, there was a 34-year void from 1963 to 1997 when no exhibitions showcasing abstract work were officially sanctioned anywhere on the island nation. Abstraction, Batet holds, was deemed threatening by government arbiters, who instead were bent on promulgating figuration, narrative, “and the predominance of a sweetened, folkloric view of being Cuban.” Artists working in the veins of geometric abstraction and Abstract Expressionism, it was determined, “were turning their backs on Cuban reality: They were evasive, and furthermore, their art was elitist and favored imperialism.” These artists’ sentiments, essentially, were internationalist rather than nationalist. Disastrously, by silencing aesthetic innovation, Castro the revolutionary-cum-dictator promoted a conception of Cuba that was anything but revolutionary, indeed which was in fact reactionary. Indeed, the Havana of the late 1950s and early 60s was far from a sleepy, colonialist outpost of tiled roofs, colonnades, and fountain-dotted courtyards; it was a bustling modern city in which traditional influences mixed with Art Deco and modernist architecture. Thus, the leaders of a radical political movement wound up cutting off their potentially equally-radical artistic compatriots at their knees.

This shouldn’t surprise. Censors always wind up on the wrong side of history. The Nazis persecuted erstwhile Weimarian avant-gardes who’d dared create what Hitler’s minions termed entartete Kunst (“degenerate art”), yet that very work has become part of the modernist canon. Under Stalin, everything other than socialist realism was quashed — and what turned out to have the longer legs? As recently as the late 1980s in the United States, government, religious, and special-interest factions variously censored artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe, Sally Mann, and Jock Sturges. Chinese authorities continue to tamp down artistic expression, most infamously in the recent case of Ai Weiwei. And last June, the Russian Ministry of Culture shut down Vasily Slonov’s darkly satirical exhibit “Welcome Sochi! 2014,” at the Perm Museum of Contemporary Art, and fired the show’s curator. But in today’s paradigm of instantaneous global communication, the flow of information cannot be controlled.

Meanwhile, even as explicitly political work continues to draw fire, we in the West seem to have finally gotten over our longstanding preoccupation with prosecuting “obscenity” and have become inured to what was once thought transgressive. This is thanks largely to artists such as Paul McCarthy, who not only found the line where intrigue ends and shock value begins, but have taken that line and, to invoke John Donne, have trampled it “like gold to airy thinness beat.” The idea of the art object as dangerous simply because it is non-representational seems quaint and unthinkable today. No contemporary artist with a straight face would dare suggest anything so preposterous as Piet Mondrian did in his Natural Reality and Abstract Reality: that his ideal of a “purely equilibrated relationship” between horizontal and vertical, if absorbed by the culture-at-large, would result in no less than “a new stage of the human life-force: the new man, a combination of worker, bourgeois, and aristocrat.” Those were fighting words when Mondrian’s treatise was published in 1919, just two years after the Bolshevik Revolution and one year after the armistice that ended the Great War.

After the bloom of De Stijl faded — and later, after Abstract Expressionism gave way to “lyrical abstraction” and, in the eyes of many art historians, swan-dived into the pabulum-pit of decorative blandness — nonobjective painting found itself defanged. Today, a saunter through even the most insipid beach-town “decorator gallery” yields no shortage of hard-edged or gestural compositions, dutifully traversing the color wheel. The once-revolutionary has turned ho-hum. When an abstract painting makes headlines today, it’s because of how much cash it fetched at auction. A case study is Gerhard Richter’s “Abstraktes Bild (809-4),” which in 2012 sold at Sotheby’s for $34.2 million, a record sum for a painting by a living artist. And so we have traveled from an era when abstract works threatened the ruling classes to one in which they have become the trophies of the super-rich. The only way to restore the sexily sinister edge abstraction once embodied would be a tactic no one would wish for: to suppress it once again.

See article here.

The Silent Shout: Voices in Cuban Abstraction 1950-2013

Featured

Jose Rosabal, Untitled, 2013, Acrylic on canvas, 35 x 60 inches

Jose Rosabal, Untitled, 2013, Acrylic on canvas, 35 x 60 inches

Nine Cuban artists are featured in The Silent Shout: Voices in Cuban Abstraction 1950-2013, opening 6-10 p.m. Friday, Nov. 1st, at ArtSpace/Virginia Miller Galleries in downtown Coral Gables.  Three of the artists are being exhibited in Greater Miami for the first time.

See Gallery Tour here.

According to Rafael DiazCasas, one of the show’s three curators, “The Silent Shout is the first historical exhibition outside Cuba that includes a variety of Cuban artists of different generations working in abstraction.”

Abstract art was not sanctioned by the Fidel Castro regime and thus was not promoted in any of the country’s major venues until 1997, during the VI Havana Biennial, when the exhibition Pinturas del Silencio featured abstract works “to an extent that had not been achieved since the exhibition Expresionismo Abstracto at Galeria Habana, in 1963,” DiazCasas said.

The Silent Shout is not a survey exhibition, but rather the product of a curatorial vision taking Pinturas del Silencio as its departure, a continuation of the themes, attitudes and ideas explored in that landmark show,” he noted.

One of the curators of Pinturas del Silencio—José Angel Vincench—is an artist whose work is included in The Silent Shout as well as being one of its three curators. The third curator of The Silent Shout, Janet Batet, wrote the catalog essay for the 1997 exhibition and co-authored, with Rafael DiazCasas, the essay for the catalog for The Silent Shout.

Other artists whose paintings are included in The Silent Shout are Hugo Consuegra, Sandú Darié, Carlos García, Luis Enrique López, Raúl Martínez, Pedro de Oraá, José Rosabal, and Loló Soldevilla.

“Since the 1950s, abstraction has been viewed by Cuban-born artists as an artistic form and movement closely associated with ideals of social engagement,” DiazCasas explained. “The Silent Shout is the first show since Pinturas del Silencio to explore those ideals through works taken from a range of the most significant Cuban abstract artists of the past 60 years.

“This is the first time since 1961 that the works of Darié, Soldevilla, Oraá and Rosabal have been exhibited together, so this is a reunion of a significant part of the “10 Pintores Concretos” group. Also it is the first time that the works of Rosabal, Carlos García and Luis Enrique López have been shown in Miami.

“Darié, Loló, Oraá and Rosabal were members of ‘10 Pintores Concretos;’ Consuegra and Martinez members of ‘Los Once.’ The work of Carlos Garcia built on the avenues opened by Los Once, while Luis Enrique Lopez furthered 10 Pintores Concretos’ language, which uses form as a goal of walking away from any type of representation. Enrique Lopez’s formal approach to the playfulness of light, and the adaptation of the human eye to its perception, is a lucid insight on the social unconscious of today’s Cuban society.

“Vincench’s appropriation of abstraction is more radical because he uses pure forms to comment upon his social concerns, recent Cuban political history and daily life,” DiazCasas concluded.

The Silent Shout is the latest in a series of ArtSpace/Virginia Miller Gallery exhibitions over the past 40 years that have been the first of their kind in the nation or region (see virginiamiller.com/gallery).  Located in the heart of the Coral Gables business district at 169 Madeira Ave., the gallery is open Monday-Friday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. and by appointment on Saturdays and evenings.

 

Leslie Lew: American Memories in ARTPulse Magazine

Aside

ArtPulseLeslie Lew: American Memories
ArtSpace/Virginia Miller Galleries – Miami
By Margery Gordon
ARTPulse
(May 3 – October 25, 2013)

Entering Virginia Miller’s survey of Leslie Lew’s paintings is like traveling back to a simpler time to reunite with childhood companions. These are not just personal memories, but universal icons that have illustrated American life for decades and evoke nostalgia in mature audiences while sparking recognition in younger viewers.

Colorful characters burst from the walls with an infectious exuberance. The superhero trinity of Batman, Spiderman and Superman swoop in to rescue us from the banality of their big-screen counter-parts, reminding us why they continue to be reincarnated for each successive generation, yet lose a little luster in the slick technological translation. “I’m not painting Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman, but the original comic book character,” Lew points out.

The stars of classic Sunday funnies also contrast with today’s Saturday morning cartoons primed for product placement. Mickey and Minnie swoon; Nancy and Sluggo banter playfully; Blondie nags Dagwood. “A lot of these cartoons are really disappearing,” says Lew. “My art is all about grabbing stuff from pop culture history.” Some of the comic book covers animate vintage editions, while others are her invented variations on common themes, like the pulp fiction “Dear Abby Romance” entitled My Personal Problem, in which a tearful woman’s thought bubble reveals the relatable refrain, “Everybody has a love story except me!”

Leslie Lew, Personal Problems--Dear Abby, 2012, sculpted oil on canvas, 20” x 16”. Courtesy of ArtSpace/Virginia Miller Galleries.

Leslie Lew, Personal Problems–Dear Abby, 2012, sculpted oil on canvas, 20” x 16”. Courtesy of ArtSpace/Virginia Miller Galleries.

What distinguishes Lew from other artists who use vernacular imagery is her raised paint application, an original technique she coined “sculpted oil,” a fitting description for the dramatic relief she creates by building up and carving into layers of oil paint. The exaggeratedly embossed effect has a tactile quality that gives high definition a hand- wrought twist hard to capture in one-dimensional reproductions.

Lew’s subject matter and vibrant palette share the pop preoccupations of her compatriots in the 1980s East Village art scene, where her friend Jean-Michel Basquiat introduced her to Andy Warhol, who negotiated to trade work but died before the exchange could take place. Her spirited aesthetic also reflects her studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago under Ray Yoshida, who had previously taught members of the city’s Hairy Who, a 1960s exhibiting group with a similarly cartoonish style and playful sensibility.

But her earliest influence was the branding imagery of her father, a well-known advertising director who designed the campaigns for Kellogg’s cereal that she pays tribute to with her Snack Pack of Sugar Smacks, Rice Krispies and Frosted Flakes. He also introduced her to Norman Rockwell, whose sentimental celebration of Americana still resonates with Lew. The sincere tone of her homages resists the cynicism and irony of much appropriation for a cultural commentary without the consumer critique.

She reprises some of her inspirations – like the Barnum’s Animals cracker boxes that she periodically paints and recently replicated in wood, enlarged to 16 x 12 inches complete with the fine print and packaging details on all sides and the trademark string initially attached to hang from Christmas trees. The pigment is thicker on the newer canvases, the grooves deepening with her skill and maturity, yet she retains a youthful verve at age 60 that still infuses her compositions with a bubbly optimism that makes it hard to resist smiling in their presence.

Margery Gordon is a freelance arts journalist and regular contributor to ARTnews, Art+Auction, ArtInfo.com and the official Art Basel Miami Beach Magazine, among other publications. She is a professor at Barry University in Miami.

Leslie Lew, un pasaje de regreso a la infancia

Aside

by Janet Batet
Especial / El Nuevo Herald

La primera reacción que provocan las pinturas de Leslie Lew es la misma tentación que experimentan los niños frente a una torta de cumpleaños: quieres, subrepticiamente, meterle el dedo y arrasar con el merengue en un santiamén, mientras los demás están entretenidos en el jolgorio de la fiesta.

Y sí, no creo que haya mejor calificativo: la pintura de Lew es un cake.

Leslie Lew, Wonder Woman Making a Splash, Sculpted Oil on Canvas, 60 x 36 inches, 2012

Leslie Lew, Wonder Woman Making a Splash, Sculpted Oil on Canvas, 60 x 36 inches, 2012

Los gruesos empastes que como merengue van dibujando temas afines con la alegría de la infancia se sobreponen a una prominente capa de acrílico blanco mezclado con titanio que sirve de base a la obra. A técnica tan singular, la artista la ha bautizado como “sculpted oil”. El resultado son suculentos alto-relieves cargados de colores vivísimos y un manejo del detalle que es tratado sin jerarquías –lo cual es reafirmado por el uso de la perspectiva plana compulsando constantemente nuestra mirada excitada que saltar de un confín al otro del cuadro.

Desde el punto de vista temático, la obra de Leslie Lew (Nueva York, 1953) es un pasaje de regreso a la infancia. Inspirada en la distintiva iconografía del mass culture americano entre 1930 y 1970, Lew se apropia de personajes de Walt Disney, DC Comics, cajas de cereal de Kellogg, las archiconocidas Animal Crackers, supermercados, parques de diversiones, entre otros, para deleitarnos con mundo fantasioso a medio camino entre nostalgia e idilio. En enrevesado pastiche, coexisten en la galería superhéroes como Superman, Superwoman, Spiderman, Dick Tracy, el gato Félix, Blondie, Popeye, la pequeña Lulú y Barney Google, entre otros.

Lew, la mayor de cuatro hermanas, creció entre Nueva Jersey y Chicago. Su padre, Les Hopkins, famoso artista de Chicago que devino el ejecutivo de publicidad de la compañía J. Walter Thompson y fue responsable de muchas de las campañas de publicidad bajo las que creció la generación de los baby boomers como son los casos de Sugar Smacks, Alka Seltzer, Smackin’ Brothers y The Marlboro Man.

“Estoy atrapando recuerdos”, explica Lew. “Algunos de ellos están empezando a desaparecer”.

American Memories es el título de la muestra personal de Leslie Lew, abierta ahora al público en ArtSpace/Virginia Miller Art Galleries, en Coral Gables. La exposición que comprende una vasta selección de obras de la trayectoria de Lew es una oportunidad para acercarnos al universo de esta conocida artista del neo-pop y, a través de su obra, a la revalorización de toda esa época de oro de la cultura americana.

Lew reconoce tres influencias mayores en su obra: Andy Warhol, Peter Max y Norman Rockwell. La influencia del primero puede ser fácilmente retrasada desde las famosas Cajas de Brillo de Warhol a las cajas de cereal de Lew. Sin embargo, la motivación que subyace en estas apropiaciones es enteramente diferente. Para Lew no hay crítica sino nostalgia. No hay tampoco una intención de confrontación entre alta y baja cultura, sino todo lo contrario. En este sentido, es que la artista se siente afín a la figura de Peter Max, ícono por excelencia de los “Comic Sixties” , como se refería el mismo Max al peculiarísimo mundo de coloridas imágenes psicodélicas creado por él y que marcó toda una década. La conexión con Norman Rockwell está dada por el sustrato optimista y edulcorado con el que ambos retratan escenas típicas del estilo de vida americano.

Sin embargo, si en el universo retratado por Rockwell todavía domina el humano y la familia como centro de la propuesta, en el universo de Lew, el elemento humano ha sido sustituido por la imagen publicitaria y el mundo del supermercado. No es casual. Entre 1930 y 1950, conjuntamente con el crecimiento de medios como la radio, el cine y, más tarde, la televisión, el mundo de la publicidad generó un apetito nunca antes visto por el consumo de marcas de productos que devienen necesidad impostergable en todo hogar norteamericano. Durante estas décadas, las tiendas de víveres americanas comienzan a experimentar un giro fundamental: asistimos al nacimiento del “supermarket” y los “supercenters”. Como consecuencia, las tiendas crecen de 5 a 10 veces su tamaño, pasan del servicio al auto-servicio y aparece el “shopping cart” que junto al refrigerador cambiará los hábitos de consumos nacionales.

Leslie Lew, Sugar Smacks, Sculpted Oil on Canvas, 48 x 36 inches, 2007

Leslie Lew, Sugar Smacks, Sculpted Oil on Canvas, 48 x 36 inches, 2007

Las obras de Rockwell parecen intemporales. Justo porque lo que importa es el tiempo y el intercambio social, ya sea en torno a la mesa familiar durante la cena hecha en casa, el viaje de vacaciones o la pesca. Sin embargo, en el universo de Lew, el protagonista ha cambiado. No asistimos a la familia en torno a la cena, sino al producto en sí, suficiente, el cual, por demás, es sólo perceptible a través de su envoltorio: relamidas cajas de atractivos colores que nos prometen la satisfacción instantánea.

Y es que hay algo de agridulce detrás de la apologética nostalgia por estos suculentos cakes que a la vista nos hacen la boca agua, al tacto nos decepcionan y, por sobre todo, nos hacen reflexionar dos veces antes de abrir la próxima caja de cereales.•

Janet Batet es escritora, curadora y crítica de arte. Escribe de arte para diferentes publicaciones, galerías y museos.

‘American Memories’, en ArtSpace/Virginia Miller Art Galleries, 169 Madeira Ave, Coral Gables, Fl, 33134. www.virginiamiller.com

Leslie Lew: American Memories

Aside

Featuring some of America’s most iconic images, Leslie Lew’s “sculpted oils” offer an emotional journey back to childhoods ranging from the 1930s to 1970s. In this interview, Lew talks to ARTDISTRICTS about her career, her unmistakable style, the projects she is working on at the moment and her recent exhibition “American Memories” at ArtSpace/Virginia Miller Galleries, the longest established gallery in South Florida*.

By Raisa Clavijo

Raisa Clavijo – You examine American pop culture by taking commercial advertising and products as subject matter. Why did you choose this specific iconography? Your father was a very famous advertising art director. Have you created pieces inspired by your father’s ads?

Leslie Lew - My parents had a big influence on how I view the world. I had a great childhood and my work reflects this attitude. My dad, Les Hopkins, created a lot of the 1960s’ most popular ad campaigns: Kellogg’s, Alka-Seltzer, Marlboro cigarettes, Nabisco crackers, and so on. One of the characters in the TV show “Mad Men” is loosely based on him.

Leslie Lew at ArtSpace/Virginia Miller Galleries, 2013. Photo: Bill DuPriest.

I lived in that environment, surrounded by all those ads. At that time ads were roughed out using Magic Markers-dad had hundreds of them. He was very persnickety about his markers, and if they were the least bit dry, or not pointed enough, he would pass them on to me. I remember sitting near my dad’s drawing table when I was just a very little girl and copying some of his ads. I actually still have a few of those childhood drawings.

One of my father’s best-known creations was the Smackin’ Brothers on a 1960s Sugar Smacks cereal box. When dad passed away a few years back, I had an exhibition that I dedicated to him called “Snap, Crackle, and Pop.” As its featured painting, I did a 60 x 40-inch sculpted oil Sugar Smacks. I have kept that painting in my personal collection and it is now featured in my exhibition at ArtSpace/ Virginia Miller Galleries in Coral Gables.

R.C. – Are you only focused on images from your childhood, or do you also expand to images that have become icons in American advertising?

L.L. - Although a lot of my imagery relates to childhood and growing up in America, my focus is much more far-reaching and not just related to advertising. In the 1980s two of my epic paintings-a 90 x 140-inch two-floor subway scenario at Grand Central Station and a 90 x 160-inch Coney Island scene-were in a show at the Center for Visual Arts.

A lot of the work that I create also comes from other people’s memories. In some ways I feel that I am a “recorder of history” and am capturing memories for all of us.

One image that I feel that I have expanded and made into a new icon is the Animal Crackers box. Who in America has not had them? I ate them, as well as my parents, my grandparents, my son-pretty much every kid has.

My very first Animal Crackers that I painted was acquired by the Mayo Clinic Children’s Hospital in Minnesota. The painting hangs in the lobby there. During the opening that I attended, I loved the reactions of the children and their expressions when they saw it. These kids are entering the hospital scared and sick; they have challenges. But the minute that they recognized the painting they had big smiles, each identifying with the different animals on the box, and I let them touch the painting, so they could get a tactile experience as well as a visual one. I hope that some day Animal Crackers may be even more recognizable than Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup can!

Leslie Lew, Frosted Flakes, They’re GRRREAT!, 2012, sculpted oil on canvas, 20” x 16”.

R.C. – In your works, you use a technique that you call “sculpted oils.” Can you explain what this process consists of?

L.L. - I invented this process and actually trademarked it. To start all of my paintings, I first sketch whatever image I am conveying in black lines with a small brush. I basically draw pretty much all of the detail as well. In the early 1980s I only used oil paint, but as every artist knows, it can take 200 years to dry.

My 1986 show was installed the day before the opening. In the middle of the night, I felt this crazy shaking and rumbling-New York City had a small earthquake. Then I got an urgent call from my gallery. A circus painting that I had just done had fallen off the wall, and Gunther the lion tamer’s face had slipped down to his waist. The oils were still wet so I successfully scooped up his face, and in one of the most successful surgeries in art history, replaced it just before the opening.

To prevent any more mishaps of that sort and to minimize dry cleaning bills from my collectors, ever since then I have used acrylic paint as a base for my sculpted oils. After drawing the details I take gallons of titanium acrylic white paint and mound the areas that I want to be three-dimensional. After this dries, I go back into the painting with really thick oil paint that I sculpt on top, working wet on wet, until the painting is completely finished. I work usually on one piece at a time since I really want to put all of my concentration and energy-my soul, if you will-into each painting.

If you Google “sculpted oils” my name will turn up!

R.C. – When did you realize that you wanted to become a visual artist?

L.L. - I think that I wanted to be an artist as soon as I saw my dad draw-maybe I was 3 years old? Being around my dad and having access to all of those great colored Magic Markers certainly helped.

For a little while, I also considered becoming a ballerina. When I was a girl, I was pigeon-toed. Doctors urged my mother to have it corrected with surgery, but she had another idea: I would study ballet. I enrolled in a class with a famous instructor, but she told my parents that I had no talent and would never become a dancer on any level. My mother refused to accept that answer and she installed a practice barre in our home. To give me an incentive to practice every day, she bought me a pair of very cool red ballet slippers. A year later I performed flawlessly, with perfectly positioned feet, with the New York City Children’s Ballet in their presentation of “Nutcracker Suite.” These days I have a tradition of wearing red shoes to all my openings as a reminder to myself that in the end, success comes from determination and persistence.

Leslie Lew, Superman Able To Leap Tall Buildings with a Single Bound, 2012, sculpted oil on canvas, 48” x 36”. All images are courtesy of ArtSpace/Virginia Miller Galleries, Coral Gables (Miami), Florida.

Leslie Lew, Superman Able To Leap Tall Buildings with a Single Bound, 2012, sculpted oil on canvas, 48” x 36”. All images are courtesy of ArtSpace/Virginia Miller Galleries, Coral Gables (Miami), Florida.

R.C. – What artists have influenced your work?

L.L. - I love Van Gogh because of his use of color and thick paint. Then there’s Andy Warhol, Lichtenstein and Rembrandt. I saw a Rembrandt painting at the Met in New York back when I was a Brownie scout, and I bought that art postcard with my allowance.

Although I’m a contemporary artist, I admire at least two artists that you might find puzzling. One is Fra Filippo Lippi, the master who taught Botticelli, and whose work I learned to love while studying in Florence. His work is phenomenal, his draftsmanship and use of color is right down my alley, totally perfect. He taught me not to be afraid of color, to paint.

The other artist is Norman Rockwell. My dad loved Rockwell. There has been so much debate about whether he was a “true artist” or an illustrator, especially during my art school days. I think that what Rockwell did was very important, because he captured the memories of his time.  I feel that I am doing something similar. Maybe I’m the “Norman Rockwell” for our time. I’m grabbing our memories and recording them for history.

Leslie Lew, Animal Crackers, Sculpted Oil on Canvas, 36 x 56 inches, 2012, Courtesy of ArtSpace/Virginia Miller Galleries, Coral Gables (Miami), Florida

Leslie Lew, Animal Crackers, Sculpted Oil on Canvas, 36 x 56 inches, 2012, Courtesy of ArtSpace/Virginia Miller Galleries, Coral Gables (Miami), Florida

R.C. – You studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. When did you realize that you had found your style, your own language? Is there a work from those years that you remember as a piece that indicated the language that you would follow in your career?

L.L. - A lot of artists search for years to find their own special technique, their language.  For me, it started by literally falling into my lap. I was studying painting as an undergraduate with Ray Yoshida, a wonderful artist and one of the leaders of Chicago’s Hairy Who art movement.  He was giving me a hard time. You see, at the time I was painting thick, plein-air landscapes and he kept pushing me to find my own voice.

My artist friends agreed with Ray and asked me, “What do you really like to draw?”  I said, “I really love to draw details and products,” and they said “Why not do a supermarket?”

Wow! A light bulb went off in my head, and I did a series of scenes in supermarkets, drugstores, barber shops, statuary stores and diners.  I submitted that series and was accepted into the MFA program of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Leslie Lew, Rice Krispies, Sculpted Acrylic Monotype on Canvas, 12 x 9 x 1 3/4 inches, 2013, Courtesy of ArtSpace/Virginia Miller Galleries, Coral Gables (Miami), Florida

Leslie Lew, Rice Krispies, Sculpted Acrylic Monotype on Canvas, 12 x 9 x 1 3/4 inches, 2013, Courtesy of ArtSpace/Virginia Miller Galleries, Coral Gables (Miami), Florida

That also is how I invented my “sculpted oil” technique. I always painted thick, but to further emphasize the products I started to sculpt the products with paint, to make them stand out three-dimensionally.

R.C. – You were part of two important artistic movements, the Hairy Who movement in Chicago and the East Village movement in NYC, in the 1980s. How did contact with the creative environment of these movements influence your work?

L.L. - Actually, I have been part of three artistic movements. The third one was started by Michael Bidlo and me in the late 1980s and was called East Village “appropriationist” movement,” referred to in the January-February 1988 issue of Art/World. Although the Hairy Who art movement had a bit of a dark side to it, it still had a very playful approach, even though it was considered fine art. This gave me permission to also be playful with my art. My first art piece ever to be exhibited was an aquatint called the School Store. It was selected to be exhibited at the Museum of the Art Institute of Chicago alongside Ray Yoshida, Karl Wirsum and other artists from the Hairy Who movement.

R.C. – Your works are more than simple reproductions of products and advertisements; they are anthropological approaches to American society by showing its tastes, interests, concerns, dreams and aspirations. Do you do any research prior to conceiving a piece-I mean any investigation about how the iconography of a product’s advertising has impacted social behaviors and vice versa?

L.L. - Art through the ages has depicted anthropological examples of everyday life and activities of people during that era. I photograph, I go to book stores, I do Internet research, and I stay aware and open to everything; and most importantly, I listen.

R.C. – You met and exhibited with such renowned American artists as Andy Warhol, Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Can you share any stories about them?

L.L. - While I was still in graduate school I was invited to participate in a program affiliated with the Whitney Museum called “Semester Studio in New York City.”  While there, I was one of the less-well-known artists, along with established ones like Andy, Keith and Jean-Michel, invited to participate in an East Village exhibition called “The Match Box Show,” paintings on matchboxes and matchbook covers. I displayed 10 matchboxes that I painted in a variety of images, from comics to a traditional Raphael Madonna and Child, in my sculpted oil technique.

I was formally introduced to Andy by Jean-Michel at my 1985 opening. As much of an icon that he was, he was always nice to the new kids on the block. Andy was actually very shy and always carried his Polaroid camera as a way to engage people in conversation. Later I did a painting of the opening scene and I put Andy in the corner, holding his Polaroid camera.

One of Warhol’s exhibitions at that time included a children’s book based on Japanese toys. I thought it would be fun to appropriate Andy’s serigraph images of the toys and create them as sculpted oil paintings. One of them was a robot called Moon Explorer.

Leslie Lew, War, 2005, sculpted oil on canvas, 24” x 18” x 1.5”.

Leslie Lew, War, 2005, sculpted oil on canvas, 24” x 18” x 1.5”.

Andy got a big kick out of my paintings and offered to trade a Marilyn serigraph for my Moon Explorer. I really didn’t want to part with any of my paintings at the time, but I agreed to do a trade with him later. Then Andy went in the hospital for a routine gallbladder surgery and unfortunately passed away. The Moon Explorer painting remained in my son Sean’s room until it was recently collected, appropriately enough, by Woody Spring, an astronaut who landed on the moon.

After Andy died, I was invited along with Beth Phillips, who photographed my work and Andy’s, to help archive and document all of his work stored at the Factory. It was fascinating to pull out so many multiples of Andy’s pieces that he had tucked away in every closet space.

R.C. – “American Memories” is your first exhibition at ArtSpace/Virginia Miller Galleries. What are your impressions? How was your work received by the public?

L.L. - Great! What a wonderful experience!!! First off, ArtSpace/Virginia Miller Galleries has an incredible exhibition space! The show is actually a mini-retrospective of nearly 60 of my works covering the 1980s to the present.

I met Virginia and her husband Bill at Art Basel Miami Beach last year when they saw my work at the Scope/Overture Pavilion, where I was exhibiting alongside the Andy Warhol Collection. Virginia immediately loved my work and I took to her and her enthusiasm, and I loved the fact that she had been the art dealer of the late and great artist Alice Neel, whom I always admired.

During my openings at ArtSpace/Virginia Miller Galleries I met so many people from so many walks of life. I found it very interesting that different paintings spoke to different people and their memories.

One of my very earliest collectors, Martin Margulies, came to the May opening.  It was so nice to see him and to see his reaction to the show. He told me that I should be very proud of myself and that the show was beautifully installed, extremely strong and relevant.

Marty collected one of my very first large-scale paintings called Trick or Treat, a 60 x 72-inch work that was based on some of the early childhood primers. Marty has more than 4,500 significant art works in his private collection and at his “Warehouse” museum. A few years ago an art book titled The Martin Z. Margulies Collection was released and included around 100 of his favorite pieces. It was an honor to have my work included, next to Lichtenstein, Warhol, Stella, Miro, Picasso, de Kooning and all those famous artists.

Leslie Lew, Spiderman, Sculpted Acrylic Monotype on Canvas, 18 x 13 inches, 2013, Courtesy of ArtSpace/Virginia Miller Galleries, Coral Gables (Miami), Florida

Leslie Lew, Spiderman, Sculpted Acrylic Monotype on Canvas, 18 x 13 inches, 2013, Courtesy of ArtSpace/Virginia Miller Galleries, Coral Gables (Miami), Florida

R.C. – You wrote and illustrated Buki’s Garden, a children’s book that has been the point of departure of educational workshops for children in New York and Detroit. Tell me 

about this project.

L.L. - This project is near and dear to me, and is still a work in progress. I wrote Buki’s Garden a few years ago. The story is about a kitty that looks like a gremlin and none of the other animals will play with her because she looks different. It is not until she frightens away the mean old rat that has been terrorizing the garden that things improve for all the animals. Buki ends up saving the day, not by being mean but just by being herself.

The story is illustrated with my sculpted oil paintings and drawings and is actually based on my real kitty, Buki, who has a scrunched-up face and actually does look like a gremlin.

The story teaches kids to be more tolerant and accepting of differences. With the epidemic of kids bullying and being bullied, it carries a timely message.

In 2004, I got a New York Arts Council grant to read the story and conduct a workshop for a few libraries and the Katonah Museum. I created prints of Buki outlined in black on canvas mounted to canvas board, and then added white sculpted paint to each one to make them three-dimensional. After I read the story, the kids are all invited to paint their own versions of Buki, any way they want.

I recently traveled to Detroit with 130 of the sculpted-acrylic Buki canvases and conducted a series of readings and workshops for the underprivileged kids in the area. I visited the Children’s Hospital of Michigan, shelters, learning centers and churches, reading the story and having local children finish the paintings.

It was so well received that the popular Michigan broadcaster Aliza Zee featured a Sunday interview of it on CBS radio. Statewide, local TV and Detroit newspapers all followed and photographed the events. They are now documented on YouTube.

The best thing about the entire event was that the kids loved the story and Buki. They even asked me if they could friend Buki on Facebook!

The story really carries an important message and is beautifully illustrated. I am now actively seeking a children’s book publisher that can publish the book so it can be more widely distributed to reach more children.

Leslie Lew, Personal Problems--Dear Abby, Sculpted Oil on Canvas, 20 x 16 inches, 2012, Courtesy of ArtSpace/Virginia Miller Galleries, Coral Gables (Miami), Florida

Leslie Lew, Personal Problems–Dear Abby, Sculpted Oil on Canvas, 20 x 16 inches, 2012, Courtesy of ArtSpace/Virginia Miller Galleries, Coral Gables (Miami), Florida

R.C. – What pieces are you working on at the moment?

L.L. - Really interesting commissions! I have always been good at capturing likenesses, and I’ve done a lot of them in my sculpted oils. I like to include some background-to create environmental portraits.

I recently finished a beautiful portrait of Virginia Miller called Portrait of Virginia Miller and Alice Neel, in which I painted Virginia in the foreground and Neel’s 1978 portrait of her in the background. It was so much fun to see the reaction of people at the opening-they were amazed at her likeness!

Right now, I am doing a commission of one of the first McDonald’s that opened in Illinois. The collector traveled to Miami for my opening and had this great photograph of his favorite McDonald’s from the 1960s with some old cars. He is sending me a picture of when he was a boy and I will include that in the scene.

R.C. – What is your goal as an artist? Have you already met it?

L.L. - My goal as an artist is to continue to grow, learn, explore, and create. I don’t think you can ever be finished, because something new is always around the corner. As long as I am breathing, I will never stop painting!

Leslie Lew is represented by ArtSpace Virginia Miller Galleries, located at 169 Madeira Avenue. Coral Gables, Miami, 33134. Phone: 305 444 4493 www.virginiamiller.com / info@virginiamiller.com

Raisa Clavijo is the editor of ARTPULSE and ARTDISTRICTS magazines.

Special thanks to Virginia Miller and Bill DuPriest for coordinating this interview.