Vincench vs. Vincench. A Dissident Dialogue from Cuba

By Margery Gordon
Posted on Art Districts

Jose Angel Vincench’s first solo show in the United States is a contradiction in terms-literally. Beneath a surface concern with the semantics of dissent, the paintings and sculptures installed at ArtSpace Virginia Miller Galleries defy simple definitions. Outlining charged epithets atop abstract compositions, he creates canvases that are at once bold and ethereal, direct and elusive.

Jose Angel Vincench, Dissident (Serbia): Compromise or Fiction of the Painting Series, 2009-2010, acrylic on canvas, 48” x 48” All images are courtesy of ArtSpace/Virginia Miller Galleries, Coral Gables (Miami), Florida.
A series of large square paintings, executed between 2009 and 2010 but never before exhibited, is subtitled Compromiso o Ficcion de la Pintura-which translates as “Commitment or Fiction of the Painting”-questioning the intentions and perceptions of an intermittently offensive and defensive posture. By transcribing the dictionary entries for “dissident” in 15 different dialects, the Havana-based artist raises doubts about whether any culture truly comprehends what that classification signifies or labels transgressors fairly. Whether the word is wielded as a weapon or a curse, ascribed or claimed with fear or with pride, its ramifications can be all too real.

With this multilingual approach, Vincench, who has been exhibiting his work throughout the Caribbean, South America and Europe for two decades, expands the debate about dissent from its damning implications in his home country to encompass the latest wave of protests sweeping the globe. From the ongoing agitation of the Occupy movement to the transformative violence of the Arab Spring, the political permutations span a continuum, from peaceful resistance to deadly confrontation.

Militant connotations coexist with more benign meanings, such as the secondary English synonym of “nonconformist,” which could apply to a wider range of misfits who rebel against expectations and skirt societal norms, including some who find acceptance in the art world. Expressions of individuality aren’t often well-received, not just by Communist regimes that demand uniformity, but even in a country like the United States that, at least nominally, elevates personal determinism to a national ideal.

6 “Vincench vs Vincench: A Dissident Dialogue from Cuba”, Installation view: Exile, 2011, Kraft Paper and Twine, 17” x 60” / Destierro, 2011, Kraft Paper and Twine, 19 ½” x 100” x 5 ½” / Reconciliation Tree, 2011, Incised Cedar and Steel, 50 ½” x 38 3/8” x 38 5/8”
While challenging authority takes courage, defining one’s identity by what one denounces can be just another constraint. Vincench limns this negative space by placing letters upon a base of abstraction, applying a white wash, and then removing the capitals so that only their contours remain uncovered. A sort of stencil in reverse, this process of imposing linear order on chaotic foundations, yet exposing an irrepressible interior, becomes itself a revealing metaphor. Tantalizing traces of the original colors often peer through the pure topcoat, rendering the terminology transparent and encouraging viewers to visually and conceptually see through such stereotypes. The ghostly echoes could evoke a lingering resilience, an inherited heroism or a tentative détente.

This precarious balance also applies to formal considerations. Although tethered to a denotative context, the arrangements of letters take on the quality of concrete poetry. The partially obscured preliminary paintings are exquisitely executed in an impressive range of abstract expressionist styles that include: vigorous, broad swaths of bright hues in the Serbian tongue; vibrant rivulets running through the smaller Swedish type; and dreamy marbling of the paler Polish pattern. Jackson Pollock-esque delicate trails appear appropriately calligraphic for the Chinese characters, while a denser spattering of splotchy droplets somehow seems better suited to the French flair. The Cyrillic alphabet is a stark exception in the trademark Russian solid red, a shade that also stands out among the crosshatched brushstrokes of a complementary canvas in Spanish hanging alongside.

Destierro, 2011, Cuban flag as canvas shopping bags shaped into letters of D. E. S. T. I. E. R. R. O., 19 ½” x 100” x 5 ½”, Ed. 5, and a painting of the installation.
The same Spanish message is shrunk to diminutive dimensions and draped in black paint, befitting the series title Cuba y La Noche. The name is inspired by a line from revolutionary poet José Martí, the quintessential dissident and iconic exile of 19th-century Cuba: “Two fatherlands I have, Cuba and the night.” The dark overtones impart a mysterious aura to 100 unique variations arranged in a tight grid.

That constellation of disidentes contrasts with another grouping of 20 slightly larger explorations of “exilio” stamped out of white paint. A neutral English definition-”somebody living outside own country”-alternates with a Spanish list that references expatriation, deportation and banishment. The latter, which takes the form of “destierro,” raises the harshest associations with enforced removal to a distant, solitary place-a reminder that donning the mantle of the exile can signal acceptance of an eternal curse.

Both exile and destierro are spelled out in petite paper shopping bags custom-fabricated to form block letters. The fragile capitals hang below harsh spotlights that cast long shadows like haunting memories. These are among several editions, molded last year in different materials, which allude to the rule that restricted emigrants to taking only one bag with them when leaving Cuba. In an ironic gesture toward exporting patriotism, Vincench had a set of canvas tote bags printed with blue-and-white stripes extending from the white star set in a red triangle on the initials E and D to bear allegiance to the Cuban flag.

Dissident (English): Compromise or Fiction of the Painting Series, 2009-2010, acrylic on canvas, 48” x 48”
Black Cordura nylon, most commonly used in luggage, is stitched into five carry-ons that, together, dispatch “exile,” but separately, cease to make sense. The tough fabric is also tailored into a duffel shaped like Cuba’s natural borders, complete with cylindrical companion case to represent the offshore territory Isle of Youth. Another clever version in clear plastic is packed with Cuban soil, a wistful memento of lost ground. This earthy token is but a futile attempt to stay connected to one’s origins after release into the Cuban diaspora.

Despite the sardonic tone that dominates Vincench’s internal dialogue, he does sound a hopeful note with a submission to Florida International University’s 25th-annual Festival of the Trees in Coral Gables. Displayed in the gallery, the artist’s seasonal Reconciliation Tree comprises a star-tipped pyramid of cedar bars inscribed on either side with the Spanish and English definitions of reconciliation. Fanning out from a central spoke like directional arrows on a signpost, this tree is a testament to the holiday spirit of fraternal forgiveness, suggesting the possibility of forging new pathways toward future unity.

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