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The Collective Self 

Forty years of Cuban photography

Wednesday, Jun 6 2001

At the root of the United States‘ long-standing and recently resurgent fascination with Cuban culture is a sense of Cuba as our country’s opposite: an impoverished, undemocratic and politically haggard -- but also soulful, rhythmic and warm-hearted -- foil to our own capitalistic prosperity, global influence and cultural vacuity. Like liberal America‘s approach to ”otherness“ generally, this is a simultaneously self-deprecating and self-aggrandizing position. It admits that our material wealth may be draining our creative soul and, at the same time, preserves our political right to that wealth.

That a U.S.-based institution with an American audience should adopt this sort of U.S.-centric position to some extent is probably inevitable, and LACMA’s ”Shifting Tides: Cuban Photography After the Revolution“ is no exception. Wim Wenders‘ romantic introduction to the exhibition catalog, for example, lays out the self-deprecating angle by urging the viewer, before approaching Cuban culture, to ”take a hard look at the American Dream (look at the armies of homeless people).“ In Cuba, unlike the U.S., he says, ”You will find no trace of racial discrimination [and] a total absence of the cynicism and sarcasm that we all got used to in our world of late consumerism.“ Even as Wenders prescribes such humility, however, the self-consciously stylish design of the catalog drapes the work in that aura of hipness that often follows Cuban culture into the American marketplace to congratulate consumers on their liberal, even exotic tastes; indeed, the catalog’s apparently random cropping of images and its loose interpretation of scale shows a questionable regard for the aesthetic integrity of the work itself.

That said, the work assembled in ”Shifting Tides,“ like all Cuban artwork that makes its way into the United States, obviously has meaning and value independent of the American appetite that brought it here. The great strength of ”Shifting Tides“ is that, in keeping the aforementioned packaging to a minimum, it ultimately manages to stay out of the way of the consistently high-quality and often remarkable work. While curator Tim B. Wride does not seem to question the nature of the American interest in Cuban culture, he does make an earnest attempt to explain the work to an American audience in a way that is productive and respectful. His curatorial influence is firm but unobtrusive, and the decidedly dull environment of LACMA‘s photo galleries allows the work to communicate plainly without the competition of a pretentious installation.

”Shifting Tides“ covers about 40 years and features 16 artists -- a manageable number that allows the viewer to appreciate the artists both as individuals, and as participants in the broader context of Cuba’s cultural and political history. Wride has divided the photographers into four successive but overlapping generations, each distinguished largely by its particular relationship to the duality of personal and political life. The first generation, whose work makes up a short prologue section titled ”The Cult of Personality,“ includes Alberto Diaz Gutierrez (Korda) and Osvaldo Salas, two photographers, active in the early 1960s, who made icons of the revolution‘s heroic personalities. Although the images of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara will be so familiar to most viewers as to seem almost unreal as art photographs, they remain remarkably potent documents of a newly victorious idealism.

The next section, ”Everyday Heroes,“ features photographers working in the late 1960s and early 1970s, such as Ivan Cañas, Jose A. Figueroa, Maria Eugenia Haya (Marucha) and Rigoberto Romero. In response to the changing needs of the revolution, these photographers shifted attention from Cuba’s iconic leaders to its common men and women, the new embodiment of revolutionary heroism. Their photographs, shot in a straight documentary style and often published in popular Cuban magazines, are celebratory images depicting the Cuban people, their work and their leisure with pride and enthusiasm. All are fine photographs -- a few are outstanding -- and they provide a useful background to the rest of the show. Among the most powerful are a beautifully minimal series by Enrique de la Uz, of sugar-cane workers flinging scraps of cane over a low-positioned camera, and nearly all of the photographs by Figueroa, whose masterful attention to the ironies and metaphors imbedded in the pictorial details of everyday life (40 Che Guevara posters laid across a bed like a blanket in one, a tractor overtaking a horse and rider on a wide dirt road in another) is riveting and easily comparable to the work of Robert Frank or Walker Evans.

”Collective Memory,“ the third section, consists of work by artists who emerged in the 1980s, including Juan Carlos Alom, Jose Manuel Fors, Rogelio Lopez Marin (Gory) and Marta Maria Perez Bravo. This group retained the previous generation‘s commitment to the revolutionary properties of everyday life but -- having internalized, in Wride’s words, ”the awareness of their activity as an integral aspect of the revolutionary process“ -- began to explore the self as a surrogate for the common manwoman, and to explore personal history as an aspect of collective history. Perhaps more important, these artists broke radically from the naturalistic photographic style of the previous generation and began to experiment more freely with the medium. Of all the work in the exhibition, this section is the most restless and visually far-reaching, but also, and perhaps as a result, the least endearing. Gory‘s flawlessly manipulated color photographs -- particularly a series in which he morphs the view from the side of a swimming pool into a variety of different watery landscapes -- are especially enchanting and strange.

The most exciting section of the exhibition is the last, called ”Citing the Self“ and featuring the most contemporary of the artists -- Manuel Piña, Carlos Garaicoa, Abigail Gonzalez, Pedro Abascal and Ernesto Leal -- all of whom grew up in Castro’s regime and understand the concept of the collective as a given, rather than as an ideal to be fortified through art. Their work is thus notably introspective, and focused on the experience of space. Building on the formal innovations of the previous generation (though abandoning the overtly surrealistic style), these artists also have a wonderfully progressive understanding of the photograph itself, both as a material object and as a conceptual tool. Perhaps because they are unable to fall back on the expensive tricks and technologies that distract many American and European photographers (the majority of the photographs in this show are simply gelatin silver prints), the originality of their work is strikingly sound, unpretentious and intelligent.

Abigail Gonzalez‘s black-and-white photographs of partially clothed women in casual but startlingly intimate positions -- all shot in cramped interior spaces with seemingly random cropping (the women’s faces are never in the frame) -- are irreverent studies of the female body, and evoke uncomfortable questions of privacy and voyeurism. Ernesto Leal‘s stunningly beautiful large photographs -- subtly monochromatic, soaked in delicate shades of blue and gray, and displayed almost freestanding, arranged like spokes around a single column -- depict forgotten corners of Leal’s own home. Maneuvering the camera as though from the point of view of a small pet, under beds and wardrobes, behind furniture and inside dark crevices, Leal, like Gonzalez, explores issues of private space and surveillance. Carlos Garaicoa uses photographs as source material for large, fantastical architectural drawings: Wooden scaffolding holding up the side of a building in a photograph becomes, in the drawing, a row of muscular giants supporting the wall with their broad shoulders. Simultaneously playful and arrestingly intelligent, reflective and prophetic, intimate and civic-minded, these works give form to the many invisible spirits -- of revolution, idealism, pride, humor -- that float through Havana‘s crumbling streets, and through the rest of the exhibition.

The history of Cuban photography since the revolution is surely not as simple and methodical as the generational narrative established in ”Shifting Tides.“ Still, the exhibition does flesh out many of the important factors in a fair consideration of Cuban art: the relationship between the self and the collective, the personal and the political, public and private space. More important, though, it showcases the work of 16 outstanding artists who are likely unfamiliar to most audiences, and gives them the room to tell their own stories.

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