Beyond Art, But Within It

By Maeva Peraza

Interview with Antonio Espinosa

Certain creators are rooted in art and filter their experiences from the visual symbology, while others tighten links with life itself and their experience determines their personal and artistic development. Antonio Espinosa is one of those persons who change through their vital development, experience and assimilation of their living experiences, and set the pace of a work that foresees new paths after almost two decades of existence.

Antonio, your student years at ISA in the 1990s were signed by the confluence of artists and professors who are relevant figures in Cuban art today. What importance did that academic period have for you?

I arrived in Havana in 1988 to study at the National School of Art (ENA). In those days the ENA and the Higher Institute of Art (ISA) were in the same building, and from the first moment I had contact with the effervescence of Cuban art at the time. I visited other students’ workshops and saw the graduation thesis of Lázaro García Medina, for example, or Segundo Planes’. I witnessed the criticism during the classes by Flavio Garciandía, Magdalena Campos or Carlos Alberto García. Later, in 1992, I started studying engraving at ISA, where great importance was granted to technical training, unlike other specialties like painting, in which the conceptual aspect was more important

What most attracted me from that period was the freedom of expression, since the artists could create their pieces with the technique and medium they chose because the important thing was the idea you wanted to convey. I was also highly influenced by the classes with a philosophy professor named Eduardo Albert in first year; he was very supportive and encouraged the students’ concerns. But most interesting from a student’s point of view is that ISA gave us five more years to decide what we wanted to do as artists and how we wanted to produce works and thus discover our interests.

How do you valuate the engraving workshop and the confluence with other creators?

I always liked very much to paint and design, but I was also attracted to engraving, because I very much enjoyed discovering technical processes such as tracing, linocut, lithography, etc. All these techniques present new demands, and that generates a very attractive alchemy. I was a pupil of Raymundo Orozco and Jacqueline Maggi at the ENA; later of Pablo Borges and Luis Lara, both fabulous engravers. Paradoxically, it was Agustín Rolando Rojas (who was not my professor) who influenced me the most, particularly in my subsequent approach to the landscape world, since he introduced me to the work of an incredible artist like Andrew Wyeth, whom I did not know at the time and began to use as reference. Rojas also had the courtesy to sit with me and show me how to do things, which not everyone did. Sandra Ramos was also my teacher, but she helped us more conceptually than with the technique itself.

It was an interesting period, where I coincided with artists like Douglas Pérez, who at one point made a very interesting graphic work. In the engraving workshop I shared with artists such as Juan Carlos Rivero, Alexander Richard, Liang Domínguez, Frank Martínez and Kelvin López, although the last two were not in my group. I also studied with Saidel Brito, Enrique Báster and José Ángel Vincench. I think the positive side of ISA and ENA was that the generations coincided, exchanged and mixed.

Like many artists who graduated from engraving, you gradually distanced yourself from that practice. What reasons are there for the “apparent lack of interest?

There are practical, basic aspects one has to take into consideration, and one of them is the theme of the instruments and machines, since one requires a workshop for this kind of work. Life generates individual interests and dynamics that not necessarily end in a graphic workshop. Particularly after the learning period I no longer liked printing workshops as creative space; a different reality simply imposed itself. Then there comes a certain time when the circumstances tell you which is the best way, and thus you obtain an interesting result with drawing, which has happened, for example, with artists like Frank Martínez. In my case, because I always liked to paint, I decided to focus on that world because of the results I obtained working quietly in my personal space. Later I started making photographs.

It is true that at present the field of engraving has expanded and is less static; the result is ever more visible, but I am interested in producing works in other techniques. At present I do not visit any printing workshop.

You maintain a fertile dialog with several artists from your generation. How is your work part of that generational dynamics?

In general, the artists from my generation had a good dialog since the university. Friendships born in those days still exist, almost twenty years later. In the mid 1990s I changed the course of what I was doing, even in landscape, and under the influence of some professors and friends began the series Paisajes ideológicos cubanos (Cuban Ideological Landscapes), which was also my graduation thesis. My research dealt with the repercussion of the fact that cigarette or beverage ads replaced the ideological messages on the billboards during the Special Period. I tried to play with that visuality, with that change of language.

In the late 1990’s I began to work with commercial galleries. Later, in 2000 I went to live in Mexico, and later began to work in Sao Paulo. In spite of the time gone by, the dialog and exchange of artistic and personal experiences persist with the artists which whom I maintain more direct communication; in this way we grow and remain updated, we see how the work advances toward new art forms and visualities. Each artist has his space and that, in turn, creates the present variety of artistic forms. Some group exhibitions contribute to make this more evident.

From the start, your work has focused on one of the most traditional genres: the landscape. But your appropriation of the genre, both in the form and the themes, has been different from the rest of Cuban landscapists. How did you develop a taste for these compositions which lack the chromatism that is so common when representing the environment?

When I started painting landscapes I was lucky to see an exhibition called Adquisiciones recientes (Recent Acquisitions) at the National Museum of Fine Arts. In those days the Museum still purchased works of contemporary artists, and the piece Relación (Relation), donated by Tomás Sánchez, had been included in that showcase. I had never seen his works before, and it took me a long time to become familiar with them and get to know them better. A common friend, Fernando Gómez, who was also the tutor of my thesis at ENA, saw my interest, told me anecdotes and gave me some clues as to how Tomás technically solved his works. As a result of it, several ideas occurred to me and I made some color temperas; those were the first landscapes I painted. Then I stopped painting with colors and started making landscapes in gray shades, with a certain influence from Lucio Fontana’s spatial work (I have to admit that the artists who have most interested me have not been exactly landscapists). The result of those works was very experimental, naturally; unfortunately I have nothing to show from those initial attempts.

Cuba has a long tradition of landscapists and that is unquestionable. I was coming from the world of engraving, from the black and white print, and I think that visuality simply captivated me with the intention of producing something different in the line of chromatic landscapes. The methodology I have used is highly based on collage, since I assume many references that form the idea of what I am proposing as landscape. I have never been interested in sitting down to copy from the natural, or in painting directly at the countryside. I am a workshop artist and I like to use references. In that first stage I had also been interested in artists like Richard Estes, Chuck Close or Don Eddy; I was influenced by U.S. hyperrealism and had read about that movement’s philosophy. I was interested in how hyperrealistic artists mutilated the canvases in order to eliminate the traces of the strokes and thus compete with photography. That was not my direct interest, but somehow was part of my work. I was also interested in black and white photography, although I have always painted from color photography, since the color tint is special. When you turn a color photograph into black and white, for example, using a computer program, what takes place is an interpretation of those colors, and I prefer to use the color image to turn those tints into grays, according to my own interests for the work I am producing.

I wanted to distance myself visually and conceptually from the nineteenth century landscape school. The idea of the landscape as thought has always existed, i.e., what I am proposing as landscape has already been seen or visited. The seascapes emerged in the late 1990s, and I gradually abandoned all rural landscaping when I discovered other influences such as minimalism, which was also present somehow in Tomás Sánchez’ works. The paintings became more horizontal, simpler and larger. I think the interests change and the works reflect it.

What have been your main influences when broaching the landscape?

Tomás Sánchez is the first name that appears, since it was he who aroused my interest in the landscape. I was also always interested in Andrew Wyeth, and then I studied the entire hyperrealistic school, but I have always been attracted to conceptual art practices that have nothing to do with the landscape. I developed an interest in On Kawara since I first saw his work; also in Joseph Kosuth, Anselm Kiefer, and Yan Pei Ming. Although these influences were not directly perceived when creating the works, they were always there. I think I have a big mess in my head, because I have been influenced by very dissimilar universes when thinking and making art. As to Cuban artists, I was very much influenced by Servando Cabrera Moreno, Raúl Martínez, and Luis Martínez Pedro.

Your exhibition La historia es larga, la vida es corta (History is Long, Life is Short) introduces new topics, but is also a sort of return after more than five years without exhibiting. What happened during that time?

In 2000 I spent seven months in Mexico, and when I returned I began to work with a dealer in Sao Paulo in 2001. In all those thirteen years I exhibited basically abroad. I presented my work in the Praxis Gallery, in Perú, in “Galería 417” in Madrid, and also in solo shows in Mexico, Chile and Puerto Rico. The work was always present and promoted in art fairs and galleries, but not in Cuba, although I never left completely, since I traveled for a few months and then returned.

In general, that period enabled me to live in other places, meet artists, get to know galleries, museums, etc. That is why I generally travel from three to six months, which allows me to work in different contexts. During that period living intermittently in other countries I lacked the time to settle down in Cuba, produce the works and exhibit in the national galleries. One of the advantages of those trips was to attend the Arco Fair, to have seen the Sao Paulo fair since its first edition and visiting Lima several times. Then, when I traveled to Europe in 2006, the field widened much more.

History, with its sociological, political and psychological implications, was the main theme of that showcase and of several works that followed. Does this new interest indicate that you are heading toward a more committed art?

In 2006 I made an exhibition in Geneva with part of the works of my graduation thesis from ISA and other new ones. Then, in 2007, also in Geneva, I presented a work in that trend, called Muro (Wall), in an exhibition in tribute to the so-called Cuban “revolutionary epic”, which shows that said facet was latent.

I think it was the need of a dialog, of an exchange of points of view like the ones in a conversation that generated the idea for the exhibition La Historia es larga, la vida es corta (History Is Long, Life Is Short). This grants a vision of how I wanted to make art at a certain point in my life, because I had other interests in addition to the landscape. Traveling for such a long time has made me see the world differently, and I like to leave the future as open as possible for interpretations.

In addition to the above is a taste for information and the fact that I was already experiencing certain tiredness when producing landscapes. Besides, I began to feel more at ease when making works. There are things that freshen up work naturally and one reaches them organically; one also grows older and begins to feel differently. In my case I wanted to express what I thought, and precisely those changes of thought evidence how much we develop. It does not worry me that my pieces may show a connection or visual relation, which are there anyway, even if not perceivable. An artist’s substrate has much to conceal.

Politics has always interested me. I like to ask, discuss and generate some type of reflection on a subject, or at times simply show the phenomena the way I see them and that’s all. An old friend, Constantino Parés, encouraged me to create a type of work more in connection to social and political aspects. I guess in the end our conversations had some result.

Your work contains critical analyses on conflicts and concepts that go beyond Cuban problems because they are universal. Does this universal nature derive from a local glance that extends to the general, or is it the other way around?

I think it is the second, first of all because of my experience and permanence in other places for long periods of time; for instance, the entire photographic series Estudio para un jardín paulista (Study for a Sao Paulo Garden) was made in Sao Paulo and conceived for that place. When using Internet I focus on designs and advertising; what most draws my attention is the creativeness of an idea, regardless of the medium; I like the ingenious things of the contemporary world. These things somehow lighten me up; they encourage me to make art.

Cuba is a hotbed of many things because of everything that has happened for years, because of the way people are and how they assume reality. That is something no Cuban artist can ignore, whatever his work may be. In my case I have been able to judge both realities.

Something interesting about my landscapes, particularly the seascapes, is that I have started a piece and the photo I use as reference has the sea I photographed in the Mediterranean, but a cloud in the sky is from a photo I took in Sao Paulo and another one is from Havana. That whole game is part of the work, be it when assembling an image or imitating the Cuban reality.

Another of your work lines is drawing, where photographic appropriation and hyperrealistic accuracy play an essential role. How do these works combine with the rest of your production?

They are forms of evolution. Many artists regard the work from certain topics; personally, my work is a constant review of what I have done before. I have always liked an impeccable finishing, and I have no problem in returning to pure techniques. For me, the work comprises cycles, there are things that blur and others that one discards. It is very interesting to see how art is produced today internationally; everything that is in use and that somehow has a bearing on the making and presentation of the work. I am interested in the evolution of the media; I like to know what kind of printing paper is being used, which are the most adequate fixers. I do not reject anything, I avail myself of any technology that helps improve the work. Drawing is a result and there are certain ideas I want to reproduce using that means. Now I am drawing on paper, but in the future I want to draw on wood. I like to return to certain techniques in an attempt to contribute something from my own work; painting a sea is not the same as drawing it.

Right now I live art in a highly unprejudiced way. I want to do everything I can, and if it fits within my parameters, I do it. If at some point I would have to take up engraving again, I would do it with pleasure. Now I am interested in sculptures, in installations. It is something in which I keep thinking most of the time.

The sea is perhaps one of the most evoked themes in your work. How do you insert the insular condition in your representations?

I remember that one of the first images that impacted me was the sea. I was born in Manzanillo, a town near the coast, and that has always been an interesting vision. I tried to add content to that image, because many things related with the country are also related to the sea, and I think that being surrounded by water has helped the idea of resistance of this archipelago, not only strategically but also for the people’s world view The sea becomes everything for you; you can see it as limit, as option to abandon the place, as means of subsistence, as imagery. Somehow the sea in everywhere; it is paradoxical, because I cannot swim. (Laughs) But it is an image that visually affects me.

The sea is like a backdrop in my life; I’ve never lived far from the sea. The Island’s entire historical substrate may be added to it, and I am seduced by the idea of transferring it to the canvas. We live in a country where for many years it was forbidden to go sailing, and this theme has been handled by writers, researchers, by many people. It is something that has taken deep root among the people.

What projects do you have for the future?

I would like to continue with the exhibitions and and participating in certain events and fairs along the year, as a form of diversifying the work. Right now I am very much interested in making a drawing exhibition. I want to continue producing a heterogeneous work, but I also want everything to flow within a logic space. What I liked most about the showcase at Villa Manuela was that the pieces had different nature, but everything turned coherently around a theme.

There are many questions that have to do with the way in which I read history and with concepts that we basically assume as natural. I am interested in subverting those concepts through the word itself and its meaning. For instance, something similar happened with the watercolors of the series El peso de la sangre (The Weight of Blood), and I am applying that same procedure to a new work: it is a metal chair based on Le Corbusier’s designs, natural size, with all the headlines from Granma newspaper, which is the press organ of the Communist Party of Cuba. There is also a group of works that develop and change; the series I’m Sick of This, a sort of collage also with Granma headlines, evolved to a three-dimensional installation. I also want to make a series of drawings starting from the optic effects of an alphabet I found. The truth is that I have several projects; I just want to keep producing my work in a peaceful context.

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