Carlos Estévez is a Cuban-born, Miami-based artist who has been active since the beginning of the nineties. Since his solo exhibition “A través del Universo” (Through the Universe) in 1992 at the Centro de Desarrollo de las Artes Visuales, in Havana, he has become part of a group of the more promising artists of his generation. With time this prediction has been fulfilled: his work has been exhibited in prestigious museums and galleries around the world, and can be found as part of some of today’s most important collections of contemporary art. Among the local museums that have acquired his work, we can mention the newly-built Frost Museum of Florida International University, which has in its collection “Feminología práctica,” (Practical Feminology) one of Carlos’ works from his last solo exhibition this year in Miami, “Hermetic Garden,” at Panamerican Art Projects.
Over the years Carlos’ work has evolved and matured; nevertheless, the center of his oeuvre continues gravitating towards philosophical and universal themes such as knowledge in general and human existence. His fascination with these themes is a lifetime quest, a puzzle that hasn’t been solved. His philosophical viewpoint is based extensively on an existentialist perspective: life is predetermined, but at the same time we can be “the architects of our own destiny.” He metaphorically compares this kind of cause-consequence reaction to cerebral games such as chess and checkers in his paintings. Still, if we had to summarize his main theme in art in one word, it would be humankind. He is portraying human beings in their most delicate state: the relationships with others and the way they complement each other.
His work is very symbolic, absorbing elements from the universal heritage of knowledge, but he is also making his own symbols, creating a unique tale. To this end he blends the human and animal worlds, taking qualities and characteristics of animals and applying them to human beings, resulting in hybrid creatures composed of selected parts from both worlds. This brings to his work a fable-like attribute, used by him to highlight the chosen qualities in his characters.
Birds and cages are often part of his paintings. Perhaps the artist is citing Plato, for whom caged birds represented the mind, in his view of this image. And that’s one of Carlos’ main ideas: the mind and the man. To what extent is man in control of his mind and to what extent is it the other way around?
In “Mundos Paralelos” (Parallel Worlds) he portrays two hybrid beings, half human-half avian. He is probably referring to the alchemic view of birds, which sees them as a picture of the human soul undergoing spiritual development, and in some way everyone is undergoing that process. That’s why he is representing his characters as half of each, complementing each other while in the middle of that complicated and lengthy process.
“Feminología de la libertad” (The Feminology of Freedom) also exemplifies this process. People are represented as hybrids part human, part machines, part birds and part cages, trying to capture flying balloons. Some of these balloons are inside people who are still chasing more. Each character is using its own weapons, those they know how to use best. This image is a poetic metaphor for life itself, the race sustained by humans, chasing the impossible. The idea of Plato’s interpretation is back on the scene, how the mind is playing tricks on us, and, ultimately, how concepts such as freedom and happiness can be mental states of mind, not always tangible. It all depends on the individual’s idea of what freedom is, not a general consensus, but a very personal impression.
Carlos is undoubtedly talking about freedom ranging from the elemental kind at a personal level to the broader aspects. Human-birds are placed close to open and closed cages, the possibility of opening or closing ‘your own cage.’ Flying balloons are also frequent in his work; again, that is perhaps one of the clearest images of freedom: the physical act of flying. Historically birds have been seen as the incarnation of ultimate freedom, creatures that can fly at their own will. For humans, the flying balloon is the classic image, the ultimate act of redemption. Carlos is questioning our individual right to freedom, an act of gumption in its purest expression.
“Los paseos aleatorios de la reina” (The Random Walks of the Queen) is perhaps one of the pieces that best summarizes his work in terms of philosophical support, a good example of his destiny-versus-willpower philosophy. He is using chess pieces as metaphors for human characters, the delicate balance and how it can be transformed by the simple movement of one. The infinite lines of the universe are presented in complicated harmony, balancing his creatures made of different parts. He is referring to alternatives, all the possibilities and what can be changed. The potential is unlimited, the combinations endless. A complicated system of threads and astronomical elements complements the composition, an allegory of how unpredictable life can be, and how so many things have to be aligned at the same time to make something happen.
A counterpart and complement to “Los paseos aleatorios de la reina” is “El letargo de los peripatétikos” (The Lethargy of the Peripatetic). While the first one talks about delicate and carefully-structured machinery working towards a determined objective; the second is about time, how it passes, inexorably, no matter what we do. It doesn’t matter how we face it, either actively or statically, swiftly or slowly, time still passes. The lethargy is implied in the immobility of the characters, their automatic behavior, waiting to be wound up.
Fish also populate Carlos’ paintings. He compares the world to the ocean and human beings to fish. We are all fish navigating in the immensity of time and space, all different in our own way, trying to achieve our own little goals. The individual versus the group is also an idea he manipulates very often. In “Espejismo habitable” (Habitable Illusion) he represents the individual, just one fish, unique on its own with its inimitable mechanism and beautiful fins; in “El letargo de los autoperipatétikos”(The Lethargy of the Autoperipatetic) the group moves in dissimilar directions.
Carlos’ paintings are exceptionally lyrical images, created from a personal kind of imagery that could, for some, recall a dreamlike atmosphere. This oneiric sense is reinforced by the unreal appearance of his characters. His inspiration is based on elements from alchemy, philosophy, botanical and mechanical drawings, from all sorts of sources. He is just compiling his own treatises of the human existence, from the spiritual side, where the mythical and real come together.
Irina Leyva-Pérez: BA in Art History (University of Havana, Cuba). Former Assistant Curator at the National Gallery of Jamaica. Currently Curator of Panamerican Art Projects. Resides in Miami, FL .