Vincench vs. Vincench: A Dissident Dialogue from Cuba
ArtSpace/Virginia Miller - Miami
The Artist in Front of the Mirror
(Or Words in a Narrow Room)
By Joaquín Badajoz
With the same seamless gesture of a man devoting himself to a shaving ritual-creating the perfect lather to coat his face, choosing the right blade to slide along his skin, until becoming, with a few strokes, a naked reflection in the mirror-the artist faces the canvas. It is in this moment, when he portrays himself, or the facts in which he is immersed, the private becomes public and the artist’s odyssey begins.
For the artist, the canvas is the mirror-the vehicle that allows him to reach out, without self-censorship, to begin a dialogue that starts with his own public statement of his doubts as well as some dangerous certainties.
“Vincench vs. Vincench: A Dissident Dialogue from Cuba,” the first solo exhibition in the United States by Cuban artist José Ángel Vincench, begins as a battle between art and ideas, or image and ideology in pursuit of a typography of ideology. That is the main reason why words are so influential in Vincench’s current work. Although I do not consider this an ideal exhibition to introduce to an American public unfamiliar with his previous artworks, “Vincench vs. Vincench” is a fine example of his maturity and development as a conceptual artist.
To understand and appreciate this substantive artistic proposal, it would be helpful to backtrack to his early artwork, which is characterized by impressive aesthetic dialogues with Lucio Fontana, Jiří Kolář, Chuck Close and Victor Vasarely, among others. An exhibition showing samples of his early series, The Symbolic Trace (La huella simbólica), would unveil a sharply polysemic approach to images that I previously considered a sort of figurative abstractionism.
Language is always at the center of the ideological trade, creating a parallel iconography-”the jargon of the winners,” full of derogatory and laudatory concepts-that has a great impact on society and therefore is rightfully a weapon for every caustic biographer of his circumstances, such as Vincench. In autocratic regimes, a word can easily become a label and, therefore, lead to retaliation, ostracism or persecution. On the other hand, any critical or even satirical approach, whether artistic or literary, is considered a political statement. “A joke is not always a joke. It’s a form of defiance,” as Chinese artist Pi San recently told Brook Larmer in a piece he wrote for The New York Times magazine.
Following the steps of the anti-establishment and critical art of the 1980s, Vincench targets two of the most dangerous words in the Cuban political scenario and divests them of their political connotations, blasting away their real etymological meaning. In a country in which the words “dissident” and “exile” are used to label traitors and counterrevolutionaries, the artist bets for his right to dissent as an intellectual and critical thinker. “Because I am an artist, an intellectual, I see things differently. I want to show people that dissidence is just another way of looking at something,” he explains. Therefore, “Vincench vs. Vincench” becomes a graphic dialogue about what these words represent in the context of the identity of a nation-particularly in one that must harmonize the different discourses to gradually become a whole.
What Vincench hopes to achieve is a de-fetishization of these words to reclaim their true meaning-an attempt to “set the record straight” in the conversation of a nation in which the original etymology of the words has been displaced by ideology. In this sense, once the old fetish is deconstructed, a new icon can emerge from within, making his conceptual process a sort of constructivist learning intervention in every sense, as a construction of a new model and as recognition that the social architecture is framed by the interaction of unique individuals and their mental representations. This is one of the reasons every piece in this exhibition is also unique.
Together with the Dissident series, showing paintings of the word and its meaning translated into 12 different languages-a beautiful work-in-progress in a Kosuth-meets-Indiana concept-there is a mosaic built with 100 pieces in small format with the same dimension but different finish titled Cuba y la noche (Cuba and the Night), with the word “dissident” in Spanish. Nevertheless, where Kosuth, Indiana-or even John Baldessari-focus on idea as art, Vincench embarks in a re-reading of art as ideology in permanent arm-wrestling with the demagogy of the manipulative political rhetoric. His proposal is more etymologic and encyclopedistic than philosophic: rather than create a totally new approach to the ontological truth, he tries to regain the words’ concealed meaning, to illuminate through facts. At the end, Vincench’s Babelian confusion shows that dissidence is a worldwide engine that helps to calibrate the social machinery, and that it is not that bad after all to just think different in the age of the global “occupy” movements and the end of autocratic regimes.
“Vincench vs. Vincench” includes various installations and artifacts from the artist’s series Exile/Destierro. “Exile” is another word intertwined in the last 53 years of Cuban history that is deconstructed letter by letter in what seems to be a spelling test of diasporic identity. Every exile is a wor(l)d in himself. Every personal history is unique but necessary to accomplish social completion. The artist’s letter-shaped bags in Kraft paper or taffeta highlight the poetry of the material as parody and acceptance of the universal historic classification. If every human imaginary is an expression of the materials-stone, bronze, steel, gold, etc.-used in a particular historic age, then his artwork is a radical testimony that Cuba’s society is still in a very precarious stage of evolution: the Age of Kraft and taffeta, at least in the sphere of social communication.
The same modus operandi works for the huge plastic bags, or duffle bags (which Cubans call “gusanos” -”worms”), made of taffeta, mimicking the island of Cuba. These bags were made fashionable on the island during the ’80s by the expatriates who began visiting their homeland after decades of exile. The transference of this metaphoric but derogatory term from the beholder-every Cuban expat was labeled a traitor and called a “gusano”-to his belongings, thus as a semiotic symbol of the whole island, is an explicit message of the exiles’ impact over contemporary Cuban society and a clear reference that the island is condemned to its incompletion without the memories and social imagery of the Cuban exiles. A Christmas tree of “reconciliation,” displaying the dictionary’s definition carved in wood in English and Spanish, is a surprising addition to the exhibit that reinforces this message.
In this complex art of dis(arti)culation, Vincench is also addressing ethical breaches. This exhibition is also an assertion of the necessity for an ethical and critical approach to art and society under a new artistic agreement. His artwork also makes us remember a disturbing phrase from Robert Motherwell: “Without ethical consciousness, a painter is only a decorator.”
(November 4, 2011-February 3, 2012)
Joaquín Badajoz is and independent art critic and writer based in Miami.
Filed Under: Reviews