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About print

Frank Mujica Chávez
Landscape / Paisaje [2007 - 2011]
 
From tradition to trope
 
In that zeal to find oneself and one’s milieu, human beings have always tried to unify all the phenomena that take place in front of them, from the most dissimilar forms possible. Every era has legitimized its own way of understanding the reality surrounding it as the result of a state of mind, searches, ambitions, dreams; while at the same time the range has been quite broad in languages, forms, techniques and colours. Depiction through landscape has been one of the privileged forms for deconstructing and understanding that milieu; as from its nature of “construct”, we humans carry out elaborations via the phenomena of culture.
 
Landscape representation in Cuba constituted an essentially graphic genre until the first half of the nineteenth century. Using the graphic arts as a medium, maritime subjects were taken up that referred to the insular condition, and continued delving into Cuban territory by representing the ports, the public squares, markets and the sugar cane plantation system. In that process of “interiorization”, the milieu took on a two-fold iconographic quality: idealized landscape with Romantic airs after the manner of Esteban Chartrand and the somewhat more realistic representations of Valentín Sanz Carta.1
 
The fervour of the first avant-garde wave of 1927 produced radical changes in this subject matter, very much corresponding to a new type of sensibility and with the social struggles that were related to modern Cuban thinking with its emancipationist utopias and the searches for new anti-academic formulae influenced by European “isms”. The landscapes of Víctor Manuel García, Antonio Gattorno, Carlos Enríquez and Eduardo Abela2 gave less prominence to the natural surroundings, characteristic of academic landscape painting, and they preferred to underline the human stamp via simple people enveloped by their habitat.
 
The period following 1959 also brought its experiences in the midst of the process of psycho-social transformations. The 1970s incorporate original and various landscape proposals sustained by the recreation of myths, lyrical atmosphere, stylized figures, cosmic spaces and new derivatives of Chagall’s Expressionism; other currents more in keeping with international artistic production were inclined towards hyper-realism. The new concept of the natural milieu offered by the latter permitted, from that point on, the reintroduction of the human being to the deepest of his essences through nature.
 
The 1980s introduced different kinds of new problematic issues on the Cuban visual arts scene. New expressive codes were based on the questioning of contemporary society. We can spotlight two directions in this sense: those artists who were reflecting upon the harmonic Man-Environment relationship and those who were politicizing their codes at the beginning with anti-establishment fervour and thus were more suited to trope and oblique allusions. By consequence, classical landscape depiction disappeared in this era to give way to a perspective that was nearer to the proposals of conceptualism where the explicit protagonist position of the environment was doing a vanishing act by means of manipulated visual references.
 
Following decades gave evidence of new visual directions which, among other expressive resources, was resorting to contextually evocative landscape painting. This was leaving its imprint on works giving proof of a critical era for Cubans which began with the so-called rectification of errors at the end of the 80s and was unleashed in a spiritual-material crisis that began in the 90s. Every artist, in different degrees of intellectual commitment, transformed the traditional landscape into a topic tending rather to expression, tempered towards the requirements of post-modernism that respected neither borders nor established genres, without demanding the metaphysical message that had been proposed by the preceding tendency.
 
The work of the Cuban artist Frank Mujica Chávez is inserted into this rich and very often convulsed tradition. Starting with profound research into the genre, in search of attitudes and gestures through their evolution both in Cuban and international contexts, an understanding of the essential elements in the most sophisticated process of construction and elaboration of landscape through the drawing is proposed, along with the challenge this assumes for the eye of the contemporary viewer. His studies on painting at the San Alejandro Academy of Fine Arts, the great conflicts in ideo-aesthetic terms suffered at the Higher Institute of Art (ISA) and at the “Cátedra de Conducta” directed by the artist Tania Bruguera,3 besides his permanent collaboration with the Ludwig Foundation of Cuba for the past three years, have shaped his very personal philosophy about the artistic creation.
 
From pictorial tradition, he has studied well the works of Cuban painters Domingo Ramos and Tomás Sánchez,4 who have indirectly influenced his formation from gesture and innovating spirit. Internationally, the landscape painters of the Dutch and Flemish seventeenth century, and experiences such as the Barbizon and Hudson River schools have become unavoidable too in order to understand the process. Figures such as the Englishman John Constable and the American James Abbott McNeill Whistler5 developed a type of drawing closer to emotion and estrangement that later on Mujica has claimed for his own poetics.
The artist structures a drawing which proposes and develops a particular style of looking, judging and assessing, without denying the cultural tradition which it implicitly bears. He neither denies nor continues; he calls a sort of truce out of his study of tradition. For him “learning to observe, to recognize which are the cultural codes that condition our gaze, to disconnect from them without denying them but enriching them, this is learning to elaborate a landscape from an unusual perspective. Therefore, it shows a single work just where the everyday gaze doesn’t stop”. It is this projection which gives him the possibility of expanding his conception of the genre towards other horizons, in that perennial opportunity of reflection about himself and the eternal reinvention of his surroundings. Landscape provides him that intimate space we all need.
 
By using the method of observation, he constructs his drawings in situ or through photographs he takes during his trips as “explorer”. Depicting them, he freezes those chrono-tropical spaces that most of the time remain unnoticed by the viewer. He considers a reality which, per se, is transitory and inaccessible. In the manner of a study of an object, under the strictest of technical rigors, he gives us tonal qualities and combinations of forms that overlap several situations in order to emphasize the ambivalent character of the flow of life.
 
In this new universe, we find mountains, paths, stadiums, the coastline, the sea; seasons and all possible times are defined too. The relationship between drawings and precise topography or some specific event is very far from being simple. His description is as changing as the scenes themselves. Many times the distance between us and them is measured not in miles but in years, as if the depiction were looking at another past time. Man is not there, but we can intuit his presence.
 
His artworks should be apprehended from contemplating, because enjoyment is found in the sensorial seduction and in the experience of the retina. However, they also breathe a gentle breeze of restlessness, interior vacuum and anxiety. The principle of a likeness or mimesis is justified in the emphasis on the experience and quality of the painting technique; but then a new feeling arises, one Frank makes concrete and palpable. The viewer, confronting his drawings, intuits in a certain degree a special feeling of exclusion, even of exile. There is a reality that escapes reason and which we understand from emotion.
 
Sara Alonso Gómez
Curator and Art Critic
Havana, October 9th, 2011
 
 
 
1 Esteban Chartrand y Dubois (Cuba, 1840 – U.S.A., 1883); Valentín Sanz Carta (Spain, 1849 – U.S.A., 1898).
2 Víctor Manuel García (Cuba, 1897 – 1969); Antonio Gattorno (Cuba, 1904 – U.S.A., 1980); Carlos Enríquez (Cuba, 1900 – 1957); Eduar-do Abela (Cuba, 1889 – 1965).
3 Tania Bruguera (Cuba, 1968).
4 Domingo Ramos (Cuba, 1894 – 1956); Tomás Sánchez (Cuba, 1948).
5 John Constable (England, 1776 – 1837);James Abbott McNeill Whistler (U.S.A., 1834 – 1903)
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