Guillermo Portieles: Towards an Art of Memory
I - Portieles has painted objects that seem to be distant and familiar to me in many ways. They seem distant because they do not belong to our present but to the convulsive Cuban reality of the seventies. And if we were to contrast them to the sophisticated, dynamic and comfortable merchandise that flood our contemporary life, these objects would be somewhat poetic, archaic, and enigmatic.
Yet, they are objects I am familiar with. They are images that remind me, almost in a Proustian sense, of my childhood. That is to say that these images take me to my childhood not from those visions that persist in our memory with more or less intensity, but from associations or small flashes that become alive with the sudden contact with objects that I had at hand in another time. They are objects that inhabited my daily life and seemed rather irrelevant to me at that time.
II - In some of his paintings, Guillermo Portieles represents himself in the forefront of the canvas. The body of the artist seems to enter the painted surface before him, or to dissolve into it. Here we are reminded of one more version of a motif that perhaps has ceased to fascinate us for a long time: a character from the real world bursting into the pictorial representation. This motif would look rather stale if it weren’t for the fact that in Guillermo Portieles’ versions, the images of both the artist and the canvas appear to embody opposite pictorial solutions: a painting that is divided into abstract expressionism and a photographic appearance. The artist’s motif entering the canvas seems rather an excuse to make antagonistic forms coexist.
This effort in conveying gestures derived of abstraction by means of a realist painting, even permeated with a photographic appearance, has been very notorious in contemporary Cuban art. In the early eighties, Gerardo Mosquera had emphasized this aspect of Tomás Sánchez’ landscapes. There are a few other Cuban artists who have explored in between the often diffuse margins of photorealism and abstraction, such as: Gustavo Acosta, the early work of Los Carpinteros and José Márquez. A common trait among these painters is the flaunting of their virtuosity when they execute their art. This is a quality which, without proposing a return to academia, is equally very attractive in Portieles’ work.
Portieles’ artistic formation —going from his early creations during the eighties at the “Eduardo Abela Workshop” in La Habana, to his years as a student of the “San Alejandro Academy of Fine Arts”, seemed to move in two great directions: photorealism and abstraction.
In his recent works, Portieles has integrated Pop elements and has ventured into creating installations and rarefied environments that have taken much from the free associations advocated by the surrealists. This has resulted in an art that is very existential and autobiographical, in an art that is nostalgic, as well as reflective about the present and destiny of Cuba.
III - Portieles’ representations oscillate between the intimate and the political, as if to some degree it weren’t possible to separate personal nostalgia from social criticism. His images appear to be rescued from a collective unconscious, and sometimes they can be recognized as Cuban attributes. However, they are images provided by an intense, rather suggestive, political commentary.
These are representations that emerge from the experience of exile, as Portieles’ himself wrote: “Prior to my leaving Cuba, the vestiges of everyday life were not valued in my work. When I had to find my way in different cultures, when the reality of my heritage moved into the gossamer world of memory, then the common became the sustenance of my artistic spirit.”
Exile: that perspective that magnifies the least impressions; that space that often secludes us in our memory. It is not surprising that Portieles’ art is becoming well known mostly from exile. He has learned to look from that uprooted position.
ERNESTO MENENDEZ –CONDE
New York- N Y- 05-28-04 Art critic