GUILLERMO PORTIELES The Wheel Revisited: Molding Identity
By Daniela Montana
The wheel has been at the center of human advancement since the Stone Age and continues to hold its place in our evolution as we enter the Molecular Age. Guillermo Portieles’ The Wheel Revisited: Molding Identity, currently on view at Arch Gallery, explores progress, transformation and the self.
Arguably, if post-revolutionary Cuban Art has one prevailing symbol, it may be the buoyant pneumatic inner tube --immortalizing the instrument of escape of last resort. At first glance, Guillermo Portieles’ figurative abstractions appear to follow this tendency until we realize he is experimenting with the dense outer wheels; the artist is far more driven to move forward and embrace his new life then to contemplate the past. He has deliberately taken the path less traveled, developing his subaltern hyphenated identity in Tampa, on the periphery of the Miami epicenter for Cuban–American acculturation; to him the tires represent post-migration, progress and advancement.
The luxury automobile may be the ultimate icon of the “American dream” with its seductive promise of a beautiful wife and wonderful life, but its foundations, its wheels –including the scarce petrol, used to produce the necessary rubber and provide them with power-- are fragile and sometimes flawed. The American way of life, its’ promise is built upon the aspirations of faceless workers and consumers -- some immigrants, all dreamers.
In “Lo que no se muestra, no se vende” one enters into the surreal, near disembodied mind of a man mesmerized with an endless circle of goods --homes, cars, boats, tools, landscaping and beach apparel--whether interpreted as merchandize or possessions depends entirely upon the spectator’s perspective. In another piece, a man appears burdened by his “Goma Azul”; if the behavior of the body is art, then the heroic determination in his posture suggests a poor man’s Atlas. Only individual worldview can determine if the circles of commodities depicted are an uprooted swirl from a violent ring of fire or a temping glimpse at a wheel of fortune.
If Portieles’ paintings explore commodification of the “other”, then his sculptural pieces take a step further in questioning the distortion of consumerism and globalization. A child of the 1960s, the artist appropriates the language of a movement as old as himself, Arte Povera, as he elevates the most commonplace object --a discarded tire-- to level of art. The fact that they have all exploded speaks to the limitations of engineering, mass production and technology.
Shiny rims are replaced by the banal monochromatic faces of uniformed employees manifesting their hopes and fears, depicted on assemblages of ripped canvas, newspaper and wood. Their portraits are oddly mounted into the remnants of car and truck wheels, where the near rococo effect created by the rich details of the exposed fibers of mangled tires, serve as a startling contrast to the classic glided frame. The series creates an impacting memorial to those most affected by modernization. In the oeuvre, “Working Girl”, the subject’s portrait is cut out of the canvas and twisted over the makeshift frame in a manner redolent of Arte Povera’s distain of traditional paintings. The jarring juxtaposition seems awkward and absurd, but therein lies its’ power to evoke emotion and question our interest in materiality by bringing the inconsequential to the forefront. Installed alongside each other, the series emits the force of a dynamic moving vehicle blazing a trail to the future, energized by the strength of those immigrant aspirants, who like Portieles himself, embody in his sculptures.
The installation “Auto retrato”, draws in the viewer, transforming them from spectator to subject as the empty core invites one to move-in, engage with the artwork, become a fellow fantasist and re- envision our identity within the microcosm of the “things” we have created in our lives. The self- contained sphere is reminiscent of the geodesic dome in Buckminster Fuller’s Spaceship Earth, where our planet is seen as a mechanical vehicle with man as its primary stakeholder and ultimate steward. However, the whimsical aesthetic approach taken by Portieles is more suggestive of Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s Le Petit Prince, where a curious Prince explores new planets, each brimming with its own wonders, unusual rules and unique protagonist --accountant, geographer, groundskeeper, entertainer or self-proclaimed King without a realm. The average man and his illusions of splendor, each in his own universe, prevail. Untold stories of our collective reality are given voice by the artist who bushes them with myth and turns them into poignant works of fine art that we may ponder.