Casimiro Gonzalez

at El Nandu Restaurant, through November 30

By Bertha Husband

We tend to assume that the natural places for exhibiting art are galleries and museums, but in fact art is increasingly displayed in such public places as airports, hospitals, banks, and even car washes. Exhibiting paintings in restaurants, however, has a long history, and often restaurateurs have seen themselves as patrons not only of art but also of music. If we reflect upon this, the connections are obvious: what’s being offered is a total aesthetic experience. El Nandu combines Argentinean food, Latin American music, and one-artist exhibitions, usually of Latin American painters; the current exhibition of four large paintings by the Cuban artist Casimiro Gonzalez (usually called simply “Casimiro”) can be seen as a site-specific installation.

This is a good place to begin looking at Casimiro’s work, because whatever his conscious intentions, he seems to think of his art as a symbolic gift. Of course, he doesn’t make his work to give it away. But it expresses a symbolic exchange, or as he puts it, a “dialogue between the artist, the work, and the public.” In a society where gifts have strings attached–best exemplified by the bribery “gifts” of businessmen and politicians–it’s not always easy to recognize the innocence of a giving with no other motive than creating a bond between strangers, a gift given, as the Sufis say, “breast to breast.” Or from the heart to the heart. A gift, therefore, of love. The danger in art is that such a feeling can lead to sentimentality. But Casimiro is saved by the essential honesty of his expression and an interest in formal concerns, creating the distance necessary to preserve equanimity.

The story behind two of the works underlines the relationship between the paintings and the restaurant. Rita’s Dream shows a voluptuous woman in repose, facing the spectator and clutching a rose to her bosom; surrounded by the trunks of luxurious palms, she looks at once coquettish and masterful. This loving portrait of a complex and fascinating person pictures the owner of the restaurant. Granada has as its central image a young man, naked, seen from the back with his face turned over his shoulder to look toward the spectator. He appears to be standing on a hill facing a circle of tiny houses surrounding a bay: his hometown by the Mediterranean. This is a portrait of a young man from the province of Granada who was a waiter at El Nandu a few years ago, until homesickness sent him back to Spain.

If Rita’s Dream and Granada can be seen as homages affirming the painter’s simultaneous affection and restraint, visible in his careful attention to form, the other two paintings attack their subjects. The Gallery addresses the conflict between the artist and the commercial gallery owner, a relationship that’s often soured by mutual suspicion, economic exploitation, and the manipulation that’s central to the art market, here expressed by the metaphor of the puppet and the puppeteer. The artist sits facing the spectator with a brush in his right hand while the gallery owner sits behind and holds a mask over the artist’s face and moves his right arm. In a world that transforms everything into a commodity, the imagined consumer is always looking over the artist’s shoulder. The gazes of gallery owners, agents, buyers, editors, critics, and viewers together create a form of self-censorship, as art is reduced to a vacuous entertainment that insults the intelligence of both artist and spectator. This slide toward mediocrity and the struggle against it are Casimiro’s conscious focus in The Gallery.

The power of the news media is what’s being criticized in El unico vestido (“The Only Clothing”). However, I know this only because Casimiro told me. And this is important: the ambiguity of the painting is what raises it from the level of communicating information to art. When we look at The Gallery we read the title, read the image, get the significance, and move on. But in El unico vestido, the subject, the title, and the image work both with and against one another, producing many different ideas and emotions in the viewer. Often the subject matter is only the starting point of a painting; the content may be something completely different, released in the process of making the work.

El unico vestido shows four naked men intertwined, compressed by the frame of the canvas. Each figure clutches a piece of newspaper, and the men are twisted around one another in such a complicated knot that it’s often impossible to discern which limb belongs to which figure. This oneness recalls ancient forms like the complex Celtic knots of the Book of Kells. Because of the intricate interweaving, my first reading of the painting was that the pieces of newspaper were being exchanged. And I thought of a painting by English artist Stanley Spencer, Love Letters (1950), which depicts a man and woman kneeling together in an absurdly oversize armchair clutching and exchanging pages of letters. Despite the intended subject in El unico vestido, I suspect that the real content has something to do with giving and receiving. Sometimes a work’s subject–its starting point–becomes a constriction, and the artist’s passion for the composition, the colors, and the way the painting is made takes the work to another level, freeing it from a simple reading.

Casimiro says that a painting comes to him in a complete composition, which he first sketches, then draws onto the canvas intact. Though the composition is never altered, he may change the colors. And whatever the idea or story behind the work, it is the human body that most interests him, never the face. He’s developed several solutions to the problem of the face, using masks, ideograms, and simple profiles. But one way or another the face is always a mere sign–eyes, nose, mouth. All expression lies in the movement of the body.

Over the last ten years the expressive quality of Casimiro’s human figures has evolved, like his palette, dramatically. Ten years ago his bodies were emaciated, rendered in a monochromatic brown. His recent work uses bright, almost tropical hues, and the figures are solid and rounded, even massive. Perhaps this development is his response to a 16-year exile from his home in Cuba. The thin, isolated figures of his first years in Chicago perhaps reflected the initial shock and instability suffered by an immigrant in a new culture and a new climate. And the sensual bodies and warm colors of his recent paintings may suggest a nostalgia and longing for the Caribbean, no longer his home.

Looking at the four paintings, we see that the colors reveal Casimiro’s attitude toward his subjects. For Rita’s Dream and Granada he chooses the bright colors of the tropical sun, but when his aim is social criticism he returns to a dark, restrained palette. But though El unico vestido is superficially monochromatic, it’s actually rich in texture and color, and the contrast between the whiteness of the scraps of newspaper and the overall darkness adds another level of drama. It would seem that in this painting Casimiro has found a composition that expresses his passionate interest in the human body and how bodies interact. What we experience, ironically, is unity, expressed through a cyclic, symbolic exchange of gifts.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Granada”.