Two of the finest Cuban artists of the generation born in the late 1970’s and early 80’s are Maikel Martínez and Eduardo Sarmiento. Their works are markedly different in style and theme, yet, as this exhibition discloses, they share more than the mutual admiration of good friends and the path of exile. They both draw with lucid originality from different traditions in Cuban painting—the corpulent, volatile figures of Mario Carreño, Eduardo Abela, Servando Cabrera and others, in the case of Sarmiento; the luminous ethereality of tropical landscapes by Guillermo Collazo, Carlos Enríquez, Tomás Sánchez, et al, in the case of Martínez. More broadly, the interest in theatrical images and spaces found throughout Latin American art of the last hundred years emerges in both their work in a renewed way by their accepting the fictive nature of pictorial realism as premise rather than as celebratory telos. Figurative painters of consummate skill, Martínez and Sarmiento explore complex emotional states whose purview has often been art that is either intensely narrative or purely dream-oriented, or both. While there is an obvious oneiric sensibility in both these artists’ work, it is perhaps a secondary effect of a more intriguing manifestation of tropes—specifically metaphor and metonymy, often simultaneously—at the deepest levels of their visual thinking. Yearning and Desire are, after all, emotional states which exist in both the conscious and unconscious levels of the psyche at once, unlike the more hidden machinery of the dream state or the discursive diurnality of narrative. These two masterful artists have staked their claim to fathoming the interaction between Yearning—the projection of desire into the future—and Desire—the culmination of yearning in the present in order to reconfigure the past.
Conceptually, one could think of the works of both Martínez and Sarmiento in this exhibition as two partially overlapping circles that form a mandorla. In Medieval Christian imagery, the mandorla (‘almond’) was a symbolic expression of the intersection of the divine and the human natures of Christ, hence Jesus is often depicted within such a space, often with symbols of the four evangelists flanking this enthroning parentheses. The assumption is that there is more to each of the dimensions represented by the overlapping circles, and also that the mandorla itself is essentially different from its essential components by the very nature of the co-presence in one space, hence one time, of two different realms. The concept of the mandorla in its purest form, separated from its religious origins, sheds light on the works in this exhibition.
In the case of Martínez, for instance, the motif of the “Mile 45” alludes to an imagined, but not imaginary, dead center between Cuba and Florida. The space of the proverbial 90 miles of ocean between the two countries is conjured, not as an expanse, but as a painfully measureable distance, one with a real if indefinable mid-point, the axis of the mandorla around which two realms turn like the wheeling arms of a hurricane. Martínez poetically introduces the epic theme of flight free of the wrenching iconography of rafts and refugees which has been mined to vapidity by journalism, political declamation, and a few artists. The theatrically conceived scene, though reduced to fundamentals of nature—ocean, horizon, light, clouds, rain, darkness—is Heraclitan to the core. Everything is in motion while transmitting the illusion of serene stasis. The stagecraft of enveloping change induces the pleasures of transcendence, but not without poignant irony and an invitation to reflection on the nature of journeys—physical as well as psychical—and what distinguishes them from escape.
The mandorla emerges in Sarmiento’s approach to the human figure, rendered both as archetypal Male and Female principles and as immanent, individualized beings. They are fiercely present, conceived more sculpturally than pictorially, and their bluntness presumes a theater whose plot is familiar hence undisclosed. But there is a third player in this dualism of yin and yang, and that is a humanized, mask-like batrachian character that wraps itself around faces and clings to ears and throats. It desires to be fundamentally natural and inalienable to both humans, the very prism of their mutuality, yet it is redolently contrived, self-imposing, even menacing. This dark creature’s extremities end in three thin elongations that culminate in small circular forms—suctions, perhaps, or pads for detecting the chemical truths and electrical fingerprints of what lies beneath the faces and lives of Man and Woman. The character often assumes the role of a mask, melding metonymically into the facial features of the elemental protagonists. The tripartite scene is brought into unity by the batrachian with the trident feet and hands. An emanation of the shadow, this figure is both unsettling and comical, a mordant parodist of our personae but also the essential mediator between subjectivities. Without this animated mandorla, neither communication nor identity could exist in an identifiable way. Both would remain buried in rumor and other premonitions which antedate language. No shadow in an active role in the theater of consciousness—no intersubjectivity. No intersubjectivy, no palpable narrative with which to disarm time and finality.
Martínez’s vision of the interaction between sky and the ocean, or the land, appears at first to be a function of metaphor. These two fundamental expanses, which numerous cosmogonies link to primordial divine parents, mate in the luminous exchanges of water into its trilogy of immanence—ice, liquid, and vapor. The cloud shelters hail as it midwives form itself from space and light. Its undelineated volume never sheds its promise of dissolution, even in painting, perhaps most of all in painting. The image of a cloud hovering its opaque incorporeality over land or sea prisms all our ambiguous lusts for permanence and lightness. The cloud it was that taught us familiarity with Yearning, that captures an episode in the life of our life-giving element with which to unveil the delectable fragility of our projected desires. In cumulus and nimbus and all the strata in between, vapor paints the portrait of our emotional imprint on the future, our groping hope to shape it, to will it into fulfillment. And the cloud is the prophet of our embraced failure as Yearners, for the conquest of what is aspired to signals that it, too, shall lapse, formless, into other yearnings, the way the dancer’s silken scarf loses its vibrant freedom when landing on the floor to disclose another, dormant page in the visual life of silk.
Sarmiento’s probing of Desire understands its lineage in Yearning, its terminal monument to aspiration which fulfills not simply what is murmured in the preambles of passion but aims at a transformation of the past. Desire demands that the present give birth to a new past, assert the authorial role of the character on the stage, his dominion over the malleable genesis of his mission. It is not only a matter of subjects locked in the propulsion of desire, but of Desire enabling the present’s aim to dominate the past and change it into its idealized mate. For in the metonymic narrative of Desire, the present is not at ease with its suddenness on the scene. It aspires to a causal genesis, a womb and before that a conception and before that a passion. The present will not accept its orphanness, even when randomness condemns it to this reality. Sarmiento’s poetics of the figure underscore the role of metonymy at the very heart of his conception of an image. The nose becomes a trunk governed by its ambulatory appetites. The dark creature morphs into a severed serpent clutched by the woman in command of her drives; she faces off with the erstwhile head-waiter of mere temptation. Metonymy is the trope that champions our power over our awareness of time, given our powerlessness over time itself.
There is an inherent irony in the manner in which myth, culture, and our individual creaturely hopes for triumphant yearning have turned nature’s rule-governed transformations into icons of freedom. In Martínez’s works, the abacus of nature edicts the state of water’s immanence, yet the heart insists: the cloud soars like a host in the monstrance of heaven, the sea bodies the bed sheets of its waves with an intrigue of pleasures, and the rebel ice hardens the hidden heart of the snow-white cloud in defiance of the tropic latitudes it navigates. Metaphor seeks to nullify the presence of time in Being by championing simultaneity not just of objects of perception but of all their connotations and implications; it ruptures narrative by fusing elements the natural attitude grasps sequentially. But herein lies the deeper disclosure of this exhibition. The ruling trope of Yearning should have been metonymy, and of Desire metaphor. Of course, both are present in the works here exhibited, but almost ineluctably one trope rules the scene and the other functions as its correspondent. Tropological thinking is, after all, theatrical in an essential, not an ancillary, sense. Should not Yearning cast the narrative of its hunt for a future in metonymic terms, and should not Desire dramatize its consummation in the folding embrace of metaphor?
Tropologically, then, we understand the renewal of the theatricality of the Latin American visual imagination evident in these two series of works by Maikel Martínez and Eduardo Sarmiento. Elevating metonymy in Desire and metaphor in Yearning, while subtextualizing the role of the other trope in each, Sarmiento and Martínez coalesce the dynamics of temporal awareness in each of these emotional projects. The mandorla that results from the co-presence of Yearning and Desire discloses that, whatever else we yearn for and seek to escape through the portal of desire, it is time—nonnegotiable, impersonal, intractable—which asserts the externality of a greater force, and reasonably if not apodictically of a greater will, upon our existence. Yearning and Desire are the core emotional states that unite us with other mortal beings in love and despair, but they also mark the rhythm of our metaphysical constructs, and these are fundamentally encased in the creaturely isolation of our individuality. It is this duality, and the voyage between the parentheses of our condition, that the turning of tropes makes palpable and understandable. Moreover, the power of painting to make this evident, affirmed here by the works of Martínez and Sarmiento, is just one of the attributes that spares art—if not ourselves and our dreams—from dissolution.
Exhibition catalog essay.