Out of small seeds come great and unexpected things. In 1985, artist Rolando Estévez Jordán and poet Alfredo Zaldívar established a workshop in Matanzas, Cuba, about 70 miles west of Havana. Their first visual works were fliers promoting meetings for writers and artists interested in sharing their work and ideas. This modest initiative developed into a publishing house for handmade artists books, produced under the name Ediciones Vigía.
Twenty-seven of their delicately crafted books, along with large color photographs by Joseph Mougel, are currently on view in Experiencing Cuba at RedLine Milwaukee. This is an intimate exhibition, exploring creative pleasures that largely bypass political and economic complexities.
These artworks are deliciously insular. Each is made like an illuminated manuscript drawn and written by the artist’s hand, aided in details by the DIY-aesthetic of the photocopier and hand-applied collage elements. Some of the works are accented with woven strings and other materials, such as driftwood. Many unfold in nontraditional ways, such as a foldout cityscape or long scrolls in accordion folds, displayed to great advantage by hanging from the ceiling between glass panels.
While a reading knowledge of Spanish is helpful for decoding the text, it is not necessary for admiring the imagery. The cover of La Revisita del Vigía features a somber portrait of José Martí (1853–1895), a renowned poet in his homeland. Underneath his image, a scroll of text declares, “I have two homelands: Cuba and the night.” He is illuminated by dark figures on his shoulders hoisting oil lamps and a larger lamp superimposed on his forehead. The lamp is the logo of Ediciones Vigía, representing a bright spot in dark places and a source of inspiration.
Nancy Morejón, a Cuban poet laureate, composed a poem and book dedicated to the artist Ana Mendieta (1948–1985). Mendieta became renowned in the contemporary art world for sculpture and performance art in which her body melded with the earth in forms reminiscent of either the womb or the grave. Rolando Estévez’s book-cover design echoes Mendieta’s art, casting a woman’s silhouetted body underneath sparse linear forms like twigs. The design includes a collage of tiny icons such as crosses and leaves, accented by the application of broken eggshells.
Similarly compelling for the use of inventive materials is the magazine cover for Barquitos del San Juan (Little Boats of San Juan). A young woman strums a guitar against the intricate drawing of a cobblestone street and colonial building. An arched opening breaks the illusion, revealing the texture of a real wall in the distance.
Surprises like these — the placement of unexpected details and elegance of craft — adds great delight to these pieces.
As the works from Ediciones Vigía are largely displayed in vitrines and hanging displays, the walls are given over to photographs by Joseph Mougel, assistant professor and head of photography at UWM. In the exhibition catalog, Mougel recounts his experiences in Cuba, both when he was stationed there in the U.S. Marine Corps and subsequent visits.
His images record moments of people and places in a cordial, documentary manner. He captures views of city life: a woman sitting in a doorway nonchalantly smoking a cigar or an elderly man paused in the middle of a street, cautiously pleased to be photographed. In a domestic view, a modest bed with a thin pillow and floral-printed cover is neatly made up, its exuberant color echoed by the bright pink walls. The color belies the condition of the peeling, cracking plaster. It’s a dignified decrepitude, a poignant statement about living graciously regardless of circumstances.
That same impulse is part of the work of Ediciones Vigía. Materials for art may be difficult to come by in Cuba, but the desire to create something of beauty and aesthetic reward is unquenchable, as sustained as the illuminating lamp that is their symbol.
Experiencing Cuba: Artists Books of Ediciones Vigía and Photographs by Joseph Mougel continues through Dec. 20 at RedLine Milwaukee, 1422 N. Fourth St.
In other news …
Janet Werner, Ariana Huggett, and Elly Hazard
Closing Nov. 15
Canadian artist Janet Werner has had scant showings in the Midwest, although she’s a highly regarded figure in her home country and internationally. Although she retains the qualities of a traditional portrait painter, what makes her work more compelling is its psychological intensity, augmented by subtly active brushwork and flourishes of color. Painter and designer Ariana Huggett adopts home and office interiors as a form of portraiture, executing small canvases over a few days that capture the silence of personal spaces. They are warm, gorgeously colorful and conspiratorial, as though awaiting the return of their inhabitants. Emerging artist Elly Hazard reconstitutes the experiences of daily life in expressionistic paintings that meld figure painting and notes of still life into a rush of frenetic angst and energy.
At the Portrait Society Gallery, 207 E. Buffalo St., on the fifth floor.
2014 Día de los Muertos Exhibition
Closing Nov. 22
For more than two decades, WPCA has hosted an annual exhibition of ofrendas, or altars, created for Day of the Dead celebrations. While the subject of death is one that might inspire reticence, these are physical gestures that combine mementos, photos, objects and artifacts of a personal nature that form a representation of identity. While some are very traditional, others take on the character of contemporary art installations, each functioning like a large-scale memento mori, a reminder of mortality. In the end, this is not a bleak proposition, but one that celebrates life and sustains the spirits of the departed in the minds of the living.
At Walker’s Point Center for the Arts, 839 S. Fifth St.