José Manuel Mesías: “Is the erection of a scarecrow a crucifixion?”

José Manuel Mesías was born in Havana in 1990. He graduated from the National Academy of Fine Arts San Alejandro and undertook artistic residencies in various countries such as Japan, Spain, and Colombia. He currently lives and works in Havana.

Mesías is a multidisciplinary artist who explores techniques ranging from painting and drawing to sculpture and installation. His work transcends limiting stylistic labels and defies categorization. It is deeply rooted in the visual representation of Cuba’s history and culture.

His art illustrates a history seen as a succession of key phases or notable events, but it doesn’t aim to achieve historical truth. Mesías’ art goes beyond history; it transcends perspectives and issues in the realm of art. His artistic pursuit is not about historical restitution; he is neither a scientific researcher nor a historian. Instead, he aims to produce images or objects through “revelation” to revive forgotten or manipulated themes in Cuban history.

Mesías’ artistic work showcases his ability to infuse history into contemporary practice. His journey is not anthropological or historiographical; Mesías is an artist who blurs the boundaries of art, pulling from reality and integrating small stories found in the larger narrative.

Particularly, his painting presents a significant challenge, reminiscent of ancient painting: do we still know how to read an image, how to grasp the density of an image? Have we abandoned or forgotten this fundamental and millennia-old skill, trusting algorithms to decode images now abundantly transformed into digital or synthesized images?

This phenomenon intensifies today, as we have never been so surrounded, inundated, and overwhelmed by the proliferation of images. In these conditions, can painting—once a primary source of images—emerge unscathed from such a transformation?

José Manuel Mesías’ work attempts to answer these questions by apprehending and regenerating painting in all its iconological and intellectual implications.

José Manuel Mesías is an avid collector, an obsessive taxidermist concerned with unearthing the memory contained in objects that are vestiges, a botanist interested in the biological specificities of wildlife species. In his work, Mesías combines the theme of alchemy with the political dimension through systematic references to history, constructing a unique, plural, and inexhaustible universe. The result is a cabinet of curiosities that serves as a bridge between the natural and the artificial, the imaginary and the aesthetic—a place where surrealism and myth are revealed, an enclave of the pre- and post-modern whose purpose is to “distill the eternal from the transitory” (Baudelaire).

Let’s start with a self-portrait: tell me about your childhood in Cuba, your family.

My mother is from Las Tunas; she spent her childhood and adolescence in the city of Las Tunas (the Cinderella of Cuba) until she went to study Engineering in the Soviet Union in the late ‘70s. My father was born in Guanabacoa and also spent most of his youth there until he married my mom. He studied Architecture. They got married in ‘89, and I was born in ‘90, beginning what was called the Special Period.

In my childhood, I was never aware of the great depression that was happening. Perhaps because the vast majority of people were equally affected, there was hardly any contrast. It was in my adolescence that I began to understand the tremendous crisis that had occurred. When the Special Period started, my parents adapted once again and participated in this new “challenge” brought by the Revolution. They survived like everyone else and tried to shield me from the anxiety that overwhelmed them. I always had toys and drawing materials, modest but with a clear interest from my parents to encourage learning and creativity. In the late ‘90s, my father started traveling a bit. His friends always sent me Legos or modeling clay, and later, more serious art materials when I started studying Art.

I remember that in those early trips, which meant an economic improvement for the family, my father brought gifts for all the children in the building (where I still live and work). I recall that people were more united in those times, despite facing more difficulties.

Cuban Artist José Manuel Mesías

What happened for you to decide to become a visual artist?

I think I fundamentally owe the germ of my vocation to my family. It was clear since I was a child. I grew up playing with my father’s drawing tools. Also, the overall family sensitivity was closely related to the arts: my mother had performed in her youth, and my father had studied some music. Even my paternal grandfather, in a wandering way, had dabbled in painting and played the harmonica and accordion, besides being an excellent carpenter. From a very young age, I attended workshops for children in cultural centers in Old Havana.

A significant part of my time was spent creating things with modeling clay, particularly scenes that could be described in stages, small narratives, almost like comic strips. There were two that I remember distinctly: the enclosure of Pamplona with a bull run, and the firing of the 9 o’clock cannon. In both, I tried to describe in detail the sequence of actions in each event.

I recall something else that was important; when I inherited a children’s carpentry set that my father had used. It was an incredible toy/tool that allowed me to connect with the world of tools and craftsmanship. I still have it because most of the tools work perfectly. I am still surprised that such toys existed.

So, I believe many circumstances contributed to my dedication to this. I don’t know if I ever had that certainty at some point; I also don’t remember wanting to do anything else. It was more of an organic and continuous process.

When do you think art became the center of your life?

The idea of art as a central focus became evident during moments of crisis, especially after finishing high school and not being able to enter the Higher Institute of Art. After that, I flirted with a humanities career but with the worst of attitudes; that absurdity was contained in my attitude.

Later, I tried to enter the Institute a couple more times, and aside from not succeeding on these occasions either, I was resolved to continue and immersed myself in various projects, convinced that I wasn’t interested in doing anything else.

Corrections to Armando Menocal’s Work. Maceo’s Death (2013-1017), by José Manuel Mesías

What training did you have? How do you evaluate the education you received?

I would have to go back to my childhood because everything comes from that time. As I mentioned before, as a child, I attended some informal workshops that had a certain impact. Once my parents understood that it was time to guide what they saw as a constant in me, they took me to a private house where people were prepared to enter San Alejandro. It was the house and workshop of Damián Bandín.

I always talk about that time as something central in my technical formation because I owe everything I know in terms of drawing and painting, especially, to that period, which did not happen upon entering San Alejandro. The Academy of Fine Arts (2005-2009) brought other discoveries, mainly due to my peers and some professors who helped us mature. I especially remember Rolando Vázquez, Humberto Díaz, and Rogelio Machado.

The ability to go beyond the program, push the limits, and not approach the work as mere exercises was something I took advantage of these professors’ classes, professors who are still my friends and fellow artists today. The feeling of freedom is perhaps the most memorable aspect of my student days.

Therefore, San Alejandro was that great ferment that also allowed me to grow alongside a group of artists who are still tremendous names in the local and international scene.

What is art for you?

Art, then, is everything; it’s a way of life. It’s a constant process that dissolves into existence. I believe it would be difficult for me to define it, as it is for many. At times, it’s an instrument; at others, it’s a gesture, and sometimes it’s the translation of an image or revelation.

I believe in the importance of art as a personal process. And above all, to live here, I constantly invite people, even if they’re not artists, to elevate their thinking, to enjoy the little things. It’s the only way to deal with our reality, which regularly manifests as hostile.

‘Hortus conclusus’ (2016) José Manuel Mesías

How have you evolved as an artist?

I think there are cycles in my way of thinking. In this sense, I remain essentially the same; that is, curiosity has always marked me and is a driving force in everything I do. Then, my work is partly a display of what I am learning. I try to maintain simplicity and avoid the pompous.

I also believe in a certain ethics of creation: one must know when not to photograph something, or when reality is more interesting than what we can say about it. The idea of creating silence is important.

How would you define your artistic practice?

Seeking a simple form, which I believe is most in line with how many see me. I would divide it into two basic sensibilities: the objectual and the pictorial, conceptually marked by relationships of opposites: the factual and the fictional, the poetic and the pedestrian, the material and the spiritual.

My approach aligns with a type of history, that of everyone, the grand history, that of time; as well as a smaller history, the personal one, of family and home, more contingent, more of the present.

How do you view your status as a creator in the 21st century?

Heavily influenced by my condition as an islander, a Cuban. Everything in Cuba resonates with a delay of 5 or 10 years compared to the world. I am a reflection of the reality I live, and I try not to lose sight of that in my work in general, learning from the tricks one must put into practice to deal with daily life here.

In that sense, being an artist in Cuba is not very different from another profession or job, at least at the moment I am here. The way I solve my assemblages or “machines” is not much different from the patches that an appliance repairman or a bicycle mechanic might make.

Are you reluctant to explain your work to critical approaches?

Not at all. I generally try to provide clues when they are essential to help the viewer relate. I believe in the possibility that my work can be a vehicle for knowledge. Although I don’t like to unveil my interpretation, the most intimate notion of a piece, if I know it. There are some works that I can’t explain; they have been the means to try to understand something, and sometimes I don’t succeed.

In this sense, there are positions that seem clumsy to me and that I avoid. First, the case of artists who don’t explain their work, as if they were members of a secret sect, which has made contemporary art so uncomfortable for normal people. Then, the other extreme is that type of hyper-referential, almost didactic work that pretends to be intellectual but ends up explaining itself with a moral, like a fable.

‘The Eye of the Watchmaker’ (2014) by José Manuel Mesías

Which artists have influenced you, and which ones do you still admire?

I’ll list the main ones: Andrew Wyeth, David Hockney, Stanley Spencer, Juan Francisco Elso, Victor Brauner, Jay Matamoros, David Lynch, Fra Angelico, Francis Alys, David Hammonds, Calder (for the circus), Velázquez, Chirico, the Customs Officer Rousseau, Gober, Mark Dion, Louise Bourgeois.

After noting them, I realize that most of them are painters. The first three have marked my vision of painting very especially, and I revisit them constantly. I think they are examples, especially Wyeth and Hockney, of a type of painting that unsettles and presupposes something beyond the edges of the image. I feel like I can walk inside their paintings.

But above all, Spencer. He changes his pulse at will, ranging from realism to a strange figuration; from landscapes and views of his town to biblical narratives that unfold both in a field and in a square also from his region. His ability to represent complexity framed in the everyday interests me a lot. Is the erection of a scarecrow a crucifixion?

Elso is one of the great myths of Cuban art. In my opinion, Por America is among the five most important works.

The last four have been important references and discoveries, especially in narrative and conceptual terms. I think Alys is an excellent example of an interdisciplinary artist, one who can’t go wrong.

Dion is a master at blurring the boundaries between disciplines: his research spans biology, zoology, anthropology, archaeology, and history. I believe he is a great installation artist and the type of artist that is meticulous in their obsessions.

Gober was also a revelation; what I like most about his work is that in general, his sculptures and installations have a plausible appearance, and when you get closer, you notice that everything is made by him, by hand, with a finish that looks like props. Then his way of installing fascinates me, from opening holes in museum floors to specially themed rooms, based on very disturbing stories.

 

Finally, David Hammonds. Another who can’t go wrong, a master of gesture, object, and the art of creating silence, of the continuous and poetry. His objects that mainly struck me are the result of an action. They concentrate all the social charge that marks his work. That sleeping cat in a djembe or the stone with black hair he peeled in a Harlem barbershop…

What is your appreciation regarding contemporary Cuban art?

The feeling is quite desolate, to be honest. The exodus/exile/banishment has been massive. The practices of my peers whom I know more intimately have the handicap of having that relationship with Cuban culture (I am one of them as well, obviously). This circumstance poses a challenge for anyone not living here. However, I believe that, at some point, one must transcend the Cuban as a genre. For those whose work doesn’t have that dependence, I think it has been an opportunity to try their luck abroad.

The fact that the diaspora has concentrated in various places has been important to maintain a sense of community that has been lost here, that saves a bit of the distance.

And as art is not only about artists, the crisis is also felt with the absence of critics, curators, and other actors in the cultural scene.

Regarding other aspects of local culture, such as institutions and policies, I believe the crisis is deep. It is immoral that at this point there are artists imprisoned, exiled, or harassed, alongside repeated violations of freedom of creation and expression.

What relationship do you maintain with Cuban artists?

I maintain an emotional connection first with those artists of my generation, complemented, even though they have very different practices from mine, by processes that allow us to learn from each other. I should mention Ernesto García, Rafael Domenech, Rafael Villares, and Leandro Feal.

Additionally, I believe I share affinities with Manuel Almenares, who, in my opinion, portrays the local reality in a very particular way. Orestes Hernández, who is like a Cuban David Hammonds. Larry González, who summarizes the absurd hyper-referentiality we are experiencing between networks, predicaments, and poetic images. Aryam Rodríguez, for the sublimity of his process, another example of practice diluted in life, like a creed. Almost all of them are now outside of Cuba.

And I always end up talking about Orlando Hernández, who is also an artist, in his own way; although he comes from the world of criticism and curating. He writes more poems and short stories, creates objects, collages, and photos, and is a kind of student of the peripheral, the popular, besides being a “tarequero,” like me. He is probably the person I have collaborated with and learned the most from in the last ten years.

What triggers your need to create?

It’s hard to explain. It has to do with the paradox of time: there is no past, present, or future. Is the joy of creation subject to the moment when one is impacted by an idea, or to the act of modeling and constructing, painting, or acting, or to what is formed or finished?

I respond with questions. I think there is enjoyment in these three moments, but also anguish and uncertainty. It then imposes a succession. Therefore, I return to the idea that it is a way of life. It is continuous.

Horse Head (2016) by José Manuel Mesías

How do the ideas for your works originate?

There are images that “come down” intact, and I transmit them, and I generally use painting for this. There are other works that I can be ruminating on for years, or worse, I can re-intervene them even after exhibiting them.

In this latter case, it happens in both main methodologies, the objectual and the pictorial: I can accumulate and classify all kinds of objects, sure that someday something will connect them. A recent example is the collections I exhibited in El Apartamento, where I understood, after having been saving these objects for several years, that the charm was in the journey and chance, and perhaps in the faith too; being able to complete, for example, a card or domino game purely by luck.

Something similar happens in painting; I can work on a piece for a long time, although painting doesn’t take long, what takes time are the solutions, finding the structure of each piece.

I can sketch in many cases. I enjoy the studious condition of many works. There can be studies of the scale of the finished work. I usually do it more when I work with a certain type of more narrative painting, it’s like proposing a dramaturgy and studying it through a script.

On the other hand, there is another type of work that is more visceral, more intuitive. I would say that I operate on a trial-and-error method; the pieces grow with a certain inaccuracy that I prune along the way. Therefore, chance is fundamental and can manifest in various forms, from an accident to something I hear on the street or the most pedestrian and insignificant.

I grapple with various ways of resolving things. I try to open the range from clumsiness to something that requires more skill and rigor.

Do you create every day, and at what moment?

Every day is productive; this doesn’t mean that I have a work discipline that involves spending eight hours in the studio. A note or the discovery of an object on the street can make a day very productive. I tend to be more productive at night.

When do you know that a work is finished?

It’s difficult to know the end of a work; you run the risk of spoiling it if you don’t realize it. Still, I believe that with training, you can detect it. I have suffered from having to exhibit something that wasn’t entirely finished.

What kind of relationship do you establish in your artistic practice between drawing, painting, sculpture, installation, as modalities of accessing the real?

Finding the appropriate medium for an idea, especially if it arrives out of body, can be distressing. The object or form containing the idea may appear. I try to avoid the separation of form and content, body and spirit, but I may contradict myself.

My painting sometimes seeks the three-dimensional, and there are objects or assemblages that attempt to approach the two-dimensional. Drawing is a mental process that underlies anything with a minimum of construction.

What particularity does painting or drawing have that continually announces its death and resurrection?

I find it wrong to see painting as the ne plus ultra; I think it is just one medium, like all others, coexisting and dialoguing with tradition. I share its complexity as a language, but this is not exclusive to it. On the other hand, the constant chatter of its death and its supposed démodé condition seems nonsense. I find these cycles of death and resurrection so boring, the art world’s perplexity at Cattelan’s banana at this point, or the clumsy Darwinism that some attribute to art history. I think it is a critical, snobbish, and above all, a mercantile phenomenon.

Do you create without thinking about an audience, whether friends, collectors, or gallery owners?

I think I do think about them, in part. Sometimes, I imagine the scrutiny of the most acidic spectator. It is essential to maintain distance, for self-editing. Regarding gallery owners or collectors, I don’t think much about them, to be honest.

‘The Plant in the Watchmaker’s Shop’ (2010) by José Manuel Mesías

What relationship do you maintain with other arts? What is their importance in your life and work?

Literature has a fundamental presence in the part of my work that is more related to history. My work, in this sense, draws from the images contained in historiography, especially from primary sources. In reflective terms, the work of Jorge Luis Borges has been fundamental. His work professes the idea of expressing complex ideas simply and touches everything with such precision that it makes me think all the time about the structure of things, of life. His ideas about time and memory have marked me. Stories and essays like “El Aleph,” “Funes the Memorious,” “The Garden of Forking Paths,” “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” “The Kenningar,” “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” among others, have been moving for me. And another thing, when I read Borges, it compels me to read more; his work encompasses all of literature.

There are readings that I have come across, and they have influenced me, through connections with others and out of curiosity, which are more philosophical or theoretical, even though I’m not very interested in theory. This includes Poe’s “The Philosophy of Composition” and “The Poetic Principle,” or Ortega y Gasset’s “Meditations on Quixote” and his idea of the vital reason; these have been models for me. Another, perhaps more scientific, field that I often review, includes Poe’s “Eureka” to Darwin’s diaries, to name a few.

In the case of Cuban authors, there is Martí, of course. His vastness implies always returning to him; he practically wrote about everything.

The idea of “imago” by Lezama has set guidelines, partly in my series “Image Index.” In the last four years, I have discovered the work of Eliseo Diego, thanks to my partner Sabrina Fanego. It is an example of approaching two types of history, that of the land and that of the house; it is one of the most endearing things I have read.

Then, cinema, for its visual aspects; I often cut stills from movies. In the case of my paintings, the dramaturgy of what happens is important; I usually take my time planning this, which is why I often create studies or cycles of movies. I love John Ford’s cinema, for example.

Folk art is also a total source of inspiration, ranging from the most conventional creations to the most unsuspected pseudo-utilitarian artifacts. I try to learn above all about the primal or primitive quality, if you will – I don’t find the term offensive – of reaching something.

The academy, as we know, sometimes ties biases and conditions, even standardizes them, I would say. I like to think that I am closer to being a self-taught or empirical artist – another amusing term. If you look at Jay Matamoros’ work, there you see condensed the wisdom and humility of the countryside and the guajiro universe, its mystery. Another genius was Gilberto de la Nuez, an erudite historian; his representations are unparalleled, perhaps only in the best Haitian painting.

Intimately related to the work above is also an attention to popular crafts and knowledge.

Finally, music. I grew up listening to good music thanks to my dad. Later, my spectrum has widened a lot. Many of my works and exhibitions have titles from albums and pieces that I love: “The Origin of Symmetry,” “The Sad Machinery of Spring,” “The Level of Disappointment,” and some more.

‘The dawn from purgatory’ (2020-2024) by José Manuel Mesías

What is your opinion on the art market and the place money occupies in this world today? Do you think the market guides creation?

I think it is important. I am interested in making a living from what I do and not having to do something else, although the market should work for you and not you for it. But extreme money, i.e., speculation, I think can nullify the relevance of a work or at least contradict it. There are certain price tags that artworks reach that seem obscene to me. Sometimes, trends are commercialized, and the market, a living entity in the end, ends up guiding them. It is remarkable that some movements, whose origins are legitimate, become fads. There, artists go to surveille with vehemence.

What kind of relationship do you have with gallery owners?

So far, it remains an irregular relationship. My career has not entered that commercial rhythm that can sometimes be compromising.

What role do you give to art in our current society?

It is irrelevant for a large percentage of the world. In Cuba, the impact that culture can have on reality has recently been notable. A significant part of the civic manifestations in the last four years started with the artists’ guild.

Contrary to many Cuban artists of all generations, you still reside in Cuba; why?

First, I want to say that this is a circumstance subject to constant change. The need to move or emigrate in this country is already normalized. Reality can become intolerable. It is not my case yet. First, there is always family. Then, that strange sense of belonging, of endemism. The need to do certain things in my work that depend on the locality, the themes. And some “privileges”: time, space.

What does Cuba represent in your life and in your art?

I constantly question the dependence that my work has on Cuba, that handicap I mentioned earlier; even in the most introspective and personal works, that condition manifests itself. Personally, it remains my home, my habitat.

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FRANÇOIS VALLÉE
FRANÇOIS VALLÉE
François Vallée is a professor, literature translator, art critic, and art collector. He has translated into French two novels by Nivaria Tejera, a memoir and a novel by Juan Abreu, as well as books of poems by Abreu and Ezequiel O. Suárez. Currently he is working on a book of interviews with seventy Cuban contemporary artists. Between 2022 and 2023 his collection of visual Cuban artists was exhibited in several French art institutions, such as Passerelle de Brest, 40mcube and Musée des beaux-arts de Rennes.

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