The Great Chef. About Rocío García’s Most Recent Exhibition

When you receive an invitation as luxurious as this one, even in the middle of one of the hottest summers in Havana’s memory, you have no other choice but to go to the event, and to do it in your best clothes. The news had spread by word of mouth, in the midst of the anguish of survival, and despite the heat, the absences and shortages that have turned the city into a sort of red desert without Antonioni. In a capital city whose only cardinal point is the heat wave itself, the proposal seemed like an occasion that could not be neglected. The Great Dame of St. Petersburg, a mysterious woman such as there are not many anymore, had announced her new exhibition. And those of us who have followed her footsteps, and who have gathered among our most beloved possessions the catalogs of her previous exhibitions, were not going to miss the opportunity to take part in the event, perhaps with the hope not only of seeing and being part of her new canvases, but even of learning something more about her, who controls with a rigorous hand (the same one with which she traces those devastating images with blows of implacable color), any details about her enigmatic existence.

The Great Lady of St. Petersburg exhibits again in Havana. And, as if that were not enough, in the midst of the food crisis, she decides to ally herself with a new character: the Great Chef, aka Chicken-Leg, to round out her invitation. Or who knows if it is not better to say: her incitement. Because no one except for her knows how to do it in such a mind-blowing way.

The Grand Dame of St. Petersburg is, of course, Rocío García. In that city, during the years when the Soviet government still marked it on the map as Leningrad, she studied, after having been a student before in San Alejandro, receiving in that other city an influence that she later knew how to incorporate and turn into a stamp undoubtedly her own, under the tropical light to which she returned in the early eighties. By the beginning of the following decade, the Great Dame, creator of characters and a series of faces, bodies and desires that became more and more her own, was already painting geishas. Then came sailors, tamers, assassins, espionage agents, policemen, thriller and sex scenes sometimes touched by the snow falling on the other side of the window; perhaps an echo of that St. Petersburg that was the city of the czars, and that today has regained that imperial name.

‘Saturnino I,’ Rocío García, 2023

What remains after all this is the landscape in which Rocío García has grown to become one of the most significant names of Cuban plastic arts capable of making each personal exhibition the sort of event that her admirers receive as a provocation and a new impulse. The Great Dame still has aces up her sleeve, it has to be said. And this new exhibition, opened at El Apartamento gallery in Havana’s Vedado, proves it through a series of large-format canvases that confirm how color and intelligence combine under her hand to shake the viewer even in that place, where the powerful air conditioning contrasts almost brutally with the boiling heat that cracks the pavement outside its walls.

El Gran Chef, aka Patica de pollo is an exhibition for times of hunting. The crisis, hunger, the anguish of a reality that gives birth to monsters under the harsh light of midday, all of that has raised some of the tones of the palette that the painter and Grand Dame has chosen for the nine pieces that, as it should be, speak for themselves. Her interest in the relationship between human being/power, the agony with which we devour each other, the presence of sex as another act of hunting and domination over the (apparently) weaker, are themes she has handled before, and that here are concentrated in a sampler that synthesizes, under the suffocation of this moment, those keys in a sharp counterpoint, where the irony that has always been useful to her, unleashes metaphors and avoids unnecessary clarifications.

Raised as a game of complicity, using a single brief text that is read on one of the walls of El Apartamento, Rocío García makes her maneuver clear. And she does so with the rigor of her well-trained hand, with the perspicacity of one who aspires for the work to be completed in the eye and above all in the mind of the visitor, as a punctual commentary and at the same time rich in nuances of what is on the other side of her canvases. This is what remains a constant in her work, beyond the characters that return or not to her stroke, which makes her the owner of a narrative where color and shrewdness are equally important. She narrates from color, and her different influences (expressionism, Bacon, art brut, the inspiration of the fauvists…) have derived in a mixture of provocations that reminds us that we are not only before a painter in full mastery of her language, but also before someone who returns to us the most urgent questions from another scale of textures and provocations.

In the uneasiness of the line for the chicken, of what is lacking, while a Spanish cook occupies prime time explaining to Cubans what a so-called high-concept cuisine is when even sugar and the most elementary things are scarce, the Great Dame of St. Petersburg warns us that we may end up eating ourselves. Or that someone, a Greater Power, is already devouring us, has already devoured us, and we are only regurgitating into his Great Stomach the remains of a reality that has become Dantesque. Two essential pieces are Saturnino and Saturnino II, which from the title of the canvases that show us that mouth with sharp teeth devouring headless human bodies, refers us to Goya’s black paintings, to the famous phrase about what a god ends up doing with his own children, and to the evolution of a utopia that, when it no longer has anyone capable of conceptualize it, ends up becoming a food that does not recycle any good.

‘El coleccionista,’ Rocío García, 2023

It is through works like these that Rocío García tells us that in addition to the celebrated pieces where she has brought out of the closet the most secret desires of homosexual desire in our Cuban plastic arts, she has always been the bearer of other questions and urgencies, which connect her to the great tradition of provocateurs of our painting in which such notable figures as Antonia Eiriz, Umberto Peña or Rafael Zarza are included. With this exhibition she adds another nuance of violence as a commentary of a moment as rough as the one we are living in, which includes her in that tradition, which confirms that she is not resting on her laurels and has not led her to keep repeating (as so many cases that already border on caricature) the imagery of success in which other painters of Cuba seem to have fallen asleep. Violence extended as an echo of boxing, of sex, of family life that becomes routine, nocturnal hunt for mythological heads and exposed genitals, is part of this dinner that the Great Chef, aka Chicken-Leg, returns to us in a Kafkaesque menu, but from a range where, intense and challenging, the tropical hits us while seducing us under other masks.

The Great Chef has no face. He hides it under a mask. Perhaps he doesn’t really have a head either, as is the case with the figure that stars in “El coleccionista”, in that violet/violent environment. For The Great Chef, as the triptych under that title shows, the others are decapitated bodies whose limbs end in chicken feet, like hippogriffs without a legend, like animals with nothing to tell, except the moment in which they will finally be sacrificed. The Great Chef reigns in the kitchen and in the Slaughterhouse. In the Big Orange Slaughterhouse, also violent. And in the house where the newsreel we see on television only repeats that: headless bodies. As if we were all twins of a Marie Antoinette man/woman/chicken, repeated in a crowd that can no longer really greet each other. The Great Dame will have learned in St. Petersburg the secrets of the great revolutions, and knows that politics is a difficult dish to bake, to serve, to disguise before the desserts arrive.

 

‘La sopa,’ Rocío García, 2023

As in “De sobremesa,” one of Virgilio Piñera’s posthumous poems, the act of eating becomes a mirror of other hungers, of other fears. That’s what I thought before these canvases by Rocío García, remembering Piñera’s verses: “Fried brain fritters, noodle soup, gateaux a la crême / You’re a fake. What a life this is. Tomorrow will be another day / A deformed child was born to Rebeca. How good the fried food is. I must / go to my cousin’s wake. Don’t put so much salt in the salad / Against all expectations, no one shouts or turns off the lights.” On her white wall, the paragraph that the painter/Great Dame lets us read, ends like this: “Kafka said that… Damn, the line for chicken today is terribe!!! if I have to do it again, I’ll kill myself. Where is that guy? Turkey ham? I’ve never eaten that, the dogs have, that’s why we’re so tame. Breathe brother! What’s wrong with you? Did you fall asleep? Come on dude, eat the soup to get rid of your hangover…”

Above any detail, it would not seem that, between the poem of 1977 and the phrases taken from the Great Dame, there floats a breathlessness that is not dangerously identical. “Wow, you think you’re really free?” reads the beginning of that sentence on the wall. And on that idea, that recurring question, rise the hallucinations that the Great Chef seasons, cooking it all on a slow, overpowering fire.[1]

The Great Lady has done it again. She has come out what looked as her retirement, in which she once again wields the paintbrush while the city drowns in its hubbub and heat, in its point of respite that is almost no longer the sea, and has returned to dazzle and provoke us with those canvases. The invitation in our hands is just a call for us not to miss such a disturbing dinner. To an appointment with these nine pieces exhibited at the gallery El Apartamento, before which we do not know if we will be devoured by what they show, or if, dragged to delirium by all that is revealed to us in their strokes of color, we will not end up devouring them. Or ourselves.


References:

[1] “De sobremesa,” in La isla en peso, poetic work by Virgilio Piñera, Ediciones Unión, 1998. The quote from the paragraph shown next to the works of El Gran Chef, aka Patica de Pollo is literal, as it appears on the wall of the gallery El Apartamento.

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NORGE ESPINOSA
NORGE ESPINOSA
Norge Espinosa (Santa Clara, Cuba, 1971). Playwright, poet, and essayist. He holds a degree in Theater Studies from the Instituto Superior de Arte de La Habana. His plays have been staged by groups such as Pálpito, Teatro El Público or Teatro de las Estaciones, in Cuba, Puerto Rico, France or the United States. Among his texts stand out: Las breves tribulaciones (poetry), Ícaros y otras piezas míticas (theater) or Cuerpos de un deseo diferente. Notas sobre homoerotismo, espacio social y cultura en Cuba (essay). He is a recognized activist and scholar of the Cuban LGBTQ+ community. His poem “Vestido de novia” (Wedding Dress) has become an anthem for the demands of this group.

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