paul sharpe contemporary art / paul sharpe projects


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Arturo Cuenca

Paul Sharpe Contemporary

ArtAuthor: Craig HouserArtNexus No. 46

In 1989 Arturo Cuenca left his native country for Mexico, after falling out of favor with political officials for criticizing the Revolution. In 1991 he immigrated to the United States, eventually moving to New York, where he lives today. The year 2002 marked two significant events in the life of the Cuban-born artist Arturo Cuenca. After residing in the United States for more than ten years, Cuenca recently became an American citizen and also found gallery representation in New York City. His first exhibition with his new art dealer, Paul Sharpe, serves as a quasi-retrospective, featuring seminal examples of the artist's work made in Cuba and in New York.

Since his early days in the 1970s, Cuenca has been intrigued with blurring boundaries between various artistic mediums. He initially began as a painter working in a photorealist style and then by 1978 turned his attention more to photography, experimenting with the medium to create hybrid art forms with painting, sculpture, film, and installation art. According to Cuenca, his isolation in Cuba kept him unaware of many artistic developments. As a result he created his own brand of conceptual art, which he says links ideas related to photography and philosophy, or what he calls "photosophy." Cuenca says he is concerned with creating "a reflection of the subject of knowledge. For me, knowledge and everything that reflects reality has to do with light, with the concept of photography as an image of light."1 In his pursuit of both light and enlightenment, Cuenca uses photography as means to question subjectivity and perspective: "What I do in photography is to imitate the mechanism of mental knowledge."2

¿Portrait as Object and Subject? (1985), one of Cuenca's images that survived from his time in Cuba, aptly demonstrates his interest in blurring distinctions between mediums and examining the viewer's process of perception. At first glance, the piece appears to depict Natacha, Cuenca's girlfriend at the time, as a demure introspective young woman with downcast eyes. Yet Cuenca's use of two negatives to create the photomontage reveals two viewpoints and turns the work into a complex statement about perspective. The larger image depicts Natacha frontally-photographed from the viewer's vantage point-while the smaller one shows a close-up image of her watch-shot from her viewpoint. In looking at these two images together, viewers therefore inhabit both their own subject position as well as hers, and as the title states, Natacha becomes both subject and object in the work. Viewed as subject, Natacha no longer seems so demure, but shows possible signs of impatience as she looks at her watch. By providing more than one perspective, Cuenca is able to subvert the traditional notion that photography typically objectifies its subject-female subjects in particular. Another important aspect of this piece is that Cuenca painted the entire surface of the black-and-white photograph, as well as the frame, to give it color. By adding paint to the photograph, which he often does in his work, Cuenca questions conventional notions related to the medium of photography, changing a seemingly objective representation into a more subjective statement, and turning a work that could potentially be part of an edition into an original object.

Cuenca further problematizes perspective in ¿Poem as Image? (Homage to Quevedo) (1998), by superimposing a poem by the Baroque writer Quevedo onto a scene of a park. To create the image, Cuenca cut out letters, placed them on a sheet of glass, and spray painted over them. After removing the letters, he held the glass panel in the air and photographed a park bench through the clear letters. By uniting these forms, he asks us to make connections between word and image, and in the process shifts our focus from one to the other. On one level, we are able to appreciate the relationship between the poem about "unknown love" and the empty park scene with a ghostly, practicably undetectable figure. On another level, we become conscious of our own thought process, questioning the very perspective from which we see the world around us, what influences us-books, articles, speeches-in terms of how we view the world. We ask ourselves, how might our vision be skewed?

In his most recent piece in the exhibition, ¿Lamp Man at Once? (1999), Cuenca continues to explore distinctions between mediums, this time between still photography and film. Using digital technology, Cuenca repeatedly montaged two images: a street lamp and a male figure in a window. Cuenca conveys the ideas of time and movement-essential aspects of film-by playing with size, focus, and distortion as he repeats the otherwise still images. Organized in a circular composition, like a reel of film, each series becomes larger as if the camera were zooming in for a close-up of the man and the lamp. Yet Cuenca never lets us get too close: as the male figure becomes larger, he goes out of focus. Similarly, the lamp transforms, shifting from a sign of safety to an abstract white ball of fleeting fire. Through his manipulations of imagery, Cuenca challenges the presumed objective documentary nature of both film and photography.

Throughout his oeuvre Cuenca complicates the standard field of vision. Employing juxtapositions, superimpositions, distortions, and other techniques, he asks us to note that appearance and perception are both complex and deceiving. Yet beyond these formal and theoretical concerns, Cuenca, unlike many Conceptual artists working in the 1960s, manages to emphasize beauty as an essential element in his work.

One should also point out there are some oddities about the show. Although the exhibition is billed as A Decade of Transition 1983-1993, the selection of work actually spans from 1984 to 1999, and in certain instances photonegatives dating from as early as 1979 were used to create some of the pieces of the 1990s.3 In addition, despite the fact that this time period marks the artist's moves from Cuba to Mexico to New York, the selection of work in the exhibition doesn't demonstrate much of a change in his oeuvre other than the fact that Cuenca began to utilize computer technology after he came to the United States. Indeed the exhibition reveals a remarkable consistency in artistic and philosophical concerns, stressing the more analytical side of Cuenca's work. With its narrow focus, the show minimizes the more sexual, kitschy, fashion-oriented, and overtly political aspects of the artist's oeuvre. Yet this exhibition still manages to provide a powerful summary of Cuenca's "photosophy," which makes his work so unique, so provocative.

1. Nina Menocal, "La fotografia es todo en mi obra," in FIN, exh. cat. (Mexico City: Galería Menocal, 1993), p. 16.
2. Ibid., 17.
3.The current exhibition, Arturo Cuenca: A Decade of Transition 1983-1993, resembles in part a 1993 exhibition at Intar Latin American Gallery in New York entitled Arturo Cuenca: A Decade of Photographs: 1983-1993.