(Pubilshed in the monograph “RAÚL CORDERO: 73 Kg”. Centro Atlántico de Arte Moderno, Spain. 2012)
[…] the most organic form I know is painting.
It might be that there is nothing gratuitous in the work of Raúl Cordero, or perhaps … it all is.
The doubt that points to that gratuitousness is a constant that orbits around his art production of the last twenty years as a question that is at times uncomfortable, hurtful, or nagging, while at other times it simply relaxes that solemn tension that every gaze exerts on art. With the ironic smile of the maker it points to a trap that mocks the naiveté of the beholder, leading us to its starting point by changing its meaning from solemn to comical.
When speaking or writing about the paintings of Raúl Cordero (born in Havana, Cuba, in 1971 and based in Mexico City) we should conceive of that writing, or the recurrent verbalism parallel to its creation, as we conceive of that which refers to all painting generated from the self-analytical practice of the pictorial gesture itself, that is, as a great part of Painting from the second half of the twentieth century, in which the artist continues.
I speak of that Painting (yes… capitalized) that participates in this ontological paradox of being a snare and a delusion (for the eye), and a game and a diversion (for the mind), and a pleasure and a gift (for the hands, the skin, the sense of smell… feeling and knowledge) of the one who makes it and for those of us who enjoy it. That which is constructed from doubt is made, is reified, whereby the thematic approach of the pictorial act, as an analytical gesture of language and its process, has become variable.
This being the case, the questions of “what to paint?” and “how to paint it?” have been present from the start as a line of research that compels him to keep going.
After twenty years observing his output I can propose only one stable argument, moderately coherent, which is to emphasize thinking of Raúl’s work as a device made of senses and centered mostly on the creation of a pictorial corpus which tries to avoid easy labeling, while at the same time giving us the ability to link it with whatever label, corset, or conceptual-historicist cage we may have handy. As long as this cage, corset, or label continues to allow itself to be called Painting, and simultaneously is allowed to escape from the claustrophobia of its own medium and language (which also carries an eternal ancestral tradition), then from its elusive, zigzagging condition, it can displace itself around the idea of storing an immeasurable trove of potential doubts. Its uncertainty and its weight, its initiatory and foundational sense, is what gives it the basis to create.
Let us return to the beginning: TO DOUBT.
This is doubt as an act of faith, but this time the faith is in the creative act –in its reason for being, its value, its risk, its richness– in the optical, epistemological and pervasive sense that manifests itself in the necessarily distinctive quality that we call Painting.
If the raw material from which Raúl Cordero operates is doubt, as we have already said, the language that he uses to best express that doubt is the most radical use (of inter-linguistic introspection) of pictorial language. It is understood (Painting, that is) as more than just a simple support, but, as I insist, as a language and/ or an artistic problematic. It’s painting as the theme, a very academic idea, but also a very enlightening one.
Now when I think of his imaginary, or rather, every time I think about the work of Raúl Cordero, I visualize it as a “mazo necklace.” Yes, I’m referring to the necklaces used by babaloshas or iyaloshas in rituals of baptism, birth, or important religious ceremonies. It’s not because Raúl makes any kind of religious reference in his daily life –nothing further from reality– but because that prototypical necklace is made with strings of threads and beads that then create a larger bead artifact that functions as a hub, a bridge, a link, or a nexus to then go on to.
And in Raúl’s work, these beadwork-nexus-projects (from my visualization of the corpus of his work) are the artist’s most experimental pieces, which then generate new findings that he develops serially, as if he needed to acknowledge a truth, or the experience of a distraction made truth, originating in some gyrating variation, relying on its core points of inflection1.
Such is the case of his lexical dichotomies intended to distract from the perceptual attention of the works, something which can be “apprehended” in his early training as Raúl Cordero, after studying within the Cuban art education system that began at the Escuela Elemental de Arte (Elementary School of Art) and continued at the famed Academia San Alejandro (San Alejandro Academy) in Havana; instead of following the natural path of Cuban art education that ends at the Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA, Institute of Art) with a Bachelors in Fine Arts, he chose instead to study graphic design at Instituto Superior de Diseño Industrial (Institute of Industrial Design), and then continued his studies at the Graphic Media Development Centre in The Hague, Netherlands. Basically, Raúl made this decision because of the crisis in the teaching staff at ISA in the early nineties (when the artist began his higher education) and the exodus of artist-teachers of the Cuban 80s Generation to Mexico, the United States and Spain (including Flavio Garciandía, Consuelo Castañeda and José Bedia), for whom Cordero felt a deep respect and admiration, and with whom he had already begun his early training.
And I say this because perhaps the graphic freedom that his design experience allows has provided him with a certain lack of inhibition that permits him to “use” textuality in his painting as a subversive element. Built grammatically from the reductive and effective writing style of advertising (obviously propagandistic) of an ideology that questions the status quo in the field of contemporary art that wants to stay afloat while sliding down the descriptive subtlety of the pictorial image, and is camouflaged by and in it. It’s as if Raúl were painting “anti-posters,” and here I know the term sounds archaic within the lingo of the design world, but my interest is to highlight it, because it points to Cordero’s knowledge of Pop Art and its methods of re-statement, where the text that it subverts does not determine meanings or statements, and misleads rather than informs.
It’s a textuality that always talks or behaves as a kind of “poisoned intelligence,” for it is ready to be “read” (as a venom that is subtly injected, from a place of irony) for and by a “trained spectator,” not by a naive viewer or a novice. In other words, it’s for and/or against critics, curators, and art historians, in order to question their notions about the art world. Or, simply, it’s to disrupt the discursive power with their own weapons: a displaced verbal discourse that is transverse and elusive.
It’s as if Cordero were proposing a dichotomous-paradoxical exercise of interweaving meanings, a gesture of dissent that inserts into our psyches another question which contains within its own structure, its own response.
Is it worth so much analysis rather than to enjoy the pictorial act and gesture? Best to put reasoning aside and just feel.
Painting is always a pleasure.
Over the past eight or nine years, in his latest pictorial production (from the series Expenditures, 2003-2009 or De títulos opcionales [Optional Titles], 2006), the incorporation of these conceptual-descriptive elements is becoming more latent, because by means of this verbal wink (in many cases constructed from the documentation and/or recording of a process), Raúl is able to free the narrative tools of painting from their weight, making them lighter, although perhaps not light enough not to have weight as considered within the entirety of the current exhibition at the CAAM produced especially for this occasion: 73 kilograms.
In this project, the artist turns everything that surrounds the exhibition itself into “pictorial material” (just so… as weight), where the racks, staples, clips, fabrics, varnishes, resins, pigments, or driers are only part of the whole, which after all, are the traces of a process that occurs as wholly integrated, from within the thinking of its creator.
And it then stays here as painting, as a set of two-dimensional things-objects, which are both seductive and intriguing, but which have weight: 73 kg. It’s an expository naming strategy that Raúl uses to make a break –a musical term– in the reading and evolution of his work. He does so because he makes an anecdote of the fact of the weight as a logical condition of the pictorial act, perhaps making an intimist reference to the creative process of the language of painting which artists must face at the initial moment of creativity, “where anecdotal and conjunctural elements” determine much more than we would normally believe in the final visual results, and the ideo-esthetic elements of pictorial production can be subjected (tyrannically) to these constituent anecdotal elements in the production of each one of the paintings that make up an exposition, where the vulnerability of the initial utopian idea can be seen as traumatized, censored, or radically altered by the impact of the real. Without any doubt, it’s a reality in which signals or signs as crucial as the scale and/or the weight can change or determine the final (constitutive) nature of each work.
To take just two examples: The width and height of the artist’s studio door, if the work should and/or could be shipped rolled up or not depending on the economic solvency and logistics of the exhibiting room, gallery, art center, or museum, or, not to be too prosaic and realistic, we could also talk about the capital that the artist needs to have in order to buy the racks, frames, fabric, paper, pigments, and varnishes of professional quality, among other things.
So at the very moment when Raúl Cordero focuses on the painting process and its rules of the game as one of the pillars on which to articulate his new work, the aesthetic quality of the “finished” quality of his paintings benefits equally, making tacit and relevant the qualitative increase in his level of perfectionism and artistic rigor, as if the artist were insisting on underlining (by annotating it) the importance of traditional forms in making a “good painting” (albeit from the contemporary method of “wet on wet” in which layers of oil paint are flattened and blended), while he questions the language, the medium or art form, which is still current… updated and upgradeable.
Although if truth be told, it would not surprise me if tomorrow he were to forget the methodical wet-on-wet method and radically change to an extreme position on the academic scale such as that of “painting as language.” This could either be a more “abstract” non-iconic path, a bias that has already been implied in some recent works, such as En los bajos de Alvar Aalto, 2007–2008, where he pays homage to Flavio Garciandía, or in the installation diptych Untitled I and II (Beads), 2010, moving beyond the obviousness of the narrative representation of the image, to name but two. Or, at the opposite end, it could also be a more “realistic” path, which would not be inconsistent with his oblique nod to the classic genres in the History of Painting: Still Life, Landscape, and Portrait. Also, little has been written about when approaching his work from a critical discourse. I’m referring to that “classical tone almost aristocratic or neo-romantic” that still breathes in his paintings from a purely historiographic point of view, because he does so from the History of Painting itself, from a pure knowledge of it, from his studio.
Perhaps also the study of mechanisms in which the pictorial process develops, directs the process of ordination, that is, it delves into the procedures, step by step, which must be followed to achieve a fuller optimization of visual resources, although in this arrangement, the painting that results from this linguistic process becomes increasingly heavy, while the soul of its creator becomes lighter.
This could possibly be an ironic response to Milan Kundera and his Unbearable Lightness of Being2, a material response from Cordero to a spiritual mystery, because it may be that its there where the mystery of Painting lies, in the fact that its materiality harbors a mute spirituality, somewhat silent, and ever so light, but which nevertheless has weight, for it possesses a contradictory density which contains in itself a lightness (gnostic and emotional) that completes it.
Concluding thus is the process/procedure of a most personal work that while from a formal and visual point of view reminds us of some successes of New European Painting, in which artists like Gerard Richter and Luc Tuymans have generated a whole method for “the use of images within pictorial language” and where the blurring of contours or focus reigns (from a methodological point of view) beyond the retinal phenomenology of the finished painting. We could affirm that the work of Cordero is much closer to the conceptual-verbalizing method of John Baldessari, Ed Ruscha, or Richard Prince, where the “use of images” proposes a narrative reideologicization of the image as “object to be used” rather than as the descriptive support of a story.
More akin to the mocking nonchalance evidenced (from the painted image) by artists such as Yan Pei-Ming, Francis Alÿs, Santiago Ydáñez, or Gabriele Di Matteo, who replicate and deconstruct the pictorial imaginaries in favor of diversifying pictorial probability, or rather its probability in mathematical terms, the probability as tacit evidence of a repetitive im-possibility in representational and mimetic terms.
This assumes that what is definitely in crisis is not painting, but the representation of pictorial narrative, and even the art system that surrounds it, legitimizing, questioning, putting in check, or valuing it (or at least the rules of the game that this tyrannical system imposes as a dogmatic hierarchical topography, in which painting occupies more than a third of its historiography and its baggage).
It’s as if Raúl Cordero suggested that perhaps we should change the academic concept of painting (or at least that part which is implemented from art criticism and historiography) to call it instead traces, records, and experiments of “pictorial thinking.” For if “painting…” (as expressed by Da Vinci and later by Picasso) “…is a mental thing,” we could just as well affirm that this “chromatic-planimetric thing” that is there is the reflection of a style of thinking, or that it behaves like a refractory tool for measuring our present and for analyzing it conceptually and philosophically.
This is why it would not be unreasonable to try to draw a historical set of ideas about human evolution through the History of Painting. That is, through its “Pictorial Thinking,” although this thought itself might perhaps be purely gratuitous… or not.
I never had a penny to my name. So I changed my name
- Illustrating this metaphorical image, I remember works such as Atención, from the anticipatory year of 1994, which culminated as a project in the year 1997, that caused a jump in Raúl’s work toward the performative-relational and the urban that invaded the city, work that possibly opened his relational perspective beyond the artist’s studio an into a kind of endogenous intimist work as a new line of media inquiry in his work, as well as the surprisingly sarcastic Superpainting from 2000, the paradoxical Lo que pasaba en el banco de los bajos mientras yo pintaba el retrato de Yuri Gagarin (What Happened in the Bank Downstairs While I Painted a Portrait of Yuri Gagarin) from 2001, and the performative-procedural Pintura que produce sonido (Painting that Produces Sound), from 2002, or works such as the prints from the controversial Expenditures Series, from 2005, whose title changes according to the calories and fat levels of its printers, in an Edition of 10 copies, once again doubling as the other. We should not forget the resounding Hendrickje from 2009, where the photographic elements (the point of departure of the pictorial process) completes the expository visual results of the work, a work that is both multiple and singular, and in which the History of Art as appropriating slip can be seen more clearly. More recently, I can think of The Making (La Hacedora) from 2011, a work that brings closure to a cycle in his production, breaking with the importance of references to the History of Art, quoting Vermeer’s The Lace Maker, in a dialog with the formula for success of the most cutting-edge mainstream. This is a work that seems to respond to the utopian proposals of the so-called Cuban Neo-Vanguard from the early 1990s and its programmatic Proyecto Hacer (Project Doing), and in which Iván de la Nuez, one of his best friends-teachers, was a key figure. That’s just to mention three examples. ↩
- That “post-philosophy” or “post-philosophical” novel, as labeled by some literary critics and which so much traumatized (literally) the more snobbish intellectuals of the West ↩