Adriano Buergo is a Cuban artist born in Havana in 1964, who is currently Miami-based. He completed his art studies at The Higher Institute of Art in Havana, Cuba, in 1988. Together with four other artists, he founded the art group known as Puré. The work of Adriano Buergo, along with that of other Cuban artists of the 80s generation, engages socio-cultural themes. In one of the best known series of his work he gave birth to a rather peculiar character: a bricollage domestic fan which named “Roto” (Broken). Roto became the icon of the struggle for survival in an environment plagued with material privation and contradictions. Nonetheless, Roto is capable of adaptating to the challenges of his daily existence and to yearn for them, allowing the viewer to witness a process of transcendence always seeking to remake himself in order to delve into new aspects of his reality.
Today his works are included in collections of Ludwig Forum fur Kunst, Aachen, Germany, National Museum of Fine Arts, Havana, Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami, The Lowe Art Museum, University of Miami, Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale, Snite Museum of Art, University of Notre Dame, Indiana and The Farber Collection.
Roto: Adriano Buergo’s Epic of Survival
Roto Expone (‘broken exhibits’) is the title of a series of paintings, drawings, and assemblages which Adriano Buergo began in the late-80’s when the artist still lived in his native Havana. Roto is also the name of the protagonist of this series, a once functioning component in an American air-conditioner from the 1950’s (Republican Cuba) which becomes, in Buergo’s series—an unfolding visual epic—a multidimensional symbol. The word roto is also a pun on the third person, past tense of rotar, ‘rotate’: rotó, ‘rotated.’ Extracted from the air-conditioner unit and turned into a fan, Roto assumes the full presence of a personality, although one torn and confused by the world in which ‘he’ lives—totalitarian Cuba with its endless fears and hungers, exquisite deceptions, and maddening contradictions.
The fan is also a ruined device which can only hope to recover its simple function by becoming a mechanical hybrid—e.g., a fan hooked up to another machine. What remains of the old A/C is the fan with its motor. Roto embarks on an emptying journey-in-place, usually in bitter darkness (Havana of this ‘special period’ suffered from protracted power outtages, as it did before and has since), to regain a sense of himself and a logic to his privations. Clearly, the fable Roto—with the protagonist’s escape into fantasy and the scenes’ penumbral claustrophobia—evokes the political camouflage seen in the literature and art of oppressive societies. Change one letter and we get rojo, ‘red,’ adhering brokenness to all the anatomical and ideological ramifications of the color.
The symbolization of Buergo’s generation by their desparate cannibalization of disparate machine parts to concoct new and monstrous versions of old devices, is a brilliant and complex trope—simple in its lucid reference, complex in its power to evoke the layers of personality, especially one trapped in a society fragmented by tyranny, collaboration, and an insane ideology. However, the fact that Buergo, who fled Communist Cuba in the early nineties and has lived in Miami ever since, continues to quarry the symbol is a testament to its versatility and profundity. The fan has become an errant presence equally lost in the codes of a politically free, if commercially driven, frivolous society, one for whom consumerism (rather than the frugality of reuse, repair, and rehabilitation) is the stirring anthem. As the viable symbol of thoughtful life, Roto wants to grow and be free without relinquishing the identifying and vital roots of his legacy.
Brokenness, in other words, has become in Buergo’s art the obvious and permanent ‘special period’ condition of the artist in all contemporary societies. And while artists have, by and large, felt marginalized in all societies and periods in history, the condition has entered a particularly poignant phase in recent times. The heroic agent that once rotated mountains of air and ideas, molded and revolutionized values, led us into reflection and the understanding of our identity, is currently an oddity or the glib purveyor of goods in the market place of collectibles. Success today befalls those who articulate prevailing socio-political viewpoints, not to those who focus on philosophical or aesthetic concepts. The mechanism of ideas which once drove the creative mind has been replaced by the motor of money and spectacle. A promenade across any major art fair should provide sufficient evidence of our sad state.
Brokenness is the new old badge of honor and courage. It seems we are doomed to sink into the maelstrom of materialism and vanity which marked the 19th century, and its obsession with propriety in language (but not ritual or attire), with little hope of garnering its crop of rebel geniuses (Goya, Van Gogh, Flaubert, Dickinson, Dostoyevsky, Wilde, et al). The neo-Existential turmoil of the artist in the lair to which his imbecile society has cast him finds an ample array of evocation in Buergo’s exilic extension of the Roto adventure. The masterful realist detail of Buergo’s pencil and charcoal drawings of the late 1980’s gave us a monochromatic lense into the inner and contextual darkness of the wrecked, if still yearning, hero. There is little absolution or tranquility of mind in the confessional eclipse of Roto’s socialist paradise, to be sure, but Buergo stroked with startling subtlety the neglected archetypes of faith and its crew of ecstatics, prophets, and hermits. Roto’s blades are always still, fixed into the petals of a rusted crucifix. The hero elongates into a grinning mandorla, and he rarely ventures from the prayerless cave in which he ponders fragmented hope. Roto has swallowed his sirens, and so it is from within that wings and heart project their emanations on the fan’s bleak shell. He peers eyeless onto dense pools and through the armor of windows while evoking—mysteriously—a tenderness.
The paintings of this early period, through his watershed solo exhibition in 2009 at Farside Gallery in Miami, expand the vision of Roto’s conflated world through color and texture. In hallucinatory metaphors Roto partners with starfish, the human figure, flowers, birds and angels, shimmers and meltings. A burnt orange hue, gnarled with folds and feathers, bronzes many of the works in bled golds and treacherous earths. Opals of icy bowls, the only glow in the dark shelf of this world, entice Roto to fill the tropic summer with cool air—a motif, as art critic Janet Batet has shrewdly noted, that connects Buergo with Cuba’s premier writer Virgilio Piñera (El Nuevo Herald, review, 5-4-09). Among other acute perceptions, Batet also points out Roto’s kinship to Cuba’s most tragic expression of life as makeshift, entangling despair: the balseros, rafters who have fled Communism in their tens of thousands across the funereal Florida Straits.
In paintings from 1996 to 2009 Buergo has explored other themes in which the echoes of Roto are not too distant. A lone worker enveloped in a richly textured series of abstract forms, geometric and otherwise, is seen searching among bins and cylinders, delving into dark reservoirs only he can perceive and judge. It is obvious that Roto has always been, at heart, a self-portrait of a condition shared with an entire trapped generation. In these paintings, Buergo brings the solitary worker—a more explicit image of himself—in worlds that evoke the blades and motions of Roto and the blocks of his enclosures.
In the more recent paintings, Roto-Náutica, exhibited in 2017 at the Kendall Art Center in South Florida, Roto assumes the shapes and colors of his denied aspirations. Blues and violets, golds, white and grey. Against the persistent and dramatic darkness of backdrops that are his native soil, Roto twists into organic shapes, sprouts a wise foam of beard, petals into golds that appear like gelling flames. He is orgasmic and visionary, free and wrestling joyously with constraint. This may be a kind of pentecostal release for Roto, now that he is manifestly a trinity of simultaneous conditions: the prodigal son, the prodigal’s brother, and the lamb of sacrifice. But he is also resplendent, daring to dance. If shadow remains the grammar of his soul, light is its new semantics. He survives vibrant, eschewing his youthful exhaustion, with the workings of memory and conviction intact. We will learn from him now what we have always needed to know.