Retratos en chino / Aldo Menéndez Retrospective (1999-2019) curated by Henry Ballate
OPENING: Friday, Sep 6, 2019
Curated by Henry Ballate, Retratos en chino summarizes the art-work of Aldo Menéndez (Cienfuegos, Cuba, 1948), during the last 20 years and propose a reflection about the confusion and uncertainty in our time.
ALDO MENENDEZ’S GARDEN
Picture yourself in a boat on a river
With tangerine trees and marmalade skies
Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly
A girl with kaleidoscope eyes.
Collage appear and takes force since the artistic production of the first stages of modernism, by the hand of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, who coined the term, from the French verb “coller”. This technique allowed artists to interact with existing materials, to which they could assign new contexts, to create a completely new work of art. It was popular with authors who belonged to movements such as Surrealism, Dada, and Nouveau Réalisme. Legends such as Henri Matisse, Jean Dubuffet, Kurt Schwitters, and Man Ray are among those who helped shape the very definition of the medium with their influential works of art.
A century after its appearance in the cultural arena, collage maintains its vividness and returns to us through dissimilar discourses. A good example of the above is “Portraits in Chinese”, Aldo Menéndez’s latest retrospective, which includes 20 years of his artistic career. More than a hundred pieces invade the rooms of the Kendall Art Center, offering a dazzling look at the artist’s work, and demonstrating an impressive combination of collage techniques, ranging from the traditional to the combination of digital image with painting. The installation that gives title to the exhibition is dimensioned in these rooms. With more than 30 meters, it is arranged in such a way that the viewer is trapped inside it to turn into an amazing dance, becoming a part of the world, no longer so surreal or so cubist by Aldo Menéndez, and giving rise to scenes tremendously fun and colorful, as well as other evocative, almost monochromatic.
After passing the “little door about two feet high”, we were beheaded on a red chair, wearing a red dress and red boots, watching the artist walk dinosaurs with a leash through his wonderful garden. This is our reward for the privilege of working with the Master, who always tells us about the history of art, Cuba and its artists -with his hands still smeared with paint- reminds us that “Imagination is the only weapon in the war against reality ”.
Henry Ballate, M.F.A.
RETRATOS EN CHINO
In Cuba, ‘talking Chinese’ [‘to speak gibberish’] is synonymous with something complicated or hard to understand. But in this case what seems as complicated as speaking in Chinese is… the future.
The style that guided Aldo Menéndez (1948) when he created the series of collages Retratos en chino began to fall into place when he worked on the collages for the Archaeological Findings exhibition at Durban Segnini Gallery in Miami in 2001. Several collages that were essentially portraits already appeared in the catalog of that exhibition. Many of those 30 collages later became large format easel paintings in which the artist attempted–with no other technological medium to his avail and only drawing on his experience in hyperrealism–to transcribe them as if copying an object, turning a traditional collage into a trompe l’oeil that aimed at reproducing pictorially the various characteristics that define a collage.
At the time, Menéndez wondered if it would not be better to cut and paste directly on the canvas–in other words, to leave out of the equation the straight jacket of imitating the effects of some other technique that he thought only served to boast about pure virtuosity. Following an attempt to use serigraphy on canvas, he found the ideal medium in digital printing on canvas–which was making headways in the mid–2000s–as the tool with which he wanted to experiment.
And so Menéndez used as matrix the old-style collage created with glue and scissors, which he then transferred to a canvas as a digital print to finally paint over it again, always having the capacity to make corrections and change things around.
He then carefully selects the images or base material he will use to assemble the original collage, beginning with those linked to advertising and marketing. He considers they offer an advantage for approaching and critiquing the futility of trends, additionally highlighting the extreme contrast with underdevelopment and poverty. Naturally, over time he incorporates other sources, such as Western art–although he just as easily will appropriate an anonymous African mask or urban graffiti–or often the iconography of his homeland (Cuba). In his hands, any point of reference could become a human face that communicates something specific.
The well–known visual artist Rubén Torres Llorca, whose work and capacity for intellectual analysis Menéndez admires, recently visited Menéndez at home. Rubén had already written a piece celebrating Aldo’s exhibition at Galería Segnini, but now, seeing before him a good portion of the series Retratos en chino, he told Aldo: “Now that you’re turning 70, these are your water lilies.” And he was right, because from the get-go, Menéndez connected with the idea of creating a Monet series with an atmosphere capable of enveloping the spectator.
Menéndez points out that “…ever since I was very young I had wanted to create paintings that would give the spectator a panoramic feeling. In recreating the emotions I felt standing in front of the dioramas that impressed me in European museums, and in front of the famous Muscovite scene of the Battle of Borodino, I finally arrived at the Orangerie Museum to enjoy Monet’s set of water lilies…and through them I discovered that my search was aimed not only at setting down my own universe but rather, as Monet expressed, at creating a refuge of peaceful meditation, the illusion of an endless whole.”
This realization allows Aldo to underline the amphibological nature of the epoch that has been his fate to inhabit, which has become increasingly more exalted. As a matter of fact, Antonio Marin Segovia coincides with the concepts developed by Aldo when referring to Monet, when he states that “…he saw painting as a visual and emotional experience that years later (1955) helped abstract painters to encounter the ambiguity of the vision that makes it impossible to know for certain what we are looking at. Kandinsky had said as much long before, when he acknowledged that it was Monet who planted abstraction in him when he contemplated one of his paintings of haystacks.”
As Kandinsky pointed out, Menéndez’s acrylics evidence a certain confusion, a necessary mix of reality–fiction as a fusion of elements, a cocktail that indicates the temperature of the environment, in the end turning his paintings into constant self–portraits of a stubborn person obsessed with attaining a high degree of sovereignty in his art.
Another coincidence with Monet (but always keeping the necessary distance) is that the Frenchman used the same panels for his water lilies, the same measurements as those of the large advertising posters that prevailed in Paris at the time. On his part, Menéndez relates each Retrato en chino to television screens, those walls with screens where the master controls are, with each monitor showing different images that simultaneously compose a general picture which reflects life pulsating in the present tense, safe, enjoying a fleeting moment of glory. They represent today’s visual mediums, says Menéndez, new possibilities that display a cavalier memory as we rhythmically surf the channels.
To match the 36 years Monet devoted to his water lilies, Aldo would need to have a very long life. For now, eight years should make him feel satisfied with the composition of 128 works (presented both separately AND signed, or as an installation) created with such mastery and strength, with such variety and allure using a 31 x 31-inch format. Their background refers us to the universe of the Dada collage, to the successful projection to date of that revolutionary tendency of artistic avant–garde from a conceptual point of view, and to a prevailing surrealist world manifested in the mixtures and postmodern appropriations.
To be able to perceive adequately the potential for communication of the series Retratos en chino, it is necessary to sense that whichever and any head or face can somehow speak to Menéndez about every human perspective and ambit. Those faces synthesize fundamental expressions of Cuba and the world, provided we know how to access a broad channel of appreciation of portraiture that will accommodate anyone from Philip Guston, David Salle, Martin Eder and Takashi Murakami, to Basquiat.
I have no doubt that Retratos en chino represents a milestone.