The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino

Eyes Wide Shut

The Light in Cuban Eyes
Photo by Alejandro Pérez . Source:
Alejandro Pérez, "El Bohemio" 2014

With a handshake between presidents and travel restrictions beginning to fade, America may finally see the world through Cuba's eyes. Yet to judge by a show of "The Light in Cuban Eyes," those eyes may still prove difficult to see.

To be sure, they are fresh eyes. For most New Yorkers, the twenty-three photographers at Robert Mann through May 23 will come as a revelation, with the entirety of their work from the new millennium. To be sure, too, they present an achingly familiar landscape. The country under Fidel and now Raúl Castro seems barely to have emerged out of the 1950s. It appears as a place of lost grandeur and crushing poverty, still as contested as India under British rule or the Middle East today. Yet politics seems almost beside the point, when people and traditions are struggling to find themselves and a future.

Photo by Pavel Acosta . Source:
Pavel Acosta, "Poker Face, from the series Stolen Talent" 2009-10

For Arien Chang, bare-chested boys make do with makeshift toys before the majestic metal doors of badly whitewashed buildings. For Leysis Quesada, a woman in white looks to the sunlight gathering in a grand but empty interior, while a tobacco farmer shows his age in his dry skin, pursed lips, and wandering eyes. The bulbous automobiles in Pavel Acosta's Stolen Talent, their license plates erased, belong to another time altogether, as does their place not on a highway but seemingly in a jungle. Even the medium looks dated, between black and white and muted colors, like René Peña's striped socks rising out of unlaced shoes. The husband and wife team of Liudmila + Nelson treat a billboard as a photo's only note of color, with Revolution in the cursive better known from Coca-Cola. Who is to say who has co-opted whom?

Photo by Lissette Solórzano . Source:
Lissette Solórzano, "Untitled, from the series Rail - Road" 2002

Then there are those elusive eyes. Almost anything can step between them and the camera, not least the strong Caribbean light. It reflects off sunglasses and train windows for Lissette Solórzano. It fills eyes wide to the point of madness for Alejandro González. It splashes across a face lost in reflections and in thought for Jorge Luis Alvarez Pupo. It leaves revelers in shadow, for Eduardo García, and a seated person isolated beneath heavy clouds by the sea. A leaf falls across a boy's eyes for Raúl Cañibano, just as he is setting out to clear a space for himself, and preposterously large and low-set headgear of traditional dancers for Adrián Fernández eclipses the dance.

People here seem caught between defiance and anonymity, like a bass player nearly dwarfed by his instrument for Pedro Aboscal. Whose lips share opposite ends of a cigar for Néstor Martí or spray a cock with water for José Julián Martí? Whose form a grainy collage for Alfredo Ramos, like Lorna Simpson without the burdens or comforts of African American identity? Whose hand holds out Cuban coins for Juan Carlos Alom, and are they enough to last out the day? Whose profile shadow falls across a wall for Chang? Se Permuta, as he titles the photo, or someone has changed places, but with whom?

Photo by Liudmila & Nelson . Source:
Liudmila & Nelson, "Untitled, from the series El Viaje" 2004

Along with light, shadow, and style, subjects share an intense physical presence, as discomforting to them as to the viewer. Ramsés Batista covers a gleaming bare breast with flower petals as if with welts, as La Tormenta. Liudmila + Nelson use cut paper to shape the ocean itself into a reclining nude. They also share an economy and culture groping for change, like Havana as a Monopoly board for Kadir López Nieves. Music here is a strictly analog medium, like staff lines printed across dice for Glenda León, with a spareness that John Cage would have understood. Liudmila + Nelson print Havana street scenes directly on vinyl.

Photo by Jorge Luis Álvarez Pupo . Source:
Jorge Luis Álvarez Pupo, "Wandering Ways No. 25" 2010

Revolution has lost authority almost to the point of irrelevance. Political oppression remains, but it is hard to pick out the oppressors. Pupo's spectators at a horse race hold binoculars in hands crossed behind their back, like secret police. Solórzano's rail passengers spread their legs on the far side of chains, as if on their way to prison without a guard. Other exhibitions have seen Latin American art and Latin America architecture as sites of hope and ceaseless experiment. The real experiment here is still to come.

The Light in Cuban Eyes

Robert Mann Gallery
525 W 26th St. 2nd Fl
Chelsea         Map

212 989 76000

Thursday, March 26 to
Saturday, May 23, 2015
Hours: Tues-Fri, 10 to 6, Sat 11 to 6

Making Caribbean Dance by Susanna Sloat