Los Carpinteros (Alexandre Jesús Arrechea Zambrano, born in 1970 in Trinidad, Las Villas, Cuba, lives and works in Havana, Los Angeles and Madrid; Marco Antonio Castillo Valdés, born in 1971 in Camagüey, Cuba, lives and works in Havana and Madrid; Dagoberto Rodríguez Sánchez, born in 1969 in Caibarién, Las Villas, Cuba, lives and works in Havana and Madrid)

Shortly after I met this team glowing with vital, artistic ambition in Cristina Vives’s house in Havana in 2000, the three young artists set off to conquer the world—or rather vice versa: the world discovered them in exhibitions in New York, Brazil, and Europe. In retrospect, they followed through with a storybook career that only few artists are able to achieve. Today, they are super cool and slick professionals. They somehow managed to suavely surf the art market without being washed away. 

«Los Carpinteros» founded their artist collective in Cuba in 1992. Alexandre Arrechea left the triumvirate in 2003 to pursue his career on his own, while the two others continued to work together under their old name until they finally separated in 2018.

The power and the potential of drawings

At first, I was fascinated above all by the young artists’ large-format watercolor drawings that are second to none in terms of quality and execution. Enraptured, I bought an entire bundle for the Daros Latinamerica Collection. The Carpinteros, however, were already well aware of their (future) significance at that time, so I had to undergo intense questioning by the three before just being allowed to purchase and eventually take along the drawings.

Capa, 1997, Watercolor, crayon and graphite on paper, 208 x 150 cm, Photography: Peter Schälchli, Zürich, Courtesy: Daros Latinamerica Collection, Zürich

These artworks are concepts cast into pictures. Not always was it technically possible for Cuban artists to actually realize their projects, due to the precarious situation and the lack of nearly everything on the archipelago. In order to carry out their projects at all, they tried to render them as simple as possible, crystallizing their concepts in theory again and again until their ideas were as carefully thought out as possible, condensed to their purest form, before they were converted to drawings, which was frequently the only format feasible. In view of the beauty of these drawings, however, one hardly misses their concrete physical realization. Which of the artists actually took the lead in the creation of an individual work is difficult to tell from the result. The artists themselves are also not very helpful and rather taciturn in this respect…

Metaphors and allusions

Throughout the history of art and culture, the metaphor has always served as an effective potential weapon against the censorship ubiquitous to dictatorial systems. «Ideally», metaphors can even be simultaneously interpreted by oppressors and oppressed with opposite meanings…

Granada de mano, 2004, Wood, lacquer and iron, 189 x 128,5 x 108 cm, Photography: Dominique Uldry, Bern, Courtesy: Daros Latinamerica Collection, Zürich

After decades of so-called socialism, it is no wonder that the artists of this singular Caribbean island as a matter of routine deal with the utopian promises of «revolutionary» policy and culture in a critical manner. A playful verve and a good degree of gallows humor (survival in Cuba is not possible without it) characterizes the Carpinteros’s works. Multi-layered and brimming with allusions—often only fully understandable to insiders—their art presents itself as a conglomerate of alleged contradictions, paradoxes, and absurdities shining through in all corners and edges. The bizarre conditions of the «actually existing socialism» are reflected by the systematic obscuring of the fixed functions that the everyday materials used by the artists formerly fulfilled. Any attempt to determine the meaning of these usually so familiar objects is doomed to fail.

The power of disruption

The artists sharpen and hone our perception playfully by disengaging the everyday objects from their actual functions and destabilizing their meanings. In this way, they thoroughly thwart our expectations and lead us into a space between reality and illusion that is filled with fictions and projections. They move around with ease and purpose, in their element as fish in water in this specifically Cuban space, where they apparently effortlessly and sprightly create emblematic works, many of which have already become part of the art historical canon.

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