Thursday October 19, 2017

From La Habana to El Barrio: Cuban Artists in Upper Manhattan

Opening tonight, Self Illuminated caps a pilot residency project at PS 109

William Pérez, from the series Siempre hay un lugar, 2015–2017

Courtesy William Pérez

Havana artists Marlys Fuego and William Pérez have spent the past three months as artists in residence at El Barrio’s Artspace PS 109. We dropped by for a conversation as the artists installed their show, Self Illuminated: Marlys Fuego & William Pérez, which opens tonight in PS 109’s lower-level gallery.

El Barrio's PS109 on East 99th Street in Manhattan

Photo: Cuban Art News

Fuego and Pérez’s residency, which runs for four months, is a pilot program supported by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund in collaboration with El Barrio’s Operation Fightback and Artspace PS 109. In the planning for more than a year, it may become the first in a series of residencies for artists from Latin America.

Curator Gabriela García Azcuy collaborated closely with Fuego and Pérez on the residency, from discussions of the work they would undertake to preparing the catalogue for the show. She was also on hand for the conversation with Cuban Art News.

Marlys Fuego, William Pérez, and Gabriela García Azcuy in the lower-level gallery at El Barrio's Artspace PS109. Fuego's Casa de muñecas, 2017, hangs at her left. 

Photo: Cuban Art News

Fuego and Pérez had visited New York City before, but this was their first residency in the city. For them, one of the most exciting aspects of their time here was the extensive access to materials, which which allowed them to revisit and reinterpret some of the themes in their work.

“For the work to evolve takes experimenting,” said Pérez in Spanish, and that requires new materials. For him, that has meant working with resin, acrylic, and different forms of light.

One new addition to Pérez’s ongoing series, El artista en su taller (The artist in his studio), is a kinetic work that superimposes rotating elements onto a large circular drawing. Another work in the series superimposes lighted ink drawings on a larger work.

Two works by William Pérez in the series El artista en su taller. The work at the left incorporates kinetic elements.

Photo: Cuban Art News

The kinetic work is positioned opposite a kinetic sculpture by Fuego, Backwards, 2017, which extends her exploration of dolls, a theme she began working with in 2013.

“I think it goes back to when I was a child,” she said. “Because in Cuba, when I was small, to have a doll was impossible then, during the Special Period.” Fuego uses a variety of dolls, representing childhood, teenagers, and adult women.

Backwards, 2017, a kinetic sculpture by Marlys Fuego

Photo: Cuban Art News

The dolls in Backwards had a special significance for Fuego and were brought from Cuba, but other parts of the work were gathered here.

While sequins are not easy to find in Havana, thanks to the fashion industry there is an entire district in Manhattan with stores dedicated to sequins and trimmings. In an earlier work similar to this one, Fuego had to use a large sewing-machine motor, but in New York she was able to find one that was “supersmall. It fit very well in there,” she said.

Marlys Fuego, Casa de muñecas, 2017

Courtesy Marlys Fuego

Fuego’s exploration of the doll theme reaches its peak with Casa de muñecas, 2017. “My doll house, finally,” she exclaimed. “It’s like, wow. I could find everything I wanted, even the little glasses and bottles—everything,” she said.

“I built everything. Every floor, every fabric. I did all of it, and I really enjoyed it.”

Marlys Fuego, Casa de muñecas, 2017 (detail)

Courtesy Marlys Fuego

Azcuy pointed out the meticulous attention to detail throughout the work, including a miniature reproduction of one of Fuego’s paintings in the show, and the water left behind by a doll emerging from a bath.

“Aesthetically speaking, she uses her own way of making sense of these decors,” Azcuy said. “Hearts, flamingos, pineapples—she loves that.”

Near Casa de muñecas hangs a wall sculpture that is Pérez’s largest work in the show—another in his series El artista en su taller.

William Pérez, from the series El artista en su taller

Photo: Cuban Art News

Begun months before the residency became official, it summarizes his hopes and dreams for the PS 109 residency. Encasing scissors, pencils, rulers, and other studio equipment in resin along with the drawings, Azcuy explained, “It’s like a big resume.”

An exhibition was included as part of the residency program, and Self Illuminated will be Fuego and Pérez’s first double show together in the United States. As part of the process, they are converting the lower-level space at PS 109 into a gallery.

Both Fuego and Pérez love the rawness of the space, and the fact that the building dates from the late 1800s. The old stones of the foundation form one wall of the gallery space, and stone gargoyles from the roof are scattered here and there.

William Pérez, Marlys Fuego, and Gabriela García Azcuy in the gallery. At right in foreground, Backwards, 2017, by Marlys Fuego.

Photo: Cuban Art News

While the residency included housing and exhibition space at PS 109, the artists found studio space in Jersey City. This gave them the opportunity to become better acquainted with Cuban artists living in New Jersey and New York City.

As a result, they are presenting a discussion at PS 109 this Friday evening, September 29, with Cuban artists and curators from the broader New York-New Jersey community.

Asked about the title of the show, Azcuy explained, “In Spanish, the phrase is con luz propria—for us in Cuba, to have your own light is to be a successful person, a person with a future. But when we saw it in translation, we needed something else—not ‘with own light’.

William Pérez with his Self Illuminated, 2017, the title work in the show.

Photo: Cuban Art News

Self Illuminated is about two lights—William and Marlys’s own light, and the lights they put in their work.”

The show will run through October 26 at El Barrio’s Artspace PS109. Tonight’s opening runs from 7 to 11 p.m.