Over the years, Los Carpinteros's preference for objects from everyday life and for handicraft work would turn into a decontextualizing device in which these objects acquired new uses and signification; a play space at once absurd and ambiguous as a distinguishing mark of the artists.
The origin of the artist collective Los Carpinteros can be traced back to their work as students at the ISA (Instituto Superior de Arte) in Havana. In the early 1990s, Dagoberto Rodríguez and Alexandre Arrechea, supervised by teacher and artist René Francisco, began to work together on urban experiences; they were joined shortly afterward by Marco Castillo to form the group that would soon be known by colleagues and friends in the art world as Los Carpinteros (The Carpenters). The name was derived from the use they made of wood, as their first works were items of furniture-cum-artifacts, objects from everyday life that framed and entered into dialogue with interior pictorial spaces.
Over the years, their preference for objects from everyday life and for handicraft work would turn into a decontextualizing device in which these objects acquired new uses and signification; a play space at once absurd and ambiguous as a distinguishing mark of the artists. This modus operandi allows them to present multiple contradictory spaces of meaning in which the imagination, inventiveness, and a sense of humor—all of which are smart forms of everyday survival in Cuba—become indispensable elements in the visual and conceptual “game” between works and spectators.
Besides the use or reuse of everyday objects, architecture—or rather the transformation of objects into architecture and of architecture into objects—is another key feature in the oeuvre of Los Carpinteros, one that has been preserved in the works by the collective, which in 2003 was reduced to Dagoberto Rodríguez and Marco Castillo, as well as in the solo works by Alexandre Arrechea. In this sense, Downtown (2002–2003), a project in which the artists transformed emblematic Havana buildings into chests of drawers resembling chiffoniers or “jewelry boxes”, like the works Focsa and Retiro médico, are very significant. The drawers, all of them empty, highlight the poetic sense of these works and explore the question of the usefulness or uselessness of art works.
Within this dynamic of architectural resignification, and taking a specific object as a starting point, we come across Granada de mano (Hand Grenade, 2004; first version 1998), which consists of a sculpture-cum-furniture item in the form of a hand grenade, again full of empty drawers, an object that could—due to its very nature—“explode” at any minute. Militarism and the “invasion” from outside, fatally “awaited” for decades by the Cuban people in the context of their isolation and the Cold War, are reified into a grenade or hand bomb now transformed into a sort of ironic and macabre artifact.
Una sombrilla (A Parasol, 1997), the work that completes the selection of sculptures in the show, refers back to the watercolor Sombrillas (proyecto con sombrillas para objetos de casa) (Parasols [Project with parasols for domestic objects], 1996), also in the Daros Latinamerica Collection, in which a series of parasols mounted on tripods protect everyday objects. In the case of this sculpture, in which a parasol is upside down, its pole held in place by a carpenter’s bench clamp, the function is reversed: the concave interior space is ready to collect rather than protect. Once again, objects enter into a new and suggestive space of resignification. This process will be handled and controlled by Los Carpinteros from then on as ironic-conceptual poets, both in their use of objects and language itself, with sufficient distance and proximity from its context. Humor and irony are efficient tools to enable the artists to explore a range of issues in dramatic depth.
In formal terms, we must mention the importance of drawing in the creative-speculative work processes of Los Carpinteros. Their first sketches, made on loose sheets of paper or in sketchbooks, would gradually assume greater significance and eventually become works in themselves. Impeccably transferred to paper in the form of watercolors and then into a range of formats, these works are as important in their oeuvre as is the subsequent rendering of their contents in later objects and sculptures. Indeed, they become so important that drawing itself, applied directly to the walls in the exhibition space, sometimes gives the final work as a whole the scope of an object or an installation. Such is the case in Ala (Wing, 1999), in which the lines drawn on a wall connect a network of faucets, of real water taps, that suggest the existence of another magical arrangement inside the wall, which, once again, enhances the work with a poetic dimension. In the watercolor titled Capa (Layer, 1997), the interior circulation is also revealed, as with an X-ray, as a body structure, before cleansing and catharsis.
The political dimension of the oeuvre of Los Carpinteros is another notable feature of their work, which isn’t usually expressed explicitly, but rather in a space where references are subtly explored, a space not free of irony that can be as easily identified by ordinary Cuban citizens familiar with local gags and slang as by those in other contexts who are also able to grasp the message inherent in the works.
The political element may be perceived more clearly than usual in the watercolor La dirección de la mirada (The Direction of the Gaze, 1998), where an exceedingly long and virtually impracticable telescope is firmly held in place by four carpenter’s clamps that, in turn, stand on a brick wall to create an extremely strong and solid structure that allows our gaze to follow only one direction.
Orlando Britto Jinorio, 2017 (2015) Orlando Britto Jinorio is Director of the Centro Atlántico de Arte Moderno, Las Palmas, Spain. This Essay was first published in: Cuba - Ficción y Fantasía. A selection of Cuban art form the Daros Latinamerica Collection, exhibition catalogue, Casa Daros, Rio de Janeiro; Zürich, Daros Latinamerica, 2015.
(Translated by Josephine Watson)