Politically, relations between the United States and Fidel Castro’s Cuba remain as chilly as they’ve ever been during the Cold War. Culturally, though, a thaw has set in: the Orioles, the Washington Ballet, and an increasing number of American tourists have headed to the island nation in recent years. In Baltimore, the work of Cuban photographers has been showcased at the C. Grimaldis Gallery. Last year, Cuban photographer Alberto Korda exhibited shots of Castro and his political rallies in what amounted to a short history of the Cuban Revolution; showing with him was a younger Cuban photographer, José Figueroa, whose street scenes depicted Cuban’s everyday life. Where that exhibit focused photojournalistically on political and social subjects, the current Grimaldis show by Cuban artist José Manuel Fors is more personal in its subject matter and more formal in its presentation.
Fors’s imagery includes many rephotographed snapshots from his own family’s collection that have been tinted, marked up with slashing lines, and otherwise made to look aged and weathered; a few original family photos presented with the respect one would show for relics; photos of old family letters; photos of common objects ranging from forks to seashells; and actual everyday objects sparingly applied atop related photos.
These images are autobiographical pictures that give some sense of the cultural climate that produced this photographer. For all the letters, photos, and other documentary sources that went into making these pictures, they don’t provide a comprehensive family history.
But Fors’s family story as told through these photographs is only half the tale. More distinctive than the artist’s content is the way it’s packaged. Fors relies on a grid format in which numerous photographs reinforce his themes. The grid often is associated with minimalist and conceptual artists of the late 1960s and ‘70s who generally avoided directly autobiographical references and preferred exploring the possibilities offered by repeating forms, colors, and culturally resonant images. What makes Fors’s photographic constructions notable is that his presumably warm personal history is played out within that mathematically rigorous and emotionally cool format. Also, the mix of subject matter –pictures of his family, their letters, everyday objects, and even darkly smudged abstractions– means that one looks at these compositions in terms of imagistic patterns as much as specific content.
Dos Hermanos, for instance, is a grid of 15 toned gelatin silver prints of rephotographed antique photos of two brothers, military gatherings, and pages from a letter whose scratchy, scuffed-up surfaces make them seem very old indeed. It’s as if these are sepia-toned fragments from the past could be obliterated at any moment. Because Fors uses the grid format to present minor variations on the same few images, the effect is that of a sequence of mental snapshots culled from his memory. The aged quality of the images also makes them resemble an old filmstrip that wouldn’t survive another trip through the projector.
Incidentally, the Dos Hermanos are the photographer’s father and uncle. At the center of this piece and others in the exhibit, Fors affixes framed original photographs of his principal subjects. These are the undoctored, old photographic images that inspire all the surrounding doctored images. As with the grid format itself, having originals and copies in the same piece calls attention to the whole process of taking experience and dealing with it artistically.
The packaging of experience is dealt with explicitly in a richly layered series called Atado de Memorias, in which the rephotographed imagery is printed on thickly layered newspaper pages that are held in place with twine. “Atado” means both “cramped” and “bundle.” Indeed, these bundled memories seem much the worse for wear. (It turns out that Fors completed this installation here in Baltimore and used copies of City Paper as his newsprint source, even if they’re not recognizable as such in the finished artwork. We’re glad we could help.)
Some of the most effective photographs in this exhibit take full advantage of the formal possibilities available because of his treatment of a rectangle grid. Although the only representational image in the 15 photos that make up Cruz de Hojas is a single leaf, it’s repeated in crossed vertical and horizontal rows in order to evoke a cross. The other shots in Cruz de Hojas are brown and black abstractions providing an almost painterly background for that cross.
Fors breaks out of the rectangle grid in El Circulo V, in which hundreds of tiny photographs of mundane objects overlap each other in a circular design. If you pull up close, you can easily discern the seashells, knives, family photos, and other images in the individual photos. Pull back a bit, and those many images become a whirling blur of black, white, and brown. From a distance, it’s abstractly appealing.
Assembled on the floor of the Grimaldis Gallery and now hanging on its wall, the very recently created El Circulo V suggests how the interplay between representation and abstraction may translate into a bright future for a photographer who relies so extensively on the past.