As a Form of Introduction: the Burning Pains of Success
Something that powerfully draws one’s attention is the way in which Agustín Bejarano has always been loyal to himself. Some young people do not forgive him the height he has reached today, his complicity with the market, but that claim is as logic as disorientated. We already know that young people would lose their natural charm if they did not set the Sorbonne on fire or want to change everything. Nor can one disregard in the least the fact that people in this Island perceive other people’s success as their own failure (and I could write one hundred pages of historical reasons for this assumption, but that is not the case). The certain mistrust seems logical if we recall that for a long time the market was stigmatized and regarded as a satanic entity admitted among us –at the most– as a necessary evil. Bejarano’s natural success, and that of other artists, has now come to assert that, on the contrary, the market is the necessary asset we had long required and in any case, what should be done is to get ready professionally for it. On the other hand, let us not forget that on the Island one lives from constant changes, and in that milieu, someone who remains in retirement like an island inside another, surrounded by the sea of his painting and his engraving, has to be somewhat annoying.
Now, from all points of view prejudice is inadmissible for a very good reason: everything that Agustín Bejarano has achieved has been the result of actions of ethical consequences and of a total lack of the charming opportunism that leads great artists in the Island to adhere to one or the other trend according to the times. The most radical conceptualists are suddenly quite sensitive and affected painters, the naïf are suddenly performers: the market decides. At the same time, it is wonderful to analyze the opposite process in Bejarano, who has been exploring the market with the less “opportune” or marketable variations, like when he attacks the canvas and crackles the surfaces without paying too much attention to the collectors’ whims, or when he adopts a monumentality and formats that are not precisely desirable to many gallery owners.
I have always admired Agustín Bejarano because, among many other things or in anticipation of them, he is a brave guy. For the sake of expressing himself with all the liberty and looseness of his emotions, it has not bothered him to be cross-current, and life has compensated that persistence and uprightness.
The Cosmos and Eros
Having obtained consensus of his mastery as one of the most personal, changing and artistically dense authors of Cuban plastics, it is high time for literature to attempt to define certain zones of his poetics that have diluted in previous studies in an eagerness to systematize and describe the raptures of change that often appear in the artist. Let us say that much has been written about the Bejarano morphology and its oscillations: about the hegemony of his engraving, about the supremacy of his painting. Knowing the author’s virtues in both modalities, that certainly attractive distinction does not say much, however.1
Perhaps the judgement that Agustín Bejarano’s art could deserve and expect at the height of 2005 concerns the parabola traced by the different cycles of the artist’s relation to the world. Knowing the creator’s changeable abilities, what truly requires a certain rounding today is the geography of the ways in which Bejarano dialogues with the world, submerges into the world, superimposes his discourse to the world and makes the world his discourse –that is to say, the tension between reference and meaning in his art, an exploration that makes him a truly profound, deep artist and an exceptional man.2
If we were to go to the physical limits of his great parabola in the face of the world we would find two substances, two very close essences. The depth, the power of abstraction of the artistic thought, the virtuosity of the representation have changed, but it would seem that the artist’s glance remains focused in the same point, only that the scope, the reach of the eyesight has widened. If we were to compare his first outstanding exhibition, Huracanes, from 1989, with Los ritos del silencio, his great series from 2000, we would have the same incision, perhaps an even deeper one today. In Huracanes, a candidly philosophical Bejarano was to be appreciated who found the maximum of sensuality in relating the feminine vulva with the cosmos. In the first Bejarano, eroticism is an antecedent for the world, a precedent, a sine qua non condition, a form, the one and only privileged form of retracing the world. In Los ritos del silencio eroticism has not been lost, but eroticism, or rather sensuality –a low and tranquil, calmed, much more inner sensuality– becomes an aesthetic result, at a much later moment, of the exploration of the world. An eroticism that takes into consideration not only the explosion, but includes both silence and sadness, that turns implosive and meditative.3
The fact that Bejarano today assumes a painting of figurative forms but abstract nature, open to an introspective cosmology that evidences man’s retirement or restriction in the face of the world, is not too misplacing if we observe it from the context of a Cuban art that seems to lose its most immediate links with its environment (considering both its liberating and alienating elements). But the fact that at the height of 1989, in the apex of an eruptive, volcanic decade, Bejarano irrupted with a semi abstract work totally exposed to cosmic essences speaks highly of the creator’s artistic and human courage. His inveterate fellow citizens, no less dreamers than he (when they went so far as to suppose that a painting could overthrow a government) nevertheless managed to discover the earnings that connected Bejarano’s art “at the top” with his immediate times and the spirit of transgression or redemption: the monumentality and desire of expansion, the plastic irreverence, the dirtiness in the making of his monstrous engravings that ended by showing an exquisite voluptuousness, the possible allegory of sexual violence as expression of many other greater ruptures. In the days when Segundo Planes was proclaiming that “life is shit,” when Félix Suazo was devoting himself to his experiments with ice or with the theoretical hieroglyphs that only he understood, Alexis Somoza was channeling his complications concerning the ideology, Abdel Hernández constructed the futurist apocryphal “Una mirada retrospectiva” or Lázaro Saavedra was mocking Mahomet, Agustín Bejarano succeeded in being as vanguard as any other by turning his splendid back to all that political and conceptual unsteadiness simply showing his hurricane –like compositions that related woman’s kindness to cosmic infinitude and made him overflow with plenitude in the center of his retired and absorbing cosmos. In order to achieve so much in that context it was not only necessary to have the will but also great talent, to be a great artist both to beat against the current and figure in the current with identical determination.
In the following series, particularly in Nidando cerca del jardín de miel, there was a continuation of the cosmic eroticism, or the cosmos as Eros, or the greetings to womankind as worldly privilege. In the words to the catalogue of Corte final –an exhibition in 1993 that summarized and made everything found by the first Bejarano reach crisis point– I introduced an analogy which I totally confirm today at the distance of twelve or thirteen years. Bejarano preferred a type of art that had made Wifredo Lam immense, or better said, that had taken him to the heights of Cuban art of all times: the fact that he had transcended the circumstantial dimension and the test of a trans-cultural art that tried to measure, to appreciate, to enjoy the world’s organic unity as basic principle of existence. Hence, if Lam starts out from black, his findings go much farther and are much more revealing, in an anthropological premise of a different nature. The works of Lam and Bejarano have nothing in common in their appearance, morphology or plastic accidents; however, in the way they carry on their relations with the world they exhibit more than one convergence concerning that essentiality, that search or that submerging in the univocal nature of the world.
With the passing of years, the plastic process gradually lost the attributes of the enthusiasm and joy of living of initial times: color and pop graphics gradually dissected, the monumentality adapted the scales without disappearing completely as concept; the formerly so fragmented works gained compactness. Suddenly, the cosmos also began to contract in a very peculiar way.
The Man and the Island
In 1993, having developed for more than five years as a strong and firm, solid and reliable artist, Bejarano jumped into several abysses at the same time. From that moment on –which is not to be referred to solely as the social agony of the most arid segment of the Cuban “special period,” but also and with no less intensity as the conquest of the artist’s initial maturity, (the one that enables to look back to a world that has been conquered but which at the same time destabilizes and makes one feel on the edge of a crisis). Bejarano devoted himself to a much more figurative type of engraving and connected to the Island’s pulse. If previously the work glanced at the Earth’s expanded horizon, now it cabled to the ground. Bejarano thinks of the Island as a cosmos in itself, a dramatic, rather a tragic-comical, carnival-like and fertile cosmos, always worthy of his plastic and ethic devotion. Now he will see the Island as cosmos and later, in Los ritos del silencio, he will see man as an island in the face of the cosmos. This is the profound conceptual and ideological unity in the poetics of an artist without cracks, without idle pursuits, without shameful subjections. It was then, between 1993 and 1997 that Bejarano devoted himself to think about the Island’s birth and fate from a perspective that on this side, either4 does not indulges in sociological descriptivism but traces a vibrating parable on the Island’s sparkling humor and the tragic destiny.
From the memorable series of engravings on plastic I will highlight three pieces that are rooted in the best history of Cuban art: Torre de merengue tropical, from 1993; Patriotismo ecológico, from 1994, and the famous Harakiri, from 1997, a work that represents another one of the many “final cuttings” that the artist has ventured into. If we were to juxtapose those three pieces we would convene in perceiving a sensible deepening in the way in which reality is presented. The triad is traversed by the figurative leading role of the Bejarano-Aziyadé couple. Very few cases in the history of Cuban art have been capable of raising the intimate, familiar environment as artistic substance of the highest eloquence beyond that milieu.5 And that has happened with Bejarano without the least tint of megalomania (it is pertinent to make this clarification in an Island where sufficiency is often interpreted as self-sufficiency). In Torre de merengue tropical, the couple enjoy themselves like two pampered children in tasting the delicious cake that has been turned into the famous tower contrived by Tatlin in tribute to the Third International. In other works this motif is loaded with transcendentalism, either constructive or deconstructive, but here, without failing to say quite a lot, it gains freshness, communicative suitability and artistic efficiency. This piece marks Bejarano’s arrival to a common capacity that is very much appreciated in art: the tragic substrate of humor and the most daring carnival. One year later, with Patriotismo ecológico, Bejarano touched bottom. Both masculine characters are like distracted derivations of the figures of the artist himself and José Martí,6 while Aziyadé is the chubby angel that promotes and watches the event. The artist nails islands of Cuba to the ground, but the text captures the exact moment when the stick is held on high, not precisely to nail another island. In Patriotismo ecológico, Bejarano attacks the emancipating fundamentalism that abuses of the signs of belonging and acknowledgement. He pleads perhaps for a prophylactic, oxygenated patriotism, free of drawbacks and rhetoric, in which Martí himself may be courage and not a task to be repeated. The richness of shades with which Bejarano has gradually outlined his iconography of Martí is far from any Manichenism, either in one way or the other. To him, Martí has been playful goblin, poetic beggar, cosmic illumination, juggler, prophesying minstrel and transfiguration of his own existence. Glorious are the works in which Martí violated the couple’s intimate order and went with it to share the most common daily experiences, or simply to the moon, to structure a game of approaches in the antipodes of gravity. This is the sense of fatherland that seems to be of interest to the artist: the one that penetrates everyday life and mixes with the people’s breath, not the one that is abused of on the platform.
From all the pieces in which the subject somehow assumes a certain ambivalence that looks at the artist and where the latter seems to blend with the marks of the old identification with Martí, Harakiri, an engraving from 1997, ends a period of symbolic de-mystification of venerable excellence and total significance in the history of Cuban art. Somehow, Harakiri can be read as the suspended embrace of Bejarano/Martí and Aziyadé in an ecstatic instant or second of profound trance in which they are traversed by the harakiri swords, also machetes emerged from the Cuban countryside. The couple is trapped in the instant of suicide, when the masochism of a belonging beyond any reasoning also burns them in the joy of both kiss and madness. Capture and liberty, tradition and flight, affiliation and mockery, tragedy and accomplishment are senses incorporated to that complex and redeeming instant that the artist succeeded in condensing. This piece shows a semiotic perfection seldom attained by man in his handling of art. Never had Bejarano achieved such boisterously fitting allegory in the articulation of signs, in expressing so exactly such a precise and open plane of significance.
Now that calendar poetry is not scarce, one would have to study the nature of a piece like Harakiri, a result more of genuine poetry than of engraving, more of the artistic ciphering capacity than of the mastery of plastic by the technique. A definitive work in which the artist settles his traumatic and vital debt with his environment, which is also his condition, his history, his pride and his fatum, all at once.
It seemed that no country remained after this piece. In the following, Bejarano would do with art whatever pleases him.
The Island and the Cosmos
With the benefits obtained from the representation in engraving, the artist was to experience henceforth the recovery of the pictorial sensibility, the same one that was to allow him to penetrate once and for all into the existential universe of contemporary man and his expectations in the face of both the physical world and the world of ideas, of thought, of illusion. In my opinion, Fronteras humanas, a strange, still very figurative series from 2003, was the ideal test of that other transition in Bejarano’s poetics. In Fronteras humanas the artist built one, another mega-allegory of cosmic nature, with the representation of the symbolic life of a Parnasus, of an Olympus speculated between eroticism and military siege. It was now a different eroticism: an intellectual, densely symbolic eroticism of peculiar Lesbian accent, where the phallic siege twists like dramatic metaphor of the gun or cannon, of the scourge of life. This was a significant series because it advanced the great virtue of the subsequent Bejarano: the conciliation between a thematic world that seems to overlook every contingency and the introduction in his art, at the same time, of the most urgent conflicts of contemporary world such as terrorism, the more than ever unjustified wars, the loneliness and the helplessness of man in a universe menaced by anger and egoism.
Although I am sure that in not more than a couple of years from now we will be talking of Los ritos del silencio as part of Bejarano’s pre-history, at this minute it would seem the top point of the Bejarano battle. It is such a vast and plentiful series, so well solved from the point of view of painting, of such mature inner serenity that it will most improbably be exceeded by works to come. Indeed, Agustín Bejarano has now jumped into an irrecoverable abyss: such a degree of plastic density, of conceptual adjustment, of artistic worth that is truly frightening.
A tiny character, the artist himself, what is left of Martí, a generic peasant, the contemporary man, every man, he always appears submitted to the limit experience in relation to huge buildings (which, on the other hand, lack architectonic consistency other than the one granted by the tiny man’s own glance), structural towers, gigantic scaffolds, ladders, bridges, docks, holes, ambiguous pianos, airplane wings, rocks that are islands, stones that represent self-sufficient and depressed worlds, streets, highways, craters, etc. Bejerano has generated an iconographic repertoire of the border, of the limit experience, into which his tiny lost man peeks in fright and bewildered like a pictorial Charlot in the heights or suburbs of the great city. The minute being of the latest Bejarano is a crunchy metaphor of the shrinkage of the contemporary individual who finds no spiritual place in today’s world. Suspended from the airplane’s wing heading for a hopeless abyss or shipwrecked on top of a rock in the midst of the black night, the author seems to exclude his character from every possibility of spiritual calmness and physical discovery. Bejarano achieves a strange proportion between the safety, gravity and definitive nature of artistic treatment and the uneasiness dramatic quality of the situations evoked by the pieces.
Among all the typologies there is one that, in the opinion of the undersigned, literally climbs the sky: the image of the city. It is remarkable how Bejarano succeeds in renewing as old an iconographic motif as that of the man-city dialogue, from E.L. Kirchner to Gustavo Acosta, from Chaplin to Theo Angelopoulos. I think it is due to the quiet originality (a word that I totally dislike but which is highly clarifying here) with which the artist can paint this other silence, this other intimidation, this other collapse in the face of the violence of the dark human side developed in huge towers or useless ladders.7 There are in Bejarano’s iconography of the city two particularly revealing and visually brilliant sub-typologies: those determined by the games of scales and shadows between the subject and the building, i.e, the accumulated culture, the weight of heritage, etc., or by the tragic omen of the roses. The artist undertakes a perverse inversion of the receptive expectation: there where one would expect the rosebush to be threatened by the de-humanized and brutal city, the spectator suddenly finds a unique black metaphor when some beautiful, as if calcareous roses of a gray also sad in it’s own way appear over the city that has been besieged and abandoned to its spiritual ruin, in the midst of the total black of the night that condenses even more that mute dialogue between the building and the rose. Here the author has achieved one of his great works, one of those that transcend time and circumstances and are the exclusive property of artistic guess.
When the resource that informs the exceptional nature of the pieces lies in the games of scale between man and architecture, Bejarano ends with the Manichean contrast between the human scale and the lack of humanity of the building as body of the city. True that in some of them, the first attempts, the smallness of one and the monumentality of the other recalled the old modern theme of the de-humanization of the great city. But that became more complex, and many times the meaning element has other subtle warnings: the projection of the individual’s shadow reaches the height of the building, or it is from the building that the tiny man’s shadow emerges in conic form, which rather suggests a sort (another sort) of organic metaphor on the presupposition of man and culture, of spirit and matter, of subject and object of his work. The tragic perspective of Modernism gives way to a profound anthropological premise of a different kind when the shadow of the human being appears as possible scale of the building. In any case, the relations between one and the other entity give up the ancient dramatic linearity and adopt tens of shadows in senses that may even be contradictory. This sub-series turns out to be the apotheosis of a style that animates all of the creator’s recent works: the shadow always different from the one that the object would “really” produce. This license of speculative and artistic liberty registers the ambivalent principle that ensures Bejarano’s semantic projection.
The piano sub-series is a creative segment in which the poetic density of the latest Bejarano stands out. The refined motif of the piano allows the artist to produce the most abstract expressions of his poetics. Pianos that turn into static and functional tables, pianos than turn into sharp saws, pianos that open like infinite highways, pianos that are earthy topographies. But above all is the work where the piano lacks a body, hardly contains a top, and it is then its music that produces the shadow. In this masterpiece bearing Dali’s influence, the artist succeeds in emblemizing one of the great paradoxes of culture that only the highest spiritual refinement may understand and enjoy. After achieving pieces like this one, it is comprehensible that Bejarano has gone as far as to analyze pictorially the most beloved human essences and their production, which, for the same reason, become elusive and superfluous in the eyes of those other painters entertained with passing circumstances.
But at a previous point I drew attention to another one of the sub-series inserted in the general work of Los ritos del silencio: the confinement of the tiny man –whom we already know is very Cuban and as much as possible, a follower of Martí and Bejarano– to a rock many times lost in the ocean. These works promote a second reading: the tiny man-horse-rock triad is the perfect allegory of the Island, but prior to it, or on top of it, the man himself is treated like an island, like a reservoir exposed and abandoned to his luck. In one and the other connotation one discovers a profound sadness, a calm sadness that speaks through the reverie of the contemporary individual. It is a sadness that tells –as nothing else does– everything that has happened to us in recent years, when even the relief of screams has faded away. In these works there subsists the slight and violent will of observing the behavior of the insular condition. All these pieces are traversed by a temporary and spatial obsession (be it for expansion or contraction) that remind the poet: Country of mine, you cannot define. There is not the least didactic appetite for the establishment of new topographies, but indeed there is the beating urged by the tragedy of detachment. The works transmit the strange sensation suffered by the insular man: the anxiety that comes from being unable of taking a car or a train and escaping to the continent, to the profoundness and remoteness of that other, same geography. The clinging of the insular man to the physical borders of space, to the cathedral stone and to the street names represents the desperate gesture of one who is conscious of being in the midst of the sea, surrounded by water, and of the distance there is to the throat. That dilemma between opening and introspection, infinity and cultural punctuality is luminously captured in Bejarano’s present work.8
All that philosophy of the Island is aesthetically so convincing because it is not deprived of a morphologic repertoire to sustain and express it in a congruent manner. Bejarano also uses a philosophy of the light and color of the Island. Contrary to the ostentatious “tropical” and Caribbean merriment, he considers Cuba an island without color where the stubbornness and incision of the light bathes and kills everything. Except in his initial graphic murals in which the pop intention extended the reds and oranges, Bejarano has always been an artist of maximum soberness with regard to color. Even in those initial works the material and textural thickness added such expressiveness to the color that distorted it for the best and added a rare austerity to it. Today, when the conceptual profile of the poetics requires it to a much greater extent, the color control is at ease in a key of alkaline substances that correctly express the retiring nature but also as well that nobility of what is natural that protects man from the frivolous artifice and deceiving festivities. Which goes to say that both the ultimate depths of the works and the tangible appearances of Bejarano’s new cosmos reveal one of the best testimonies about how much happened to us in these years, understanding the man of the Island as subject of the pieces, but at the same time the man of the contemporary world according to another criterion of the universe, reconfigured with respect to madness, vandalism and terror; everything has to be said. The planet, which yesterday was pure cosmic and erotic frolic to the artist, today is island itself, all of itself.
Man and Cosmos
There is plenitude but not certainty, opening but not end in the great artist that Agustín Bejarano has come to be. As paradoxical as the situations that appear in the artist’s most recent series are the interpretations of the critics. How can I explain that I discover in his rites of silence a strange tension between saudade and accomplishment, between anguish and happiness? Together with the regretful feeling of he who neither can nor wishes to withdraw from the nerve of his days, one perceives the relaxation of happiness produced by the wise work, the work that has succeeded in understanding the world and therefore in touching it, in establishing a multiple and joyful dialogue with it.
Finally, I believe that Bejarano’s artistic mastery has produced for him, as greatest finding, neither a technical solution nor an aesthetic boasting of the latest minute, but such knowledge of the world that makes his work an emotional encyclopaedia of contemporariness. Bejarano has two organic virtues: a prodigious hand and a frowning, penetrating glance that seeks to understand the world’s behavior. I do not think that it has been the first of these elements –as it has been pretended– what has placed him where he is today. It is the second element, the thirst of understanding he cannot renounce to, what has launched him to the height of contemporary Cuban art, that difficult architecture, hard and fragile like glass. Sitting there, he contemplates the abyss taking form under his feet, and then the dangerous one, he who did not abandon the risk for one second, whether on top of the most savage skyscraper or shipwrecked on that rock that no one remembers anymore, has only to put his hat on.
1. It seems clear that Bejarano uses genres, formats, mediums and forms in the same way that he wears clothes: indistinctly, according to the expressive demands of each moment. I, who prefer his painting above all and think that all that runs through his veins is painting, who fall in ecstasy breathing the smell of his oil paintings or his acrylics of long ago, who love to touch the accidents of his crackles and his gestural attacks to whichever medium can (or not) resist them, do not succeed denying nor would I want to that Bejarano is one of the great Latin American engravers of the last fifteen years, and that his experimentation with the most capricious or orthodox techniques has turned the grammatical and factual possibilities of that art form upside down. But not only that; we will also see that the conceptual projection of engraving is not the same since Bejarano leaned on it to say the most earnest things or the ones most shielded in carnival, and from there, from that moving and rebel space, confess all the dullness of his place in this world.
2. When I speak of the world, I obviously refer to a notion of reality that affirms itself both in Plaza del Carmen in Camagüey and in the White House as well; that grants equal worth to a toothbrush and to the most powerful teleological metaphor about destiny and the fate of the Island, or of the human genre itself.
3. Just as it happens with the transit of the lover in life: the first eroticism cares about ejaculation, the erection as if it were a barrel; on the second and third occasions, the violence of the penetration. In the eroticism of the forties, one learns to listen to the sound of the chirping, the angular insinuations, the frolic of pleasure prior to violence. Adolescent eroticism is a manneristic or Dada eroticism; the eroticism of the forties is a Rococo eroticism. No other maturity is to be perceived in the master’s artistic turn.
4. Even in his less abstract moments, Bejarano does not sacrifice the tropologic projection of his art, the capacity to connect, associate, derive, infer and propose major ideas from the point of view of art. He then becomes abstract in the power of the allegory, even when the motifs display an apparent figurative wildness of reinsertion in the world. These are the years of the extraordinary engravings on plastic. These are the years in which Bejarano denounces like never before something that I have always thought about his work: that he is a dangerous artist. Very dangerous. In his way, with an honesty beyond any doubt, very dangerous. Sharp, subtle, very much a man of limits, very much a man that is not afraid of the highest cliff. And that vertical attitude is greatly feared by the prude, the pusillanimous, the opportunists.
5. Some exceptions would be Ángel Acosta León, Yaquelín Abdalá, Sandra Ramos, Benjamín Rodríguez.
6. Bejarano often applies a clear constructive procedure: to abstract, derive, turn a figure that was once perfectly clear, punctual, identified in his thematic universe into a more generic one. The ideal example is Martí himself, a motif that appeared “openly” in quite a few works, but which afterwards sort of diluted in other constructions that retain certain kinship marks of kinship: the moustache, possibly the hat, the wide forehead, etc.
7. One of the works included in this series will undoubtedly arouse the dispute of the critics. I refer to one in which, in a certain way, the fall of two towers has been painted. The possibility that the painting alludes the events of September 11, 2001 only enriches the polysemous range of the series: the punctual character of the reference does not minimize but heightens the options of interpretation, but even so, I think that Bejarano’s exegesis should never be undertaken as the follow up of a primary or too concrete referential genealogy.
8. Bejarano has thus gone deeply into the treatment of the insularity, one of the great themes of Cuban culture of all times, highlighted in the nineties of the 20th century when, in addition to the valuable background of poems like La Isla en peso and Testamento del pez, to the tens of references in the literature by Lezama and Eliseo Diego, the paintings by Martínez Pedro or the film Una pelea cubana contra los demonios, by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, there added with considerable force the plastic speculations by Sandra Ramos and Kcho and films like La ola and Madagascar, among so many other examples.