“In the forest, where so many and dissimilar creatures live, it is difficult to find a single one whose existence does not depend somehow on that of its neighbors… It could well be said that the trees are neighbors of good faith. They live a trusting life, without fears or prejudices, always depending on the influence of the others, cooperating. When you walk into the forest, you cannot but feel the tonic of its powerful influence. Its like if the soul was resting.”
These words, more in line with a philosophical dictum than with a scientific definition, are by Alberto José Fors (1885-1965) –paternal grandfather of José Manuel, the artist– in one of his many treatises on botany written in Cuba at the beginning of the 20th Century and that made him be acknowledged as the “Father of Cuban Forestry.”
To arrive at such a description, and I am referring to the words quoted above, was the result of a solid academic knowledge, tinged by a wide culture and sensitivity. This is how the scientist summarized the functioning of nature’s very complex macro system, by finding similarities with another complex macro system of relationships: that of the human community. His legacy was not only his academic texts and his extensive xylotech (catalogued wood collection), but also a massive photographic collection that he had built step by step, bearing proof of the growth and development of his large family that, together with the forest, were the foundational structures of his universe. Since then, man and his family –like the tree and the forest– have been the essence of the story line of the Fors family.
José Manuel –the artist– has trodden with his works in his twenty-four years of professional life the same path of logical thinking and research as Alberto José –the scientist. He did so from intuition since the late ’70s, but it became an absolutely structured concept since the mid ’80s.
In his first paintings and installations –between 1976 and 1984– his main raw materials (in terms of themes and resources) were soil and nature, hence the most immediate reading made of his work by the critics positioned him as a assemblage artist –in his paintings– and as another breeder of landscapes and ecology –in his early installations. The process of production of his work was slow and eventful, as all scientific research is, but still perfectly consistent up to our days. What had been categorized as “assemblage intention” and “ecological interest,” were nothing more in my opinion than steps in a research project (increasingly oriented conceptually) that took him from land to nature, from nature to man, from man to family; just as his predecessor did in the scientific field. Historic perspective allows me to understand now this process clearly and to find the thread binding all his works, since the very beginning.
BETWEEN PAINTING AND INSTALLATION
The first artistic “objects” by Fors were paintings. With them, he started to exhibit at a time in which Cuban art was a reorienting its interests, and its definition of what was contemporary.
Only two works from this stage survived and there is no graphic documentation of the rest. The same holds true in a lesser or a greater extent with other artists, which, together with Fors, modeled a new artistic production in the country. Actually, the works that marked a transition in those years (’70s and ’80s), including those exhibited in the paradigmatic exhibit Volumen I (International Art Center, Havana, January 14, 1981), in which Fors took part, exist mostly in the visual memory of eyewitnesses and the narration of their authors.
Curiously enough, an exhibit, its authors and their works have come to make a difference in the course of history more for a mood than for its physical imprint. But Volumen I and everything surrounding it –as Fors himself defines it– was more a “mood” than a consolidated proposal in terms of artistic creation. The only thing that was crystal-clear for the artists in those years was the friendship that bound them together in the classrooms of the art schools, their generational affinity and their conviction of not being a part of art as a social representation and reflection as handed down to them by the previous generation.
Fors’s paintings –I would prefer to call them “objects”– of those years (1976-1979) immediately after his graduation from the San Alejandro Academy, are described by their author from his present perspective, as visual experiments. They were jute or crude canvas supports to which he added sand, dirt and all sort of wastes and fragments found here and there. This mix of “junk,” adequately installed on the surface, was covered with a tint, always monochromatic and in hues similar to those of the sources of origin of his raw materials (ochre, dark green). He acted as a waste collector from his environment and “designed” according to volume and texture. He considered himself the heir of assemblage and abstraction, at least that is how his colleagues described him, although today he accepts that in this apparent attraction for pure visual aspects, certain central principles that are still valid in his work today were hidden –even from himself. The reconstruction of history and the memory of man, the protagonist of the most common objects, a kind of archeology to collect the traces of man and the passing of time.
This intuitive propensity towards the common place and object, as well as his eagerness to rescue and collect these object-witnesses, clearly placed Fors among the group of artists that since the late ’70s transferred the focal point of art in Cuba from the social context to the individual. I am referring to artists such as José Bedia, Ricardo Rodríguez Brey, Gustavo Pérez Monzón, Rogelio López Marín (Gory), Juan Francisco Elso Padilla, Flavio Garciandía, among other important protagonists of the so called generation of the ’80s who, both in Volumen I as in earlier and later exhibits, brought new thematic interests, ethical reflections and creative procedures to the Cuban scene.
The works of these years re-oriented the contents and functions of Cuban art, among others: a new interpretation of the individual, of history and of an identity alien to political and contextual manipulations (Bedia and Brey); the recovery of abstract thinking (Pérez Monzon); a new –non populist– significance given to popular and mass culture (Garciandía, Torres Llorca); the revaluation of art as a research process and a vital experience beyond the physical fulfillment of the artistic object (Elso Padilla). It is also in these years that the foundations of conceptualist practice in Cuban contemporary art were ultimately defined.
Fors’s works also insert themselves –as of 1981– in the renewal of creative procedures at the beginning of the ’80s. This year, for the first time, he casts away the supports in two dimensions of his paintings to manipulate and transform an exhibition space with his first version of Hojarasca (Fallen leaves), a floor installation made up by tens of acrylic cubes of different dimensions containing dry leaves. The perfectly organized geometric arrangement of the cubes in space, as well as the “conservation” of leaves inside the acrylic urns –in the style of pieces preserved in museums or science laboratories– led me once again to think about Fors’s interest in collecting, researching, classifying and perpetuating these common spaces (surrounding nature) and these common objects (leaves) that as the soil and waste of his first paintings, meant the most immediate vital space of humankind to Fors. In August that same year he exhibits his second installation made up by tens of drawers all of different dimensions and shape derived from his home furniture. The drawers, once again in a geometrical order on the floor of the gallery, contained all types of tree trunks arranged in such a way as to reiterate his eagerness for classification. This new installation reproduces the ideas contained in Hojarasca from the viewpoint of space and theme.
When in 1983 Fors displays his first personal exhibit Acumulaciones, he did what I believe is a summary of his work until today, in terms of themes and expressive means. The gallery was fully occupied by four floor installations made up by accumulations, each one of different materials (dry leaves, wood, soil and nylon filaments); and by two works in two dimensions: a geometric composition made in aluminum, Plexiglas, photographs and nylon filaments, placed on the walls. The internal structure of these works, seen independently, did not contribute new elements to those already seen in earlier paintings or installations; however, the six works seen globally, due to their spatial arrangement and the visual dialogue between them, allowed to create a unique space, made up by a single work of art. I believe this exhibit was novel within the evolution of Fors’s work because, for the first time, it allowed him to build his concept of “landscape.”
Fors takes his first photograph in 1982. It was the “portrait” of an old and dilapidated park bench that together with the two other images (a door surrounded by leaves and a fragment of cracked sidewalk with grown grass) he presented as an ensemble at a national exhibit on photography in Havana on that same year. He had also done an interesting photographic work, which in fact was documenting an intervention in landscape derived conceptually from the installation Hojarasca that I mentioned previously. Photography had demonstrated that it was a support that could lodge objects, processes, ephemeral interventions and spaces that up to then he had manipulated physically and in three dimensions. Photography could also be manipulated in spatial terms, and in such a way, it became not only an unstable object but also one that could be handled.
Many of the early photographs by Fors have to do with landscapes. They were, again, accumulative images of trunks, trees, grass, clouds, land… The constant reiteration of the segments of nature. They’re grouping according to shape and origin (he produced collages-paintings or mosaics made up by several individual photos in sequence); the total image of a landscape integrated by the summation of its parts. They are all characteristics that take us back again to his installations, only that now the three dimensions are obtained in two dimensions and the sense of passage of time is achieved through the technical manipulation of prints (he always used the sepia toned technique). The “landscapes” built by Fors were another step, also by accumulation, in the development of his research, which was never precisely of an ecological character.
When in 1985 he was invited to participate in De lo Contemporáneo exhibit, at the National Museum of Fine Arts in Havana, Fors had already trodden a sizeable path in his work. He had studied and manipulated earth, its objects and marks, the components of landscape; indeed, he had researched his environment but had not reached man. In very few occasions, a human figure had appeared in his photos and in those exceptional cases, always as a second protagonist. In De lo Contemporáneo I believe Fors exhibited one of the fundamental works of his professional life. It was a single piece made up by many and diverse components where the image of Alberto José, the scientist grandfather, the central character in the family tree of the Fors family, who directly or indirectly had led the aesthetic research of José Manuel, the artist –appeared– like at the end of an unfinished story.
In a closed space within the halls of the museum Fors displayed an apotheosis of objects: photocopies of the grandfather’s photographs, treatises on botany, wood samples –part from the scientist’s collection– and three large photographic mosaics: Bosque de Pinos (Pine forest), Sombra bajo 5 billones de árboles (Shade under 5 billion trees) and Homenaje a un silvicultor (Homage to a silviculturist). To build this installation he researched his family’s memorabilia, the photographic collection, studied more scientifically trees and woods, read letters and documents; in short, he was able to tie up the lose ends of his own previous works and structured the story of a family whose legacy he had inherited and in which he had been brought up. With this work, Fors articulated the basic discourse of his work in the future: man, his memory and his personal history as the foundational axis of life.
From then on, he would increase the manipulation of his family’s images in his works, as well as the use of documents, postcards, letters and diverse objects he has collected for years. As the artist himself said: “Ideas for my work emerge from my relationship to the things that are close around me. I am referring here to that circumscribed space where you are both master and main character… I move among the things I have saved as potential working material; this is part of the process… Any image, document or object may not be of use to me today, but next month it may find a place in one of my work. I live among my potential future works… I can say with some confidence that memory is both the main reason for my work and my obsession.”
In 1995 the artist made another photographic installation, this time a cross on the floor made up by a sequence of family photographs, many of them a part of the collection taken by the grandfather and other recent photographs taken by Fors of his children, including his self-portrait. The sequence of images responded to a chronological order of the actors, in such a way alluding to the passage of time. The cross, as the sacred symbol of many cultures and religions, emphasizing even more the symbolic character of the family as a social institution. In April 2000 he created La gran flor (The big flower) another large piece in the shape of a circle made up by hundreds of small-glued photographic prints. The images (the size of the negative of 35 mm) represented portraits of family members, objects, soil, landscape segments, a whole range of images managed by Fors throughout his artistic life; and were organized radially from the central axis of the circumference. As the great stone of an ancient calendar, this work speaks directly about life’s cycle.
Cross and circle, past and present, history and memory are reflections that have not become exhausted yet in the work of José Manuel Fors.