The artist with the large solo exhibit at the Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation (CIFO) is not a household name to most. That is just one intriguing element about the art and the artist Gustavo Pérez Monzón. In fact, CIFO’s president and founder Ella Fontanals-Cisneros had not encountered the Cuban artist’s work until four years ago, when she saw a drawing that grabbed her attention at a Havana gallery.
Without knowing his name, she bought it. A few months later, she found more pieces at an auction in Havana, and bid for them all.
According to Fontanals-Cisneros, she began to actively hunt down his work, but it was an elusive task. The artist appeared to have stopped creating work in the 1980s, and she lost his trail. But when a friend saw the work now hanging in her house, he told her that Pérez Monzón had left Cuba, and art making, for Mexico.
Fontanals-Cisneros tracked him to a small village outside of Cuernavaca, saw the body of his work and started buying everything she could find. Over 70 of those pieces are now exhibited at CIFO, in “Tramas.”
Not surprisingly, Pérez Monzón’s art is as complex as his journey. Tramas translates roughly as threads, or connections, and the two big installations in the exhibit materially match the title.
Vilos takes over one entire gallery, its elastic strings and wires weighted by small stones hanging from the ceiling. It is so delicate, intricate yet simple. Gently pull on one of the stones in the interconnected web, and the entire installation eventually ripples.
This eye-popping work was installed by Pérez Monzón himself, when he left his village to set up this show — the first of his work in the United States. According to the artist, it was initially created in 1981, as a sculpture that school children could play with in order to “connect” with each other. Twenty-five years later, he remade it for Miami.
Another site-specific sculpture is called Hilos, which literally translates as “threads.” This geometric labyrinth made of red thread is a connect-the-dots, 3-D masterpiece, where the visitor can visually get lost in the rabbit hole for long periods of time.
Both of these elaborate works might be the best way to introduce yourself to the exhibit. The other works start to make sense when following these conceptual “threads,” revealing the artist’s influences and unique take on them.
Most of the other pieces are mixed media on paper and board, hanging in groupings in the various rooms. Most are covered in lines — rarely straight — and grids, sometimes resembling blurred city maps or blueprints. Several look as though they are made from actual thread, small versions of the Hilos piece, but really are drawn. They are filled with various squares, cubes and triangles. Some look like a crazy Etch a Sketch doodle; others stay within a precise grid. Other works appear to be produced on a shiny metal, but that too is a manipulated effect, and a beautiful one.
In all the galleries the colors are subdued, heavy on grays, dark greens, browns, beiges, with dashes of brighter colors emerging here and there. The walls of CIFO are painted slate gray.
One amazing series looks as though a rock has been thrown at the glass covering the work, sending out lines of shattered glass from the break point. But then, these could look like spider webs too, connective threads rather than ruinous ones.
The grouping of card-size works, which include colorful, folkloric designs, seemingly made of beads but really drawn, are some of Pérez Monzón’s best-known pieces, and led people to label him the tarot card artist back in the ’80s.
The Tarot series gets to the heart as to why Pérez Monzón’s art, while based in Geometric Abstraction, is infused with something different. In the description of the work, Pérez Monzón explains that he is a fan of numerology and that “tarot in particular as a symbolic alphabet informs many of my works, where I use them to create links between numbers, shapes and philosophical concepts.”
So what is the background to his art — and his truncated career?
Born in rural Cuba in 1956, he was the first generation to grow up in Castro’s Cuba. While Abstract art had dominated in mid-century Cuba (and everywhere else), after the revolution figurative and social realist art was encouraged, but Pérez Monzón stuck to the non-narrative.
In 1981, he was part of the seminal “Volumen Uno” exhibit, which heralded in an era of “new Cuban art.” The exhibit included now-Miamians Jose Bedia and Ruben Torres-Llorca among other pioneers, most of whom also eventually left the island.
Pérez Monzón delved into numerology, mathematics and conceptualism to create his unconventional art. In an interview with the curators of the exhibit, Elsa Vega and Rene Francisco Rodriguez (who helped Fontanals-Cisneros find the artist in Mexico), Pérez Monzón remembers the impact of “Volumen Uno.” It was important “because of the context, because of what it proposed, and because it set out new directions.”
It was an informal direction that caused consternation on the strictly controlled, isolated island. “I had improvised drawings on the ground using sticky tape, for example. Bedia and I reinvented the scissor ladder … and mounted it on a wall, integrating it into the show. We also mounted on the ceiling some clouds made of cotton we’d bought at a drugstore.”
But those heady days didn’t last long for Pérez Monzón. He seems to have grown disillusioned. By the end of the 1980s, “Volumen Uno was considered modernist and old-fashioned, and the distance I took from making art was almost a myth in itself.”
Though he left permanently for Mexico, he didn’t really leave art. He focused on teaching and today is director of the Fine Arts Academy of Morales State. Last spring, the retrospective now at CIFO was shown during the Havana Biennial.
“Tramas” ends up being special because of the short time-span, the era and the place in which the works were created. There is a feeling that they are untarnished, fresh, art made for art’s sake without the burden of years of other influences or a contemporary global art market.
George Fishman contributed to this report.
If you go
What: Gustavo Pérez Monzón: “Tramas.”
Where: CIFO, 1018 N. Miami Ave., downtown Miami.
When: Through May 8.