Idealists once, these artists took different paths

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Cuban realist painter Rogelio Lopez Marin knew five days before the opening of a group exhibition in Havana that he could not finish his painting in time. Out of desperation, and a little rebelliousness, he decided to present it as it was - with the photograph he was copying attached to the easel.

He called the piece "Unfinished Work of a Mechanical Painter," an indirect cry for artistic freedom in a country where government censorship is pervasive. It was an act of protest fitting for Volume One, a controversial exhibition in 1981 that placed 11 young artists on the map, set the course for contemporary Cuban art, and created an identity for a new generation of artists.

It was called Volume One because they planned to organize other group exhibitions, but that never happened. The friends soon scattered across the globe, entering a competitive art market that, along with distance, strained relationships. Few still speak to one another today. But now, one of the 11, Leandro Soto, has a tantalizing idea: organize a long-overdue sequel. A reunion won't be easy.

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"It's like the Beatles," says Luis Camnitzer, who wrote extensively about the artists in his 1994 book, "New Art of Cuba." "A lot of people would like them to get together again. Some would be willing. Some have differences they are not willing to bridge."

Also, a complete reunion isn't possible, as Juan Francisco Elso Padilla died seven years after the exhibition.

Mr. Soto, an art professor at Arizona State University, now lives in Phoenix. Three others - Mr. Lopez Marin, José Bedia, and Ruben Torres Llorca - work as artists in Miami. Israel León, Flavio Garciandia, and Gustavo Perez Monzón now live in Mexico.

José Manuel Fors lives in Spain but still exhibits in Cuba. Tomás Sánchez lives in Costa Rica. And Ricardo Rodriguez Brey is in Belgium.

All continue to work as artists except Perez Monzón, who stopped after becoming disillusioned with the art business during trips outside communist Cuba.

When they gathered for Volume One, the young artists still dreamed of carving a niche in Cuba's art scene. And though they are scattered, they achieved that. Many would become internationally known while living in Cuba in the 1980s.

Despite their successes, many continued to scrounge for art materials, food, and other necessities after the end of Soviet subsidies threw the country into an economic freefall. They were allowed to travel the world for shows, but were not allowed free rein on subject matter. Criticism of Castro was, and is, taboo. In the 1990s, an increasing number of artists found a way out - landing gigs in Mexico, which left an artistic vacuum in Cuba.

Since then, some have been more commercially successful than others. Mr. Bedia and Mr. Sánchez command prices in the five- and six-figure range and are considered among the most sought-after contemporary Cuban artists.

Other Volume One artists say they now receive less attention in the art world than when they were still Cuban citizens. They wonder whether this explains the recent unwillingness by young Cuban artists to break with their government.

Ramón Cernuda, a prominent Miami art dealer, scoffs at the notion. "Artists who live inside Cuba are paying a very high price for not properly connecting with the international art market."

The importance of the Volume One artists' break with the canons of conventional art in Cuba can't be underestimated, he says. Individually, however, some were more talented than others and the art market simply reflected that.

Whatever their current success, most of the group continue to draw inspiration from Cuba. Often, their art deals with loss, immigration, nostalgia, and their shared Cuban heritage.

Cuba is, after all, what first brought them together.

Back then, they had become increasingly critical of the Soviet realism being taught at art schools. They worried they were being isolated and longed for new modes of expression, for the experimentation they furtively read about in the international art magazines. In New York and Paris, movements like performance, installation, and pop art were flourishing.

So they decided to join forces, creating a group exhibition that would incorporate these movements, going beyond the images of revolutionary martyrs and communist leaders. In other words, Soto says, they would defy what was acceptable.

"To do art in a group," he says "was the only way to have an impact."

Volume One came just months after the Mariel boatlift carried more than 125,000 Cubans to Florida's shores and shed light onto the unrest in Cuba. The show opened under heavy police surveillance to throngs attracted by the controversy. The storm drew international media attention, making the participants instant stars and thwarting a government crackdown.

"I don't think it was an audacious exposition," recalls Lopez Marin. "No one questioned anything political. But what happens is that in Cuba, everything is a crime. You may not be guilty of political criticism but you may be guilty of copying American aesthetics."

Surrounded by paintings by several Volume One artists, Lopez Marin, known professionally as Gory, sits in his living room in suburban Miami reminiscing about Cuba in the '80s. He now lives with his wife, a Cuban poet, and their teenage son in a sprawling ranch home.

He has exhibited alongside other Volume One artists in subsequent years but smiles uncertainly when asked about a sequel. Their art has so little in common, he says, that doing a Volume Two would serve only nostalgia. Thrown together by government repression, they just don't need each other in the free world.

"I understand people go their separate ways," he says wistfully, then tries to lighten the mood. "The Beatles separation tore me up much more."

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