Saturday, September 5, 2009
Manny Prieres: What We Do is Secret
Check out Manny Prieres' "What We Do Is Secret"* at Spinello Gallery (155 Ne 38 Street, Miami). For a while, Prieres has been experimenting with drawing, ornament, realism, detail. It fits him well. Art has a lot to do with labor-intensiveness and attention to minutia. Yet, for Prieres, the way-it-looks part is not first and foremost. As plebeian as it may sound, his search is for the roots. Prieres wants to understand where he comes from, not geographically or anthropologically. He is where he is and is who he is. This is a different route than conceptual art (where the idea grabs you), or so-called process art, where the doing-part "is" the goal.
Why drawing? Art historians like Gombrich and art psychologists like Arnheim agree that drawing represents the most basic and primary (in the conceptualization of the plan). A sort of tentative taxonomy, drawing shows more than what one sees. It reveals not only the immediate, but lingers, exemplifying qualities, articulating structure and expressing conventions that we can identify with. As a method of communication, drawing is essential and malleable.
Prieres' drawings are nuanced and thoughtful. In a piece (not shown here) one can see curlicues (as if ticklish whiskers) bordering the knife blade.
Prieres works with very basic elements, before they become compounds. Pentagram (30x22" graphite on paper, above), a simple design which brings forth the idea of rhythm. In Afro-Cuban music tradition they call it "clave" (dah-dah-dah, dah-dah, a five beat/code). One can not help cerebrating: pentagram -----> rhythm -----> music staff -----> star -----> (song, hymn) -----> flag (with five bands and a star).
Some stars resemble wheels and vice-versa. See Prieres' Wheel, (30x22" graphite on paper) below:
When wheels are used in conjunction with axles, either the wheel "turns on" the axle or the axle "turns in" a vehicle (think of a mechanical bearing). Which vehicle?
A wheel means motion. It also means (mending?). Mended (above, 63x52.5" graphite & watercolor on paper), a sort of coat of arms, presents 18 concentric, carefully-wrapped, machetes.
A machete is a big blade, which is employed to cut sugar-cane in the plantation fields. Through the Eighteenth, Nineteenth and Twentieth centuries, almost every island of the Caribbean was covered with sugar plantations. The main source of labor was African slaves. These plantations produced 80-90% of the sugar consumed in Western Europe. It's no surprise that machetes were used to fight wars of independence in Haiti, Santo Domingo and Cuba (where Prieres claims some of his heritage).
Throughout the Caribbean, the machete has become a symbol of national independence. Problem is that symbols can be politically manipulated. Indeed they have: The uneven history of the Caribbean (and Latin America in general) is one from Colonialism to Neo-colonialism to half-assed independence marked by corruption, opportunism and exploitation.
We need mending.
Late Cuban writer Antonio Benítez-Rojo calls for "a new contrapuntal discourse being capable of flooding the vital stream navigated by Oshún, the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, all of them defusing violence, the blind violence with which the Caribbean social dynamics collide, the violence organized by slavery, despotic colonialism, and the Plantation".1
Prieres' Mother (above, 72x52.5" graphite, gouache, watercolor on paper) precisely depicts the patroness of Cuba. This is the show's pièce de résistance: Young and sumptuous, without being forbidding. Though elegant, even luxurious, she looks, at the same time, reserved, almost timid.
Can she bring us closer to the secret?
There is a place in time that Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier refers to in his classic book El Reino de este mundo,2 a time before slavery and the plantation, a mythical time of a different society where the old desire expressed in the myth of the Caridad del Cobre becomes a reality, a synthesis and, also, a psychic state where all of the pugnacious sides of the individual that the Plantation split apart could now be reconciled. This may be what Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes means when he says that the hope for America is in Utopia, "because we were founded by Utopia." 3 Below, 1963 (63x52.5" graphite & watercolor on paper). For some, perhaps this place of Utopia already sold out. If so, there will always be room for a different dream.
We definitely need new bearings. But how?
Of course, Prieres is not presenting a didactic art form. His goal is not to project a political position, nor does he seek any particular kind of utopic emancipation. That's water under the bridge. His goal is more modest and reflexive: We will not build a better future for ourselves if we don't -first- heal inside.
* One may be tempted to turn this review into some arcane, mysterious analysis getting at "the ineffable" in art. How boring! A secret is something that needs to be explored and discovered. And it can become a transforming experience (though one may never quite achieve it). 1Antonio Benítez Rojo, The Repeating Island (Duke University Press, 1996), p. 23. 2Alejo Carpentier, The Kingdom of this World, preface. 3Carlos Fuentes, The Buried Mirror: Reflections on Spain and the New World Mariner Books, 1999.