Williams Carmona


Latin American Art
New York, June 3 1999

Born in Pinar del Rio, Cuba in 1967, Williams Carmona studied at the University of Fine Arts in Havana. Like many of his fellow artists, Carmona left Cuba to explore the artistic freedom available outside his homeland. Since 1991, he has lived and painted in Puerto Rico. While his early works were large and expressionistic, his more mature works have evolved into a new style; one Carmona has labeled Tropical realism. More intimate in size and subject, this new style is represented by a tightening up of the brush strokes and a specific iconography. In 1996 the artist has honored with a one-man exhibition in his adopted homeland at the Museo de las Americas in San Juan, Puerto Rico. That same year, Carmona was also invited to participate in the Latin American masters group exhibition, Latin ViewPoints, at the Nassau County Museum of Art, Long Island, New York.

Edward J. Sullivan, critics art of New York
Archetypal Topographies: Paintings by Williams Carmona

The artistic atmosphere in Cuba from which Williams Carmona emerged has proven to be one of the most innovative and compelling in the Western world today. Carmona was trained at both the Academia de San Alejandro (one of the oldest officially supported art academies in the Western hemisphere, having been founded in 1818) and the Instituto Superior del Arte (ISA). He participated in the emergence of a generation of artists who, during the 1980s created their own revolution in the Cuban art world. Although the so-called ¿1970s artists¿ such as José Bedia and Juan Francisco Elso were instrumental in opening up the eyes of younger people in their country to many of the innovations taking place abroad and blending them with their own distinctive manner (often derived from Afro-Cuban elements), the painters, sculptors, photographers and installationists who came of age in the mid-1980s were even more audacious in the visual activism of their work. The experiments and often highly critical political motifs that define the work of such artists as Sandro Ramos, Tania Bruguera, Tonel, Carlos Garaicoa, Los Carpinteros, Tomás Esson, Kcho and a number of others, were often highly criticized in official circles, yet, in many cases, tolerated in a curious move of détente between the worlds of culture and politics. While Carmona¿s paintings executed in Cuba before his move to Puerto Rico in 1992 were not as overtly political as those of some of his contemporaries, there were always many subtle ironies present in his art that made its message perfectly clear to anyone sensitive enough to read it.

The politically committed nature of Carmona¿s work has inevitably developed and matured in the last several years. Remaining faithful to the art of painting in which he excels (his often sensually built-up paint surfaces or washes of gray or brown with which he creates his evocative, desolate landscapes are enormously impressive), Carmona has deepened and refined his intellectual and emotional resolutions, employing a carefully selected vocabulary of visual images as the signifiers of his highly personal language of symbols and signs. Those persons who have charted the course of Carmona¿s development have witnessed an artist who made his mark early on with an emotionally gripping approach to expressionistic application of paint, achieving immediate effects of an often-disturbing nature. The work that he exhibited in Santo Doming in 1994 was agitated, unsettled, shifting in the moods it created as well as in the emotional impact it had on the viewer. Studying his art of the late 1980s and early 1990s, one senses a visual kinship with Willem De Kooning¿s images of women from the 1950s and 60s, but even more direct, with the ferocious savagery of the art of Cuban painter Antonia Eiriz. Eiriz, who is recently deceased, is recognized within Cuba as a great voice in the dramas of the early phases of the Cuban revolution yet her art is hardly recognized abroad. She had (and continues to exert) a large impact on the sensibilities of a number of younger painters. Carmona eventually heard the strident tones of her artistic language and was struck by the dramatic nature of her images. Furthermore, regarding Carmona¿s expressionistic work of the early 1990, it is important to understand the emotional frenzy suggested in his paintings as components in a Latin American dialogue of expressive form that includes some of the Argentine ¿Neo figuration¿ artists (especially Jorge de la Vega) as well as Venezuelan Jacobo Borges. Carmona appropriated and re-invented their essential qualities, fitting them into a scheme that would be suitable to express the traumas inherent in the agonies of life in Cuba in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Inexorably regressing away from the high, almost neo-baroque dramas of his early paintings, Carmona began to pare down his images, employing fewer elements and calling into the question the innate meaning of each of the symbols that he chose to employ, over and over again, in his canvases. A series of signs and emblems began to emerge. The image of the old woman (the grandmother), that of the old man (often shown fishing), the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre (Cuba¿s patroness) were the figures that began to inhabit these silent dramas of Carmona. Ion addition, certain elements became standard fixtures in his painting: clouds, tables, fishing rods, frying pans and, most outstandingly in his latest paintings, eggs.

The first thing that strikes the viewer of Carmona¿s new work is his quickly maturing dialogue and confrontation with the elements of classical Surrealism. When observing a painting such as Lo que sembré en Macondo (with its literary references to García Márquez¿s fantastical town), we are suddenly hit with the artist¿s clever reprises of some of Salvador Dali¿s visual signature elements (the soft eggs in this work, for example, are inevitably the Cuban artist¿s answer to Dali¿s soft watches in Persistence of Memory, while the desolate, almost lifeless backgrounds in some other works, such as Apaga que ya se acabó, suggest the barrenness and abandon of the wastelands of Yves Tanguy¿s paintings. Carmona seems to be questioning the absurdities of contemporary life by utilizing some of the existentialist iconography of the Surrealists.

In his recent paintings a table, set with a cloth and little else, appear time and again. Are we to imagine a banquet with nothing to offer its guests, symbolic of the emptiness of want and hunger? The most meager of comestible elements appears: a fish, an egg. Does the egg refer to the proverbial golden egg or simply to a humble meal cooked by the ever-present old woman, who herself seems to inhabit that twilight-edged space between wisdom and senility. Clouds (often like the white, puffy clouds of the Caribbean) seem to appear out of nowhere, like those strange eerie and foreboding clouds that cover the moon in Buñuel¿s Un Chien Andalou. They look more like floating bursts of cotton that might appear to us in a congested dream than actual meteorological phenomena.

In statements regarding his art Carmona has said many times that art and politics are inextricably mixed. While we never sense a specific political statement in his work, the specter of political oppression and physical threat is rarely absent. When the Virgen de Caridad del Cobre descends, she comes down to earth to protect a fragile détente between the forces of opposing ideologies, which could erupt, at any minute, into violence. The Virgin¿s presence obviously lends a specifically Cuban motif to the images of Carmona and indeed he does not hide the Cuban-ness of his work. Yet we should not fall into the trap of considering his art of merely a commentary on any specific situation. Carmona is a painter who in his astute commentaries on human situations has much to say about the human condition in a much wider domain.

Edward J. Sullivan