Feburary 5 - March 5, 2001
  View KCHO's works  

Drawing is central to the practice of Kcho (Alexis Leyva Machado, born on the Isla de la juventud, Cuba, 1970). In this regard, he is like many of his compatriot artists, for whom drawing is a way of visualizing, a visual language for experimenting with an idea. Drawing in the Cuban practice as in that of many artists---- one thinks of the brilliant drawing output of Bruce Nauman--- is the medium ideally suited to conceptual thinking since it can be direct and unfettered by technical gadgetry, allowing the passage from mind to hand to visual ground almost instantaneously. The Chinese knew this. In the Chinese amateur tradition, as opposed to the academic, painting and writing held the place above all other art media, conjoined by the use of the same tools: paper or silk, brush, ink stone, ink stick, water. In the case of Kcho, the mention of Chinese painting is more than casual.

Kcho is best known for his installations. The drawings are in many cases the visual beginning of the sculptural idea within space. The monumental Archipiélago de mi pensamiento (1997)(i) that Kcho showed at the sixth Bienal de La Habana grew from the drawing of a vertical stacking of boats. It is like Noah's ark in its scale, and as varied, with tables, boats, ropes, wire spools, a surfboard, and a makeshift antenna. It also recalls the makeshift floating villages of the film Waterworld(ii) as it floats on an undersized puddle of bottles. Virtually all of Kcho's imagery can be found in this work, and nearly all his strategies converge in it. In the drawing, the form is topped by a sail, and an oar lies beside it on the floor at the foot of a figure.

Like all strong artists, his forms suggest many things, with more unfolding as association is triggered. In Kcho's case, this multiple array of meanings opens out without an extra line, with no sacrifice of simplicity. He is one of those artists with a seemingly infallible ability to say it in drawing. His ability to suggest transformation is supported by this skill. He does this by shifting context of found objects. Using one thing to serve a purpose for which it was never intended is the Cuban way to survival. Kcho turns it into an aesthetic strategy. A propeller in the air suggests not only an airplane, but moves water into the air, and thereby places the viewer under water. He exploited this technique of dislocation perfectly in Lo mejor de verano (1993-94)(iii) by suspending boats at the top of a room, with light coming from above through a net that suggests a surface, and a dark floor below. It suggests drowning without a figure or a drop of water.

The drawing is built up in a grid of cross-hatching, like a stack of boat-shaped baskets, not unlike Estructuras similares (1995)(iv) made in honor of Vladimir Tatlin and the Model for the Third International. But Kcho places the skeleton of a rowboat leaning against the recognizable form of the Monument, equalizing them in scale, as if to equate the two and make a monument that would serve the grandiose aims of revolution and at the same time honor the fisherman or the balsero. At the same time, the woven form and even its shape recall a fish trap. The square element in the drawing for the Archipiélago resembles a crab pot.

Installations are site-specific. Kcho is a master of the use of space, his mind clearly fired by the volume, shape, and history of the use of the room. The space of the colossal room in which the finished Archipiélago was installed is sketched in white, like a palimpsest, the arches of the room in El Castillo del Morro de La Habana immediately identifiable.

The place that water holds in the Cuban imagination cannot be exaggerated. In the work of artists of his generation, the "odious condition of water all around" and images of boats, rafts, bottles have become clichés. But like many clichés, this icon still carries a terrible truth. The 1994 exodus of thousands of Cubans in boats little more seaworthy than a fish trap ended in death for many. The departure of the balseros was a response in most cases to the privation caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the loss of support for the Cuban economy that had come to depend so heavily on this aid. Fuel sources disappeared. Food was so scarce that it caused a rare protest against the political leadership.

The relationship of death and water is made eloquent in a pair of drawings, one of an upturned boat, the other of a pair of oars. The two are drawn in red, with smears and runs that suggest blood. In anyone else's hands, this could be an outrageous platitude. In Kcho's, it is not. It is completely convincing. The holes in the boat and oars remind me of drawings done by Salvadoran artist Roberto Huezo(v) that depict the victims of torture. The bodies are scarred with burns from cigarettes applied to encourage confession, or possibly just to disfigure and dishonor the dead. Kcho does not draw bodies. He does not need to. He has used boats as stand-ins for bodies before.(vi) But the boat easily becomes the back of a body and the oars an abject pair of crossed arms without excessive imagining. They form an elegy for the unknown dead in as simple a visual language as possible.

In Cuba, much seems to hang by a thread. The collapse of the economy led to neglect of the infrastructure both on a public level--- roads in Cuba are a Calvary--- and at home. Cubans invent alternatives. They must. In two drawings, Kcho proposes two mobiles. In one, a pair of rowboats are balanced on a stick that hangs from a cord. The boats can only go in circles, a quiet statement about futility. Another shows an oar as the crossbeam, from which are balanced propellers. The propellers do not spin, powering the motion. Rather they are unfueled, passive as sails that can only move the whole with the force of wind.

In the seventh Bienal de La Habana that just closed, Kcho showed several works in the Convento de San Francisco de Asis. He had already made several works that place a boat on a sea of bottles. Two are titled Para olvidar. The first, done in 1995,(vii) brought him international acclaim when he was awarded the prize for it at the Kwangju Biennale. He was 24 years old. Another version done the following year(viii) places a kayak on the bottles. The meanings immediately evoked are both about escape: the boat of desperation of the balsero; escape through alcohol, the waters of oblivion. The bottles are a brilliant formal solution to what to do about the base, and in his treacherously vertical Archipiélago, they are the perfect contradiction to stability through their lightness and precariousness. In San Francisco de Asis, Kcho recycles this idea, the sea of bottles, with another that he has used previously, a ready-made, found dock. In El camino de la nostalgia (1996)(ix), the dock alone suggests the elegiac state of memory. The placement directly on floor converts that base into motionless water. In the version in San Francisco de Asis, the bottles are, most of them, medical dextrose used in intravenous feeding. The reading, at first glance, is a commentary on the Cuban economy. It is also far more explicit than most of Kcho's works in its grizzliness. The evocation of a hospital or of flotsam of medical waste is more openly horrifying than we expect from him. But at the back of the vast room, overshadowed by the other, colossal works is a minor piece, one that could easily be overlooked altogether. It consists of a stick with a lump of rubble on it. The stick is hooked at the end, like the garabatu used in santería as a signifier of power within the spiritual community. The rubble suggests the escombros all over the city of Havana, where there are piles of rubble from houses that have collapsed or are being torn down before they do. In two drawings, what look like overturned boats break the back of a fragile structure, like the chunk of rubble that seems to snap the emblem of spiritual authority in the work in the Convento. In one a boat or giant boulder breaks an oar. The oar is attenuated, made fragile by its exaggerated length. In another, the boat/ boulder breaks a flimsy table; a chair topples. It is another way of suggesting the straw that breaks the camel's back.

The way these last two are painted brings us back to the ideas of Chinese and Japanese painting. They have a similar parable quality to Ch'an or Zen painting as well as its subtlety of works such as Hakuin's Candlestick (18th century Japan).(x) With the sureness of the archer idealized in Zen, without an unnecessary mark or a distracting thought, the artists draw/ paint a simple form, allowing the viewer maximal space for thought. The Japanese master draws a candlestick, a simple practical necessity. But it is also a metaphor for Zen practice to reach one-pointedness. It is readable on either or both levels. Kcho demonstrates the same economy in his drawings, suggesting his forms with a minimum of brushwork, even creating space in a few lines to place the sculptural elements in installation context. The two artists share another important characteristic: humor. The little theater of the boulder crushing the table is tragic-comic.

To work with this iconography that has been used and overused in Cuba is a challenge that does not even distract Kcho. First, it was his iconography by dint of his birth on the Isle of Youth off the south coast of Cuba. He grew up around water even more than most Cubans do. But he takes these images, and through the strength of his skill as a draughtsman and the absence of overt sentimentality, he not only gets away with it, he honors the dead and all that die and conveys the power of the real tragedy to which these icons allude.

- Marilyn Zeitlin

(i) ARTECUBANO, no. 1, 1998, cover.

(ii) Kevin Costner, Waterworld, 1995.

(iii) Dan Cameron, Cocido y Crudo, Museo Nacional Reina Sofia, Madrid, 1994, pp. 228-29.

(iv) Estructuras similares, 1995, collection of Eileen and Peter Norton, Santa Monica, California.

(v) Marilyn A. Zeitlin, Art Under Duress: El Salvador 1980-Present, pp. TK

(vi) In the series Todo cambia, 1997, Kcho coated found boats, oars, surfboards with a reddish clay, transforming these found vessels into flesh. The series gave its name to the title of the exhibition curated by Alma Ruiz and Paul Schimmel. Ruiz's essay is the essential source on his work. Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, Todo Cambia, 1998.

(vii) Para olvidar, 1995, collection of Kwangju Biennale, Kwangju, Korea.

(viii) Para olvidar, 1996, collection of Arizona State University Art Museum, Tempe, Arizona, purchased with funds from the Elizabeth Firestone Graham FUNd and Arizona Progressive Foundation.

(ix) El camino de la nostalgia, 1996.

(x) Yasuichi Awakawa, Zen Painting, p. 118.

close window