Jack Shainman Gallery
513 West 20th St. and 524 West 24th St. | MAY 28 – JULY 10, 2015
The Cuban artist Yoan Capote is an embodiment of the archetypal Hephaestus, the Olympian god of the hammer and forge, so undervalued in today’s art making. Capote builds much of his work using classical sculptural techniques, and represents the best of a Communist worker tradition. Capote is part of the revolution’s second generation. His father, Jesús, is a mechanic who helped make Apertura (2014 – 2015), a pair of hand-filed scissors in the shape of Florida and Cuba. Jesús Capote was part of a generation that was sacrificed to the revolution, while Yoan’s free education has allowed him to learn techniques like lost-wax casting, clay modeling, and drawing, and to build on his father’s legacy of craftsmanship. Capote is a diarist of Cuba’s psychological condition and uses his sculptural skills to describe Cuba’s complex revolutionary history.
Capote’s second solo exhibition at Jack Shainman references Carl Jung’s collective unconscious, but also the unconscious of the “collective,” Cuba’s Communist population. Laboratorio (2012), a work housed in two vitrines, opens the exhibition. For this, the artist collected discarded Russian glassware from sugar-plantation laboratories. He then printed a collection of photographs of ordinary Cubans by anonymous photographers onto the beakers with gelatin silver emulsion. Cuba was a laboratory for Communism in the Americas; glass vessels, for Jung, were symbolic of alchemical processes that related to psychological processes. Here we see the Cuban experience as it is put through the processes of mutation and transformation, the “raw matter” being the populace. As Capote says, “I prefer the psychological analysis of the collective experience. I analyze my personality from the collective that surrounds me.”
The artist also tackles archetypes, like the hero, in the form of a monumental Casto head, while other works, like Visceral (2015), seem more grounded in Freud’s preoccupation with the body and instincts. Capote’s concept of the body extends to the “body politic.” The ribs in Visceral are made in the shape of the island of Cuba; this island rib cage contains a visceral emotional history. In this piece, Cubans are presented as enclosed psychologically, politically, bodily, and geographically.
Capote built Visceral, along with Immanence (2015), and Pride (2015), at the Modern Art Foundry in Queens, where Louise Bourgeois cast her work. Capote met Bourgeois on one of his first trips to the United States, where she encouraged him not to abandon classical techniques like bronze casting and stone carving. This meeting with Bourgeois was pivotal; she encouraged Capote’s psychological direction and emphasis on the body. Like Bourgeois, Capote uses body parts in many of his works. Some are direct casts, like the hands of ordinary people used to spell out the “word liberty” in Abstinencia (Libertad) (2014).
Hephaestus’s anvil is very present in the most disturbing work in the exhibition, Pride. At the foundry, Capote fashioned a bronze anvil; it takes the place of the heart on a reclining figure made of bronze veins and arteries stretched out on the floor. Pride is an interactive piece, where the viewer may take a sledgehammer and strike the anvil/heart of the sculpture. Hephaestus, the blacksmith of Olympus, was the husband of Aphrodite, the goddess of the heart. This piece portrays a marriage from hell, with the anvil of Hephaestus pulverizing the heart of Aphrodite. This act of interactive vandalism similarly strikes at the heart of the participant and is a mixed commentary on the human condition, whether in Cuba or in Chelsea. Pride celebrates the resistance of Cuban people, in spite of psychological trauma they have endured.
In many ways, Capote represents one of the things Castro got right. Capote and his brother were among the children from poor families who took exams to enter special schools for gifted children in the visual arts, music, sports, and ballet. Yoan first entered as a wrestler and boxer while his brother Ivan studied art.. Later, both attended the Escuela Nacional de Arte along with luminaries like the ballet dancer Carlos Acosta.
The most powerful work in the exhibition is Immanence (2015), a monumental head of Castro made from rusted hinges welded together (the hinges were traded for new ones around Havana). During his military obligation, Capote worked as a graphic artist and could knock out images of Castro from every angle. Immanence reminds us of the bearded Head of a Philosopher (ca. 5th century B.C.) rescued from the sea at Porticello, or perhaps the rusted hull of a ship wreck. Here, Castro is part icon and part drydocked ship of state; his impenetrable position never changes. The rusted hinges are fixed, but unlike the sculpture, the future of Cuba rests on its ability to flex, and hinge to the outer world. The eyes of the sculpture are empty so the viewer looks into Castro, but can also walk behind to view the world through Castro’s eyes. Castro was the subject of many CIA assination attempts, embargos, and invasions like the Bay of Pigs and survived United States interventionism through his alliance with the Soviets. We also see ourselves through his eyes, and this multiple perspective adds to the power of the piece. Even from his geriatric reclusion, Castro still speaks to us, continuing to inspire people in the Americas.
The exhibition, displayed in both of Shainman Gallery’s Chelsea locations, brings together more than thirty pieces in total and is a mini-retrospective of sorts. Some of the newer works, like Immanence and Pride, show hints of a greater level of psychological complexity in this relatively young artist’s work. Capote’s works are inspired by observations and quick jottings in notebooks. Many of his earlier works seemed to come from one idea; the newer ones are much more complex—they conceptually represent chapters instead of sentences. It is Capote’s hommage to Hephaestus, and his ability to build on the legacy of his father Jesús, that moves this work into a space that stretches from the personal into the archetypal. A hands-on approach beginning with the “base metals” is a great place to start the process. This exhibition represents even more promise to come.
ANN MCCOY is an artist, writer, and Editor at Large for the Brooklyn Rail. She teaches in the Yale School of Drama, graduate design, and was given a Guggenheim Foundation award in 2019.