Yoan Capote is a Cuban artist living in Havana who brings a powerful conceptual focus, a profound grounding in art history, and a multilayered, tactile execution to a body of work that spans installation, sculpture, and painting. Cerebral and deeply psychological, Capote’s work displays a compelling individual vocabulary of materials and themes that is as distinctively situated in a contemporary Cuban vernacular as it is universally evocative. Before the opening of his third solo exhibition at Jack Shainman Gallery, Palangre (February 2 – March 11, 2017), he spoke with Laila Pedro about interpreting the ocean, the need for both classical and unconventional materials, and finding Louise Bourgeois.
Laila Pedro (Rail): You’ve worked in a variety of media, notably installation and sculpture. This is your first show of all paintings in the United States. What’s behind this series, “Palangre”?
Yoan Capote: The series began around the notion of the island, and its meaning is precisely that: isolation, being always surrounded by water; being impossibly distant from other spaces. They are all variations on seascapes, and my intention was that they be hung along a unified singular datum: a shared horizon line.
On a conceptual level, what really underlies the series is something I realized during my years as a student. Reading about the Cold War and the communist countries and the historical origins of all these divisions and political conflicts between left and right, I was reflecting, with a close friend, about the term “Iron Curtain.” I remember thinking, In Cuba we don’t need a wall—our iron curtain is the sea.
Since then, I’ve been interested in doing this series with the fishing hooks. The hook is a symbol of seduction; it’s also perhaps the most primal trap humanity devised, going back to our earliest days hunting and fishing. From afar, I wanted the viewer to be lured, drawn in, seduced by the hooks. Once the viewer comes close, the material force of the object makes itself felt. I’m interested in the art historical trope of the seascape; I’ve been interested in it and studying it for a very long time.
Rail: Did you begin to study it while you were at the National Art School [the Instituto Superior de Arte, (ISA)]?
Capote: This was before ISA. My training at ISA was highly experimental; that’s the school’s pedagogy. A lot of conceptual experimentation, a focus on social-practice art, on interactive art, and on performance. At the time I was there, there were still certain taboos around painting for a lot of artists, both professors and students.
Rail: And this was the early ’90s, the beginning of what is known as the Special Period.
Capote: There was a bit of a critical backlash to the analytical rigidity of the ’80s, but there was always a division between the painters and the conceptual artists, who tended to marginalize or undervalue painting. Of course, in Cuba in the ’80s there were still great artists who painted, like Segundo Planes, or [José] Bedia, but the primary focus was on the experimental and conceptual practice. And I don’t complain about that; for me, it developed a habit of fully developing ideas, of thinking things through. So at that time I focused more on sculpture. Plus, it was expensive for me to buy the fishing hooks; so I kept the idea of these paintings for the future.
Rail: How did you finally manage to get the hooks?
Capote: I was friends with antiques dealers in Havana, and I began to investigate where I could find the old machinery that fishermen use to make the hooks. Through some of those fishermen, I was able to buy these ancient machines. Cuban fishermen use these to create palangres, tools made out of many, many hooks, used for large-scale fishing.
So I began to work on interpreting those into seascapes. I began to study Cuban artists who had worked on seascapes, or around the theme of the sea, and I noticed a certain lack, an absence. Perhaps this was due to what I mentioned earlier: the sea can be a fraught and overworked theme, both in terms of its place in art history, and particularly in Cuba, with its kitsch omnipresence on postcards and posters and all the tourist stuff. So I faced a challenge there: how to get from the tradition of art history to a work that was powerfully tactile, how to valorize painting in a way that was consonant with the work I was already doing with objects. I am classically trained as a painter.
Rail: That’s a really fascinating dimension of your work. When I first came to know it, I think what caught my attention was the Thinker (2014) sculpture; or maybe the spine of New Man (2014). They are these dense, fraught, intense things made out of metal, often bronze.
Capote: Heavy things, yes. But my training is classical painting. I’ve always been drawn to a challenge. I’m very respectful of the history of art, and there is a danger for conceptual artists, a tendency to become too iconoclastic. There can be a tendency to mock or overlook art history, but I have a tremendous respect for its importance. In some of my work, you can see it. This particular painting is called Isla (After Böcklin) (2016). Böcklin’s painting is in a mythic register, with the theme of Charon and of crossing the water to the island of death. So this work, from a completely different artist in a completely different time period and context and style, has a strong thematic connection, in my own work here, to all the people who have perished in the waters around Cuba.
Rail: Those who have died attempting to get away from the island, in our own time, but also those who perished on the journey to the island in the long history of the Middle Passage.
Capote: Exactly. It’s always there throughout the island’s history. In many ways, around Cuba, the ocean is freighted with death. So that painting of Böcklin’s inspired this, and this work is the only one in my series that has this connection with that Symbolist artwork. Nonetheless, in front of my work we appreciate only the sea, there is not an Island on it, since it is intended to represent the metaphor that the viewer is already standing on Böcklin’s island. They’re not Caribbean-sea tonalities, they’re tonalities from a classical painting of the 1800s. I’m interested in bringing these historical things to bear; in evoking these reminiscences or affinities with the broader genre of painting, applied to my own local, particular lens.
Rail: Who are some of these people with whom you feel affinities? And where do you diverge from them?
Capote: There are many painters that interest me, like Luc Tuymans or Anselm Kiefer, and I think you can also feel my connection to them here. But a difference with them is that there is a more artisanal quality to what I do. Something important about this series is that I worked with many, many people on the pieces. So the collective experience of working together, obsessively focused on the ocean, has a powerful symbolic force in a place where that sense of isolation—of feeling fenced in by a steel barrier, of being up against a wall—is everywhere. These are intense shared emotional states that all empty into the sea. At first I used to work alone; then, for practical reasons, I needed to find assistants. Even though it’s a normal and accepted practice for many contemporary artists to employ assistants as sort of hidden technicians, for me the presence of all those human beings, their mark, is an important element of the work. It creates an interesting balance that opposes an obsessive collective craft process to the liberty of painting, and to my individual gesture.
Rail: That sense of the collective is evident in a lot of your work, and it has a strong literary and psychoanalytic underpinning, in particular an interest in the Jungian collective unconscious.
Capote: Yes, and my brother Iván’s work is more literally literary in that way, whereas in mine I try to move towards representation and the challenges of genre and convention. It’s true that ideas are incredibly important in my work: for me, the mediums and methods depend strongly on the idea. For that reason, artists like Chris Burden or Bruce Nauman are also significant to me. I am interested in artists who cannot be reduced to a single category. When an artist identifies, for example, solely as a photographer, he might have a great idea that may be best expressed in sculpture; but, because he is tied to the notion that he is a photographer, the idea never attains its best expression. The freedom to let the idea dictate the medium is essential. Once you feel that an idea has developed, you have the freedom to pursue the best method to bring it to fruition. It is always the idea first.
When I first had the idea for this series, it was all about genre. We used to have a tradition of painting seascapes in Cuba. The freedom to work in this genre, in this medium, has helped me manifest this idea, and bring it to this final result.
Rail: Palangre (Despedida) (2016) is interesting, because it’s a more familiar “sunset” palate that one might more readily associate with 19th-century seascapes.
Capote: When you look at the series all together, you see it more as a progression towards abstraction. That work is at one point in that process of moving towards abstraction. This one here is completely white—it’s moved totally towards abstraction—you’re past the sea; the sea is left behind in oblivion, in amnesia. If this appeared in a group show, isolated from the rest of the series, it wouldn’t suggest the ocean at all. I was interested in something like what Mondrian did: beginning with landscapes and ending up at abstraction. In going from the most classically grounded point to the further extremes of abstraction, to resolve this theme and this lineage.
Rail: So you felt you arrived at a solution?
Capote: In this case, yes. Often, I’d have a piece stored away for several years, because there is a better solution at which I have yet to arrive. It’s important to be meticulous about when and how a work is presented, and to understand when you’ve arrived at the best possible solution. In order to have this freedom, one must be the primary curator of one’s own work.
Rail: Your last show here at Jack Shainman Gallery (Collective Unconscious, May 28 – July 24, 2015) focused more on the conceptual and sculptural work, including pieces like New Man (2014), which is very striking, very visceral.
Capote: Yes, this concept was very popular in Cuba in the ’60s, and in communist Europe: the notion of a new man who would be perfect. This piece is highly ironic, obviously: it’s a spine made out of handcuffs and bronze, and all the vertebrae are the handcuffs. Only via control, via the abuse of power, is the invention of such a new man possible. When the bronze is cast, it squeezes and clings to the handcuffs, holding the shape of the spine together. They’re all real handcuffs. I am interested in the spine: it controls all movement, all feelings, our full nervous system, everything. In this case, it suggests an acquired immobility, an enforced rigidity of the nervous system. And it’s a universally legible piece: you can take it into any political system because the abuse of power is part of every political system. The only thing is that, in the communist system, the prohibitions are more literal, more evident and explicit.
Rail: The Absence (Listening to the Void) (2011), was also in that last show: where New Man is in some ways more about a global political moment, and about the universal truths behind power dynamics, The Absence is extremely specific to the particular historical reality—and attendant folklores—of Cuba.
Capote: The idea for this piece came from a statistic I read about how in nearly every home in Cuba there is an empty closet or an empty bedroom, because someone has left the country. It’s a space for absence in every home. So I made this steel closet; the hangers are in the shape of the island itself. That was a densely sculptural show. In the past two years I’ve finally been able to make enough of the fishhook pieces to have a fully realized painting show. And in this show, I’m interested in showing the progression, showing the works in relation to each other. I’m fascinated by the process of painting. When you face this series, you can feel the rich, tactile pleasure of the layers of paint, the texture, the shadows the brushstrokes produce against the steel of the hooks over the canvas beneath. In my painting Isla (Pérdida) (2016) at the Palangre exhibition there is a single dab of a potent, heavily symbolic red floating in the water—succumbing, drowning. It could be anything: it could be the shreds of an ideology, or the remnants of a boat, or a body.
But on a level of pure color, what inspired me here is Edward Hopper’s Soir Bleu (1914). It has the blue tones and the red of the character’s face. I am always in dialogue with tradition, with history; I don’t believe that in order to be rigorously conceptual, one needs to set oneself in opposition to tradition. That’s a very antiquated, outdated aspect of conceptualism. I believe that the most significant works reach an equilibrium between sublime experience—achieved through process, medium, and technique—and conceptual framework. I’ve met Beaux Arts students who have very little technical training. But I think it’s important to have both, and not create a dictatorship of conceptualist opinion. Many of my teachers wanted me to use resins, or other newer materials, rather than the materials of classical sculpture that I was interested in, like bronze or marble, because that was their ideological grounding. But for me, the priority has always been that the material convey, enhance, and undergird the power of your experience standing before the work.
And then there are some things you can’t accomplish with sculpture. There are poetic potentialities that only painting can open up. Colors have emotional, psychological repercussions. My colors are not particularly realist; they are concerned with poetic resonance and emotional charge. And that is what gives certain works an atemporal, universal character. That doesn’t mean I consider myself a reactionary. I take and learn from everywhere. I was very fortunate in that ISA received a large donation of books while I was there; and I was able to educate myself in that way too.
Rail: Which teachers have been important to you?
Capote: I was in René Francisco’s project, Galería DUPP. Among all my teachers, among the artists doing pedagogical work, René has been one of the most open. I learned about Louise Bourgeois from René’s bookshelf, where one day I was lucky to come across one of her catalogues. And what struck me was that, even though she was already very old, she was a powerful, crucial link among many significant currents. I immediately felt, upon seeing her work, that it had the richness of combining Minimalist, contemporary concerns with technical solutions, whose value is atemporal. When you have a strong connection to art, you respond powerfully, emotionally, to the ways in which an artist resolves problems of material and space. You understand the layers; you begin to grasp at what’s behind it. Later I began to understand more about her concerns with psychology and symbolism. Even though I was not going to make the same kind of work—because my individual human concerns, and my historical moment, have different strictures, context, and constraints—there is something there where you understand a connection.
Rail: With the installation of this show, as we mentioned, you wanted all the seascapes hung with the horizon lines level. This generates an interesting perceptual and somatic experience, because most of the paintings are not the same size. You intuit there is some sort of unifying geometry, but spatially it’s difficult to orient yourself in relation to it.
Capote: I understood this show as an installation of paintings, as a single piece in itself, connected by the same horizon, and I was pleased with this strategy for hanging them, because it gives the dynamic effect of the moving ocean—the levels in height can suggest an undulation, or a seasickness; they give a sense of motion even though, as with the ocean itself, the horizon line remains fixed. They are also like windows, so it gives the viewer the effect of being surrounded by the sea. And the picture window itself is, of course, significant throughout the history of art.
Rail: There is one piece in this show, Palangre (Ultramar) (2016), that verges into the sculptural. Can you tell me about this work?
Capote: If you saw this piece by itself, apart from the series, you would not associate it with the theme of landscape (or seascape) that is the core of this body of work. It is moving nearly into abstraction—as you say, it is also more sculptural. It’s nearly a pure object—I moved away from working solely with the surface of the paint, and it’s also the only one that is set away from the wall, highlighting its object-ness. It gives a sense of balance, equilibrium, to a body of work that might otherwise tend too much
Reducing the sea to a straight and narrow path is impossible—the probability of surviving or succeeding in the journey is very narrow, very compressed. I’m concerned with the idea of magnetic north, of trying to seek a universal point of guidance while surrounded by the sea. That speaks to the experience of friends of mine who have tried to make the crossing between Cuba and the United States. Many, many people embark on that journey, and very few succeed. It’s a powerful experience, an overwhelming experience, to be surrounded on all sides by the sea and to try to find your own way.