On ViewEl Museo Del Barrio
Juan Francisco Elso: Por América
October 27, 2022–March 26, 2023
Juan Francisco Elso (1956–88) was a Cuban sculptor whose untimely death, at age thirty-two from leukemia, cut short a promising career. Working with simple materials and influenced by Christianity and Santería, Elso made powerful, rough-hewn sculptures. Juan Francisco Elso: Por América at El Museo del Barrio not only includes the limited work Elso produced before passing away, but also the art of more than thirty artists from Cuba, the Caribbean, and the Americas. Many of these artists were working contemporaneously with Elso, and include Papo Colo, Jimmie Durham, Melvin Edwards, Ana Mendieta, and Alison Saar. The exhibition of art by Elso’s colleagues (in time, if not in place) is meant to show how Elso was working among gifted artists whose aesthetic stands independently from the dominant North American style. Inevitably, the work in this show addresses post-colonial issues, even when artists’ individual practices belonged to a more general avant-garde.
These politics play an important role in Elso’s powerful sculpture, Por América (José Martí) (1986)—from which the exhibition draws its name—pays homage to a leader of Cuba’s liberation in a nearly life-size statue of the Cuban nationalist and poet. Wearing only shorts and a cheap shirt, the effigy of Martí brandishes a sword. Puncturing his body, as well as creating a circle around his feet, are reddish-pink and white darts in the shape of fleurs-de-lys, the flower symbol associated with the Virgin Mary. In addition to being a rendering of a Cuban political hero, the figure of Martí carries directly Catholic meaning: the darts entering his body remind us of the visual tradition of St. Sebastian, the early Christian saint and martyr. His figure, the object of necessary change and passionate devotion, is in Elso’s work an example of politics devoted to Cuban freedom, also carrying devotional weight.
Elso was well-schooled as an artist but, as evidenced by the humble materials from which Por América is made, eschewed a stylized, refined way of working in favor of a more rough and improvisational approach. His strengths as a sculptor enabled him to portray social and spiritual content. His pair of sculptures of human hearts—both dated 1983–1987 and titled Corazón—attests to this. Life-size, the two sculptures are made of a clay the same pinkish-brown color of the actual, human muscle. The disembodied heart is a potent symbol, variously suggesting Mayan human sacrifice, romantic love, and devotion to Christ. Much of Elso’s work takes on a similar multivalent treatment of the object.
Many pieces in the show emphasize direct contact with nature as a support for artistic innovation and spiritual expression. One of the show’s most striking images is the photograph Tree of Life (1976), a self-portrait by Cuban-born artist Ana Mendieta. In this remarkable photo, Mendieta offers herself as a forest dryad. Nude and covered from head to toe in mud, she is dwarfed by the tree she stands before as she raises her hands in a gesture of supplication. Mendieta, though she lived and worked in New York through her adult life (also returning to forests and sand to make her pieces), never lost her sense of a Latin American aesthetic, merging devotional feeling with strong ties to the natural world.
Other artists in the show demonstrate a nearly surrealist feeling of political expression, regularly violent in impulse. Papo Colo, a performance artist, painter, and sculptor from Puerto Rico, now lives and works in New York City and in the El Yunque rainforest in his country of origin. His object, called Artefacto para guardar secretos (Artifact To Keep Secrets) (1977), protrudes from a small metal box. The sculpture viscerally captures the social anger of Caribbean people, long the recipients of colonial mistreatment. The sculptor Melvin Edwards is represented by two works. One of them, For Egypt (1980), is made of welded steel. Through its chains and parts made from industrial metal, it conveys the shameful history of the subjugation of Black people in the United States. Not influenced by surrealism, this work instead imparts a direct condemnation of racism.
In the show there is a photograph of Elso with the last sculpture he made before his death: a thin, wooden relief of a horse, nearly full size, called Caballo contra colibrí (Horse against Hummingbird) (1988). The red and tan piebald horse, never finished, has a thin wire extending over its head to which a wire bird in flight is attached. According to explanatory notes, the work contrasts the relations between Europe, represented by the horse, and Latin America, represented by the hummingbird. It is both a lyric statement and hidden piece of cultural comparison. Persuasive in their visionary stance, Elso and the other Caribbean and Latin American artists working in an Arte Povera tradition at the time turned the barest of materials into forceful political and symbolic statements.