Lydia Rubio’s “Viñales” series signals, I believe, the culmination of the artist’s search to bring together form and concept, image and idea. It is no exaggeration to say that this has also been the search of art in our time. Such coincidence is significant, I think, and we might tonight reflect upon both.
I have said elsewhere that Lydia Rubio’s works start out with one premise: art is a mystery the solution to which is as desirable as it is elusive. No sooner do we begin unraveling one of its clues, than it spawns other mysteries: cutting one branch off of the tree makes other branches sprout, like those baobabs that grace many Coral Gables streets. The result is an endless cutting and pruning: the spectator must constantly decode and decipher. In this, Lydia Rubio proceeds like a modern Gnostic: she is intent on pursuing the dispersed clues of an ancient hermetic code. For this she organizes themes according to a formal strategy of geometric pieces or fragments, structured in series. Paintings, sculptures, drawings and prints–duly accompanied by diaries, maps, notes and even doodles. In turn, these series are ruled by insights into possible correspondences with conceptual codes that range from the letters of the alphabet and the four elements, to the cardinal points and even the gods of a multicultural pantheon. Taken piecemeal, each of these forms constitutes a clue for a plot the meaning of which may well be lost but whose mystery and beauty seduces us into further speculation. Be it the radiant ghost ships of “Written on Water”, lost in the splendor of imaginary seas; the Kabalistic rituals of “In An Image” or the “Alphabet Series”, where letters play musical chairs; or the monumental scroll of “All night long we heard birds passing,” her latest public art piece, in all these works abstract conceptual play is anchored, fastened, if you will, onto sensuous, recognizable forms, rendered masterfully and whose sheer physicality ends up seducing us.
It is hardly surprising, then, that within such a search Rubio should have tackled the challenge of landscape, particularly the Cuban landscape, and within that, the region of Viñales Pinar del Río. She tells us that she returned there twice at the end of the 1990’s and that her perception of the region’s beauty was influenced by a statement made by Cuban poet José Lezama Lima in a letter written to his sister in the 1970’s, where he speaks of the valley´s proverbial beauty. To quote that statement,
“The valley is graceful and splendid. To face it in contemplation is to feel the weight of the history of Cuba, not the one that was made but the one that remains a possibility and seems like an appearance of a ray of light. To sit before it and see its huge spectrum of green and copper blues, shot through with threads of gold, everything looks as if it’s about to fly off and crash down in a ceaseless parabola from earth to sky.”
A large canvas beyond the four panoramic paintings that structure the series carries the same title “Invisible Arc” [In Spanish, “El arco invisible de Viñales”] that Lezama Lima wrote in Cuba during the 1940’s and is meant as a summary and comment upon the entire series. Rubio also tells us that the multiple points of view the paintings show are unconventional, in the sense that they are alternatives to the single portal or mirador that is available to most tourists who visit the valley. Rubio spent two weeks in Viñales horseback riding, sketching and photographing the unusual views that she captures in her series. Clearly, the intent of the series is hardly documentary. In her pictures, Rubio paints what Cuban history left potentially unpainted in the palette, so to speak, and in views seldom seen by the naked eye.
While historically Viñales has been a favorite site for Cuban landscape artists and photographers, Rubio makes little if any concessions to the pastoral stereotypes of folklore. If Cuban landscape tradition ranges from the picturesque to the beautiful, Rubio’s peculiar treatment spans from the beautiful to the sublime, in the precise sense of the astonishing and the awe-inspiring. She speculates on the correspondence of landscape to the four elements, the times of day, and even moral and political positions. Instead of typical country flora or fauna, huts or peasant folk, she renders us stark, inhuman geological formations, like the valley´s famous mogotes, often depicted as threatening giants; unseen night or moon-shaded views, fields burning in afternoon red hues, panoramic skies that barely relate to the variegated earth. Rubio is in love with these forms and these moods beyond any nationalist illusions, and she renders them in compositions so structurally unusual, through points of view often so far-fetched or at least unseen in the Cuban tradition, that one cannot help but wonder whether they are accurate representations, or perhaps imaginary renderings meant to illustrate political allegories.
Cuban landscape tradition describes and make statements: Nature is harmonious and at peace with itself. Rubio’s pictures, on the other hand, disturb that peace by introducing enigmas in the same landscape. What is the relationship between the red afternoon hues, the two towering fires on the right side of the canvas, and the concept of subversion? How do the violet clouds and blackened river relate to each other in “Land of Reflection”? In what sense does the panoramic sky suggest dissolution in the canvas of the same name? How do the mogotes’ sheer earthly presence imply Resistance? In so doing, Rubio makes us question the meaning of landscape, the spirit of place—that genius loci that is her own (remember her ancestors are is a natives of Pinar del Río), along with the significance of region and our relationship to certain moods and moral positions. Previous Cuban landscape artists, from Esteban Chartrand to Domingo Ramos, had worked under the maxim: “Cuba, qué linda es!”. Landscape painting as praise and nationalist advertising. As if responding to that profound statement, Lydia Rubio’s landscapes make us exclaim, “Cuba, qué extraña es!. Landscape as a mirror of post-national reflection and questioning.
It may well be, however, that in that sense, Rubio’s canvasses are very much part of the Cuban landscape tradition. My good friend Carlos M. Luis once remarked that “for the Creole, landscape began as a site of discovery and later became a site of reflection of his destiny”. Nothing bears that statement better than “Invisible Arc,” the large piece that serves as a comment to the entire series and that bears the title of Lezama Lima’s famous poem. Two oversized, and therefore unreal, mogotes face each other across a divide that occupies the center of the canvass. In the meticulous mimetic rendering, the background shows a much-reduced promontory, while the foreground displays several rows of skinny palm trees dwarfed by the mogotes’ sheer monumentality, as if they were Cuban Himalayas. Atop each mogote sits a lettered sign–one reading “Aquí” [here] and the other “Allá” [there]—though the sign for “Allá”, removed in perspective, appears backwards: we are in front of Aquí and behind Allá, closer to Here than to There, facing Here while still creeping behind There.
As in “Sea of Ebirac”, the tondo centerpiece from Rubio’s recent “Project Room” series, “Invisible Arc” constitutes, then, a geographical allegory that in turn reflects upon the significance of region—Viñales is not a place but a region—what philosopher Edward Casey in a recent book calls “the coherent clustering of places within the openness of landscape—a clustering that both depends on and reflects… contiguity and coexistence”. Casey’s definition of region has in mind John Constable’s diverse 19th century meditations on the landscape of his native East Anglia, but it is clear that it applies as well, on one level at least, to Rubio’s divided homeland between island and exile communities. What “Sea of Ebirac” portrays as an imaginary map over a reasonable facsimile of Biscayne Bay, “Invisible Arc” dramatizes as a geographical allegory, a topo-allegory, if you will, of Viñales. If Viñales is, in general, a metaphor of the Cuban nation, then “Invisible Arc” is an allegory of a Cuba historically divided into at least two. It is also an allegory of Rubio’s own Viñales series, which explores the region in plural form, seeking alternative views of the valley outside of the official view sanctioned for tourists, or lazy native visitors. The “invisible arc” is of course the one that connects Aquí with Allá, here with there, arching over the precipice that divides the two mogotes, a precipice made all the more daunting and threatening by their unreal height. One need not of course adhere strictly to this geographical or political interpretation. While the empty space at the center of the canvas suggests not only ocean and air but also the emptiness that separates the here and now from the beyond of death, the two mogotes evoke other dualities: Night and Day, Earth and Heaven, male and female. Would it surprise us to know that in the Chinese landscape tradition “yin” and “yang”, the two famous Taoist principles, are not only metaphysical principles (such as giving and receiving), but principally, and originally, senses of concrete place that related the two sides of any hill: the shady side (yin) and the sunny side (yang)?
Whether concrete or metaphysical—perhaps both—Lydia Rubio’s meditation on region proposes that we visualize not only a concrete place—There: Allá—, all the more desirable because it remains unattainable, at least temporarily, but that we visualize it from Here: Aquí. “Viñales” invites us to visit a region visually, and to imagine a relationship in which we all become pilgrims at home.
Enrico Mario Santí
Las Americas Collection
Coral Gables, Fl.
January 21, 2003
Enrico Mario Santí hold the William T. Bryan Endowed Chair in Hispanic Studies at the University of Kentucky, Lexington. He has taught at Cornell, Georgetown and the University of Miami, at which he held, in 1996, the Emilio Bacardí Chair in Cuban Studies. Santí grew up in Miami and is the author of a number of studies in Latin American Literature, the latest one of which is Bienes del Siglo, Sobre Cultura Cubana, published by Mexico´s Fondo de de Cultura Económica.
Poem (late 1940s):
The arcs, in the mixture of pine trees and those sleeping soldiers,
are thrust from their share of double moments:
the waves of that arc are flames that unload both upon the leaves
and on the swell, like a dolphin’s nailed circle.
Spirals grow in the circle of dwarf pine trees
and reach their sea in the soldiers’ circle
between pine arrows and leaf dreams.
Actually, man here is unable to sleep away his silence,
since he cannot simply sprout from a bridge of ropes and whips
and he must recline behind huge water swaths, burn on a grill not meant for him,
or point up a lustful cloak,
no good when it falls upon his body’s hill.
He must therefore recover a gesture behind the waterfall,
which he cannot see without doubling.
You’ll probably remember that I wrote a poem about the valley, “El arco invisible de Viñales.” Today, however, it has only aroused in me the pleasures of contemplation. To sit before it and see its huge spectrum of green, copper blues, shot through with threads of gold, and everything looks as if it’s about to fly off and crash down in a ceaseless parabola from earth to sky.