Bahía no. 2, 2008 / Técnica mixta sobre lienzo / Mixed technique on canvas / 80 x 100 cm
Pieza no. 2 del políptico El éxodo de la estrella, 1993 / Instalación / Dimensiones variables / Installation / Variable sizes
Bahía no. 4, 2009 / Técnica mixta / Mixed technique / 69 x 82 cm

The exhibition of Cuban artist Juan Suarez Blanco Insular Rhapsody, displayed last December, January and February at the Lombillo Palace in Old Havana, marked a turning point in the career of the creator, from Pinar del Rio, best known for his ready-made art and installations. In the exhibition, Juan Suarez shows us fragments of a redesigned city, invents and rebuilds out of certain circumstances and aesthetic patterns, boasting his mastery of color, lyricism and sonority, the latter represented by more serious and sharper nuances bringing his work closer to a musical piece: the rhapsody. For many followers of the artist’s work, this turnaround toward painting and, above all, toward abstraction, has been a big surprise, sometimes acclaimed as welcome news; some other times viewed with certain reservations. What many people don’t know, though, is that Juan Suarez always painted privately in all those years, just for himself…

How did you come closer to art and painting? And why was it that found object and installations predominated in your work in the 1980s and 1990s? My first contact with art occurred at the Free Workshop School of Plastics Art of Artemisa, I was 10, and there I had the opportunity to have a great teacher, Spanish sculptor Benito Paredes who came to Cuba in the 1930’s and used to work with Rita Longa’s team and was a teacher in Artemisa and other municipalities as an extension of his work. This great man introduced me to the world of art, particularly to sculpture, and I believe sculpture has marked my career ever since then and it can be seen in how I pay attention to texture, relieves and volumes. When I entered the Provincial Art School of Pinar del Rio in 1967, masters Aguedo Alonso and Carlos Hernandez Alcocer, disciple of Romañach and Tiburcio Lorenzo’s classmate, taught me about the world of color and I was dazzled by my pictorial activity. In the senior year, motivated by the work of Antonio Tapies, Tapia Ruano and other Cuban artists with the Group of Eleven, I was fascinated by abstraction and I started to make my first abstract works; I worked for about three years in that discipline, always in silence, I never exhibited it. I did the paid social service internship between 1971 and 1975. I stepped out of art for around six years; during that period I did some writing, notes, projects and when I decided to restart in 1980, there was a complex situation in the country, painting materials were scarce and continue with what I had started in painting in the 1970’s was hard. I didn’t have materials or solvency, and I had to make art out recycling, look in garbage dumps things that interested me, objects that attracted my attention that I could intervene. I started to make found-object, material art, and still influenced by Tapies I learned to discover with the trash extra artistic objects, but with immense possibilities to provide formal, conceptual and in general aesthetic solutions from my work, turning them later into works of art. That’s how a series of fences, doors, windows, parachutes emerged, all of which made out of Soviet weapons’ cases from those times, boxes, jute sacs, shoes, ropes, an old violin, etc., and created little by little the whole world to which I dedicated almost a decade; found object and installations filled my work space. However, I was always eager to paint, whenever I had some spare time I did some watercolors or painting, to myself, I couldn’t afford to build a stable career as a painter, while working on the other pieces felt nice as well. I had to replace the lack of materials with lots of imagination and keep on working, discovering new possibilities that were of the utmost importance to me back then. I also decided to build a family because I was needing it, and assume it with all the risks and fortune that means having children, a partner who understands you and stands by your side, who can understand you as an artist, my wife is also an artist and I could move forward thanks to her, she was a kind of patron, she took care of everything so that I could do my art. My work was improved and color began to appear in my found objects and installations, I retook the chromatic; I may have swim against the tide, because in the 1980’s in Cuba art became ephemeral, polemic, rebellious, while I was doing pretty rigorous found objects and installations, in which I didn’t disregard that type of execution because I really needed it, I was honest, I transmitted very polemical, diverse messages or questioned certain situations but without overlooking the quality of the work. I was slammed because of that, people asked me to make more violent, careless and ephemeral work that I shouldn’t worry about certain formal aspects; but the problem was not as easy as that, it was a matter of feelings. And well, I kept on doing that kind of work during almost the whole decade of the 1990’s. Somebody told me the nineties were the most fertile, most fruitful period of my career, I made 150 found objects and installations total.

And is it just during those prolific times that you made your first painting exhibition? What were your principal motivations? In the year 1999 I made a painting exhibition in Seville with works I had been doing since 1996. A friend of mine and gallery owner Pura Martinez Jorda saw pieces that had never been published before and got all excited and told me: let’s make a painting exhibition in my gallery; I exhibited the paintings I had made in Toledo even without being to that city before, inspired by the landscapes painted by El Greco. When I had the opportunity to visit Toledo, it felt like I had been there already, I felt that I had walked through certain mazes that I had been to those places before, mystic things that I can’t explain.

With that exhibit I went back to painting, my economic situation improved and I could go on with my work; I was also motivated by the work of Uruguayan Torres Garcia, who I consider one of the most influential artists of Latin America because of his constructivist work and his ground-breaking vision of abstraction in the Americas; and because he worked on that since his teen ages. I said to myself it seemed that the link would be hooked back to the chain. And everything started to flow and I definitely started to paint without stopping to make found art; I have pieces that were shown in the 2008 retrospective of the installation period, both ready-made compositions and environmental pieces.

You stated in your writing book in As an epilogue: “Then I reflect upon my future projects: I will transfer my sensations and states of mind with the highest expressiveness and harshness possible.” My question is: does painting, specifically abstraction, gives you more opportunities to freely express those states of mind, sensations, than the work you did decades before? In 2000 I started my pictorial work and now what I really want to do is paint, it is a spiritual need, I want to feel free, I want to take out of me everything I accumulated for a long time and I think abstraction is what fits the most to what I’m planning to do, without references of any kind, just, pour my spirit, my soul, my feelings, my state of mind, because in the end I will be speaking about my world and my time, and despite the absence of images, viewers will be able to see in my work color, aggressive textures, erosions…, to turn painting into subject-object on its most primary and brutal reality; exclusively hear the sounds of the pictorial matter in movement and the human panting; replace the staggered climbing with a leap into the void; throw out paint guided only by instincts and emotions, splash and cover with paint everything around me.

When I was reading your writing book I saw Parallels, written in 2003, which seemed to me like a premonition of what you are doing these days and would like to quote a little; fragment that in my opinion can be sum up as follows: “Sometimes I dream about painting, structuring sites and spaces where the objects were before, the mark they left behind: hollows, marks, cuts, injuries, tears… and in order to conceive this site it is necessary to remove the objects from the place they occupy, move them, make them float. I think this is the new door I’m planning to open.”

Would this exhibition be that new door that you were planning to open, or do you think it is just a transition stage in your work? This exhibition is a bridge; there are bridges even in the paintings. Later I realized that there is actually a transition from figuration to abstraction, these two spirits coexist in the works of art, I mean, the desire to come out and break without inhibitions with all of this abstract preoccupation and the remaining of figuration. I have no regrets, this is a necessary step, I’m not jumping from the first to the last step, I want go to the higher stages gradually, although in the end I’m going to jump; but in this first stage it is necessary for them to coexist so that I can feel pleased with what I’m doing, nothing is pushing me, I don’t mind that time is passing by, I don’t mind swimming against the current; I belief that art is not related to time, it doesn’t have anything to do with fashion, or time; a work by Garaicoa, by Malevich can be as modern or contemporary as the Sistine Chapel.

Why is there in nearly all of your works a symbol denoting religiosity? Is Juan a religious man? In my family, on my mother’s side nearly everyone was Catholic, not me, I was atheist; but I had quite a religious experience with a crucifixion I made in which I questioned almost everyone; It was a crucified crutch, I didn’t realize how many readings that painting could have. In an exhibition where I showed it for the first time, a Catholic woman approached me and said: “Christ is the support,” and then a member of the party [Cuban Communist Party] came over and said: “religion is limping;” the work split into two diametrically opposite directions and it was then when I discovered that my original intention was actually what the Party member said, I admit it. Religion along the history of my country got me confused and led me to question and tackle thorny problems and decisive aspects, and I decided to make controversial and polemic works, but like that parable in which the fisher man ends up being fished, I tried to fish and I was fished instead, I think he who governs this so well-organized cosmos said to me: you have to have faith to be able to work and after that painting a conversion occurred inside me. With the help of Pinar del Rio’s bishop I founded my first workshop for the restoration of sacred art works of Pinar del Rio and I created the first workshop school, resuming my 25-year-long career as a teacher of history of art, design, plastic arts. Unwittingly, in my work all of this started to show and that’s how my faith in God started to grow, but I’m still a very free man, no strings attached. Bishop Siro, at the inauguration of Saint Peter Church where I had restored an immense image, two-meters high, said in that sermon: “Juan is not a church man but he is always going to surprise us with a faith that I have not been able to decipher yet.” I think those were the right words because I will never be able to become a disciplined practicing Catholic, I was always a free man although people may think I’m very set in my ideas, that my work is too hermetic and difficult to fathom. I’m actually a very simple man and nothing can tie me down, I think religiosity is an attitude in life, but many confuse it with the institution, with the clergy, with the order. The same happens with faith which can’t be taught, faith is something that one brings within oneself, sometimes it is asleep and then it comes out suddenly, the faith in man, in work, in human improvement; it comes before any order, any religion; it is the essence, the attitude, the rest was just invented by humans.

In my work, Gothic cathedrals appear over and over again because within the history of architecture they are the buildings expressing the best the connection between the earthly and the divine, the search for the celestial, with its tall towers reaching out to the sky, pinching it, conquering it, being in communication with the sidereal space; they are the bridge responding to human’s recurrent question: what is there after death, where are we heading to, where does the limit between life and death lie.