A diversity of expressions proliferates in today’s Cuban visual arts. In that polyphony, landscapes, a painting genre of significant resistance and persistence on the island, are inevitably present.
As sober as his paintings, Gabriel Sánchez Toledo (1979), whom we interviewed for this magazine, responds to an initial question:
How do you view landscapes within Cuba’s visual arts today?
“There are good landscapists. There are those who cultivate it in the traditional way, with skill and domination of their materials; they are academically followers of the genre. And then there are those who are interested in looking for more, in not resigning themselves, in constantly exploring and trying to revitalize (the genre).”
Unquestionably, Sánchez Toledo is part of that small group of innovators, and moreover, one of the very few who have been able to conceive of landscapes with their own perspective and establish their own style. His work is formally and conceptually distinguished by its search for a universal meaning, “going beyond those rhetorical images of rural and urban settings that have been seen since the early 1990s,” as critic David Mateo says.
From a technical standpoint, as another art critic, Píter Ortega says, “Gabriel’s brushstrokes are daring and irreverent, with a predominance of drips and stains caused by thinner on the material. All of that creates a gauzy background for the objects depicted, a setting permeated with fog and mysticism….” Sánchez Toledo began exhibiting in 1999 at the Oscar Fernández Moreira Gallery in Sancti Spíritus, his hometown. Since receiving an academic award in 2001 from the Higher Institute of Art (ISA) and the San Alejandro Academy of Art in Havana, he has participated in numerous group and solo shows.
Collective exhibitions include: Paisajes at La Acacia, Havana (2010); American Int’l Fine Art Fair (2010); Arteaméricas (2008); Important Cuban Artworks, Volume V, Cernuda Arte, Coral Gables (2007); and solo shows include: Gabriel Sánchez: Landscapes of Poetry and Enchantment, Cernuda Arte, Coral Gables (2007); Mare Mostrum, Lloyds Register, Havana (2011); Viajero anónimo (2011), Palacio de Lombillo, Havana, and Melancolía, Miramar Trade Center (2012).
During the opening of the exhibition Viajero Anónimo (Anonymous Traveler), Havana City Historian Eusebio Leal remarked, “The work of Gabriel Sánchez Toledo claims its own space. He has been able to do his own work, find his own way, despite the fact that one can never—and never should—be separated from what has been one’s source of inspiration, no matter how sacred, how pure.” That clear final reference was to the fact that this painter is also the son of painter Ania Toledo, who is part of the small group of Cuba’s most original landscapists.
Landscapes have been the motivation that has led to all of my pieces. I always tried to break with what was established, the classic landscape. My work is more experimental; it is a different kind of search, going for the conceptual. I really enjoy working with lost elements, a sort of forest, a tennis court, a motor in the middle of nothing, a satellite antenna that I placed in one piece, which I like a lot, called Secreto del jardín (Secret of the Garden), one of my emblematic works.
What experimentation led you to a change of language in landscapes?
I lived in Central America for a while, and landscapes really moved me. My mom and I lived there and we often visited the studio of Tomás Sánchez. Those encounters really marked the way I approach painting. Every time a maestro can give you a suggestion or tell you something, it’s very important, very gratifying, because his views are so accurate. Also, there is a tradition of very good landscapists in Central America. All of that enriched me, and I transposed a little bit of things from there with others from my identity, and this work came out of it. It is a more universal idea, not from any specific place; it could be Central America, Europe, Cuba. It’s a mixture. Tell us about your purpose in front of the canvas, the creative process.
I think it is always a state of mind. I start out by conceiving of what I’m going to do, the element that produces that missing feeling, the element that begins to float in my mind. After it goes through various sketches, I take it to the canvas. I study it a lot, do a lot of tests, and then, when I begin to make the painting, I always try so that the viewer will end up wondering why such-and-such an element is here or there, what its function is, what is it that is happening. That is what I try to take on in my work.
And what about composition? What elements do you use to attract the viewer’s eyes toward the point that you want?
My compositions are almost always simple; I don’t try to do over-elaborate things, or confuse people. For example, La piscina (The Swimming Pool), which people really liked, is empty in the middle of a strange place. I always take on things that were used by civilization and in the end were left unused, filling the spectator with unknowns and questions.
What about color and its gradations?
I always work with sober, dark colors because they really help me to construct the theatricality that I give to my paintings. It gives me a dark atmosphere, something mystical. Now I have a series with lighter, more vibrant colors; at some point they change the viewer’s sensation when looking at the painting. But sobriety helps me with my idea of a piece as such.
You refer to several series. What makes them different from each other?
There is always an evolution. My work is in constant evolution. Every year you feel like you’re going further, and sometimes whatever you like or don’t like at a certain stage you see again after a time and it interests you. Perhaps they also differ in state of mind.
What project are you working on?
This latest exhibition that I am working on now is going to be called Paranoia. They are large format paintings where there is one piece that really motivates me—a baseball field that has an oil well; the ideas are a little bit absurd. This most recent stage I consider to be stronger, or it might be that whenever you take a step you see something better and you think it’s going to be the most definitive and important step. I hope something else gives me the same motivation in the years to come.
Through his universal landscapes, Gabriel Sánchez Toledo makes spectators think about the objects that civilization uses, and that when discarded and empty, change their function, and remain in oblivion, anonymous. “Perhaps those metaphors, those enigmas, are what I am interesting in addressing.”