Drawing has become the ideal process to express my ideas as well as to force the mind to understand the world through art, becoming a liberating experience.Frank Mujica
Cubaanse landschappen in Antwerpen image

Cubaanse landschappen in Antwerpen

Jan de Zutter / Agosto 2015

Cubaanse landschappen in Antwerpen.

Vijf jaar geleden ontmoette ik Frank Mujica Chavez in Havana, toen we er de Ludwig Foundation bezochten. Het was een van die lome Cubaanse namiddagen waarop je niet zo veel zin hebt om ook maar iets uit te vreten. Bij de Ludwig Foundation hadden ze echter een diavoorstelling gepland over het werk van een aantal piepjonge Cubaanse kunstenaars, vers afgeleverd uit het Instituto Superior de Arte van Havana. Het was met frisse tegenzin dat we in een besloten zaaltje naar de dia’s gingen kijken. Maar wat ze er ons toonden, was van uitzonderlijke kwaliteit. In die mate zelfs dat de Antwerpse galerist Paul Verbeeck de jonge Cubanen een jaar later voor het eerst naar Antwerpen zou halen.

Mujica maakt deel uit van een informeel collectief van jonge getalenteerde snaken, samen met Adrian Fernandez en Alex Hernandez. Hoewel ze elk erg verschillend werk maken, delen ze een atelier in Havana. In 2011 kon ik me niet bedwingen en kocht ik van Mujica een indrukwekkende potloodtekening, ‘Paisaje de Aeropuerto Internacional José Marti’, anderhalve meter lang op 31 cm hoog, een ijzersterk landschap. Al vier jaar lang geniet ik van de ijle, bijna abstracte kwaliteit van deze bijzondere tekening.

Mujica tilt de traditie van het landschap op naar een hoger niveau. Hij past weliswaar in de grote Amerikaanse landschapstraditie, maar maakt compositorisch gewaagde keuzes en vermijdt elke romantiek door precies die passages uit het landschap te plukken die normaal aan onze aandacht voorbij zouden gaan: betonnen constructies, elektriciteitsmasten en kabels, industriële landschappen, maar ook de natuur zelf; nooit geïdealiseerd, schijnbaar de minst weelderige bomen en struiken, telkens zo in de compositie gezet dat ze naar de buik grijpen. Dat doet hij op een technisch verbluffende wijze, met enkel grafiet. Recent experimenteert hij met fijn gemalen grafiet dat hij met water mengt en op papier of doek smeert, wrijft, druipt en waarop hij daarna aan het tekenen gaat. Hij plaatst nu ook mysterieuze objecten in het landschap: een zwevende orbit, een wit laken waar de wind mee speelt en dat als een spook langs betonnen bogen dwaalt. Mujica stelt sinds vorige vrijdag, samen met Hernandez en Fernandez opnieuw ten toon in galerie Verbeeck-Van Dyck (Westkaai Verbindingsdok 12). Het was een hartelijk weerzien met de drie Cubanen en uiteraard met de beminnelijke Mujica, met wie ik oeverloos over tekenkunst kan praten. Als je ronddwaalt op het Eilandje kan je de Cubanen nog gaan bekijken tot eind september, van vrijdag tot en met zondag, telkens van 13 tot 18 uur.

From tradition to trope. image

From tradition to trope.

by Sara Alonso / 2011

In that zeal to find oneself and one’s milieu, human beings have always tried to unify all the phenomena that take place in front of them, from the most dissimilar forms possible. Every era has legitimized its own way of understanding the reality surrounding it as the result of a state of mind, searches, ambitions, dreams; while at the same time the range has been quite broad in languages, forms, techniques and colours. Depiction through landscape has been one of the privileged forms for deconstructing and understanding that milieu; as from its nature of “construct”, we humans carry out elaborations via the phenomena of culture.

Landscape representation in Cuba constituted an essentially graphic genre until the first half of the nineteenth century. Using the graphic arts as a medium, maritime subjects were taken up that referred to the insular condition, and continued delving into Cuban territory by representing the ports, the public squares, markets and the sugar cane plantation system. In that process of “interiorization”, the milieu took on a two-fold iconographic quality: idealized landscape with Romantic airs after the manner of Esteban Chartrand and the somewhat more realistic representations of Valentín Sanz Carta.1

The fervour of the first avant-garde wave of 1927 produced radical changes in this subject matter, very much corresponding to a new type of sensibility and with the social struggles that were related to modern Cuban thinking with its emancipationist utopias and the searches for new anti-academic formulae influenced by European “isms”. The landscapes of Víctor Manuel García, Antonio Gattorno, Carlos Enríquez and Eduardo Abela2 gave less prominence to the natural surroundings, characteristic of academic landscape painting, and they preferred to underline the human stamp via simple people enveloped by their habitat.

The period following 1959 also brought its experiences in the midst of the process of psycho-social transformations. The 1970s incorporate original and various landscape proposals sustained by the recreation of myths, lyrical atmosphere, stylized figures, cosmic spaces and new derivatives of Chagall’s Expressionism; other currents more in keeping with international artistic production were inclined towards hyper-realism. The new concept of the natural milieu offered by the latter permitted, from that point on, the reintroduction of the human being to the deepest of his essences through nature.

The 1980s introduced different kinds of new problematic issues on the Cuban visual arts scene. New expressive codes were based on the questioning of contemporary society. We can spotlight two directions in this sense: those artists who were reflecting upon the harmonic Man-Environment relationship and those who were politicizing their codes at the beginning with anti-establishment fervour and thus were more suited to trope and oblique allusions. By consequence, classical landscape depiction disappeared in this era to give way to a perspective that was nearer to the proposals of conceptualism where the explicit protagonist position of the environment was doing a vanishing act by means of manipulated visual references.

Following decades gave evidence of new visual directions which, among other expressive resources, was resorting to contextually evocative landscape painting. This was leaving its imprint on works giving proof of a critical era for Cubans which began with the so-called rectification of errors at the end of the 80s and was unleashed in a spiritual-material crisis that began in the 90s. Every artist, in different degrees of intellectual commitment, transformed the traditional landscape into a topic tending rather to expression, tempered towards the requirements of post-modernism that respected neither borders nor established genres, without demanding the metaphysical message that had been proposed by the preceding tendency.

The work of the Cuban artist Frank Mujica Chávez is inserted into this rich and very often convulsed tradition. Starting with profound research into the genre, in search of attitudes and gestures through their evolution both in Cuban and international contexts, an understanding of the essential elements in the most sophisticated process of construction and elaboration of landscape through the drawing is proposed, along with the challenge this assumes for the eye of the contemporary viewer. His studies on painting at the San Alejandro Academy of Fine Arts, the great conflicts in ideo-aesthetic terms suffered at the Higher Institute of Art (ISA) and at the “Cátedra de Conducta” directed by the artist Tania Bruguera,3 besides his permanent collaboration with the Ludwig Foundation of Cuba for the past three years, have shaped his very personal philosophy about the artistic creation.

From pictorial tradition, he has studied well the works of Cuban painters Domingo Ramos and Tomás Sánchez,4 who have indirectly influenced his formation from gesture and innovating spirit. Internationally, the landscape painters of the Dutch and Flemish seventeenth century, and experiences such as the Barbizon and Hudson River schools have become unavoidable too in order to understand the process. Figures such as the Englishman John Constable and the American James Abbott McNeill Whistler5 developed a type of drawing closer to emotion and estrangement that later on Mujica has claimed for his own poetics.
The artist structures a drawing which proposes and develops a particular style of looking, judging and assessing, without denying the cultural tradition which it implicitly bears. He neither denies nor continues; he calls a sort of truce out of his study of tradition. For him “learning to observe, to recognize which are the cultural codes that condition our gaze, to disconnect from them without denying them but enriching them, this is learning to elaborate a landscape from an unusual perspective. Therefore, it shows a single work just where the everyday gaze doesn’t stop”. It is this projection which gives him the possibility of expanding his conception of the genre towards other horizons, in that perennial opportunity of reflection about himself and the eternal reinvention of his surroundings. Landscape provides him that intimate space we all need.

By using the method of observation, he constructs his drawings in situ or through photographs he takes during his trips as “explorer”. Depicting them, he freezes those chrono-tropical spaces that most of the time remain unnoticed by the viewer. He considers a reality which, per se, is transitory and inaccessible. In the manner of a study of an object, under the strictest of technical rigors, he gives us tonal qualities and combinations of forms that overlap several situations in order to emphasize the ambivalent character of the flow of life.

In this new universe, we find mountains, paths, stadiums, the coastline, the sea; seasons and all possible times are defined too. The relationship between drawings and precise topography or some specific event is very far from being simple. His description is as changing as the scenes themselves. Many times the distance between us and them is measured not in miles but in years, as if the depiction were looking at another past time. Man is not there, but we can intuit his presence.

His artworks should be apprehended from contemplating, because enjoyment is found in the sensorial seduction and in the experience of the retina. However, they also breathe a gentle breeze of restlessness, interior vacuum and anxiety. The principle of a likeness or mimesis is justified in the emphasis on the experience and quality of the painting technique; but then a new feeling arises, one Frank makes concrete and palpable. The viewer, confronting his drawings, intuits in a certain degree a special feeling of exclusion, even of exile. There is a reality that escapes reason and which we understand from emotion.

Sara Alonso Gómez
Curator and Art Critic
Havana, October 9th, 2011

1 Esteban Chartrand y Dubois (Cuba, 1840 – U.S.A., 1883); Valentín Sanz Carta (Spain, 1849 – U.S.A., 1898).
2 Víctor Manuel García (Cuba, 1897 – 1969); Antonio Gattorno (Cuba, 1904 – U.S.A., 1980); Carlos Enríquez (Cuba, 1900 – 1957); Eduar-do Abela (Cuba, 1889 – 1965).
3 Tania Bruguera (Cuba, 1968).
4 Domingo Ramos (Cuba, 1894 – 1956); Tomás Sánchez (Cuba, 1948).
5 John Constable (England, 1776 – 1837);James Abbott McNeill Whistler (U.S.A., 1834 – 1903)

Speak Low image

Speak Low

Daleysi Moya / May, 2014

In drawing there’s a sort of freedom that unveils with unusual confidence the look of he who shape it. The genre shares a certain sacred character with other creative spaces, however, it lacks the reliability that accompanies painting, for instance. This “semi-peripheral” positioning within the assessing framework of the art world, provides the drawing with a dual condition: on one side, it projects it as a lesser practice, lacking autonomy; on the other, as an area of distinction and intimism. This is, then, area of sincerity.
To some people, drawing is not an alternative and its rehearsal becomes both, content and tool. In this manner, there is no definition between beginning and ending, process and result, and everything turns into one same thing only. Something similar occurs in the work of Frank Mujica, a job that works with different approaches, not just towards drawing, but also to landscaping. It is worth mentioning that for Mujica, everything is a risk. First because his work takes shape using coordinates set aside from any contemporary trend, then because it takes on with absolute seriousness the challenge presented by his glance to tradition. Such dare invites constant scrutiny of those who observe, with apprehension, the norm re-examination, even when it is an undeferable move for the construction of new paths.
Notwithstanding, Mujica is safe from his alleged generational displacement because his gesture behaves, although it may not seem so, in a very contemporary attitude. It is all about dealing with reality from others channels of interpretation, perhaps less pretentious, but faithful to their peculiar way of understanding art. Assuming landscape through drawing, in his case, it is perceived as a guarantee of his capacity to choose. In addition to his assuming the impositions of his circumstance, Mujica has decided to draw and to draw landscapes. This position wraps the will of those who, divorced from any scheme, determines their own vital narration.
Knowing himself outside any competition, provides him with the freedom of being more honest with himself and with his work. Mujica is aware that he does not call for performing, since his stage is the comprehensive panorama which encircles him on daily basis. There’s a need in him to unmount the genre, his obsession to penetrate it and dimension it, using more personal codes does not imply any deceit. His methodology, on the other hand, encompasses the skill to constantly reinvent oneself, of becoming more or less exquisite, loose, conventional, deceitful. It is not about taking a journey towards safe haven, there is no lines of progress, neither is there a before or an after, there is only one man who observes and that offers a different location to forget old ways of looking and inaugurating new ones. He does not intend to seem contemporary (or to “contemporize” the landscape from the visuality), as if this was the rightful validation to his work.
For Mujica, drawing has become the only mean capable of harboring him from the strength of radical positions. Some other spaces are too serious to give course to the fragility and subtlety of his exercises. Assuming them would be like speaking out loud, a condition rejected by his work, from the very beginning. The drawing allows eluding sententiousness tones, it allows him to be himself without the need to blurt it out in the face of everybody. This unfinished and open temper, so exclusive to the very own act of drawing, is, in a certain way, the same vocation of his stare, always imprecise and elusive, always lyrical and essential. Mujica walks over concealed areas, corners of impossible access to us because in our desire to reinvent ourselves, perhaps we have lost a little of our sincerity, or humbleness needed to examine the world for the first time.

Sketches of an observation image

Sketches of an observation

Lester A. Meno / May, 2014

Observation is a content in itself, but it turns out that most artists exceedingly enhance the way in which they manifest it, and end up by discrediting it. When I stood in front of Frank Mujica’s drawings, I associated them with certain vitality in the manner of seeing; I was reminded of two of my dearest references, both from the movies, precisely for the way in which they both modified the manner of observing. In Au Hazard Balthazar, Robert Bresson puts in the mouth of a drunkard, the phrase “Oh, My God”, and simultaneously there is a low angle plane, very brief, of a nocturnal sky stabbed by an electricity pole full of wires. Perhaps we could wonder, in such case, could that be the image of God for a drunkard or any other person, an image that is as cynical as it is honest? What matters, in my opinion, is that the unexpected image maintains with clarity the gesture that allows you to see the human condition of observing at all time, as if it was the most natural way to question reality. On the other hand, in The Eclipse, by M. Antonioni, at the end of the film there’s a plane of a street light, also a low angle. The image is very simple and, at the same time, almost a mystery, either for its being within the universe of contemplation or because its a mockery without precedents. Either way, the significations crystalize the view, and what we want is to keep it alive. I felt some of these qualities out of the brief images, with Mujica’s constant exercise for registering certain experience. His Diary, the most undefined by himself as oeuvre inside his production, shows him in a more faithful way.

Frank Mujica’s work, as that of almost all the artists I know, is the result of the circumstances, natural and forced ones, but, in its case, clearly assimilated. The crayon drawing technique and landscape, exclusive genre in its production, encloses his work close by a traditional area, or, to be more precise, that’s from where it starts. Then emerge the need for getting out of the frame from a merely traditional milieu, on the road towards a more contemporary presentation. This voyage is as explicit as the will of the artist to show a process, an unfinished work that adjusts to the temporality of life’s experience. The conscious obstacle of expressing a temporality through a fixed image turns the work into the tip of the iceberg, or a bridge towards another space, even wider, but harder to pinpoint. If I make a quick depiction of his work, I can remember a forsaken avenue, an angry sky as a backdrop of a public light, or perhaps the same with a mop of palm tree leaves in showing, sculptures that crown a building that we know or assume to be huge, and an assortment of images, all neutralized with a frame that prompts a particular observation and a pulchritude and elegance that enhance such neutrality. The drawings resemble the result, or the residue, of a voyage. Regardless the impeccable care one can find in them, they give a feeling of mere notes, even the large scale drawings on canvas. Throughout a light movement of observation, Mujica varies the conventional notion that triggers his work, creating, at the same time, whimsical and random compositions, but which go on creating their own map. The drawings are variations of his observation that becomes the theme of the works. The landscape, barely decipherable in its real site, and covered with grayish hues, overlaps with the daily exercise associated with memory, with the cartography that the author makes toward the past and the future simultaneously. The use of crayon emphasizes the non-definitive character of the pieces, open to infinite variation. The crayon goes from the small scale paper to the big format canvas without any problems, almost like a declaration of the character of exercise, of a tallying present on the works. What evades Mujica’s observation, what consciously clear-cuts the image and excludes its fundamental part, offering in return, in the rest of the space, a white diaphragm that borderlines the hewn image, it has to be discovered in the process of the author, or one would have to be very patient and watch the sketches of the complete journey, probably the one of his life, so as to re-make the work.

Lester A. Meno
Visual artist.