It may be that postmodernism’s greatest contribution is the absence of Manichaeism in both the criticism and the common interpretation of works of art. The radical differences between figuration and abstraction, cannon and nativism, and the avant-garde and tradition – so characteristic of modernity and noticeable in earlier periods – are dissolved by the influx of a totalizing appreciation of the intrinsic and extrinsic factors of aesthetic value. Even decorativism and the “commercial” style become acceptable categories in artistic expression. Not a few observers have suggested that they could detect in the works of Viredo Espinosa and René Ávila --two painters from Havana who belong to the Los Once (The Eleven) group-- some early expressions of those dissonances that surface in the transition from modern art to the chaos of postmodernism.

The followers of the abstract movement within Los Once certainly had their doubts about these two, especially about Viredo. So much so, in fact, that they plotted to eject him from their ranks. But we should not forget – indeed, we should acknowledge – that this group, that played such a decisive role in the shift in visual perspective that took place in Cuban painting during the Fifties, did not actually have a clearly defined ideo-aesthetic point of view that allowed them to articulate a program of collective principles and action and, for that very reason, as a group, they projected a hopeless incoherence and an absence of any interconnectedness. John Powers said it very clearly, “It was an iconoclastic group, in which some members adopted styles that other members flatly rejected.” [1]

Viredo is exempt from pejorative labels such as picturesque, decorativist, kitsch or naïve by virtue of the overwhelming authenticity and sincerity of his pictorial execution, both of which are a natural extension of those very qualities inthe man himself. Viredo would never have adopted other forms of expression; what he does flows directly from the integrity of his professional training and his sensory experience. As he himself put it, “I always applied the same discipline and approach to my painting that I used in my commercial art.” The extreme care that is evident in his lines and forms, and the exorbitant colors of his palette, are a natural projection of his visual scope – not a deliberate adaptation or imitation of Pop or pseudo-nativist trends. When he ventures into abstraction he never allows himself to fall under its spell, guiding himself by his very own optical perspective: Viredo is and will always be the quintessential figurativist. This is because it is the objective world that provides him with his essential theme. As he says, with moving, poetic frankness, “I always come back to the glorious fabric of my childhood, where so many different elements are woven together in a tapestry of colors and sounds.” His affinity for “sounds” is apparent in his painting, where the shrillness of his colors yearns to transmute the sound track of the natural domain of the islands and the music of the islanders. This audio quality in his painting irrevocably links him to his most consistent subject – Afro-Cuban religious cults, whose syncretism has always included music in a starring role.

In Viredo’s case, of course, this subject is an integral aspect of his own personal history. He was born in the port city of Regla, on the eastern shore of the Bay of Havana. During his childhood there he witnessed the celebrations organized by the various pantheons, including perhaps the most syncretic of all, Santería, whose deities are identified with the Catholic saints. In the painting titled “The Cabildo is Coming” (1997), the city skyline is visible in the background behind the musicians; the “starched” clouds, the rainbow gushing up from the horizon, and the sailing boats all contribute to that air of grace that enfolds the buildings in the distance and the entire coastal region of Regla, and illuminates the painter’s evocation like the light of an endless summer.

The possible influences that are discernible in this and other works by Viredo confirm that he was perfectly aware of the paradigmatic movements and models of the twentieth century, as well as of sources close at hand, and was able to consider them within his own range of creative possibilities. The Picasso who created Fontainebleau, most of all, as well as The Musicians (1921) and Harlequin with Guitar (1924) was clearly among his points of reference. In his 1953 version of Llabó, and in the al fresco (1953) and encaustic (1954) murals painted for the Acción Médica Clinic in Havana, one can identify the cleverly incorporated and manipulated formal resources that are frequently found in the works of Mario Carreño or José Mijares. In Funbis (1982), the artist’s innovative abilities are apparent in his appropriation of certain forms that appear in paintings by Wifredo Lam. It is not my intention here to point to any telltale traces left by other artists in Viredo’s work, nor to compare his paintings with those of his contemporaries; where this artist is concerned, the odious practice of descriptive criticism makes no sense at all: Viredo is Viredo.

I would like to draw attention to two of this artist’s paintings which, in my opinion, are among his most successful: Proud Peacock and Gran Canaria, both painted in 1998. They could each be used as a model for a serialized production of his work. Both are eloquent expressions of his central themes, imbued with undeniable freshness. In these works, kitsch is transmuted into a lyricism that in turn overwhelms and annuls its source with its ad usum application. Here we can witness a coalescing of the full range of the painter’s skills, his craft and his visualization. The colors, refined and coherent, are softly applied on a drawing that has been painstakingly rendered down to the very last detail, creating acomposition of great richness and serenity that is distinguished by its deeply poetic message. This is a pictorial direction that Viredo would be well advised to keep in mind in the future.

Pedro de Oraa
April 25, 2006

(1) This citation and the ones that follow are taken from VIREDO: The artist and his work, Santa Ana (California): Beard Publishing, 2002