critical texts


Pedro Pablo Oliva’s inconclusive paradoxes
Héctor Antón Castillo
Pedro Pablo Oliva’s inconclusive paradoxes, Héctor Antón Castillo.

Pedro Pablo Oliva burst into the Cuban plastic arts during the seventies. Those were hard times when the so called “Padilla Case" stirred up the prevailing differences among the island’s intelligentsia regarding the socialist dogma of coming to terms with the artists like another essential " social fuel ". Fortunately, nobody asked his eyes or hands to the young graduated from the Cubanacán National School of Art, in which vital creators at the present time ―like Tomás Sánchez, Roberto Fabelo, Flavio Garciandía and Eduardo Ponjuán―, got educated. Fortunately, he was neither dazzled by the ambitiousness of yielding to the immediate ethical norms. From his early moments and to the present, Oliva has been determined to show that "being local is the best way of being universal".

Breathing in the middle of that time where extremes came together dangerously, arose in Oliva the need of pursuing equilibrium. Many followers of his work consider this pursuit to be the essential factor of his artistic evolution. Thus, he tried to combine Antonia Eiriz’s rebellious expressionism with Chagall’s and Magritte’s surrealism, without obviating the poetic elections made by paradigms of the Cuban avant-garde: the visible lyricism in Servando Cabrera’s epic painting and the satirical vein of the also artist and cartoonist Eduardo Abela. Recognized or recognizable, the maestros’ mark found a safe shelter in the ethical stamp his career has been characterized by: he is a chronicler of his time, ready to evading the traps of political swings and, most of all, preserving the privilege of dreaming, even stepping on quicksand.

Contrary to frequent suppositions, Pedro Pablo is never ambiguous. Instead, he has a poetic - political duality that leads him to set the symbolic opening of a situation over the end of a story. Therefore, "the end does justify the means" in a poetic context. By distorting the principle of political definition, this principle ends up as a questionable, useless premise. An angel or a demon, guilty or innocent, this is a man that says that he paints totally convinced that no one has the right to pronounce the last word under no circumstances. Maybe this represents his only and perennial heresy.

Distorted by the reality of the dreams or nightmares, Oliva’s characters contract, weighted down by calm. They represent the everyday epic of an impossible adventure, where tenderness becomes sadness without means to sublimate it. From a siesta shared on a wickerwork armchair to a couple condemned to live eternally with a stone on their heads, you can sense the physical stillness as a symbol of the existential torment. In a drawing of the series Papeles Nocturnos (2001), there is an exhausted creature, although the paradox its own title entails ―Juegos [Games] ― suggests this girl can hardly escape from reality while she is slept.

Pedro Pablo does no hide the formula of his creative process. In any case, he reveals it so that the public consume his offer without ever suspecting any procedural fraud. The artist sustains that the conflicts derived from the context make easier for him changing the form and content of the series. That’s why events like the exodus of balseros to the costs of Florida or the building of tunnels-shelters for la guerra de todo el pueblo [the war that involves all the Cuban people]; allow him drawing up a look back on chaos in the island. However, Oliva deals with these topics with the shame of someone who has sensed bareness there where others have only seen the disguise of shams.

Navegantes is a series based on an ethically delicate operation: using humor when the tragedy implies the comedy of those who tempt fate without understanding the magnitude of the consequences. This might be the reason for reduce the size of the figurations for fear of getting a spectacular dramatic quality through an excessive scale of the pieces. Because in the fact of representing a family rowing a rationing card or a match box, the impotence complex subverts the amusing impact of the image. That is to say, that an alert observer would think more in the consequences of a shipwreck on dry land than in the insanity of planning a sail on an improvised artifact.

By reducing social contingencies to absurdity, the artist also reduces himself to someone destined to perform a lamentable work: softening misfortunes through parody. He probably aimed to suggesting that there is nothing more embarrassing than laughing at the misfortunes human beings are besieged by. Putting an end to this series made Pedro Pablo Oliva recover his tranquility. Only this way he would be safe from finding himself speculating with the consequences of other people’s pain. In view of such a risk, it was preferable painting bucolic scenes of that domestic tedium so recurrent in many of his paintings.

The besieged city complex finds its visual expression in the series Los refugios, inspired in the túneles populares [bomb shelters for the people]. That “underground citadel ", conceived for the case of a sudden enemy aggression, shows that Oliva prefers registering the "moments of crisis" instead of the "crisis at the last moment ". Here you can verify the effort to give symbolism to the description of a local phenomenon. He does not try to graphically translate all the social and political events that shake the country, but touching the “vulnerable zones " of resistance like hegemonic fiction transformed in social reality.

That anxiousness to cover cracks, delusions and frustrations results in those "anarchic accumulations" that lead to the execution of an emblematic piece. Thus, a concatenation of lugubrious spaces and times favored one of the "dark illuminations" of the art made in Cuba during the last decades.

In El Gran Apagón, the island’s tragicomedy crowds into a tunnel where everything finds a place to stop except for the good fortune to drown one’s sorrows. What is agonic does not care for what is playful and hope wrinkles its brow. Dagoberto Valdés compared this tableau of longings and frustrations with Pablo Picasso’s Guernica. According to this reporter, "In Picasso you can see the wound from outside. In Oliva the wound is inside". Diluted in the void of the common man or confined to the silence of his critical consciousness, Pedro Pablo refrains from judging that "período especial [special period]" that followed the collapse of the communist block. Then he ends up telling us about a misunderstanding between ridiculous convergences, where an empty stump and the stigma of quiet words, Martí’s astonishment and the slander of naming him without the slightest remorse, all coincide.

El Gran Apagón (1994-95) entrenches a confused landscape after the utopia. Palm trees are no longer waiting girlfriends or the popular mobilizations the sign of "in union there is strength". Due to the lack of light, it becomes complicated distinguishing nature and man. "Something we can not see has been lost". That seems to be the howling from a shelter filled with souls stripped of that inner light that is more important that one that makes you see the visible obstacles.

When talking about balance in Oliva’s work, we often have to make reference to a painful equilibrium. Otherwise, it would not be possible to establish the psychological features that differentiate the characters with closed eyes: the coldness before the political manipulation’s ravages and the restrained obstinacy of the social losers. But these contrasts have something in common: a provincial air about them that recreates a universal antagonism.

On a certain day, the artist sensed that the seafront wall was the perfect place to sketch the Havana’s codes, hidden in the hustle and bustle of dreamless nights. Despite space stimulates an outside-oriented view, he intends to activate an inside-oriented reflection about the insularity. This does not prevent the sea from being seen like "an unfulfilled promise" in the configuration of an image, but the detonator of the stories resides in the background of a society split among invisibles walls.

Alegrías y tristezas del Malecón is a series in which different objects accompany the paintings. From a Chinese lantern to a Cuban flag, the interest for merging the symbols of survival into a pop concern ―debtor of the combined paintings implemented by Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns in the late fifties― prevails.

Refusing to reproduce tourist scenes by the sea, Pedro Pablo decided to create scenes of such a philosophical complexity that would disconcert his own reference models. In this sense, what is typical succumbs to an archetypal dimension that makes it transcend, a manipulation that reveals an interest in going beyond the dirty realism from which is fueled by to ensure a minimum of truthfulness.

The guilt and the homeland as subjects of his work reappear in a painting of the series Alegrías y tristezas del Malecón. Seated on a Havanan wall, a naked man looks towards the horizon escorted by a Cuban flag. Meanwhile, a chameleon painted red, blue and white crawls up his back. A curious detail can be noticed in the character’s phallus: it is nothing but a short rope with a knot. Under the circumstances, the archetype of Cuban macho is replaced by the virile uselessness that prevents him from hitting the target in the center of the ambitions of a "top-quality man".

Became in an erotic and political handicapped, the naked man is paralyzed by an inexplicable motive that deprives him of his right to treason. So he can only shake the chameleon off his back and jump out of the wall to disappear in the waters without facing the great beyond, which is allegedly interrogating him.

Pedro Pablo Oliva’s characters are condemned to the silence of a bogus guilt that reminds them about an old proverb: “Patience is the key that opens the final door". No matter how big the nonconformity of the characters in the story, they would not reveal themselves against the true guilty. These scenes make up a sort of alter ego of their creator: a sensibility where humility and arrogance begin a mental quarrel the outcome of which includes its very lack of solution.

One of the risks assumed in this pictorial journey can be seen in the defense of genres considered less important within the nomenclature of the "grand art": the costumbrismo [genre dealing with local customs] and the cartoon. In regard to this, some could challenge the artist about an adaptation to the old traditions. On the other hand, others would justify that he recreates a costumbrismo where what is oneiric prevails over realism. It would be also valid to associate Pedro Pablo’s fantasies to the magic realism Gabriel García Márquez’s novels are usually filled with. In the same way, it would necessary taking into consideration the presence of the graphic humor, stripped of their usual clichés, like using speech balloons and sequences for the purpose of telling a story.

In effect, the humor continence becomes evident in the purpose of harmonizing cartoons, caricatures and epic. Except that the end of every witticism is the way to arrive at the beginning of a fantastic world that is not limited to caricatures or epic. When means and aims are merged, the prevailing image is a space-time plunged into a picaresque without the established prominences.

A distinctive feature is the lack of the Cuban choteo [joke] and his gallery of false subversions. By strengthening the political satire in prejudice of the morcilla criolla, Pedro Pablo tends to favor a “questioning introspection” that links him to the legacy of those "dark transparencies" represented by Antonia Eiriz and Chago Armada during the seventies.

But if it is in Antonia’s works that the omnipresent face of power is concealed until it is taken to the limit of its own abstraction, in Oliva it is shown with a figurative transparency that range between sarcasm and forgiveness. The real challenge is in deciding which side of the scales contains a bigger portion of irony.

By miniaturizing the textual emptiness of the awards or reproducing an ironing table to represent a government employee dismissed from his post, Pedro Pablo maintains his position as a voyeur hunter of pretexts to hatch fables. The radical dissents attributed by some people are another fiction that contributes to give him the category of problem. But without these differences it would be impossible building a myth starting from an attitude of withdrawal. This singularity vindicates an attempt of his own on a culture of resistance: to be a problem proud to be it.

A couple doomed to live eternally with a stone on their heads
What calls the attention in this behavior is the ability to light himself up without regretting an unfolding that allows him to deal with a character or subject with a similar dose of naivety or irony. Is it possible that, for Oliva, painting as an idea is a state of mind turned into shapes and colors in which what is really monstrous is carrying tenderness to absurdity? It is possible that he managed to get rid of all resentment and guilt?

Pope Joannes Paulus II’s visit to Cuba in 1998 had a profound impact in the political and spiritual climate in the island. With this event, which lasted for five days, the local things became universal and the utopia of the isle as the center of the universe gained an ephemeral but authentic raison d'etre. Pedro Pablo Oliva did no want to overlook this humanistic performance where the combination of these moments was focused on the amount de believers and nonbelievers that venerated the Sovereign Pontiff. Again the artist shut himself in his oyster to accomplish an emulating fresco without copying the visible counterpoints in El Gran Apagón.

El inconcluso milagro del pan y los peces (1998-2000) suggests a wide variety of planes immerse into a paradox of lights and shadows, where the yearning for transparency is equivalent to the difficulty for getting it from the cave of human irrationality. Neighboring but distant at the same time, each character seems to rest in virtual cells in which the guards are the human fears and prejudices. Despite you can identify the emblematic figures, they do not hold a hierarchical superiority. The surrounding environment is the struggle between story and History. The icons - legends project only that light of the impossible that, immerse into the atmosphere of a tropical baroque, transports us to the uneasiness of El Gran Apagón.

This painting, paradoxically unfinished like all of the Pedro Pablo’s works, covers the madness of the world ―in the shape of a puppet whose strings have been cut off. What is the meaning of risking? What does give in imply? What it is disturbing about the painting is its ability to turn eloquence into infinite layers of silence. Before the presence of a triptych that rests on the wall of a house from the western part of the island, we can imagine the artist recalling one of Martí’s maxims, evident in his work El milagro del pan y los peces: "All the glory in this world fits in a grain of corn".

The crucial attempt of this pictorial journey consists in a pursuit of light by he who refrains from taking sides for something or somebody. The humanistic creed of the craftsman that thinks is inscribed there where he prefers keeping himself away from the political edge. Neither the good nor the bad are the main characters of an antiheroic epic that will never appear in the annals of History. Who are right? Who are wrong? If we try to find the answer to so many questions, we will end up remembering José Martí when he said: "Men lose the best blood in their veins in politics".

Several Latin-American intellectuals have devoted themselves to the task of shortening the distance between poetry and politics. From Pablo Neruda to Octavio Paz, the result of this chimera has exacerbated the interest in ideological affiliations. Pedro Pablo’s great sneer consists in turning the back no those swerves that drift away from the artistic. In this sense, the only forgivable loyalty would be embracing a maxim of Cuban essayist Cintio Vitier: "Poetry is what never fails".

In relation to the Brecht heritage, Roland Barthes admitted its topicality, despite not being in current fashion or having entered yet in the axiomatic field of the avant-garde. In a similar way, we could refer to Pedro Pablo Oliva as one of our contemporaries. But this believe would be tolerated only despite everybody and everything. For that, it would be necessary to cross the bridge that would leave behind a repertoire of snobbishness, suspicions and authoritarianism. A burden as heavy as the artist’s lightness when he takes a paintbrush and gives vent on a canvas to his doubts and certainties without giving them names or surnames.

taken from: www.olivapp.com