On ViewBienvenu Steinberg & Partner
May 26 – June 30, 2022
Cuban-born Glenda León (b. 1976) came of age during Cuba’s “special period” (1991–2000), a specious term coined by Fidel Castro to describe the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s withdrawal of financial support from the island state, and a time when Castro harshly suppressed human freedoms. Ironically, he also supported expansive education and free expression in the arts—so long as its content didn’t offend the spirit of the revolution. Artists who followed the rules exhibited and sold their works abroad, a percentage of their sales going to the Cuban government. In her first solo exhibition at Bienvenu Steinberg & Partner, León—who now lives and works in Havana and Madrid—presents a compelling portrait of her life and art as it evolved in this mercurial world, shuttling between an impoverished, repressive island state and a world-at-large with infinite access to high-tech information as well as global glut and cultural excess.
Scaled to its modest-sized gallery space, this mini-retrospective of eleven works sparkles with insightful choices highlighting key aspects of León’s multimedia practice. It includes an early series of previously unseen paired photographs documenting Cuban propaganda produced to celebrate fifty years of revolution. One set of photographs, Beautiful Blue Dot (Study n.3) (1999–2000), juxtaposes an image of a graffitied fence reading “Patria o Muerte Siempre” (Homeland or Death Always) with another related rendering, this one superimposing a hand holding a delicate blue flower in the foreground and blurring the nationalist scrawl into the background. León intended this series of twinned photographs to move beyond the idea of revolution, to express hope, and to focus on her identity as an artist whose works transcend political issues of a particular time and place. But her photographs also reveal how Cuban artists adapted to repressive policies by elevating political realities into universal expressions of human folly and aspiration, often by taking advantage of double meanings inherent in their visual language. In this case, the contrast between the delicate flower and nationalistic graffiti can simultaneously be read as hope realized through revolution, or despite it.
León’s later multimedia works similarly navigate and universalize Cuba’s oxymoronic repression-laced artistic freedom, a feat she remarkably accomplishes without ever losing the refrains of Cuban song. For example, her iconic installation, Shapes of the Instant (2001), finds humanity in leftover slivers of soap. León, who conceived the work at a time in Cuba when fine art materials were as scarce and as costly as soap and other daily staples, convinced a soap factory to donate fresh sweet-scented bars for her art project. She then traded these smooth new soaps to people who were overjoyed to receive them in exchange for worn and depleted soap slivers. The resulting installation consists of 115 of these soap remnants hung in a grid, many bearing calligraphic designs drawn with strands of the artist’s hair. León, who expected many to wince at the mere idea of unsightly mushed soap and loose hairs, nevertheless understood that these personalized “sculptures”—each one molded by the anonymous hand of a bather-sculptor—would transform daily bathing into a larger metaphor for self-respect. So does her use of a lowly throw-away material refocus the viewer’s attention away from the dearth defining Cuban life, and towards art as a celebration of life’s smallest gifts.
Though León no longer needs to deal with scarce art supplies, she still regards detritus as the mother of invention. In fact, when I met with her as she installed this exhibit, she vigorously chewed gum as she worked, saying she needed a replacement wad for Chewed Words (2018–21). For this sculpture, León covered the metal striking keys of an old Remington portable typewriter with well-masticated mounds of gum. By “gumming up the works,” León humorously suggests all sorts of malfunctions: gumming up one’s words with ambiguous messaging, a breakdown of technology, political silencing of thought, writer’s block, the wisdom of silence. And, when we recall that the vintage Remington was most often used by secretaries—mostly women workers whose voices were traditionally muffled throughout society—the work becomes an oblique feminist statement.
León frequently relies on humor to make her point. A series of watercolor studies for larger installations features popular sports, depicting the soccer field, swimming pool, and basketball court as mattresses in a playful commentary on sexual competition and combat. At other times, León’s message links ethereal and political realms, as it does in an embroidered work, Forbidden Sky (Silver) (2012–2022). What appears to be a starry constellation (and perhaps a riff on the Beatles’s famous song, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds), specifically depicts the molecular structure of “forbidden drugs,” natural substances indigenous communities used for ritual and medicinal purposes. Today these references symbolize drug abuse, a theme that León further develops in a video work, Inversion III (2016). It documents the artist scraping the print off a one hundred dollar bill, rolling the filings into a coca leaf, then smoking the toxic joint. León uses the title—Inversion, which means investment in Spanish, but reversal in English—as metaphor. Instead of making money, she destroys it to comment on the way the monetized culture of drugs sends life up in smoke.
As this meticulously curated exhibition introduces us to Glenda León as a well-established media ecumenical whose broad artistic range transports us from a shower stall in Cuba to ethereal constellations in the universe, so does it remind us of the power of art to sustain and guide us through life’s most challenging moments.