Playing With Stories and Stars
By Shirley Moreira
The work of Raúl Castro Camacho (Memo), although it has experienced some leaps with respect to its visuality, has remained stable around the use of the icon and the symbol as a means of connection with the viewer. He appeals to popular visual culture, advertising codes, pastiche and humor. He establishes a sort of playful game with the public that later leads to a greater accumulation of meanings, bearing the social, political or cultural concerns of the artist.
Although he has experimented with other means such as installation and photography, Memo is essentially a draftsman. That is why he always returns to graphics and to the fresh linearity of drawing. He basks in the simplicity of the line, in that minimalist air that, while assuming certain codes of pop and neoxpressionism, leads him to the maxim of always seeking to say more with the indispensable visual resources.
In 2009, with the series Entre muros (Between Walls), the artist began to reveal part of his creative concerns. On this occasion, the Havana seawall was positioned as the protagonist of a project that, although it felt anchored to the identity dimension of a space that has been brought back and forth in the visual arts in Cuba, sought to move away from the formal solutions explored previously. The wall became a fence, a hurricane, a playground, a flag, a labyrinth. It became malleable and came to life in each of the pieces to talk about identity, the complexities of emigration, the dynamics of insularity, the roles of a society divided in body and soul on both sides of the wall. The defined and sharp stroke, the thickness of the line, the chromatic stability on the ochre tones already foreshadowed a certain filiation with graphic art, a fact that would continue to be present in many of his later works.
However, even with the changes in visuality and language
that Memo gives to this series, the malecon, emigration, insularity or confinement are still hackneyed themes in Cuban art, and those who venture to deal with them know that they constantly need new codes that offer freshness to the discourse. Otherwise, there is a risk of falling into labels that grant a worn-out and anodyne creative individuality. In such circumstances, I commend the artist’s wisdom to achieve a substantial project and not to stick, as many do, to reiterative comfort for years.
Towards 2011 his work experiences a turn with the Penumbras series. His canvases overflow with black (black shapes on a black background). There is no abstraction, although he flirts with it in order to play with the viewer’s perception. In this world of gloom, the popular phrase among Cubans to describe difficult situations comes ipso facto to mind: “things are black”. There is no light or hope in the midst of the continuous night, of the generalized “big blackout”.
Then, with great attention, the spectator discovers in the dark night of the canvas figures that are close and familiar to him. Popular icons such as the Plaza of the Revolution, the Statue of Liberty, the Twin Towers, cartoons like Elpidio Valdés and Calabacita begin to define themselves among silhouettes. There are satellites and planes hovering. So much darkness cannot be good. The alarm, the fear, the syndrome of suspicion. The artist seeks to unsettle us, and he succeeds.
The formal solution of monochrome and iconographic simplicity are reiterated in the Brumas (Mists) series, only this time he plays with the dynamics of white on white. The clarity generated by these pieces does not escape the confusion and suspicion previously evoked with the shadow zone of the palette. Now there is a certain fog that floods everything, which hides stories where characters and known scenarios are mixed in a sarcastic change of roles.
If in the Penumbras series he is somewhat open and ambiguous with respect to iconography, with Brumas he finds a clearer discursive line that leads him to work with specific cultural symbols. The canvases are populated with national and foreign cartoons in a forced mixture of identities, very much in tune with the rapprochement experienced during Barack Obama’s presidency between Cuba and the United States.
Something that has characterized Memo’s work, and I have already pointed it out before, is that he does not like stagnant patterns. Each work project works as a different experience. When he moves on to another series, he always carries with him from the previous one a certain discursive or iconographic essence that definitely marks a linearity within his creative posture, but he reinvents himself in each case to always offer a new and fresh product.
In his latest series, Constellations (2018), he abandons the formality of the quadrangular support and the linear structuring that had characterized him so far to give way to the circular format and the carefree dripping. Black and white are now mixed to configure, in each piece, a fragment of the night sky. The drops of white pigment shine like stars, approaching or distancing themselves from each other to form different constellations. But the artist is not trying to create a treatise on astronomy. The sky and its stars are reconfigured in each canvas, and where we expect to see the structure that gives Cassiopeia its name, there appears, for example, the Hollywood sign.
He then returns to cultural icons and their decontextualization. He returns to the mixture of scenarios and concepts to propose a discourse based on double meaning, association and the visual culture of the spectator. The names that give title to each piece are familiar to us, perhaps due to certain knowledge on the subject or to the popular predilection for the designs of the horoscope. And that is where the trap is set. Each image maintains the visual essence of the constellation that gives it its name, but the iconographic result varies completely. Thus, Perseus shows us the classic and contradictory image of the Apollo space mission’s stay on the moon. The artist establishes a connection between the meaning of Perseus, mythological hero who decapitated Medusa, possessor of supernatural strength, and the much discussed scene where the Americans positioned themselves as absolute protagonists of one of the most important events in history.
Pisces reveals its hidden potential and becomes a shark (perhaps Spielberg’s classic Jaws); Taurus is configured as the bull of Wall Street; Scorpio changes the pincers of the scorpion for the form, also threatening, of the symbol of the hammer and sickle. One of the most unique pieces is undoubtedly the constellation of the Phoenix. The group of stars that should represent the mythical bird that is reborn from its ashes form a new composition where we can define the columns of the Maine Monument and the imperial eagle, once banished, that flies over them, perhaps with the desire to return to perch. But the artist stops the scene at the moment of flight, a flight that becomes ambiguous before the possibility of landing or taking off. We do not know for sure what will be the end of the story. Perhaps it is the ghosts of the past that return, or the definitive banishment of paranoia and fear.
Memo has not found recipes to develop his work, he is not looking for them, he is not interested in them. Each time he embarks on projects that, by going out of the ordinary, become great challenges, as they position him in the expectation of how the new dialogue with the public will be. His works, although they require a certain cultural level on the part of the receiver to establish a complete interpretative analysis, also offer several levels of reading by flirting with some of the visual icons most used by the advertising media. The visual sources from which he draws are inexhaustible; the context from which he works is a continuum of stories, challenges and contradictions. We can only look forward to the next project.