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Arte culinario

Arte culinario
signed and dated (lower right, each), inscribed with title (lower edge, each)
oil on canvas
80 x 62 ¼ (203.2 x 158.1 cm.) each
80 x 186 ¼ in. (203.2 x 473.1 cm.) overall, triptych
Painted in 2018.
Acquired directly from the artist by the present owner.

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Kristen France
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Lot Essay

Art is full of ingredients and the possibilities its language offers may be associated with the gastronomic deities. This is the essence of the painting Arte culinario by the Cuban artist Roberto Fabelo. His images emerge as steam does from a great broth. The images in this painting are akin to an event reel observed through a limitless screen. A stage is set that suggest the spirit of adventure of an Internet search coupled with the anxiety one feels when connecting to Instagram. Current social networks are not so different from Dada practices or Surrealist performances. Disparate situations are activated independently which in turn accentuate the overlaps between each of the stories or events.

The triptych Arte Culinario describes a chaotic atmosphere not unlike the theater of the absurd which fascinated Samuel Beckett. Emerging from an imaginative dream, it is transformed into poetic edifice. The artist knows all too well the fatigue that comes from representing common places and instead creates an alternative order for things. He recognizes that art’s quintessence is unique because it is immortal, another organic dimension and part of the very essence of life. Fabelo doesn’t adhere to a predetermined script but rather favors improvisation and is not bound to any logical unfolding of a specific situation.

Much of Fabelo’s artistic production appears to be studies on Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas (1656), that is, the subjects that appear in the composition’s foreground seem to observe while those in the background, to probe. The viewer does not evade the temptation to sink their gaze into the painting. Something transpires in the background that is not revealed and quietly passes before our eyes. The artist dwells on the connections which compel us to reflect about life’s mysteries and question the prevailing currents in portraying the contradictions of power.

A sense of fear is reflected in the bloody hook that controls our minds. A small vessel or jarro as it is referred to in Cuba, stops being a sensible food container. The means through which food is prepared becomes the container or space where a multitude expresses its confoundment of the events unfolding around them. Thus, purpose and reality construct an obsolete explanation; these beings navigate in a state of ostracism; an ancestral pain takes hold of their souls.

In this painting we do not sense the will to survive, which is clearly expressed in Théodore Géricault’s moving drama The Raft of the Medusa (1818-1819). Fabelo’s characters remain still and wait for something to transpire which does not. Their consciousness reminds us of existentialism’s origins. The artist explores the interstices of the human condition delving into the individual’s liberty in order to truly analyze the meaning of life. He demolishes prejudices and conventions and explores instead, a subjectivity that precedes the human condition. The multitude feels the steam coming from the cauldrons yet remain still; they overcome their fear because they are bound by it.

A forest of columns of stacked cauldrons constructs a landscape of agony and anxiety. The containers appear to be towers that rise to form a spectrum of color alluding to the serious and ridiculous. The tonal rhythms remind us of pleasing music. The scale and humble condition of the cooking utensils refer to their personal use but also refer to the collective needs. The abundance of these precarious objects and their aestheticization suggest a certain rejection of their original function. The products or ingredients to be cooked are nowhere to be seen and become a mystery we can’t solve. A figure sits in one of the stacked pots and observes something inside it. His obvious sense of alienation is palpable. The artist notes with great bewilderment a disconcerting condition which is overwhelmingly personal. The scene’s surrealist poetics connect to both the personal life and social drama. The animals that are part of the tableau are trapped by the fragility of a floating drawing that calls attention to the chaos of the narrative.

In the artist’s conception of this composition, he re-examines his observations of the stereotypes of female beauty. Fabelo is indebted to Peter Paul Rubens and Vélázquez, and does not share the prescribed depiction of the female form in the media. For him beauty is sublime and transcends the conventional prototypes. The virtuosity in his depiction of full bodies is, therefore, part of his admiration. Fabelo’s voluptuous female holds a fork and witnesses with great astonishment, the passive disposition of all those around her which seems dysfunctional. Finding the means with which to feed themselves, is the utmost daily concern of those on this island. The woman rests on a shell as if on watch; her wait is an act of resistance, a will to change things as they are. Just as in the dynamic compositions of the Mannerist masters where movement is gracefully contained, the viewer must wonder what may eventually occur.

Fabelo’s triptych is notable for its contrasts; his organization of extravagant spaces throughout his painting allows the viewer to contemplate reality under a mystic light that is also unsettling. The beans stand as the most identifiable and potent symbols for work in the form of nourishment. The artist juxtaposes the verticality of the composition in contrast to the fragility of the assembled structure, thus the most childish forms appear inaccessible. He constructs a world wherein the apocalyptic transforms into an orgy of imagination.

It is evident that there is a nexus between this work and others in Fabelo’s oeuvre indeed, many of which have been substantially exhibited internationally. Among these, the installation Torres (2005-2013) which was exhibited at The Kennedy Center in 2018 and more recently included in Mundos: Goya y Fabelo at Madrid’s Centro Cultural Conde Duque in 2023. Torres pays homage to the types of objects which are symbols of an archeological period; the means of socializing within the framework of food created a major experience that permeated throughout the island but has now disappeared. These pots provide evidential ruins that point to the difference between being and existing. The surface of the metal becomes a sketchbook where characters emerge grieving and delighting with the same passion as the figures in the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450-1516).

The work La Ronda Infinita (2015) shares affinities with Eadward Muybridge’s Animal Locomotion as a chain of men walk on the edge of an empty cauldron in continuous movement. The large forks the men carry appear to be weapons rather than eating utensils, but they can also transform into working tools; they can be perceived as useless instruments which do not function even as eating implements. The cauldron is empty, and no one looks inside as fear is manifested through silence. It is difficult to describe the adversities faced by every Cuban in their daily procuring of basic foods, and the essence of this work. Fabelo does not gloat over shortages. This is a monument to the everyday citizen whose life has become a daily struggle for survival. In 2015 Delicatessen was included in Detrás del muro, part of the 12th edition of the Havana Biennial which has been an ongoing initiative focusing on the arts in in Havana. Fabelo’s installation stood out due to its brutal imagery. The giant cauldron’s surface becomes fodder for a swarm of forks which pierce its surface. Confronting the colossal pot which resembles a giant hedgehog provokes hallucinations. The fork acts as a catharsis of Freudian origins as the cauldron is stripped of its original use to accentuate an event that does not conceal the violence. This work, in its approach, recalls the wretchedness of The Scream by Edvard Munch (1863-1944). It may be understood as massive protest, a desperate gesture to find the means to resolve the many problems facing society with no way out in sight. Delicatessen may be understood as the demand of a multitude, as a desperate gesture to find ways to solve many problems that are entrenched in a society and that find no way out. Delicatessen is intended to stimulate a dialogue and the right to live a balanced existence rather than in perfect equilibrium.

Jorge Antonio Fernández Torres, curator, art critic, and Director, Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de Cuba, Havana

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