This work is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity signed by Los Carpinteros, dated 19 August 2008, and is registered in the artists's inventory under number LC95S007.
“I think our first piece was the collaboration itself,” reflects Marco Castillo, one of the three founding members of the collective Los Carpinteros, with Dagoberto Rodríguez and (until 2003) Alexandre Arrechea. Students of René Francisco Rodríguez at Havana’s Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA), they met in 1990 and began to collaborate two years later. “Los Carpinteros seemed perfect for us because we wanted to investigate issues of the way art is made, the way that an object is fabricated,” Castillo explains of the group’s name. “To speak of a carpenter is to speak of the way something is made.” Their identification with makers “implied a sort of guild affiliation,” adds Arrechea. “The idea of being a carpenter, that is a common person, without great pretensions of other sorts, reduced the notion of the artist to something simpler,” he continues. “Of course, as artists we always aspire to a greater dialogue. But the concept of a ‘carpenter’ was a form of subterfuge for us; it gave us something to hide behind and therefore to circumvent the prevailing climate of vigilance.” Since their acclaimed debut at the Fifth Havana Bienal in 1994, Los Carpinteros have honed their craft of chicanery in a body of work that has grown from painting and appropriation to furniture, architecture, and site-specific installations, commissioned around the world.
“In the beginning,” Rodríguez explains, their work “was more focused on Cuban history, more like a social chronicle.” The group emerged during Cuba’s so-called “special period” of the early to mid-1990s, a time of economic crisis that followed the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In a climate of desperation and austerity, Los Carpinteros adapted a period aesthetic of recycling and reuse, scavenging remnants from abandoned homes and remaking them with caustic, conspiratorial irony. “We felt like anthropologists digging up the lifestyle of Cuba’s former middle class,” Castillo recalls of their interventions within the socialist economy. Scavenged furniture served as a frame for painting in such works as Quemando árboles (1993), a fireplace carved in mahogany, and Havana Country Club (1994), in which Los Carpinteros portrayed themselves playing golf, a nod to the conversion of Havana’s famed Country Club into the site of ISA in the early 1960s, an idea hatched by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara after a round on the course. Rodríguez and Arrechea, trained as sculptors, worked primarily on building the frames and wood structures during this early period; Castillo painted.
Catedral presents a familiar amalgam of reclaimed wood and faux-colonial painting, here taking the shape of the baroque Catedral de la Virgen María de la Concepción Inmaculada, constructed by the Jesuits in the eighteenth century and among the iconic landmarks of Old Havana. The church’s asymmetrical twin towers, even its metal bell, are faithfully reproduced in the meticulously carved wood frame; the inset painting depicts the cobblestoned Plaza de la Catedral, among the city’s most pleasantly situated squares, in painterly, ocher tones. Gazing vacantly into space are two figures modeled after American sculptor Duane Hanson’s Pop-inspired Tourists (1970), life-casts that satirize the camera-toting, souvenir-buying vacationers that have long flocked to the Caribbean. Cuba invested heavily in the tourist industry in the mid-1990s, seeking new streams of income, and the sight of Middle America—sunbaked skin, clichéd vacation gear and all—would soon become as ubiquitous on the island as it was banal. The tourists appear oblivious to the painted figure of Arrechea himself, who asks them for a stick of chewing gum, a scarcity at the time; “a very Cuban gesture of those years,” he explains of the sign he makes, it “obviously becomes a wink to American art.”
An improbable assemblage, Catedral compresses the time and space of the city into a parodic portrait of social and urban transformation. Built on the site of a swamp, the cathedral is rumored to have housed the ashes of Christopher Columbus through the end of Spanish rule, in 1898. Its contemporary habitation by North American tourists, as painted life-casts and literally in droves, suggests a capitalist—and conspicuously neo-colonial—re-occupation of the space, framed no less by wood foraged from the abandoned homes of its prerevolutionary elites. If there is providence in their practice—“for us making something is like a religious thing, like a mystical thing,” Rodríguez allows—Los Carpinteros convey little faith in cathedrals of God, or of consumerism. Indeed, as Havana continues to turn its historical city center into a museum, their irreverent cathedral presents a sociological send-up of what—and whom—it takes to survive in Cuba today.
Abby McEwen, Assistant Professor, University of Maryland, College Park
1 Marco Castillo, quoted in Ellen Mara De Wachter, “Los Carpinteros,” Co-Art: Artists on Creative Collaboration (New York: Phaidon, 2017), 40.
2 Alexandre Arrechea and Castillo, quoted in Rosa Lowinger, “The Object as Protagonist: An Interview with Los Carpinteros,” Sculpture Magazine 18, no. 10 (December 1999).
3 Dagoberto Rodríguez, quoted in Trinie Dalton, “Los Carpinteros,” BOMB 78 (Winter 2001-02): 62.
4 Castillo, quoted in Rachel Weiss, “Between the Material World and the Ghosts of Dreams: An Argument about Craft in Los Carpinteros,” The Journal of Modern Craft 1, no. 2 (2008): 258.
5 Arrechea to Marysol Nieves, March 28, 2018.
6 Rodríguez, quoted in De Wachter, “Los Carpinteros,” 45.