José Ángel Vincench
Por Orlando Hernández
José Ángel Vincench Barrera is a conceptual artist who, contrary to orthodox representatives of such a trend, has always preferred to intentionally contaminate” his artistic material with sociological, religious and political contents and purposes which, to make matters worse, are marked by the “stigma” of being local. In his works there are no abstract or generic concepts, much less formalist plays stemming from brief verbal enunciations which do not allow us to arrive at any conclusion, other than obvious or simplistic ones. His particular Conceptualism is guided by issues that are relevant to Cuban social life and his work is enquiring, without global pretence. Vincench does not seem interested in playing a big court. He knows that although the serve or initial impulse is made from the narrow breadth of our island, his ball is sufficiently elastic and lively as to bounce toward any field.
Looking back, the artistic trends and international schools that have arrived on our coasts, generally several years late, have ended up gradually losing their purity of origin, to become Cubanized. Like fragments of broken bottles that have been too long at sea, they end up losing their sharp edges, or their dogmatism, so that in Cuba we hardly have true fundamentalists. When we use labels such as Conceptualist, it is only to indicate a place of origin. But these labels are easily removed. In such a way, we may label Vincench an intellectual, rational and analytic artist, obviously interested in taking a critical stand within art.
In contrast with what was always considered a feature of Cuban and Caribbean art, its tendency to spontaneity, emotions, the Baroque and the colourful, as of the 1980s the situation changed radically and these tendencies were replaced by speculation. Cuban art became more involved in the cognitive than the aesthetic processes of art. This change was not only the result of the impact of Conceptualism and other tendencies such as arte povera or Minimalism, but was also due to a social urge, a request from society for artists (in implicit, indirect ways) to devote at least part of their talent to reflect, contest and criticize, rather than please the eyes of the spectators.
Aesthetics could no longer be the main occupation of our artists, in the presence of a growing deterioration of the economic, social, ethical and political conditions which reached high levels at the beginning of the 1990s. Vincench was part of the generation that began their artistic quest under those premises and, unlike those who have gradually succumbed to the invisible pressure of the global market, or who have settled abroad under more benevolent conditions far from our daily problems, he has maintained his initial impulse and included in his works local problems that may be considered high risk. It does not matter if his discourses are disguised behind the rituals of the Afro-Cuban religions of Palo Monte and Ifá, or that he uses pixel decomposition in his portraits so that only very few are able to identify the characters (as in the series Lo Que te Puedo Decir con el Expresionismo
Abstracto, Sobre la Libertad (What I Can Tell You through Abstract Expressionism, on Freedom), 2007, or that he uses abstract resources such as the graphic transcription of the texture of a street where repressive political confrontations have occurred and that the media abstains from disclosing (as in Cuadro Abstracto que Habla (Abstract Painting that Speaks), 2009. His discourse, although tending to the hermetic, has never stopped being a constant provocation and an individual commitment to our acute problems. A recent work by Vincench is a video, reminiscent of the graphic simplicity of a Palo Monte signature, representing only a circle with a cross (like the crosses made in the boxes of a ballot paper) expressing, by successive emphases in each one of its segments, the electoral options that Cubans should have instead of the single option preached by official state propaganda.
His foray into Afro-Cuban topics may be traced back almost to the beginning of his career. His religious affiliation (as a believer of Regla de Ifá and Palo Monte) has never been separate from his artistic and political vision, with the result that his art functions on three overlapping levels. The use of elements characteristic of the religious Afro-Cuban rituals in Vincench’s work is seen in practical procedures like cleansings, refreshings, protections, safeguards, warnings and even attacks against enemies. José Ángel Vincench uses the knowledge amassed in those religious traditions to build a discourse pointing to society and politics. He transfers that knowledge originally designed for family and individual use to a wider field of application. He is convinced that the whole society and its political structure needs these therapeutic, healing and purifying procedures, not only at an individual level. Curiously enough, this shuffling of functions is a resource that has not only been used in art: the religious institution itself, especially the highest priests of the cult of Ifá, through its Organizing Committee of the Letter of the Year (an annual prediction), has begun to do the same with their prophecies, and the population has begun to make political readings of their religious metaphors, especially the proverbs that accompany each one of the Ifá odus. In the Letter of the Year of 2006, for example, the ruling sign was Oyekún Obara, one of whose proverbs say: “Two people cannot sit down at the same time in one seat.” The people interpreted the message this way: despite the fact that President Fidel Castro, because of serious health problems, provisionally delegated his position in his brother Raúl Castro, both continued for a time governing simultaneously, which was negative. This situation remained until 24 February 2008 when Raúl Castro started to govern the country in an autonomous way. Is this not a political interpretation triggered by a religious metaphor? Vincench’s art can be understood from a similar perspective. One may make sociological and political readings through the religious elements that he uses in his artistic discourse. Of course, we know that neither art nor religion can go beyond these hermeneutic processes; they can interpret but cannot change our reality.