By Elvis Fuentes
Ernesto Benitez is a young artist in the Cuban plastic panorama. Although his experience can be traced back to his participation in a mythical group of the 1980s (Arte-Calle), his recent work has hardly any visible relation with the kind of practices that encouraged him back then. The social vein is minimal, except for paying the essential quota of art as a product of a specific context.
Benítez has been going deeper and deeper into his world. A world that seeks cultural contamination with the past through Alchemy and with the most dissimilar latitudes; the always “mysterious” East, with the use of appropriate concepts and an almost ideographic vocabulary. The signs pulsed by him are taken from the open book that is the imaginary of our western culture, certainly wide, because it is a culture always avid of the exotic for being foreign.
However, in that remoteness Benitez discovers a profound lightness and it is not that he has lived for some time on the shores of Tibet with the natives and can speak of a “real” contamination as a subject -he has not needed it, although it would not hurt-, but he finds in many aspects the constant (and often subterranean) relations with that universe. That is to say, that in more than one thing the West and the East of the planet are close to each other. Perhaps not at the level of hegemonic cultural norms, but in the not necessarily clandestine forms of them. This is how the artist rescues an area of knowledge that in the rationalist tradition of Europe and America was left behind because it was understood as pre-scientific practices: esotericism, superstition or magic.
Symbols have a transcendental importance in the life of culture. They allow communication, the preservation of knowledge and events; also the forgetfulness of what has happened. But more than anything else, the symbol has become a “reality” that has replaced the everyday world. Long before a child has seen a horse “live”, he already knows it as a symbol that refers to freedom, lightness and even power; the same happens with the lion, the dinosaur, and an endless number of objects and things. They are part of the vocabulary and the elementary imaginary with which the individual faces the world; they help him, but they can also be the trap.
Indeed, culture establishes these notions through symbols and in turn legitimizes itself through them. It is a tautological process. To know something is to explore it, to feel its geography, to breathe its atmosphere (even at the risk of becoming contaminated). To explore the world is to test the symbols that previously made it visible to us. To tighten the tightrope that communicates meaning to a “text”.
Ernesto Benítez senses all this; he knows it because he has studied it. That is why he does not conform and decides to place himself “outside the system”. To place oneself “outside” of something, one must first belong to it, know it from the inside. This is how in his work we find signs widely used in the iconographic tradition of the West: hearts, brains, skulls, human figures, knives. Many of them refer to death and, mixed, to the relationship between life-birth and sunset-death.
However, in the context of the works, these symbols are reduced to the category of pure signifiers. The resource to do so here is not the traditional ironic or parodic game, so usual in the young art of the Island, but a more transcendent one: the material. (The emphasis in the work of many artists on some other level of content of which Thomas Mc Evilley speaks, becomes palpable here).
Ernesto Benitez has visited places ravaged by death, by its most implacable executioner, fire. Forest fires leave traces comparable to the fall of a high-impact bomb. It is a pity that we do not count the “casualties” of this true army of peace. From there it has taken the remains to try to reverse the situation. The ash will then be the primordial element of his work, his axis artis mundi.
However, because of the ambivalence inherent to art, the ash itself refers to ceremonial or agrarian practices in which a forest is burned to plant sustenance. For the fire cleanses and the ash nourishes what will later be the sprout of life. The expressive medium varies, and it can be a sculpture, a drawing or an installation. But ash appears everywhere, covering the three-dimensional surface or as pigment in a painting. It is a dismal palimpsest, not only because it refers to death, but also because it literally “buries” the symbols.
We must speak then of an insolence of the material, of a hierarchy in which Benítez privileges the visceral relationship of texture and chromatism, above “the retinal” as it has been called to that which emphasizes the optical. If I use “retinal” it is because it condenses very well both the physical and the physiological implicit in the proposal of this artist. But even this does not supplant the very strong impact of the tactile. Now, symbols are not only buried physically. A substitution is effective only when it gets to the heart of the problem. And it is here that the material shows an insolence and a bravura that the conventional symbol would like. The material is life in its primary state, that is to say, energy.
Ernesto Benítez has studied Alchemy, and this allows him to access a knowledge of things, materials and symbols that is not at all gratuitous. If he has not started experimenting, it is because the reagents are scarce or because he lacks the time, but the search tempts him. Instead, he experiments with what he knows and, in his workshop-laboratory, he plays at obtaining the philosopher’s stone or the purest gold. He invents reactions, mixing everything within his reach and with this “sacred potion” he smears the fixed symbol (body, knife, skull, book) to inject it with life “outside the established system”, to turn it into a metaphor. What is most interesting is that this “vitality” is transmitted to him by an element whose meaning inevitably refers us to death: the ash. It is here where his work connects the cultural spaces to which we alluded, in the indissoluble relationship between life and death in some areas of our culture and the culture of the Far East. But in addition, this also allows him to “resurrect” the symbols (which are like dead metaphors, someone has said.) En el Camino is a wise metaphor based on the human figure. And art can still rely on it. It is a plaster cast covered with charcoal. The very characteristic of the casting determines that the image of the character is blurred. The details of the identification of the face, that place of recognition at once public and private, cannot be specified, although the artist has retouched it to bring it closer to the resemblance of himself. The layer of charcoal reinforces this confusing image (which is of little interest anyway). The resulting texture is a grainy and rudimentary one. However, the erect position, the gesture of the hands and the semi-raised head, give a lightness to the piece that contrasts with the finish of the material. This gives a touch of sublimation that reaches its peak when we notice that this sculpture intercepts different genres in the same motif.
Indeed, the solemnity as devotional indicates certain relations with monumental sculpture (and could be used in a traditional memorial). At the same time, the execution process is reminiscent of funerary masks, the posthumous portrait of the deceased. But in this case the portrait is full-length, and instead of being displayed, it is hidden: it is inside the figure itself. Numerous interpretations can be drawn from this procedure, but especially the one that refers to the inaccessibility of human nature from the outside gaze.
For the Greeks, the pneuma was the breath that gave life to the body. When they tried to explain what differentiated the living body of a man from that of a corpse, they attributed to the breath the quality of the vital (the breath?) It is this breath that is the only inhabitant of the “emptied” man who is On the Way; it is also his compass and motor for intuiting and following his route.
But this breath would not be possible without the protective armor that Benítez proposes as the abode of the human being. A shell erected over the hopeless landscape of death; those trees falling as if felled by shrapnel. And ash is a colossal synthesis of the breath of thousands of other beings whose army has died to leave us their space, their energy.
Published in ArteCubano, Visual Arts Magazine. National Council of Plastic Arts (CNAP). Havana, Cuba. Edition No. 2-3/2002. Pp 42-53