When Cuban-born artist Carlos Gamez de Francisco was a young student, he, like many aspiring artists, copied masterpieces by other painters. It started with Monet. But a prescient professor told Gamez de Francisco that copying the Impressionists was easy compared to the works of Renaissance masters. This led to the artist’s fascination with 15e– at 17e-portraits of aristocrats of the last century. It was a way of practicing technique and composition that still influences him today.
We probably have this teacher to thank for much of the work on display at Portland Art Gallery’s “Carlos Gamez de Francisco” (until July 30). The exhibition reveals an artist working skillfully in a variety of mediums, including photography, acrylic paint and watercolour. The densely hung exhibition is roughly divided into two sections: the photography grouped together in the space on the street side of the gallery, the paintings towards the back.
The photograph – large format Chromaluxe aluminum prints – is by far the most powerful work in the exhibition, fascinating for its labor intensity, formal beauty, saturation of tone and an ingenuity that, as a fellow Cuban, I appreciate in a deeply personal way. level (more on that in a minute).
The photographic portraits are mainly of women between the ages of 16 and 24. Gamez de Francisco photographed each in his home in Cuba, adopting the Renaissance portraiture manner of painters such as Leonardo da Vinci, Titian, Jan Van Eyck and others. This body of work resembles – at least superficially – that of contemporary Dutch photographer Hendrik Kerstens. But there is a big difference between the two, an important difference in appreciating the complexity of Gamez de Francisco’s business.
Kerstens’ portraits are beautiful, contemplative and enigmatic in their reductive character. All feature his daughter Paula, his long-time muse, most often wearing headdresses made of plastic bags or garbage bags. He is, like Francisco’s Gamez, inspired by Renaissance portraiture, but limited to the 17e– variety of the century. There is rigor in this minimalism and the parameters it imposes on his approach.
Gamez de Francisco’s works are also rigorous, albeit in a more intensely obsessive way. They are interested in the sumptuousness of many Renaissance aristocratic and noble portraits, which bask in the textures of clothing – fur-lined capes, lace collars and cuffs, precious jewelry, silks, etc. Cuba, of course, lacks such resources, let alone art supplies in general. Gamez de Francisco himself used coffee, diesel fuel and toothpaste. To support these portraits, he therefore turned to everyday objects and materials taken directly from the homes of each of his subjects.
That kind of ingenuity, in my opinion, is a very Cuban trait. Post-revolutionary Cuba has been, since the 1960s, a place of great deprivation, compounded by the withdrawal of Soviet economic and trade support after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. For more than 60 years, making do with little has been a way of life that has led to a very characteristic resilience. This is of course not quantitatively different from what happens in many poor countries.
But I have always experienced Cubans as also possessing a keen understanding of the inherent absurdity of life. Cubans joke about everything – partly as a coping mechanism, but also as part of our nature. It manifests in a lingering irony that affects our general orientation to life and even bends our language. A typical example: A bus with a hollow in the middle of its roof line is called “el camello”, or camel. We often call things by their opposite.
Francisco’s Gamez compositions can take hours to create. And they do so well at conveying their textural richness that at first we don’t even realize the common nature of their elements. “Flowers for Fasting,” for example, is a woman dressed head-to-toe in scarlet. She wears a beautiful jeweled choker and the fabric of her outfit appears to be silk. Yet Gamez de Francisco fashioned the headdress using a piece of cardboard wrapped in a red curtain. We’re so mesmerized by the extravagance of the puffy drapery that it takes a second or two to notice that its “bouquet” is made up of a cluster of spiraling LED bulbs.
“Flowers” strikes the perfect balance between aesthetic formalism, opulence, irreverence, and cultural (perhaps also political) commentary. The same goes for “Cup Cake in Heaven”, a portrait of a young woman in a costume that sports wide Flemish lace cuffs and collars à la Frans Hals or Rembrandt. But these are actually everyday paper doilies, and if you look closely, you’ll see the safety pin that attaches the collar to the dress. These elements bring the image – an illusion of wealth and splendor – down to earth.
“The Vision of Lorenzo”, a black man dressed in red and yellow robes, his hands clasped in prayer, is one of the few male portraits. But Gamez de Francisco’s direction of his model produced an expression that perfectly tells the story of this Christian martyr. In 258, Emperor Valerian ordered the execution of bishops, priests and deacons. The prefect of Rome asked Lorenzo to hand over all the treasures of the church. Over the next few days, Lawrence distributed these riches to needy people in the city. When the time came to hand them over to the prefect, he instead summoned a crowd of poor people, presenting them as the true wealth of the church.
Lorenzo was put to death for his crime. But the model looks at the viewer with a calm, but conscious and carefree dignity. There is even a hint of a smile on his face. The fact of his skin color would have been a further affront to Roman authority. Again, a beautiful image both outrageous and formidable, delivered with an ironic wit that strikes me as culturally innate and endemic to the Cuban outlook on life.
The richness and power of photos poses an unintended problem for paintings. For one thing, Gamez’s favorite palette of Francisco for the latter is mostly a palette of thinly applied pastel tones, which set them back from the highly saturated color and bold composition of the photograph. Which is a shame, because a large part of this corpus is quite interesting.
The most successful works here have a surreal allure. Mask-wearing necessitated by the pandemic has spawned a series of paintings that partially or completely obscure the faces of his female subjects. But in most, it is the lower part of the face that is exposed rather than the eyes (again an inversion of reality at the origin of the works). The strongest paintings do this by adorning the upper half of these faces – sometimes the entire head – with elaborate floral arrangements.
In “Garden Party I”, a profusion of exuberant, oversized flowers cover the subject’s eyes and rise an improbable three or four feet above the model’s head. Bees, wasps and a ladybug buzz around her or land on her chest. Everything means something in these works. Insects that dive down symbolize chaos. Their flight alludes to freedom. Attached to a surface, they signify balance.
These headdresses allude to Marie Antoinette. Indeed, several of them, such as “Garden Party II” and “Spring Dress”, come with corseted corsets, watteau pleats, lace trims and full skirts. Clearly Gamez de Francisco is fascinated by historical costumes. Interestingly, however, he creates tension by making models wear sunglasses, which adds a kind of sass and sex appeal that purely historical portraits lack.
The emphasis on costume, however, means that many paintings can seem less interesting when models give off too much of a mark of contemporary beauty. Gamez’s painting style of Francisco – his pastel softness, fine paint application and idealization of the female body, as well as in the contemporary hair styles, attitudes and expressions of his models – can often resemble more of an illustration fashion than a portrait.
I kept wondering what they would look like if they were more intensely tinted and impastoed, if the models were a bit zaftig or less pretty. They might feel less objectified and instead emanate more lift and depth.
Jorge S. Arango has been writing about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: [email protected]
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