The surprising return of Nelson Villalobos

/ 1 September, 2016

I always thought that an Open Studio was something for youngsters, for adolescents, an occasion for the recently initiated artists to show their new and egomaniac creations to the boys and girls of their age in an intimate, domestic environment -—more informal than that of the galleries—where they may know new people, have some drinks and perhaps share some toxic or rarefied mouthfuls of smoke. But it seems I was wrong. The young artist Nelson Villalobos is about to be 60 years old (although he really seems to be 80 because of his long white beard) and has just invited me to an open studio in his old big house in Apodaca 260 between Factoría and Aponte, in Old Havana, just some blocks from the Train Terminal and the Fountain of the Indies.

At first sight, I would not have to feel surprise. It is nothing strange that Villalobos, or whomever, organizes an artistic event at home (that we do not necessarily always call “alternative” or underground), instead of a more serious exhibition in a gallery (something that, incidentally, he programmed to do in the Centro Cultural Hispanoamericano—Spanish American Cultural Center—, before the Havana seafront). And I say it is not strange because, in all fairness, open studios have always existed, although without that little name, in English even when we are speaking Spanish. All those who are used to visit the artists in their own homes and not find them already cleanly dressed in the openings may enjoy there that marvelous performance where, for the first time, what is private begins to be public, where the works begin to timidly flirt with the look of the others, with the opinion of the others, with the “I like it” or “I don’t like it” to which all the matter is later reduced. It perhaps is the only instant in which one can see real, authentic works, alive and kicking, in a state of evolution, of effervescence; things really artistic but do not knowing it yet, which have not completely turned into artworks, where that process of oxidation and deterioration which they suffer when entering into contact with the opinions, speculations, definitions, theories, good and bad criticism, have not yet begun since they still lack dedication, that veneer of unreality, of that false mystic halo they acquire when they are placed on a white and well illuminated wall. We can examine brilliant sketches that don’t have enough to be any other thing; projects that since the beginning definitively were declared unfeasible and, of course, also ugly, frustrated, ill-fated works that were saved from destruction because they had “something”, an “I don’t know what”, as well as beautiful works that, in spite of it, never were able to cross the threshold, because they exclusively belonged to those intimate spaces. In those moments one can be witness of the artistic universe in its pure state, with greater perfection, before the Big Bang, previous to the formation of planets and satellites, that is, of the critics, curators, assistants, agents, dealers, officials, spies, politicians, gossipmongers, censors, parasites, swindlers and other asteroids and cosmic garbage which complete the system of art. There the works may be seen in the most perfect and democratic chaos, leaning on the bed, with a t-shirt or some socks on top of them, full of dust on a wardrobe, studded behind a door or next to the little mirror in the bathroom, while from the kitchen the artist shouts to you whether you want a sip of coffee (“It is Pilón, man. I brought it from Miami”) or a shake (“Mango or guava?”), which allows you the privilege of observing the squid (or the she-squid) joyfully moving inside its ink. But I do not know if that is what we can be able to see in Villalobos house or if it will be something more tidy and foreseeable. But, isn’t surprise one of the ingredients of these close encounters the open studios propitiate? (…)

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