The exhibition of Pedro Pablo Oliva at the University of Tampa offered several opportunities for reflection and discussion. As a curatorial opportunity, I could not be more excited by the idea of assembling the first chronologically complete retrospective of the master’s works in America, spanning almost fifty years of artmaking -from early drawings dating back the years following his graduation from the National School of Art at Cubanacán in Havana in the early 1970s, to a hand-colored limited-edition print pulled out of the presses the night of the opening, in November 2018. Although ambitious, a first check for feasibility yielded a very promising positive outlook. The venue itself, a prominent Tampa Bay university gallery, immediately conveyed the cultural importance of the exhibition, by offering the kind of validation and invaluable scholarly interactions during the research phase of this project that academic institutions are designed to guarantee. Moreover, Pedro Pablo Oliva has a wide base of collectors in South Florida, which afforded a wide selection of significant artworks within easy reach, and reassured us on the appeal of this exhibition across the local, regional, national and international public normally attending our events.
Guided by the expertise of David Horta Pimentel, former curator of the Casa-Taller Pedro Pablo Oliva cultural foundation, and Silvia Oliva Sainz, current representative and manager of Pedro Pablo Oliva’s art studios, I was able to survey numerous private collections in South Florida. I was also greatly assisted by Israel Moleiro, president of Latin Art Core Gallery in Miami -a point of reference for any serious Cuban collector in the area. It immediately became clear that the abundance of available paintings and sculptures would result in a thorough survey of the master’s work.
In particular, the criteria that were central in deciding what to exhibit were the following: there needed to be a complete representation of the development of Pedro Pablo Oliva’s artistic style, from the beginning to present; since the artist typically produces paintings as part of wider thematic series, an example of each of them would have to be included; all of the different artistic techniques used by Oliva would have to be present in the show, in order to enable the public to understand his creative process in all of its nuances. One last guiding principle, which helped me to produce the final curatorial selection, was trying to avoid including works which had been exhibited in the Tampa Bay region before, so that those members of the audience with prior knowledge of Oliva’s work, and who would travel to see the exhibition, could be rewarded for their efforts with a lineup of never or rarely-exhibited pieces.
Beyond this theoretical framework, I enjoyed a certain degree of creativity, allowing my choices to gravitate towards the esthetic pleasure of color, line, mastery in balancing chance effects with absolute control, miraculous compositions, intelligent contrasts, and engaging storytelling. The unfolding of an exhibition can be effectively compared to a love story. It develops through attraction, curiosity, discovery, followed by a deepening of understanding, a growth of kinship, and a desire to show and tell about the uniqueness and meaningfulness to the entire world. After extensive study and meeting the master in Pinar del Rio, visiting the studio and the Havana Museum of Fine Arts, I was sure that the exhibition was not only desirable, but necessary. Oliva’s Cuba, as represented in the painting, could both reinforce and problematize the stereotypes normally associated in the U.S. with this country, its deep contradictions and its intrinsic beauty.
Through the different sections, the intertwining of biography and history emerged as a fil rouge that commanded sustained attention. Starting with paintings belonging to the expressionistic phase of the post-graduation days in the 1970s, characterized by dark backgrounds and gestural sgraffito marks on the surface, the lineup moved through the softer, pensive, earth-toned works of the 1980s, in which the angular lines of those early works start to give way to the sweeping lines and curves hugging the human figure. By the 1990s, Oliva has found his voice and style, an unmistakable complex mix of Cuban and deeply personal traits: a solid linear scaffolding that securely holds the composition together, interesting and intensely elaborated backgrounds, pictorial spaces constructed as if they were illusionistic rooms carved out of the viewer’s space, bright (often complementary) tropical colors -particularly the green hues- that make each work look as if it has been painted today, and it is still drying. These features recur across all of Oliva’s celebrated series, of which several examples were hanging in the exhibition: Saturno Jugando con Sus Hijos (Serie: Saturnalias, 1991), La Dulces Aparitiones de Cristina (Serie: Balcones, 1996), La Extraña Persistencia del Deseo (Serie: El Artista y Su Modelo, 2000). One of the most interesting themes to emerge from the works was Oliva’s particular way of expressing love and frustration, hope and dissent, desire and disappointment in relationship with his own Cuba. These ambivalent attitudes are visually evident in the paintings representing Fidel Castro, such as El Gran Flautista (Serie: Alegrías y Tristezas de El Malecón, 2008) and Abuelo Probándose un Par de Alas (Serie: El Gran Abuelo, 2012). Encountering these works made it clear, for the discerning observer, that Cuba’s story is made of countless histories, with nuances and facets that can rarely be conveyed from a distance, by the dry language of the evening news reports.
A special feature of the exhibition was the presence of a section entirely dedicated to Oliva’s graphic work. When studying his process, it became evident that drawing, perhaps even more than color, is a foundational act that solidifies the composition even in its most daring leaps of imagination, in which the space is simultaneously deep and entirely compressed in the foreground. The gallery reserved a small room for a display of framed drawings, dating from the 1980s to the present, accompanied with two tables onto which, protected by Plexiglas, a rich selection of sketches was scattered as if on the table of the master’s atelier. Aside for the interesting possibility to compare, in parallel, the changes in draftsmanship with the analogous changes in painting styles, this part of the show presented some very personal materials. One drawing even captured the death of the artist’s father, presenting an open casket under which an apparently unaware child is playing with a toy car – an episode so painfully engraved in Oliva’s soul that he was never able to turn this idea into a painting. Two black drawings from the series Utopías y Disidencias (2013 and 2015), and a suite of small works in mixed media on carboard from the series Apuntes de Viajes (2014-2016) allowed to appreciate the most recent direction that Pedro Pablo Oliva is exploring.
Confronted with the challenges originating from the gradual decline of his health, he decided to partially release the full control of his artmaking by incorporating blobs, stains and other chance effects as starting point for his creativity. Completed by a few strategically placed lines, these abstract shapes become figures, persons, animals and stories. In the documentary video produced for the exhibition, available on Youtube, several scenes demonstrate that Oliva’s dancing hands moving across the paper are still capable of precision, construction, storytelling, harmony and lyricism as found only in great artists. Through the fully-illustrated catalog, complete with interviews and critical essays in English, and the exhibition Pedro Pablo Oliva’s Cuba: hiStories, I invite scholars to a deeper critical understanding of this seminal master, which deserves full international attention, especially in the present historical moment.