New York

Kcho

Gladstone Gallery | West 21st St

In the three sculptures on view in his first New York solo show, the young Cuban artist Kcho used, or cited, the boat as both a basic structure and an overarching metaphor. The two larger and more recent pieces, La Columna Infinita I (Endless column) and La Columna Infinita II, both 1996, were formed of slender slats of blond wood, held together with numerous C-clamps, and creating skeletal images of piled-up boats. Monuments to their own antimonumentality, these works certainly reminded at least those viewers who knew that Kcho resides in Cuba less of their ostensible Brancusian model than of other, more topical images of flight and failure. As Mel Bochner pointed out to me, their mode of making (and, I would add, their fluid approach to metaphor) owes a good deal to some of the igloos of Mario Merz, who has also used the C-clamp to great sculptural effect. But for all their evident ambition, in breadth of art-historical reference as well as in scale, there was something sweetly tenuous and open about these ghostly heaps of vessels. Yet something—a hint of deeper artistic guile within Kcho’s apparent ingenuousness—made one want to question their seeming candor. Some of the curves here could hardly have been formed by the clamps alone, and one wondered whether they were even sufficient to maintain the structure. Yet I looked in vain for any telltale traces of glue.

An earlier work, Obras Escogidas (Selected works), 1994, also played on the boat form, but in a sculpturally simpler way. In this piece there was a more definite breach between appearance and structure, since at first the boat, here a single form, seemed to be made of open books tied together. (Two wall drawings suggested the same thing could have been accomplished with baseballs or hotdogs.) Non-Cubans can wonder to what extent Kcho’s titles form a typical cross-section of the available reading matter in Castro’s Cuba: certainly there were works that represented nationalistic interests (volumes on Cuban history and geography) as well as Marxist philosophy (anyone for the works of Kim Il Sung?), but there was also a curious smattering of foreign literature in translation; for instance, El Cartero Llama Dos Veces (The postman always rings twice—in this context James M. Cain’s depiction of the casual brutality of everyday American life took on its own political overtones) or the remarkable novel by Carlo Emilio Gadda known in English as That Awful Mess on Via Merulana, a crime novel in a quasi-Joycean key, set amid the banality of Fascist Rome. The work revealed its own literariness to be a mere skin, however: what was clear was that an underlying metal armature defined the shape that the books merely decorated.

The limelight moment of “political art” having faded, the liveliest political activity SoHo has seen in some time may have been the protest staged by anti-Castro Cuban exiles outside the show’s opening. But what was perhaps most politically interesting about the demonstration was precisely the evident incomprehension among the art-world crowd about what the issue was for the protesters—why they demand that the embargo on commerce with the island should extend to the cultural products of this inventive young man, whose imagery could even be read as profoundly sympathic with the boat people who risk their lives to escape the country the demonstrators see him as representing. But I suppose that was precisely the problem in the protesters’ eyes: the dollars that might flow back to Cuba from the sales of these works are incommensurable with any amount of real or feigned political ambivalence in the artist’s general humanistic stance. Perhaps they even saw a hypocrisy that makes things worse. This is the essentially terrorist logic according to which innocence, or the pretension to it, is only the subtlest form of guilt. But since the art itself teaches a skepticism of appearances, can we really be sure they’re wrong?

Barry Schwabsky