José Toirac

For Cuban artist José Toirac, the mythology of the universal hero—a story of revolt, sacrifice, and untimely death—infuses the images of Ernesto “Che” Guevara that were for decades all that remained of one of the most famous icons of the socialist cause. Toirac’s recent exhibition, comprising six black-and-white paintings and a large installation in red wine, traced the progression of this myth through the celebrated photographs of Che that, when strung together, show how the revolutionary’s fabled life fits the templates provided by historical icons from Achilles to Jesus Christ, mixed with native Catholicism and Santeria, superstition and mystery. Despite the quiet simplicity of the images, they demonstrate the often religious intensity of political conviction: Indeed, Che is invoked as a saint in some parts of Bolivia.

Toirac, whose recent installation dealing with the Bay of Pigs invasion was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and is on view there this month, works within the accepted iconography of Castro’s Cuba by focusing only on those photographs approved by government censors. What appears from a distance to be a photorealistic quality dissolves on closer inspection into a delicate haze reminiscent of film or television footage. Like many of Gerhard Richter’s works, most notably Eight Student Nurses, 1966, Toirac’s revision of photographic images in blurred paint has a complex effect of seeming to filter the reality of past events through our own memory or understanding. Toirac’s interpretation of Che’s story begins with the revolutionary’s calm acceptance of fate. The first painting, reproducing an image captured by the famous Cuban photographer Korda in 1969, shows a young Castro reading a letter in which Che acknowledges that he will die soon and says good-bye to his family and the Cuban people. In a nearby installation that extends along a fifty-foot wall of the gallery, Toirac has re-created the letter in red wine, a medium evocative of blood and sacrament, on thirteen large sheets of paper, so that the texts run continuously across the bottoms of the white pages.

The paintings proceed through several famous images: Che as a balding, bespectacled businessman, a disguise from the actual forged passport he traveled with; a bearded and ragged Che dressed in the battle scrubs of the Bolivian revolutionaries; next to it, the haunting face of the murdered Che. Like that of other mythological heroes, Che’s death was shrouded in mystery: The photographs of his body, in which he looked eerily alive, were ambiguous; rumors of the capture and murder multiplied, and the body was not seen until 1997, when Che’s skeleton was disinterred from a mass grave of rebellious Bolivian peasants. A painting of the empty washroom where Che’s body was photographed immediately after his death is accompanied by a large hanging sheet on which Toirac has painted Che’s image in red wine, like an imprint on a shroud.

Toirac’s appropriation and recontextualization allows these well-known images to transcend the narrow history they were permitted to express. Though in earlier work he has made use of a subtle irony to deal with issues of political propaganda, here Toirac seems eager to revive an emotional response to images that have been appropriated by popular culture and his country’s political manipulations.

Joshua Rose