New York

José Bedia

José Bedia titled his 2005 painting of a giant aircraft carrier—one of a series of warship paintings—El futuro promisorio (Promising Future), and the image is haunting and charged with menace. There it was, greeting visitors to his recent show, looming out of the darkness, bearing down on and threatening to drown the viewer. The carrier’s oddly surreal form puts one in mind of a bird of prey and represents an intimidating icon of American military power at its most relentless. Bedia’s painting blurs the boundary between fantasy and reality, giving the image an uncanny power, a hallucinatory intensity that is maintained even as the picture appears to protest a demonstrable reality (Its ominous darkness suggests that the “glory” it might otherwise imply is deeply tarnished.)

Bedia is Cuban and clearly identifies with the underdog, seeing the world From the Other Side, to borrow the title of a painting made in 1992, the year he moved to Mexico. The painting is in five sections, two of which depict fighter jets and three of which show “folk” scenes suggestive of a society untouched by the modernity to which the jets belong. A vessel marked by a small white cross that is carried by a figure in one of the rural scenes may be a funerary urn or could hold the water of life. The work lacks the gestural flair of El futuro promisorio but has the stark blackness and flat, simplified geometric forms—a triangular mountain, conical trees—that are Bedia’s trademarks. The artist’s drawings—four were on view here, along with seven paintings—tend to oscillate between clean schematics and altogether murkier images, in which gestural handling seems more to the emotional point than the forms themselves. For example, in Uteno Kasaye (Angry Uteno), 2006, what might be construed as the stylized walking figure’s rage is represented by a giant, bulbous, red-spotted form protruding from its head.

In general, Bedia seems torn between nostalgia for a relatively untouched preindustrial environment and passion for the world we live in, here symbolized by the technically sophisticated instruments of modern warfare. But a number of unexhibited works from the battleship series suggest that the oppressed will sooner or later triumph over the oppressor; American power is not invincible, after all. Oddly, this exhibition, which was in effect a miniretrospective, seemed almost deliberately to leave out these angrier and seemingly blatantly anti-American works, which have been a continuous thread running through Bedia’s oeuvre. Strange as it may seem to say so, the exhibition was thus a critical failure, because it did not give Bedia’s anger a full hearing. Emphasizing his more sorrowful works, it sidetracked the contradiction at the core of his art.

Donald Kuspit