Consuelo Castañeda

About Consuelo Castañeda

b. 1958, resides in the United States

Described by Joseph Kosuth as a post-postmodern artist, Consuelo Castañeda undoubtedly left her mark on the Cuban art of the 1980s, the so-called “prodigious decade.” Castañeda is gifted with a highly analytical mind, which she put to use in her artistic works during this decade as well as in the revamping of teaching plans for the visual arts in the Superior Institute of Art (ISA). In this period she produced pieces such as Lichtenstein y los Griegos (Lichtenstein and the Greeks, 1985, Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Havana), Botticelli, Hokusai y los Tiburones (Botticelli, Hokusai, and the Sharks), and ¿Quién le presta los brazos a la Venus de Milo? (Who Can Lend Arms to the Venus de Milo?), in which she appropriated—in the manner of a postmodern remix—canonical images from the history of art, reusing them, along with other allusions and elements, to fashion new narratives of great formal sophistication.

Castañeda explained her conceptual foundation as follows: “In Cuba, all the artists learn from reproductions. We have seen very few original works of art. Consequently, many pieces have the formal finish of a reproduction” (Camnitzer, 2003, 270). In the original-versus-copy, mainstream-versus-periphery debate, Castañeda’s opinion implied an ironic attitude. Though they knew the works of Western art only through catalogues and by “hearsay,” Cuban artists of the 1980s recognized themselves within an aesthetic tradition that proved elusive and ethereal. Wielded from a Third World country, the postmodern appropriative attitude proposed eroding all historically accepted canons and recycling them for innovative expressive purposes. Expanding beyond the realm of art, this critical and functionalist stance emerged as an open concept of Cubanidad—the Cuban ethos—as a work in progress, capable of absorbing any contemporary expression and adapting it to its own ends.

Una historia en 70 páginas (A History in 70 Pages) marks a turning point in the artist’s work. This photo-mosaic was motivated by personal circumstances: Castañeda’s mother—whose modesty kept the piece from being exhibited publicly—was turning 70. In Cuba the elderly stay with their families, facing the challenges of everyday life with perseverance and skill, but art in the island has been reluctant to reflect this stage of life and its vital circumstances. Castañeda’s work joined the rare artistic approaches to senescence, the third age, that have appeared in Cuban art, becoming an exception among the work of her contemporaries. While her colleagues (generally male) were intent on critique and social renovation before the clamorous walls of History, Castañeda humbly showed a body scarred by time and the personal micro-history.

Trained as a painter, Castañeda adopted a distant, almost anti-photographic attitude. She discarded the expressive resources of chiaroscuro, the halftones, the relationship between figure and background—considered indispensable and sacrosanct to the craft of photography—and instead used an objectivist approach akin to the contemporary German photography of Bernd and Hilla Becker, Candida Höfer, and Thomas Struth. Far from posing, the old lady does not offer her entire nudity to the viewer’s gaze. Instead, it has been fragmented in the seventy frames—each corresponding to a year lived—that integrate the assemblage.

Using this serial organization typical of Minimalist art, Castañeda organizes a temporal-perceptive journey, in which our scrutinizing eyes travel slowly around the body. But the details registered on the photographic paper do not remind us of the images of femininity transmitted by the sculptures of Greek goddesses or the haute-couture catwalk. We see flaccid flesh, toneless muscles, shoulders stooped by effort, eyes wounded by everyday battles. With minimal, essential resources and not a trace of operatic melodrama, Castañeda pays full homage to the cornerstone of her family, offering at the same time a truthful chronicle of life, its failures and small virtues. 

—Abelardo Mena Chicuri

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