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From Cuba, Artists Speak the Language of Absurdity

November 06, 1998|LEAH OLLMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Los Carpinteros (the Carpenters) are three young Cuban artists whose collaborative work is on view in a spirited show at the Iturralde Gallery. The artists--Alexandre Arrechea, Marco Castillo and Dagoberto Rodriguez--are brilliant practitioners of the art of inversion.

"The Nap," for instance, consists of a simple wooden rocking chair piled high with plump, crisp, white pillows--so high (to the gallery ceiling) that there's no room left on the chair to sit. The work invites rest while simultaneously denying it, even mocking it with an excess of its seductive accouterments.

Another of the trio's darkly witty sculptures takes the form of an octagonal wooden lighthouse, about 12 feet high. Its sides are comprised of dozens of doors, each with a measurement stenciled in ink on its face. Several of the doors are ajar, allowing a view inside the structure to what the title refers to as "150,230 cm3of Darkness."

Articulating a void with great precision and constructing a monument to emptiness, Los Carpinteros offer a Conceptual art simultaneously sweetened with humor and spiced with social critique. Their beacon of darkness makes an easy but nonetheless potent metaphor for popular disillusionment with the Cuban revolution.

The utopian ideal has, during these artists' lifetimes, inverted into a dystopian reality, but Los Carpinteros handle dysfunction as craftily as the wood that has become their signature material. They are fluent in absurdity and irony.

Several large drawings on acetate are also included in the show. Each diagrams a simple, familiar object (a bicycle, a sewing machine) or an instrument of war (a hand grenade, a tank). The lines describing the sewing machine resemble stitches, and all of the parts of the tank are labeled in English except for the most lethal parts, which are identified in Spanish. Such gestures are clever, but more affecting is the artists' very choice of subjects and the way the weapons assume an everyday familiarity next to the more benign domestic items. That plainspokenness is disarming and, together with the edgy whimsy of the sculptures, makes this, the first L.A. show for Los Carpinteros, the highlight of the mini-festival of Cuban art now being staged on La Brea Avenue, with the Alberto Korda show at Couturier Gallery and Jose Figueroa's photographs at Jan Kesner Gallery.

* Iturralde Gallery, 154 N. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 937-4267, through Nov. 25. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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Official Revolutionary: Candid photographs of public figures have been popular just as long as cameras have been able to make them--since the 1920s, when new, hand-held "toys" like the Leica began to catch leaders at leisure and to cater to the voyeur in all of us. Access is the key to making such images, and access, more than an idiosyncratic or remarkable style, is what Alberto Korda had when he became an official photographer of the Cuban revolution.

Korda (born in 1928), whose Couturier Gallery show is his first solo outing in the U.S., traveled with Fidel Castro and Che Guevara for nearly a decade, documenting them at work and at play. In new prints made from negatives from the 1950s and 1960s, we see Fidel and Che playing golf (golf?!) and fishing, Fidel hunting with Nikita Khruschev and shaking hands with Ernest Hemingway, Che having coffee with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. For the most part, the pictures are straightforward and uninflected, any dynamism within owing primarily to the charisma of the subjects themselves.

Guevara had charisma to spare, more so after his early death, a martyr to the cause. With international dissemination of Korda's 1960 portrait of him, gazing upward in a starred beret, Guevara took on saint-like powers. This image--which appears in three versions in this show and is commonly referred to as the most famous photograph in the world--can be found hanging next to images of Christ in home altars around the world.

That picture alone has secured Korda a place in the annals of photographic history, something that his fashion photographs (a selection of which are on view here) wouldn't necessarily do, for all their spare elegance. Korda is a revolutionary through and through, and several of his best photographs--of a girl cradling a chunk of wood as her only doll, or of a man perched on a lamppost above rallying masses--pull the emotional heartstrings like only good old-fashioned propaganda can.

* Couturier Gallery, 166 N. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 933-5557, through Nov. 28. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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