Landing and Tile: Structuring to the Essence of Cuba

Kaylee Slusser (undergraduate student, History of Art)

INTRODUCTION

The exhibition’s title, Soy Cuba, inherently gives the exhibition the burden of not just representing Cuba, but of being Cuba. Roger Toledo takes on this challenge by presenting five landscape paintings. While some of the scenes show landscapes that are identifiable and necessary to Cuban history, others are landscapes that could be anywhere. Aterrizaje / Landing [Figure 1] best exemplifies this tension between representing Cuba through a common view – the clouds. Landing shows grey and white clouds that continue into the blue horizon line. The viewer looks into the scene as if they too were flying in a plane overlooking the clouds. In the foreground the clouds possess a higher contrast, showing highlighted whites against darker greys - presumably representing the ground or darker clouds below. As the eye progresses to the middleground, the clouds become more greyscale, causing the eye to drift deeper into the work. The grey of the clouds meets the strong blue horizon line. In the background, shades of blue and grey intertwine and overlap to represent the sky. The source of light appears to emanate from the light blue and white on the left side of the work. While the scene itself does not explicitly depict Cuba, it embodies the essence of the artist’s home country through its organizational similarities to Cuban floor tile. Cuban floor tiles, or azulejos, are the essential decorative element of Havana’s architecture [1]. Each individual tile shows an abstracted view of the subject matter through its use of colors and shapes. Tiles are then placed amongst one another to create a larger effect that alludes to the design’s subject matter. The tile border creates a larger effect that alludes to the design purpose. The installation of all pieces in association with each other, just as with Toledo’s work, reveals its purpose concretely.


This paper will argue Toledo’s ability to capture, represent and be Cuba in Landing through the separation of the painting in a Cuban tile-like manner. First, evidence will be presented in order to provide background as to the inspiration for Landing to be included in Soy Cuba. Such evidence will be utilized in order to describe how, despite showing a scene of clouds, Landing could only be the Cuban artist. Finally, descriptions of how the painting’s tile-like structure gives the viewers the essence of Cuba.  

Figure 1: Clouds  by Roger Toledo ,  2019, 200 cm x 300 cm, artist’s studio, Havana, Cuba. Photo courtesy of Roger Toledo.

Figure 1: Clouds by Roger Toledo, 2019, 200 cm x 300 cm, artist’s studio, Havana, Cuba. Photo courtesy of Roger Toledo.

LANDING: BACKGROUND AND PROCESS

Roger Toledo was flying in an airplane, overlooking the ominous sky, and felt motivated to capture the moment. The time of day is unknown, as is the direction of the flight. This photo later proved to be the inspiration for the work Landing, previously titled Clouds. The artist changed the title between the curatorial seminar visit in October of 2018 and the beginning of the exhibition. The transformation of the title signifies that Toledo has decided that the plane was landing, but whether that be in Cuba or elsewhere is still unknown. The new title of the photograph provides a sense of action - it exposes the role of the viewer is changing from observing clouds to becoming an active participant in the landing of the plane. Once he analyzed the photograph, Toledo began the exhaustive process of deciding and numbering the colors he would use for each square and seed texture. Toledo then loosely sketches the work across the six canvases and begins to create over each canvas separately. He builds up the textures with a combination of blue and grey acrylic paint along with modeling paste and leaves three inches on one side without textures [2].


The three dimensional textures add depth and create movement to Landing. The artist alternates between the textures and background to demonstrate highlights and shadows. For example, in the right foreground, the white is used in the background against grey textures to create an atmospheric effect. By having the white in the background, Toledo allows himself more freedom in the gradient of color that is necessary to depict the airy quality of the clouds. As the eye travels towards the middle ground, the textures become the artist’s choice for the white highlights. The square and seed combinations are bright white, whereas the background takes on a light grey shade. To see this enticing perspective, the viewers are forced to move around the work. In getting closer to each canvas, the larger picture of the clouds disappears and is only reminded by the frame. The frame is a few inches of each of the six canvases that do not possess the three dimensional seeds, but rather reveal wispy clouds. This simultaneously informs the viewer that the work is representing a cloud and that the work has depth. The juxtaposition of the texture on the canvas in association with its actual lack of texture, allows the piece to become three dimensional. [3]


LANDING: A CUBAN-MADE PRODUCT

While to the American viewer Landing likely displays a familiar vision out of a plane window; to most Cubans, this is a sight they will never see firsthand. Toledo had the opportunity to experience the clouds in such manner because of his artist status. As a citizen of Cuba, Toledo is limited by the government; he cannot own more than one property and does not have easy access to certain goods. However, his access to the international art market helps liberate him from some of the typical structural limitations that other citizens face. Toledo sells his art with prices that are set at an agreed-upon price internationally, which can be hundreds of times more than his monthly government-provided salary. The wealth that he generates from his international sales grants him access that allows him to travel extensively, develop connections with non-Cubans who can bring him desired goods, and freely create art that he is passionate about. [4]

The title of the exhibition, Soy Cuba, indicates that the series will represent both Cuba and Toledo as Cuba. The artist’s homeland is one that many speculate about but very few understand. In taking on this burden, Toledo does not show the old fashioned cars, cigars, or imagery of Fidel Castro that is stereotypical of what makes his country unique. Unexpectedly, to bring the viewer into his home, Toledo shows the viewer the vague yet depicting images of the outside. These images, while each having historical or personal significance to the artist, could be images of simultaneously anywhere and nowhere. Landing could just as easily depict clouds above Havana as they could New York, Hong Kong, or Brazil. The timelessness and ambiguity in the works function as a gateway for Toledo to guide viewers to rethink their preconceived notions about his home.

Figure 2: Art Deco  by Roger Toledo ,  2017, artist’s studio, Havana, Cuba. Photo courtesy of Kaylee Slusser.

Figure 2: Art Deco by Roger Toledo, 2017, artist’s studio, Havana, Cuba. Photo courtesy of Kaylee Slusser.

Figure 3: Art Deco  by Roger Toledo ,  2017, artist’s studio, Havana, Cuba. Photo courtesy of Kaylee Slusser.

Figure 3: Art Deco by Roger Toledo, 2017, artist’s studio, Havana, Cuba. Photo courtesy of Kaylee Slusser.


Toledo achieves balance in Soy Cuba through his unique focus on the use of color and structure. Toledo explains, “I’m focused on color and structure so I have to have a structure in which I put color in. That structure in the past was the color field…the square. Now it’s the pattern [referring to the patterned textures]. But I have to have this pattern or figure that is divided in the space for me to put the color inside.” [5] Toledo also credits Art Deco for his fixation with organizing and dividing of his pieces. This popular Cuban style manifested itself across a variety of avenues from architecture to graphic arts to tiles. The geometrical, symmetrical, and streamlined works challenged the avant-garde by asking viewers to find beauty in nontraditional images. [6] Toledo’s earlier work, Art Deco, is a direct reference to this inspiration [Figure 2 and 3]. The Art Deco collection is a series of seven identical square works with geometric shapes that align with one another no matter their order. The pattern for each canvas is identical. There is a semi-circle in one corner with stripes of color radiating from it. Three seed-like ovals are overlaid on the semi circle. The colors of each canvas differ, as they are intended to show the same image at different times of day. Toledo would rearrange the six canvases in his studio daily. The Art Deco influence in Soy Cuba is recognizable in the use of geometric shapes, light and color. The textures act as a form of geometric shapes and the use of color to display light is highlighted amongst the sky in each of the five works.


DIVISION: THE ESSENCE OF SOY CUBA

Toledo’s creative process of building Landing in three dimensions organizes a scene of unpredictability - the clouds. The textures jump off the canvases, drawing the viewer in. When examined from a few inches away, the work appears to be a series of grey, blue, and white squares and seed shapes against a gradient background of similar colors. The seeds are then organized in a circular pattern around each square, playing tricks on the mind as it tries to process the geometric, Art Deco inspired patterns. As the viewer backs away the depth of the clouds becomes intelligible; however, the eye is continuously flickering between the single colored textures and the gradient background. Landing divides itself into texture and background, multiple canvases, and center and frame in an attempt to structure the scene. Flying in a plane above the clouds is filled with sense of fear and excitement; fear of crashing emphasized by the plane’s turbulence and also excitement for seeing somewhere or someone that is loved or possibly new- Landing represents dreams, the unknown, something beyond. By organizing unpredictable feelings and scene, Toledo utilizes these complicated emotions associated with the experiences above the clouds.

Figure 4:  Details of  Clouds  by Roger Toledo ,  2019, 200 cm x 300 cm, artist’s studio, Havana, Cuba. Photo courtesy of Roger Toledo.

Figure 4: Details of Clouds by Roger Toledo, 2019, 200 cm x 300 cm, artist’s studio, Havana, Cuba. Photo courtesy of Roger Toledo.


The multiplicity of Landing’s texture and background, multiple canvases, and center and frame not only organize the landscape, but  also creates a complex puzzle that is only complete when all parts come together. For example, if a singular canvas was to be examined separate from its counterparts, the image would unrecognizable [Figure 4]. The top three canvases appear to be half grey and half blue abstract works. The bottom three would appear to be blotches or a colorist’s play with grey tone. It is not until all six are united that the work connects with the viewer. Toledo further divides Landing with his use of the frame, which creates division yet cohesion. It divides the work into texture and non-texture while bringing the piece together by informing the viewers of the subject matter. Toledo refers to the frame as the differentiator from the center of the piece that possesses the textures. He describes the contrast between to two as, “The idea of the frame is really soft and blurry and atmospheric... and the texture is specific and defined so I was trying to have the combination, but also the idea of the screen building the same landscape in two different ways.” [7]


TILE: THE ESSENCE OF CUBA

Azulejos have been described as “the essential style of colonial Havana.”[8] The tile is ever present throughout all of Havana, since its earliest inception in plain terracotta to the vibrant geometric shapes. [9] During their occupation of the Netherlands in the 16th and 17th centuries, Spaniards took this tile style from the Dutch in Holland. Azulejos popularity in Madrid later manifested itself across the Atlantic Ocean to Havana when the Spanish arrived. Havana’s vividly colored geometric designs were strongly reminiscent of the Moorish influence on Spanish art. The tiles themselves would often represent nature scenes, wars, or religious subjects. In the 1920s, Cuban tile was rapidly gaining popularity in the United States. The demand was so high that Havana curio dealers had to acquire old Spanish art tiles or tear down old homes for the ten percent of tile they could extract; the remaining tile was lost in breakage as it was a “brittle as the porcelain” due to the tile’s age. [10]

Tile was not only stylistic, but also a functional feature of Cuban homes. The climate in Cuba is very humid with consistently high temperatures. Architecture was built to accommodate this weather through shuttered balconies and tiled floors. [11] The tiles material allowed them to provide a cooling effect to its floors’ inhabitants. Liquid cement was poured into square molds and hardened to create the tiles. The azulejos inside the homes often continue out to the balconies. Blurring the lines of indoor and outdoor spaces - an integral element to Cuban architecture and culture. Architecturally, this special flow creates the illusion of the veranda as an additional room. [12] The vibrancy and highly detailed nature of the tiles does not accommodate other patterns elsewhere in the space, ultimately limiting the decor of the rest of the room. Rooms are typically decorated simply with solid colored walls. Culturally, the continuation of the tiles establishes an ambiance that gives the inhabitants a sense of freedom to go where they please and to enjoy where they go in and out of the home.

SOY CUBA: A HOME IN THE CLOUDS

Figure 5:  Tiles, artist’s studio, Havana, Cuba. Photo courtesy of Kaylee Slusser.

Figure 5: Tiles, artist’s studio, Havana, Cuba. Photo courtesy of Kaylee Slusser.

Toledo’s studio floors in Havana are azulejos [Figure 5]. Each tile has an off-white background and features earth toned patterns. The pattern cuts across the tile diagonally - one side has a tan, leaf-like pattern and the other is a series of hard, intertwining lines- in the center is a seed-like shape. The individual tile alone does not strongly call to mind any images or subject matter, but when the azulejos are placed next to one another, the leaf-like sides join together to create an intricate tan leafy star with a brown and grey center. The hard-pressed lines join together to form a Celtic knot-like shape. While the combination of tiles alludes to stronger imagery of nature or religion, the specific scene depicted is unclear. The azulejos’ border, or frame, provides an apparent answer: the imagery is that of trees [Figure 6]. The border tiles reveal a pattern of brown and white with green tree-shapes, bringing a strong coherence and legibility to the work. The scene is not explicitly shown in the frame; however, examining it gives us a clearer idea.

Figure 6:  Tiles, artist’s studio, Havana, Cuba. Photo courtesy of Kaylee Slusser.

Figure 6: Tiles, artist’s studio, Havana, Cuba. Photo courtesy of Kaylee Slusser.

Landing and Toledo’s home are both divided into patterns and backdrop, multiple sections, and frame and center. In Landing, the eye flickers between the texture and backdrop, trying to make sense of the image. The azulejos present a more intellectual question of what the viewer looks for, rather than how to look at it. The viewer begins by seeing nothing but a series of patterned colors, each canvas and tile alone are unintelligible. However, once the pieces are placed together the viewer is then able to visualize  the scene. The frame of the image then alludes to the natural scene of clouds and trees, the overall structure of the the unpredictable landscape.

The studio tile continues from inside the studio to the outside veranda, obscuring the line between inside and outside the home.  Rainfall, typical of Cuban weather, reverberates throughout the studio and cools the home - the water causes paint stains to infiltrate other tiles on the outside veranda. The tile, this typically inside-associated element, has the ability to bring the studio’s inhabitants outside and vice versa. This invitation to transcend extends beyond the studio and finds itself it Toledo’s art. Soy Cuba is a series of landscapes of the Cuban outdoors intended for an outside audience. Yet, through the use of the outside world the series is able to bring an international audience in. Through seemingly counterintuitive means, azulejos and Landing blur the line between inside and outside, thus making everyone who encounters them feel welcomed home.


Notes

[1] Alexandra Black and Simon McBride, Living in Cuba (St. Martins Press, 1998), 71.
[2] "Toledo's Studio Workshop," interview by author, 2018.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] "Art Deco Movement, Artists and Major Works," The Art Story, accessed November 28, 2018, https://www.theartstory.org/movement-art-deco.htm.
[7] "Toledo's Studio Workshop."
[8] “OLD CUBAN TILES,” New York Times, 1923.
[9] Alexandra Black and Simon McBride, Living in Cuba, 71.
[10] “OLD CUBAN TILES,” New York Times, 1923.
[11] Alexandra Black and Simon McBride, Living in Cuba, 37.
[12] Ibid.