By Julia Cooke
A lump of modeling clay is not a human, not when it’s sculpted into a bust in likeness and less so when it’s a lemon-yellow ball with a lumpy right side, as if its shaper got a bit of bad news while worrying it with his hands and pressed too hard with a stray index finger. It’s not human though it has what look like ears — one of those ears is green and the other is yellow with brown zebra stripes. It has no neck, a no-neck monster! It sits on another lump of red clay that does not even try to look like a body, sitting for a portrait that is not a portrait but a still-life.
A fragment of a piece of Aztec pottery does not look like a torso, not when it is balanced on two other chunks of rock, not even when it has a pink clay head with a promontory that could be a stubborn forehead and a peak that could be a pouted mouth. There are no hands, no feet. One leg is creased and pigeon-toed, the other points out. It is not human — it is composed of shapes and has no physical resemblance to a person. And yet these lumps of modeling clay, represented in smooth acrylic paint on canvas, are redolent of humans. Their imperfections are alluring.
Dogs do not have tongues the size of their heads that curl out of their mouths at impossible angles. Dogs are not yellow and chubby-legged tripods that, lacking a paw, rest on an oblong pastille of pink clay. And bugs! Bugs do not stand upright, looking like beige-headed upside-down exclamation points with satisfied blue smiles leaning against a tomato. Perhaps it is a child, not a bug. But children do not lean against tomatoes, either, not even happy children with one blue eye larger than the other, nuzzling their round heads contentedly against a red tomato whose organic creases and bulges shimmer alluringly in the light. There is nothing remotely emotional within a square of canvas that contains a horseshoe-shaped piece of clay with tiny rocks perched atop it in front of a receding horizon, and yet — in a piece of rock, an improbable shadow, a bright spot of red atop a drab grey-brown lump — the scene evokes sensations of mystery, of calm, of promise.
Entering a room of enormous Michel Perez “Pollo” paintings feels like wandering among a pantheon of absurd, friendly humans and animals and horizons that in fact look nothing like either humans or animals or horizons. The paintings look like carefully rendered portraits of sculptures made of modeling clay, rocks, pinecones, fruit, marbles, and bits of twisted wire. The improbable characters stand polished before quiet, plain backgrounds, but despite their best efforts, small rivulets of paint surreptitiously drip from ears and haunches. Twisted lumps of clay look like odd promontories within a picture-frame. And somehow, within the experience of viewing these paintings, such limitations, reminders that these are mere found objects, make their personalities no less real. We can know that these are paintings of tiny models that Pollo has made, and yet we can feel that they are human or animal or scenic at the same time.
Pollo’s paintings capture the autonomy of imperfection, a liberation from normalcy. Any humanity contained within their rectangular frames is of a backwards sort that is not meant to spring from logical association. They evoke the contentedness of melancholy and the freedom of being trapped, or the trapped sensation of being free. They inspire emotions before thoughts, questions before answers. “What are people? What is an individual? What is personality?” Each model is an actor in Pollo’s mind, playing a role in an attempt to address the unanswerable questions he poses himself. They give the sensation of looking in a funhouse mirror and seeing only that one piece of abstract self that you have tried to bury under layers of reality: clothing, demeanor, accolades, makeup. Reality!
Pollo beings to paint without painting at all, but by crafting small models made of clay and found objects. He may spend up to a week making, say, twenty models, considering color, composition, balance, the sensory relationships between materials — old and new, hard and soft — and the emotional associations that different objects carry in the human mind. A piece of an Aztec pyramid is not the same as a chunk of asphalt from the road outside of Pollo’s Havana studio, and such connotations will contribute to the surprise and personality that Pollo seeks when he auditions his twenty models as painting subjects. One, maybe two, will be photographed at different angles and in different lights. Eventually, Pollo will paint a likeness of this model, a portrait with color and proportions that have been weighed and considered throughout the process. He cites as influences Paul Cezanne, Pablo Picasso, George Condo, Edward Hopper, and Italian metaphysical painters like Giorgio de Chirico and Carlo Carra.
With models and paintings that are at once surreal, poetic, and mundane, Pollo hopes to “generate specific sensations like calm, or emotional stability, sensations that are very useful when you live in a society like mine.” His is a society in which a generation of young Cuban painters have, after experimenting with other materials and forms of expression, landed on seemingly-traditional painting on canvas. Within this rich context, Pollo’s work stands as a unique amalgam of process- and object-oriented art, the airbrushed and the misshapen, the sentimental and the resigned. By painting subjects that are absurd and tiny, Pollo guides us toward thoughts and emotions that are authentic and expansive.