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2002 04 19 Sculpture Transplant Osvaldo Yero red hand sprouting grass sculpture
2002 04 19 Sculpture Transplant Osvaldo Yero bulb sculpture sprouting grass
2002 04 19 Sculpture Transplant Osvaldo Yero detail red heart like sculpture
2002 04 19 Sculpture Transplant Osvaldo Yero red heart like sculpture

Osvaldo Yero - Transplant
April 18, 2002

Red heart-like sculpture

Osvaldo Yero is among the ‘90's generation of Cuban artists who generated renewed international attention to its art after many of the most celebrated artists expatriated to other parts of the world in the late ‘80s. During that time, the Soviet Union shed itself of Communism and put an end to the financial contributions that for close to three decades nourished Cuba's economy. As a result, the early ‘90s witnessed an important period of change on the island. Referred to as the "Special Period for Times of Peace," the government was confronted with stabilizing a shattered economy, adjusting to increased isolation, and servicing a public suffering from a lack of basic needs. Ironically, many artists emerged during this period and were forced to draw upon ingenuity in face of a scarcity of materials and a crackdown on any messages appearing to be against the State. In spite of it, they produced some astonishingly inventive work.

Yero's early work was fueled by the context of Cuba at that time, and seeing himself as part of a larger collective experience, he addressed both its vernacular culture and its political climate: He wasn't just a critic of the state, but also, like most Cubans, a recipient of its policies. Using plaster casts and paint as his primary materials, he made wall pieces that mimicked the kitsch ornaments that decorate the walls of so many Cuban homes. These ornaments represent faraway places and carry escapist associations—ducks in flight, Soviet dancers, Chinese emperors and empresses—that psychologically transport the average Cuban away from their island, something especially desirable during the trying times of the early ‘90s. But by incorporating or manipulating emblems of religion, sexuality, nationalistic crests and symbols, the shape of the island itself, and at times making them into large wall installations, Yero twisted the potential meaning of these seemingly benign decorations in a way that made them familiar and accessible but disconcerting. He was a participant in the game of finding ways to offer challenging social content and to provoke questions with artworks that were simultaneously expected to conform to state ideology; ambiguity was an essential ingredient.

In 1997, Yero married Canadian artist Rebecca Belmore and immigrated north. Here he was confronted with a different context in which to produce his work, one that was not so ideologically influenced by the state, and the direct references to Cuba in his earlier work seemed less pressing, or perhaps, too repetitious. Yet a sense of social consciousness has not evaporated from his work; it has simply taken a different course, one that is less dependent upon a particular political or cultural circumstance.

The first body of work Yero produced in Canada was included in an exhibition of Cuban art titled Irony and Survival on the Utopian Island that toured the United States. His main contribution to this exhibition consisted of 750 cast porcelain hands that hung on the wall in an undulating horizontal formation. He shifted from the icons of ornaments and crests to the icon of the physical gesture. The hands were cupped, a decision that originated from his observation of people on the streets of Havana holding their hands out with something, anything, to sell. They were tinted various shades of blue which suggested the sea and the tapered top of each hand simulated the shape of a tear, hence its title Sea of Tears. The piece is imbued with a sense of pathos derived from the cupped hand as a signifier of need.

Although this work was generated by his personal relationship to Cuba, its meaning is not confined to the specifics of Cuba. The hands bear associations that can be applied to the streets of any city around the world, whether it is those individuals who are selling something in Havana or those who are asking for spare change on Robson Street in Vancouver. It is a common but powerful gesture that tellingly speaks to the social economy, and in turn, to the political systems that see that gesture as acceptable.

Hands continue to be an emblem in Yero's exhibition at the grunt gallery. This time the hand is open, more passive, and mounted on a ground the shape of a human heart. An incision has been cut in the palm of the hand that functions as a receptacle for grass to grow throughout the duration of the exhibition. Another work consists of one barely open eye inserted into the wall. Cascading out of it is a live spider plant whose wandering stems punctuated by small bursts of growth suggest the sensation of tears. A third piece sits on the floor. Unfolding layers of clay form the shape of a bowl; it is glazed bright red and filled with water that recirculates in a constant cycle. More discreet is an object the shape of a Kleenex box. The slot that would normally dispense tissues has become yet another opening for blades of grass to find light. Titled Transplant, this exhibition could be interpreted as Yero's own transplant, of leaving one place and growing into another, but its symbols are so potent that they speak a much broader language.

Hands, hearts, plants, tears, eyes, water are all symbols that veer dangerously close to the cliché. The abundant clichés characterizing the wall ornaments that informed his earlier work reveal that Yero has already shown interest in things that are overused and stereotyped. Kitsch ornaments are relatively easy targets, but in our current era of cynicism, it is more difficult to talk about the heart, about tears, about nature without falling into the traps of shallow sentiment that popular culture has fabricated for them. But they are symbols with a long complex history, especially in Latin American culture, that embrace religion, science, poetry, sex, and the very basics of life and death. One of Yero's challenges is to invest these symbols with renewed life, to make one think about the cliché but to move beyond it and reconsider the depth of meaning and breadth of associations that they actually possess.

He achieves this by again applying a strategy of ambiguity, of letting the works release their semantic potential without a predetermined narrative. This is not an attempt to drain them of their literal meaning but to allow their meaning to be constructed from various perspectives. The object on the floor is simultaneously a container, a fountain, a flower, a vagina and a heart. The hand exhibits the signs of stigmata but the blood is a plant both damned as a lowly weed and cultivated as a carpet for recreation. The heart upon which it is affixed speaks of love, a pump, a visceral organ, and transplants. The Kleenex box implies purity; its contents are meant to wipe hands, dab eyes, stall blood, absorb water, and generally, to clean up a mess. This Kleenex box, however, is dysfunctional—any mess will persist. Yero does not approach these symbols as a romantic; they carry far too much baggage. Instead, he is an observer who sees that they are all too quickly dismissed in an era of the quick and easy fix.

Yero's work has taken an increasingly poetic turn. His iconography is less specific, less personal, and raises another problematic concept—the universal. He proposes that there is shared experience with particular icons that crosses the barriers of difference, although they may mean different things to different people. In this sense, his work emerges as a gentle confrontation.

Keith Wallace, April 2002