Toys for Tyrants
At Little Havana's Contemporánea Fine Art, Esteban Blanco focuses the crosshairs on American pop culture with a sniper's skills.
The 60-year-old Cuban-born artist was on hand at the gallery to talk about "Violent Toys," a message-freighted series of mixed media and sculptures delving into America's obsession with military might. The work is an indictment of a peace-loving nation that happens to manufacture and consume close to 80 percent of the world's military hardware, the stridently antiwar artist says.
"I recently heard a Pentagon spokesman referring to the Predator Drone as a toy," Blanco sniffs. "I've chosen to create these rather complicated, involved mechanisms cloaked in the guise of toys to reflect how our military defines the republic."
His exhibit also tackles broader issues of how religion and science, and fact and fiction are represented in the media. But his fierce mutant toys are what steal the show.
Toy Zeppelin is a zaftig-proportioned blimp bristling porcupinelike with bombs and gun turrets across its entire surface. Its exterior is rendered in the silver and green sheen of a Bonito tuna.
Another formidable piece is Toy Tank, a gunmetal-gray armored combat vehicle designed for deep penetration of the enemy's rear. Butcher knives, shears, and battle-axes jut menacingly from its front carriage. Torpedoes, bomber planes, and heavy artillery disarm the viewer from all flanks.
Across from it, the camouflage-green Toy Airplane dangles overhead, pregnant with silvery fat-boy nukes and cigar-shape, copper-tip missiles. They reflect a "national myth of innocence America comforts itself with in the midst of empire building" Blanco says.
"In the end, it's all about money. We spend our ... resources developing this technology, and weapons we are stockpiling we will eventually put into use. Our government justifies this with a mantra that we are under attack, when in reality we've left a heavy footprint in the Middle East and across the world but refuse to admit it to ourselves."
It's obvious Blanco is an articulate and passionate man. But it's difficult to imagine him having been so openly outspoken in the corporate corridors where he spent much of his life.
Although he studied art at the Brooklyn Museum School and the School of Visual Arts in New York City in the early Seventies, Blanco worked as a commercial photographer, graphic designer, and copywriter during most of the Seventies and Eighties.
He had his first one-man show at the Razor Gallery in Soho in 1981, but the place folded. He lost nearly three years of work when the dealer disappeared and never contacted Blanco again.
Crestfallen, he moved to Miami and opened a studio employing 16 people who did freelance work for local ad agencies. Meanwhile his art career faded into the background.
In 1994, Blanco cofounded Accentmarketing, an advertising firm that had grown into the fourth-largest Hispanic agency in the United States by the time he sold his stake in 2004, netting $20 million for himself and his two partners.
Clients included General Motors, Nextel, and the U.S. Navy, Blanco says. "We had 150 people working in Miami, Detroit, Los Angeles, Dallas, and New York, and were billing $152 million a year."
Asked whether Toy Gunboat, his red and gray arsenal on casters tricked out with machetes, .38 specials, Civil War cannons, and Trident missiles, is a knock against the Navy, Blanco responds emphatically: "Absolutely not. I worked with captains and admirals, and they are fine people. I would do it again and believe we have to have a strong military to defend our country. My problem is fundamentally with how the current administration is squandering our human capital in Iraq, in a place where they don't care about our people."
Blanco jokes that he wants to present his "Violent Toys" to the Pentagon as a project for development. Then he shifts gears to rattle off stats to bolster his arguments.
"The Seawolf attack subs have cost us a fortune even though we currently have no enemies we can use them on. The V-22 Osprey aircraft cost more than $50 million each although they have been controversial, killing more Marines that the enemy. For the United States to design, build, and deploy an aircraft carrier to sea with a full complement of support craft and munitions for a year, it costs us as much as we would spend funding the entire Department of Education in this country for 10 years."
Blanco, who calls himself a "reconstructed liberal," also takes issue with politicians who publicly trumpet their dependence on faith despite our nation's supposed belief in separation of church and state.
Two Stories, a mixed-media diptych, depicts a flying saucer on one side and Noah's Ark on the other. "It's about taking a leap of faith," he says.
Blanco laughs while riffing on how in the most scientifically sophisticated society in the world, the History Channel doles out pulp television for mesmerized rubes. "What the fuck is that?" he snorts. "All you get from it is stories about Sasquatch, crop circles, and shark attacks."
On a roll, he walks over to and points out Trapped, a circular tableau surrounded by a flock of carved wooden birds. The background of the glass-encased piece features a grainy dartboard target pattern superimposed by a tiny jail cell housing a turkey and a dodo bird. He calls it a political cartoon. "That's Dick Cheney and Dubya," he cracks.
Some of his pieces smack of a purposely sugarcoated veneer. One of them, Foreign Soil, features a ballerina's pointe shoes tiptoeing over a thicket of knives while a toy soldier poises himself for combat.
The Mission is framed by battleships surrounding a minefield of thorns and mousetraps, against which the silhouette of a cowboy rides on a bucking bronco. It's a stab against gunboat diplomacy; it also suffers in comparison to Blanco's more visceral sculptural works.
Perhaps the most unusual piece in the show is a circular sculpture reminiscent of a dog chasing its tail. Titled Round, the piece is a washtub-size, doughnut-shape Miami-Dade school bus full of multiracial Barbie dolls. Blanco calls the work an exploration of the policy of public school integration during the Sixties.
It seems more an apt metaphor for Blanco's coming full cycle and returning to doing what he loves after ditching his suit and wingtips. "It's been liberating in the sense that I no longer have to worry about making presentations and can focus on making things that reflect how I feel. It's difficult for anybody living through these times to remain on the fence," he says and then pauses. "It seems clear to me that the issues we face are black-and-white and easy to see."
Addressing his resurrected art career, Blanco is quick to point out we should be careful what we wish for.
"I would call mine a cautionary tale for people who dream. Art is a business," he says. "You produce; then you have to find a way to show your work and to sell. I found myself shaking hands and slapping backs all over again."
Blanco remains encouraged, because he sold five pieces in his first public foray during Art Miami in 2006.
"I sold $22,000 worth of work, which is not bad for a fresh start out of the gate. But once I figured out the numbers and the time it took me to produce the work, it all came out to about 25 cents an hour," he peals.
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