Best Artist (2011)

Pablo Cano

When he's not dumpster-diving or rifling through the shelves of his favorite thrift stores, Pablo Cano can be found in the garage behind his Little Havana home turning junk into art while listening to Cole Porter songs, Tin Pan Alley tunes, and other favorite ditties. Like the toy maker in Pinocchio, this conceptual Gepetto creates enchanting marionettes out of the trash he collects or the sundry castoffs his friends from all over the world bring to his back-yard studio when they visit. Inside his refuse refuge, Cano creates his own version of the Mona Lisa using a candy box for her head, a birdcage for her torso, and bits of rope for her joints. His Cecil B. DeMille-esque cast of characters might include oceanic sirens, '20s flappers, or dancing ants. To make a bull shine in the ring, he coated the animal's hide with a stash of gold cigarette foil paper he regularly receives in the mail from a growing legion of fans. Exhibited in museum shows across the globe, each of his puppets is a complex sculpture all its own. But for more than a decade, Cano has also produced fantastical operatic opuses in which his beguiling creations roar to life. Every year for the past 12 years, the Museum of Contemporary Art has commissioned Cano to create lavish productions that combine his marionettes with elaborate stage sets he paints or draws and the music he loves, conjuring magical displays that mesmerize art lovers both young and old. The Cuban-born artist says his productions — which employ choreographers, dancers, actors, and musicians — spring from his imagination in the surrealist tradition while his work is rooted in dada ideals. Whatever the source of his inspiration, Cano is the rare artist who, like Peter Pan, can transport spectators to otherworldly realms and help them rediscover a childlike wonder through his unforgettable characters meticulously rendered out of trash.