While growing up in Cuba, Fabian Peña became fascinated by the patterns left by bug splatter on the floors and walls of his home.
"My grandfather would swat insects with a rolled-up copy of Granma, and their squashed remains made an impression on me," he recalls. "Later on in my work, I began giving bugs the possibility of commenting on man's existential condition after their death. I know it's a bit absurd."
His medium of choice these days is the Periplaneta americana, or the common American cockroach.
His work is on exhibit at the Bernice Steinbaum Gallery in "The Frozen Moment," a tidy, tightly edited solo show featuring only four pieces you won't have to approach with a can of Raid.
The show is anchored by The Impossibility of Storage for the Soul, a hair-raising work depicting a disintegrating skull created from clipped cockroach wings on paper in a light box casting an eerie amber glow into the space.
The piece brings to mind Damien Hirst's life-size platinum cast of a human skull, covered in nearly 9,000 pave-set diamonds, that sold for $100 million last year.
Peña's skull is monochromatic, reflecting the limited palette of the roach wings he uses, yet it conveys several distinct tonalities that give it the appearance of a Byzantine mosaic.
"First I classify the insect's wings by size and tone, separating the darker, middle, and transparent yellowish tones of the wings before using them," Peña explains. "I also separate the legs and antennae during this process."
He goes on to mention that cockroaches have been around for 400 million years and that by incorporating them into his work, he explores the relationship between man and his most indomitable pest.
"They haven't changed since the time of the dinosaurs. They have been resistant to natural disasters and the atom bomb. For me they added an element to my work that's at once both scatological and sublime."
The 31-year-old Peña — along with former collaborative partner Adrian Elsoca — began working with insects in Cuba in 1999 because of a dearth of art materials. Over the past several years, the pair became known locally for labor-intensive, exquisitely rendered "bio-drawings" fusing pithy phrases and imagery created from flies, roach wings, and other bits of battered bugs. They have since gone their separate ways; this marks Peña's first solo after the split.
"There was this state-sponsored program to exterminate mosquitoes in Cuba, and the pest control people — who were actually prisoners on work release — would come to fumigate your home," Peña laughs. "The chemicals didn't kill the mosquitoes but stunned the roaches, allowing me to scoop them up."
After he began incorporating insects into his work, the artist purchased some bug spray from the fumigating felons and started harvesting the local insect population from neighborhood sewers and stores. He even dabbled in what amounted to black market trafficking in the bugs.
"People thought I was crazy," Peña cracks. "At one point, I gave some drunks a bottle of cheap booze called chispa tren (train spark), and they collected all the cucarachas from El Cementerio Colón."
When he came to the United States in 2004, some of the roach remains made the crossing with him. He lived in Houston for a year before relocating to Miami. "I still work with a reserve of Cuban roaches I paid 50 Cuban cents each for," says Peña. "Today, though, people who know what I'm doing catch them for me and bring them to me in plastic bags."
Despite relying on a medium that scuttles away when you flick on the light switch, there is a stinging quality to the handful of poetic works Peña has housed in the dimly lit gallery that almost takes on the air of a cathedral to creepy-crawlies.
A work that bores into the brain with raw bravado is Frozen Flight, a Spanish lacelike mantle confected from tens of thousands of fly wings. The elegant piece is suspended at eye level from a strand of monofilament dangling from the ceiling. As you exhale in front of it, the gust of breath causes the delicate, plum-hued gossamer film to twirl in front of you. A halo of light dances across it while the shadow below takes on the aura of an insect buzzing playfully near your heels.
Across from it, the nearly indiscernible Tattoo is a life-size wall drawing of a butterfly. If you walk by quickly, you will miss it. Peña uses roach wings and antennae to flesh out the figure in a mosaic pattern. It's remarkable to see the transformation of the dissected cockroach remains blossoming into one of the most beautiful creatures in the insect kingdom.
Peña's virtuosity with his idiosyncratic medium resonates in Fossil, in which he used a single roach wing to create a map of the globe on a palm-size translucent stone. The incandescent orb sits atop a column and is illuminated from beneath by a penlight. The continents are painstakingly re-created in minuscule specks that make the stone look like it has a coffee-colored rash on it. The stone's striations and veins gleam on the surface.
Isolated in a corner, the small work looks like a recovered meteor or some sort of precious artifact.
A tip of the chapeau also goes to Bernice Steinbaum. It's unusual to see dealers devoting their spaces to shows with scant commercial appeal. For his part, Peña both seduces and rewards.
What's amazing is how Peña has taken a creature so universally reviled and recycled it into provocative artworks that most of us could happily live with. He not only digs into the interminable cycle of life and death, but also the foulest conditions of human existence. In doing so he opens our eyes to fresh ways of seeing.