Ernesto García Sánchez paints with brushes that are works of art unto themselves. One is a double-ended pole that he holds over his shoulder to color one canvas in front of him and one behind. Another is a rake-like contraption for creating three images in a row. A third looks more like a TV antenna, supported by García Sánchez on one end and a stand on the other, that can brighten up a dozen-foot stretch of exterior wall. The Cuban abstract artist's goal: to make sure he's never totally in control.
"Sometimes I feel that I want to make everything perfect, but sometimes I have to break with all of it.," the artist explains. "The tools allow me to have... a surprise in the process, because sometimes it's very sad to feel that you are painting and you will know everything that will happen on the canvas."
The 27-year-old has plenty of time ahead of him to explore the unknown — and an impressive resumé to propel him. His work has appeared around Latin America and beyond, and now he's staging his first solo exhibition in the United States, "Schemes," at Mindy Solomon Gallery. At a time when U.S.-Cuban relations are on the mend, García Sánchez's story is one of international connections: He has benefited from Cuban and American influences and friendships on his way to this moment.
His formal education thus far has been in Havana, at the Academia Nacional de Bellas Artes San Alejandro and the Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA). He describes an exacting application process for the ISA, Cuba's main art school — two interviews and portfolio reviews and then tests in history (art and regular), Spanish, and math. It took him two attempts to get in. "The second time," he recalls, "I went a whole year working, preparing myself."
At the ISA, García Sánchez sought as many influences as possible. He found many close to home in a thriving Cuban abstract tradition. Most immediately, he learned with and from "a bunch of young Cuban artists... studying abstraction." He also looked back to "a great abstraction [in] the '50s in Cuba," studying Raúl Martínez, whom Britain's Tate collection describes as "the leading Cuban artist after the revolution of 1959."
But the painter also found inspiration in the States, studying American abstract expressionists Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko. "I have been very influenced by the American artists," he says. "I fell in love with the abstraction the first time I saw Mark Rothko paintings."
Studying the details and differences in Cuban and American abstract art, García Sánchez recognized the way artists' surroundings contribute to their unique styles.
"I see the difference" between American and Cuban abstractionism, he says, "but difference doesn't mean a bad or good thing." For Cuban artists, he says, the context of nationality "is influencing you all the time even if you are studying American artists."
The drawback of developing that worldly perspective is that the more art you've seen, the tougher it can be to make something you haven't seen before.
"Sometimes you are painting and you step back and you think, I saw this painting before — I don't know where; I don't know from whom," García Sánchez says, saying sometimes he feels as if he's channeling someone else's style instead of his own.
"That happened to me, and that's why I started to create the tools."
The clumsiness of his homemade multibrushes lets García Sánchez immerse himself in the unpredictable, impulsive process of gestural painting. As he concentrates on marking up a canvas in front of him, he's indirectly manipulating other brushes to create the painting's wild alter egos. Displayed in a row, the images erupt from relatively orderly lines into wild thickets of paint.
"The tools allow me to sometimes create things that I really want to create, but sometimes I have this surprise of gesture — sometimes the shape, sometimes the way that the shape moves [on] the surface. It's just a color sometimes. It's more about [sensory] stuff than rational stuff."
García Sánchez's career has blossomed like one of his abstract polyptychs. He'd already had work presented in London, Havana, Bogotá, and Seoul by the time he met Mindy Solomon at Art Basel Miami Beach in 2013. That meeting was especially fortuitous for García Sánchez because he was with Rafael Domenech, a childhood friend who'd studied with him at San Alejandro before moving to Miami. Domenech had García Sánchez's back and Solomon's ear.
"He's like the only person who comes to me and says, 'Mindy, I think you should show these artists,' and I trust his opinion," Solomon says of Domenech. So she looked over García Sánchez's work and agreed to host a show in January 2015: "Binary // Binario," curated by Domenech and featuring García Sánchez and another San Alejandro graduate, José Manuel Mesías.
Since then, García Sánchez has been productive, sometimes producing several works at once. He and Solomon laugh as they recall the fate of a piece he made for the 2015 Havana Biennial: a cluster of 40 white-on-white canvases, a study of "fear of emptiness." García Sánchez was riding in a taxi when he got a call from a Mexican foundation that wanted to buy the whole work.
Now he's back with Solomon in a new location — she recently moved her gallery from the increasingly pricey Wynwood to Little River, opening her first show at its current location on NE Second Avenue last September. She says she can trace an evolution in García Sánchez's work over the past few years.
"I enjoy seeing the growth," she says. "You know, it's funny to talk about his early work. He's 27 years old, and you're already referencing material from four years ago and saying 'older work.'?" She turns to García Sánchez: "But when you look at it, you can see the growth and the transition from what you were doing, the ideas forming, to where you are now and where you're going to go, and that's really exciting."
When García Sánchez looks to the future, he envisions taking his art on tour, exhibiting in new destinations around the world. He's also interested in continuing his education by exploring academic offerings beyond Cuba.
"As an artist, study is forever, you know?" he says. "You have to keep studying always."
While García Sánchez imagines international experiences, Cuba and the United States are rebuilding connections that could bring Cuba closer to its estranged neighbor and the rest of the world. The 2015 Havana Biennial hosted "Wild Noise," an exhibit culled from the collection of the Bronx Museum of the Arts — the first exchange of art between the two nations' museums in half a century. For Americans, loosened travel restrictions make it easier to see Cuba's art in person; the next Biennial, scheduled for November 2018, could see a larger crowd from the States as a result.
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To García Sánchez, the diplomatic changes add to the opportunities that can help him and other artists rise to global prominence.
"As a young artist," he says, "if you are allowed to get more chances — it's gonna be great, you know?"
Saturday, September 24, through Saturday, October 22, at Mindy Solomon Gallery, 8397 NE Second Ave., Miami; 786-953-6917; mindysolomon.com. An opening reception will be held Saturday, September 24, from 7 to 9 p.m.; thereafter, the gallery is open Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free.