“Tomás Esson: The GOAT,” the latest installation at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami, is the Cuban painter’s first-ever solo museum presentation.
For three decades, Esson’s work has been called grotesque and challenging and has been censored in his native country. Since moving to the United States in 1990, the artist has split time between Miami and New York. His works are part of the permanent collections at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Havana, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, and the Ludwig Forum for International Art in Aachen, Germany, among others.
The opportunity to support Esson with a solo exhibition at this transformational juncture in his career resonated with ICA artistic director Alex Gartenfeld.
“Tomás is such an important artist who has been based in Miami on and off for almost 30 years. It’s so crucial to our mission to be able to support not just international artists but artists living and working in Miami who are making a profound impact on the international scene — and Tomás is a great example of that,” Gartenfeld says.
“Tomás’ work is provocative and it has a history that is closely related to censorship, and so this is the time to kind of reckon with the ideas that are central to his work,” he adds. “Tomás’ work has been consistently critical of the political regime in Cuba and has done so by employing revolutionary iconography, as well as very provocative imagery relating to mythology and sexuality.”
Set in three rooms, the exhibition allows the viewer to trace the trajectory of Esson’s work — something Gartenfeld says highlights the depths of his artistry.
“Over the course of three decades, you see him moving from figurative mythological to a hybrid style to an almost completely abstract style, and just the consistency and steadiness of Tomás’ development, I think in this exhibition, is really striking.”
The exhibition, which will remain on display through May 2021, includes never-before-seen pieces and highlights different periods of Esson's career, from the early Retrato (Portrait) series to his Wet Painting series to a monumental, 100-foot-wide wall painting done in black and white and featuring the mythical and malformed figures that are a signature of his work.
“There are new works which are site-specific and responsive installations,” Gartenfeld says. “One of the wall paintings are drawings on paper which are assembled into a mosaic-like wallpaper using some of his very humorous, very kind of sexual iconic imagery from the late ’80s and early ’90s and turning them into an immersive installation.”
ICA Miami is creating a catalog to accompany the exhibition, due in the spring, which will offer a significant contribution to the scholarship of Esson’s work through a critical exploration of his oeuvre.
“I’m hoping that people take a sense of what kind of incredible artistic practice is happening here in Miami, and a sense of how painting can be political, critical, humorous and sexual at the same time and teach us new things about ourselves and our society,” says Gartenfeld.
ICA Miami reopened in September. The museum has implemented new cleaning procedures and policies to ensure the safety of visitors. In addition to requiring advanced timed tickets for entry, attendees are limited to one hour inside and are required to wear facial coverings while inside or in the sculpture garden.
– Rebekah Lanae Lengel, ArtburstMiami.com
“Tomás Esson: The GOAT.” Through May 2, 2021, at Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami, 61 NE 41st St., Miami; 305-901-5272; icamiami.org. Admission is free, but visitors must reserve timed tickets in advance.