A creature, half-dog, half-man, rides with a bird-masked woman and, tucked between them, an elegant, long-necked bird, all three straddling the image of a larger, laterally placed pigeon; these are balanced in turn atop the lower half of a human skull, teeth bared, which rests incongruously on the bird-winged, bare-breasted torso of a beautifully sketched female figure; and finally this curious stack of images is placed against the background of a page torn from an illustrated anatomy text. The skull is an element of the printed text itself. The rest is skillfully superimposed around it in pen and ink by the artist, Roberto Fabelo.
The title of this drawing is Cabalga más o menos en intima relación, which I take to mean, very roughly, “Rides more or less in intimate relationship.” I draw attention to it at the outset as a rather typical example of the collection of many other, similar drawings included in this exhibition. Close scrutiny of the surface ascertains that the title of each is borrowed from the background text, phrases that are underlined on the printed page and carefully repeated in the artist’s hand below the image, emphasizing the symbiotic relationship between image and text. But what are we to make of these strange clusters of image, whose intimate scale—at approximate 6 inches by 10—requires us to read them with the same close attention as the text itself? We note at once the mythical dimension: male and female figures endowed with animal characteristics are found in virtually every mythological system since the dawn of human history, and their meanings and associations vary widely according to different cultures. They are worshipped as gods or demigods, and vested with spiritual powers and magical skills. They reflect the qualities we humans attribute to our traveling companions in the animal world: the rapaciousness of birds, the faithfulness, tenacity and fierceness of the dog, and so on. Around such archetypal figures, we construct the stories that help us understand and manage the mystery of the world around us, as well as our human frailties and contradictions, and the predicaments that none of us are spared on our life’s journey. We are born into the world, we pass on our genes through the act of procreation, and inevitably the body sickens, ages, and dies. It is in our nature to struggle to understand why all this should be so, and our visionary artists and poets are those best qualified to provide us with the provisional answers we call works of art.
We are taken by Fabelo’s images because they mine a rich lode of these associations, arcane and impenetrable though they might be. The artist works, as the poet does, through metaphor: an impossible, even inappropriate yoking of images that reason insists do not belong together—but in an association whose clarity, precision and truthfulness our mind nonetheless readily assents to. We “get it”, at a level below consciousness. Yet poetry, in Fabelo’s drawings, does not aim to obliterate science, but rather to appropriate it. They elaborate on both text and image from the scientific page, playfully riffing on each with the spate of images generated by the artist’s fertile imagination. Why anatomy? Because… well, Fabelo is clearly fascinated by the human body and its functions. Consider, in his larger works as well as in his drawings, the artist’s passionate, joyfully sensual, often comical embrace of the female form—his exuberant delight in the detail of generously depicted breasts and buttocks, the provocative, sometimes even pornographic poses. The feminine would seem to be Fabelo’s guiding principle, his primary inspiration. Women are everywhere in this work, proud, assertive—and conspicuously fleshy. They dominate. There is “La Sirena,” the mermaid, the natural/supernatural native denizen of the artist’s island home, Cuba. She reappears in multiple guises, often masked, sometimes caged and bound, usually lost in thought—but always bare-breasted and seductive, an overtly sexual being. Even so, the masculine principle is also not slow, as we might say, to raise its head: consider the intimate encounters with male genitalia that we find in many of the drawings; the clear sexual association of those “horny” rhinos that rampage in the thickets of a woman’s hair; or, more confrontationally—more humorously—the enormous phallus, appropriated from the anatomical text and comically touted by its delighted beneficiary who manages, all at once, to balance precariously on the ball (egg? globe?) that is his pedestal in Bolsas propiamente dichas.
But it’s not merely a matter of anatomy. Fabelo’s work is an inquiry into the nature of desire, filled with disturbing insights into the fear, the pain, the guilt and suffering associated with these intimate aspects of our lives. It pokes uncomfortably into the hidden emotional, psychological and psychic wounds that most of us nurse beneath the smooth exterior surface of our lives. He challenges us with authority because he is willing to delve into his own subconscious mind (the Región profunda, to borrow the title of a drawing), and show us what he finds there. For him, it is a matter of self-reflection (Reflejarse sobre la cara, to borrow another of his titles), and it is this sense of deeply personal commitment that animates his work, asking us to explore with him the inner workings of the human psyche. “It is,” he has said, “a training […] to look at the darkest corners where at times there is an unexpected revelation or a key to open a new space and look inside.”[ Rafael Acosta, “The appetites of Reason: Interview with Roberto Fabelo,” in Fabelo, 2002 – 2010, Ediciones Vanguardia Cubana SL, 2010, p. 256.]
The intimacy of Fabelo’s drawings is elaborated in works that operate on a more heroic scale. If the drawings require close scrutiny, the paintings grab our attention from afar. They are characterized, though, by the same disturbing and incongruous imagery. Consider the imposing, Buddha-like head of the woman in Margarita, los pájaros y los rinocerontes, whose contemplative mood is interrupted by a herd of raging rhinos; or that of Suyu (in Suyu, las vicarias y los rinocerontes), whose otherwise calm breast is pierced by the beaks of beautifully rendered birds, popping up like prickly thorns from the pale smoothness of her flesh. Or, on an even more imposing scale, Gran Pájaro, with its fetishist delight in the long, leather boots, the bondage straps, the sharply beaked helmet, and the strapped-on wings. Here, the bold juxtaposition of the standing woman and the upside-down bird evokes an exotic sexual exchange that leaves the viewer at once engrossed in the action, and at some deeper level disquieted. A similar motif recurs in Abrazado a la Utopía, where the female figure wears a beautifully detailed bird’s head mask and the diminutive faun (may we think of this as a gently ironical self-portrait?) nuzzles endearingly against the woman’s crotch.
The powerfully dramatic image of Gran Pájaro is tempered, as are the images in a number of Fabelo’s large paintings, by its setting against a surprising background of elegantly embroidered silk, whose delicate patterning seems to offer in contrast the comfort of serenity. It evokes, improbably, the wall covering of a polite boudoir or drawing room, a context in which the suggestive action depicted on the surface becomes even more incongruous. It by this kind of free play with multiple media, sensibilities and approaches that Fabelo brings surrealism into the 21st century with a postmodernist flair. Drawing on that European tradition as well as on the literary sensibility that defines the magical realism of his neighboring Latin countries, Fabelo creates a world in which we find ourselves constantly crossing cultural borders. As Stuart A. Ashman wrote, his images “contain references to Dante’s Divine Comedy, García Marquez’s magical realism, a touch of Bosch, the draftsmanship of the Dutch and Flemish masters, and the soul of Rembrandt.”[ Stuart A. Ashman, “Fabelo’s Anatomy,” introduction to an exhibition catalogue of the same title, Museum of Latin American Art, Long Beach, CA, 2014, p. 5.] As viewers, we move from one moment to the next between reality and dream, the familiar and the outlandish, the ridiculous and the sublime. The work is at once immediately appealing to the eye, and astonishingly provocative. It is both narrative and subversive. It speaks to an irrational part of the human mind, activating not only powerful emotional responses but also the residue of long-sublimated spiritual beliefs that our species may have thought to have left behind. After centuries of skeptical rationalism and dissociation from the natural world, Fabelo comes along to remind us, perhaps to our surprise, that animal spirits still have much tell us much about our humanity; and that the call of the unconscious mind still echoes in some distant mind space, always ready to expand ur otherwise limited horizons.
1-Rafael Acosta, “The appetites of Reason: Interview with Roberto Fabelo,” in Fabelo, 2002 – 2010, Ediciones Vanguardia Cubana SL, 2010, p. 256.
2- Stuart A. Ashman, “Fabelo’s Anatomy,” introduction to an exhibition catalogue of the same title, Museum of Latin American Art, Long Beach, CA, 2014, p. 5.