Pablo Cano’s Royal Ladies

Juan A Martinez, 2018

Pablo Cano (b.1961) discovered his passion for art early in life, supported by his mother Margarita Cano, an Artist and Community Relations Administrator for the Miami Dade Public Library system and his father Pablo Cano, a Musician. In the early 1970s, he studied with well-known artists in Miami, the sculptors Tony López and Barbara Neijna, and the printmaker Shirley I. Green. At 15, he participated in his first group show at Brown López Brown Architects in Coral Gables. After a boring high school experience, Cano enrolled in Miami-Dade Community College in 1978, where I first met him in my art history courses. Upon graduation in 1980, he enrolled at the Maryland Institute of Art and received a B.A. in Art. He then went on to receive a M.A. in Fine Arts from Queens College, City University of New York in 1986. In between Baltimore and New York, he lived for a time in Paris, after being awarded the Cintas Fellowship, following in the footsteps of many 20th century Cuban artists.

Cano is a draftsman, painter, mixed media sculptor, printmaker, and performance artist. In his early works he represented aggressive horses, Angels, Saints, and Madonnas. Later he began to create historical, literary, and popular culture figures.  He developed a unique visual language out of his wide- ranging interest in Renaissance and Baroque art, Pablo Picasso, Russian Constructivism, Dada, and Alexander Calder. He has a talent for reimagining discarded or cheap consumer goods. His assemblages are fresh and playful. Although highly sophisticated, they have a childlike sense of discovery to them. No wonder his interest and mastery of marionettes

I have followed Cano’s work since the late 1970s and my favorite pieces are his women figures.

My first recollection of his representation of women was the Virgin Mary with Child. Two that have stayed with me are one painted inside a refrigerator turned altar, which was part of the graduating work for his A.A. Degree at M-DCC., 1980; the other is Saint Sebastiana, a large painting shown at The Miami Generation exhibition in 1983. The earlier is done in a post-Byzantine style, the later in a post Renaissance manner.

I am most interested in his assemblages of single, elegant, regal ladies. This essay comments on two of them: Princess Havana, 1999 and Queen Marie Antoinette 2007. The pieces are rod puppets, which were part of performances with scripted dialogues, scored music, and guest appearances.   I met them as free-standing sculptures in art exhibitions. At the expense of limiting their full aesthetic and purpose, I will treat them as static, independent assemblages. They stand on their own. I generally adhere to the school of thought that believes interpretations of art are subjective and fueled by the viewer’s experiential baggage. Hopefully, my thoughts on these pieces expand possible ways of seeing them.

Princess Havana is life size, stands on a low base, and it is made of multiple found and bought objects. Let’s read Cano’s detailed description of the assemblage, which offers an insightful introduction to it.

Princess Havana’s crown is a car air freshener popular in the 1990’s. I bought it in a pharmacy in Hialeah. The face is a clay portrait of Cecilia Hernandez Nichols, the Architect. I covered the head with Marlboro cigarette silver foil collaged on the surface. The Elizabethan costume is made with an oil drum identical to the ones used by Cuban rafters. El Escudo de La Habana (the emblem of Havana) is made with discarded Alpo dog food cans. Her hands are from a Buddha I found in a Pier 1 store. The glass sleeves are glass lamps from the 60’s. If you look closely, you can see small metal boats around her waist. These boats are pastry baking molds. The corset is created from a 70’s metal table base. The microphone is made from a hubcap and music stand. There is graffiti scratched on top of the oil drum that I drew.”

The assortment of materials and their representative value as dress, arms, etc. is wonderfully imaginative and playful. It puts a smile on your face.

When I first saw this piece at the Lowe Art Museum, to which collection it belongs, I thought of it as an emblem because of its title and the emblem of the city of Havana on the front part of the oil drum. I related it to two famous ones that also personify the city as a woman. One is the colonial Fuente de la India (the Fountain of the Indian Woman) in the center of Havana and, also colonial, the weathervane, la Giraldilla, on the turret of Castillo de la Fuerza, a venerable small castle in the old section of the city. These very different sculptures, one a seated neo-classical nude with a crown and a cornucopia, the other a dressed figure with an air of confidence and a staff, are Havana’s best-known traditional symbols.  I imagined Pablo’s piece as a contemporary humorous version of that tradition.

Recently I received an email from the artist, which took my thinking on this assemblage in a different direction.  “All these materials (meaning those to create Princess Havana) are critical for this piece as it represents a metaphor of what Exile Cubans left behind and what has happened since the diaspora.” To me the metaphor does not only relate to the materials per se, but to the final ensemble: the representation of a regal, assured lady with a voice, the latter signified by the microphone. To be sure, Cuban women had to work hard in a strongly patriarchal society to obtain a voice. The assemblage brings to mind the white middle and high class of Cubans who call their daughters princess, developed elaborate quinceñera parties (young women coming of age celebrations), dress in elegant clothes (here suggested by crown, silver, Elizabethan costume, glass sleeves, etc.), are generally full of confidence, and are part of a professional or business class (notice the profession of the model for the face). This representation of women describes many in the first wave of Cuban exiles of the 1960s. Like all looks at the past by emigrants, it is a melancholic fiction, in this case softened by humor.

The assemblages Queen Marie Antoinette and Princess Havana have in common that both characters were negatively affected by Revolutions and that as art they are quite imaginative. However, they are very different in form and mood. First, a description of QMA to give an idea of the use of materials and their transformation. The royal coiffure is made of Styrofoam, air-dry clay, plastic decorative Baroque frames and ornaments. The curls are made of electric cables. The features of the head and face are modeled using air-dry clay and are based on a portrait of the Queen by Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun. The blue eyes are recycled from a life size Barbie doll. The entire surface of the head is collaged with Marlboro cigarette silver foil with subtle hints of white paint to add a powdery look to the hair and face. The sleeves, arms and hands are made from Quaker Oats containers, silver lace fabric, and cigarette foil. Air-dry clay is also used for modeling the hands, accentuated by red nails. The fancy dress is made of silver fabric. You do not see its interior armature, but for those who are curious, it is made of a lamp pole, office chair, and a round bamboo tabletop. The sculpture measures over seven feet tall. The turning of ordinary consumer objects to an imposing royal portrait is nothing short of artistic alchemy.

When I saw this sculpture in the Miami Generation Revisited exhibition at the Art Museum in Ft. Lauderdale in 2013, it was placed on a two to three foot pedestal and the lighting gave the color of the entire figure a grey tone. The figure had great poise and I sensed a forlorn expression. As I stood there mesmerized by the piece, I thought of Bob Dylan’s Sad Eye Lady of the Lowlands. Like the song, it presented a complex, sorrowful, and mysterious character.

With your sheets like metal and your belt like lace

And your deck of cards missing the jack and the ace

And your basement clothes and your hollow face

Who among them can think he could outguess you?

The piece offered a more in depth psychological portrait of Queen Marie Antoinette than the countless ones in museums.

About a year later, I saw the same assemblage with a few changes and in a different setting, which gave it a whole other expression.  The sculpture was shown at Cano’s retrospective exhibition, To The Eye Behind the Keyhole, 1979-2016 in the Miami Dade Public Library in downtown. It stood on the floor, the elaborate headpiece was different, one hand held a rod puppet cat, and the lighting made the color silver/white. This time the figure was still regal, but more accessible. Its demeanor came closer to Sofia Copola’s film version of Marie Antoinette and to her sympathetic portrayal of the Dauphine’s and later Queen’s propensity for excess and flirtation. The assemblage was lighter in mood and more traditional in the representation of this Queen

In the nineteenth century, the Spanish Crown and the Catholic Church began to grant titles of nobility to the colonial aristocracy of Cuba as a means to strengthen their ties with an increasingly restless colony. Eventually, Spain granted more titles of nobility to Cuba than to any other of its colonies. There were also families with titles of nobility from Italy, France, and Germany. After independence from Spain, the new Cuban Republic did not interfere with that tradition and those titles continued to be used as social standing. The 1959 Revolution abolished all titles of nobility and most holding them left the island, some opting to live in Miami.  I believe that Cano’s royal ladies relate at some level to that tradition of nobility in Cuban history and to its lingering in exile.

The differences between Princess Havana and Queen Marie Antoinette reveal the wide range of materials and moods Pablo Cano is able to achieve with his assemblages. Although they are wildly humorous, especially at first sight, some reach other levels of emotions. Also, while they are characters in scripted plays with specific roles, as free standing sculptures their content is open ended. Princess Havana and Queen Marie Antoinette speak to issues of history, politics, class, portraiture, and melancholia, while straddling the line between humor and seriousness.

Princess Havana, " Once Upon An Island," MOCA North Miami Production, 1999.  Author: Hervin Romney, Introductory poem by Margarita Cano, Princess Havana poem by Cristina Romney,  Artist : Pablo Cano.

Queen Marie Antoinette,  " Viva Vaudeville," MOCA North Miami Production 2007. Choreography by Katherine Kramer. Artist: Pablo Cano.