by Dra. María de los Ángeles Pereira Perera
The fact that many persons identify José Villa as “the Lennon sculptor” is perfectly normal – because it is true –; the fact that he is a rather popular artist – being also the author of El Caballero de Paris, of the Martí at the Fragua and of the Hemingway at the Floridita – is absolutely logical; but to assume him – for the same reason – as a figurative sculptor is a contradiction, one more in the compendium of negations comprised by his long career. And the reason is that Villa has been in fact a devastator of stereotypes in his artistic activity, in his professional life and even in his vital projection as a human being.
Those who are well acquainted with him well know that he is a man of few words, introvert, quiet, taciturn; his figure and his gestures, and his calmed manner of speaking – when he has no other option – transmit a serious and exclusive peace that seems to be anchored in the depth of his reverie. Born in the capital of eastern Cuba, Villa is the antithesis of the typical santiaguero: he never raises his voice, nor gesticulates, nor roars with laughter or puts his arm over somebody else’s shoulder; he is never euphoric and even less, bellicose. All the contrary: he saves the indomitable passion for the intimate relation with his metals and his stones; it is when he is alone with his sculptures that he fights his great battles. Villa is then a santiaguero – even a Cuban – indeed antithetic.
A second negation has to do with the expectations. Having concluded his higher and postgradual studies at the Praguer Academy of Plastic Arts, the Czechs were supposed to have returned to us a “realistic socialist”, an efficient maker of portraits, but the one who returned to Havana was a daring abstractionist who for a long time preferred to create only pure forms and volumes far from any “naturalism”. Villa chose not to collide head-on with the affected sensibility, the scarce judgement and the – almost absolute –power of the prudish defenders of a heroic iconography of great scenic display, monumentary scale and great pomp, and it took him twenty-five years to model again a face, a figure, a long hair…, that could do without the high pedestal and sit on a bench, walk along a street or quietly lean on a bar.
Notwithstanding, he immediately began to work; he participated in shows and salons, won contests; from one prize to another he arrived to his first International Symposium on Sculpture, which was also the first one to be held in Cuba. And since then he has not stopped even for a moment. For two years he has been disseminating those abstract pieces throughout the planet’s wide geography, in its squares, parks, streets, buildings, beaches and adjacent keys.
Thus, in a country where making sculptures seems to be very difficult, where sculpture has been called “the Cinderella of plastic arts” and has been commonly judged – in a tyrannical comparison with painting – in terms of “crisis” and “jumps”, Villa is a sculptor of a maintained and successful career. There is not one single critic who has permitted himself omitting him in his inventories, who criticizes his excellent craftmanship, who dares question his talent. They may perhaps regard him as the exception that confirms the rule. But in truth, he is another one of the many negations that he himself personifies. Villa’s artistic activity is the radical negation of the myth of the badly called “Cinderella”, the overwhelming negation of the sad fate of Cuban sculpture.
And, on the other hand, he has been a professor of sculpture for almost thirty years; during one whole five-year period he was Dean of the Plastic Arts Faculty at the Higher Art Institute (ISA), and for more than one decade has uninterruptedly headed the plastic artists’ section at the Writers and Artists’ Association of Cuba (UNEAC). Which means that he is very far from being that pure and non-contaminated artist who has taken refuge in an “ivory tower”, totally safe from worldly contingencies. He has lived alternating the workshop with the classroom and the office, he accumulates as many hours of meltings, weldings and chisel as those of ungrateful meetings. His curriculum vitae, therefore, denies the comfortable point of view that one has to devote oneself exclusively to art in order to be among the best, and asserts that the essential thing is not to be a “full-time” artist, but to be – try to be and try to – think, teach, lead and act all the time as an artist.
One of the trends of sculpture in which the work of José Villa has inserted itself is the one denominated commmorative sculpture. He obtained his first national acknowledgement in this line of work in 1978, when the project he presented to the contest Monumento de la Escuela de Milicias de Matanzas (Monument for the Matanzas Militia School) – conceived together with architect Rómulo Fernández – was awarded with the contest’s Prize. For very different reasons that project was never carried out, but the balance for Villa and Rómulo was their initial experience of working in a team and the wish, of course, to create a work together.
The occasion arrived four years later, when again the binomial Rómulo-Villa obtained the Prize of the National Contest El Che y los niños (Che And The Children) – of very wide summoning power – which was called to build a monument to Ernesto Che Guevara. Concluded in 1982 and set up in the lobby of a Pioneer Palace in a beautiful natural park in the outskirts of Havana, the work entitled Che Comandante, amigo (Che, Commander, Friend) earned him his second prize in the field of monumentary sculpture. The ensemble is conformed by a series of steel plates in star form, in whose center the figure of Che has been perforated and fused – on top of the shining metallic surfaces – with the reflections of the surroundings and of the faces of children and of all those persons who approach the work to see themselves reflected in the stars.
More than twenty years have gone by since it was created and it may be asserted with the most absolute conviction that Che Comandante, amigo continues to be – because of the elegance of its form, the good sense and soberness of a conception that is based on the simplicity of the metaphor – the most dignified and most fortunate sculptoric interpretation that the vast plastic arts iconography of Che Guevara has had up to this day.
Almost in parallel to the realization of this work, Villa was invited by architects Emilio Escobar and Mario Coyula – experienced craftsmen of commemorative art – to work with them in the Mausoleo de los Mártires del 13 de marzo (Mausoleum To The Martyrs Of March 13). It was the sculptor’s hands that created that group of upright and flaming steel banners that visually dominate such novel and suggestive mourning place. The sculptoric structure is imposing; it dominates over the natural and constructed landscape of the majestic necropolis of Havana, but also assimilates and integrates it, on the basis of silver reflections, while it throws itself symbolically over the space while its shadow – like a solar design – spreads over the green serpentine stripe that flows over the small square, parallel to the row of banners.
This is, undoubtedly, an emblematic work of the Cuban monumentary sculpture with its eloquent and efficient combination of nature and landscape with spacial and sculptoric elements; a work that evokes and praises without falling into the Manichean formula of the anecdotic. To Villa, his participation in it was an experience of inestimable value; to Cuban sculpture, an authentic evidence of aesthetic boldness and novelty; to all, a truly encouraging lesson.
On the other hand, the sculptoric ensemble of Plaza de la Revolución “Mariana Grajales” in the Cuban city of Guantánamo – inaugurated in 1985 – and the Monumento a José Martí in Madrid (Spain) – created in 1986 – are the two other most relevant works of the conmemorative production in which Villa has participated up to the present1 as part of multidisciplinary work teams with architects and other plastic creators.
If one is familiar with the so-called Plazas de la Revolución (Revolution Squares) that proliferated in different Cuban cities during the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s, and has paid attention with a certain critical opinion to the emaciated eclecticism that dominates the majority of the public sculptures of Madrid, one is then in a position to valuate in its exact dimension the personal contribution of an artist who has known how to appeal to the essences of the form and the expressive force of ellipsis as main grammatical support of his sculptoric creation.
As regards the Guantánamo Square, Villa’s work is identified in the successful harmonious conception of five geometrical bodies whose layout on the great platform-tribune suggests a majestic virtual arch which reaches its highest – and most expressive – point in that sort of gateway to history which is the central body of the monumentary ensemble. Meanwhile, the monument dedicated to Martí, which was set up in a centrical avenue in Madrid, presents a sole rectangular structure of reinforced concrete overlayed with marble and stainless steel, on whose sides the elements that distinguish the Cuban national flag and the barely outlined face of the notable patriot have been sketched with resolute synthesis. The great column – some five meters high – announces the sculptor’s preference for this upward and vigorous plastic form that will animate, as we will immediately see, a wide segment of his work in the field of environmental sculpture.
In truth, the first sculptoric column erected by José Villa is prior to that of the Monumento a José Martí in Madrid. It dates back to 1983, when inspired by the slogan that presided over the First International Symposium on Sculpture Varadero ’83 celebrated in Cuba, he created in Jaimanita stone the work entitled Forma, Sol y Mar (Form, Sun And Sea). It is a vertical structure, interrupted by the interpolation of a rectangular element allusive to the sea waves because of the ondulation of its profiles, while the sun is evoked with a subtly perforated circle in the stony surface, in the upper block of the piece.
The other great column, which this time reached eight meters, is the Escultura Fuente (Sculptoric Fountain) that the artist conceived in 1991 for the traffic circle at the head of the avenue leading to the Pan American Village, east of Havana. Here steel – like never before – revealed to the artist the suitability of its elegance; the metal rises with impassive regularity of lines up to where the sculptor deemed it prudent and then splits into a dynamic in-and-out dialogue, in a game of geometrical volumes that diversify the spilling of water while eventually supporting a number of stone shreds that seem to have been placed up there accidentally.
The persistent attraction to steel, however, did not stop Villa from engaging in another fascinating experience: that of contrasting substances. He tried it in the piece Intervención (Intervention), of granite and steel, which he created during a symposium in Santiago de Chile in 1992, and consolidated it the following year in the work that was set up at the campus of the Valencia Technical College. This second piece, entitled Homenaje a Wifredo Lam (Tribute to Wifredo Lam), captivates the spectator because of the surprise in the face of the unexpected, of the magnificent contrast between the graceful curve of a large steel plate and the rough, rational cutting – almost the work of an engineer – of a middle-sized marble block; they are adverse textures that embrace and understand each other, perhaps in the way that certain essential saps from the Caribbean and Europe succeeded in harmonizing once, in the fantastic plastic universe of the author of La Jungla (The Jungle).
Villa is conscious that in the complex scenario of environmental sculpture the artist must be capable of bringing into harmony intelligently both vocation and opportunity. As regards the latter, the second five-year period of the 1990s was an exceptionally advantageous lap for him, a suitable space to gain experience and project himself in the international circles. When we observe in a sequence some of the pieces he created during the more than ten simposiums in which he took part in those years, we observe a process of full maturing in the sculptor’s career, characterized by the versatility in materials and techniques and by the gradual definition of a sort of style, of a style of his own already definitely unmistakable as regards his environmental production.
In this regard, it is worthwhile to stop at El ojo de la cerradura (The Keyhole), created in Mexico in 1995 during the fourth edition of the Symposium On Stainless Steel Sculpture that is annually held in the city of Tultepec. This work inaugurates two new formal aspects in Villa’s aesthetic proposal: on one side, the metallic surface begins to be treated with a hitherto absent will to create textures based on the effects of rifling and frotage that extract or impregnate new tactile qualities of unusual visual richness to the sculptoric material; on the other hand, the columnar form opens up and allows the penetration of a space that begins to move inside the piece – as if through a keyhole – to reveal the hidden registers in the compactness of the structure.This second aspect will only be taken up again by the sculptor in punctual subsequent works; the former, on the contrary, the one of the textural games that overflow the medium and explore new tactile possibilities, arrived to become a constant, exquisitely displayed in almost all the pieces created by the artist along 1996 and in subsequent years.
This quality stands out, in addition, in the plurality and richness of the most diverse materials: in reinforced concrete – Columna (Column) (Guadalajara, Mexico) –; in wood – Luna (Moon) (created during the Symposium On Wood Sculpture held in Alajuela, Costa Rica) –; in lime marble – Caribbean (work awarded at the II Triennial of American Sculpture held in El Chaco, Argentine) –, and in the original combination of some of these materials, as in the case of Habanera (Woman From Habana) (1997), a stupendous piece sculptured in iron and marble with which Villa participated in the event Grand Prix of Honor convoked that year by the city of El Chaco.
This series of works was notoriously increased by other pieces, among which are the formidable Regata (Boat Race) (istriano marble) – set up in Portoroz, Slovenia, in a beautiful outdoor training establishment where some of the most important sculptors from all the world coexist –; Árbol (Tree) (reinforced concrete and iron); Torre Almena (Battlement Tower) (stainless steel) – both from 1998 –; Espiga (Spike (white marble) and Karibik (The Caribbean) (stone) – the last two already from the year 2000 –. They all confirm the perfect process of formal purification that took place in those structures of totemic spirit that have attained the rank of personal symbology in Villa’s sculptoric language.
In them is to be distinguished the column enrichened with daring treatments of textures, whether by virtue of minute incisions chiseled in relief on the lovable marble surfaces, or of that sort of graffiti that denies the opacity of the metallic plates by means of linear frolic, or by rubbing the medium with colored varnishes that contradict the uniformity of their evenness with beautiful chromatic effects. Likewise to be observed is the gradual mutation of the column, from that structure that rises several meters over the floor level with careful pyramidal profiles to remain, in the end, surprisingly crowned by some contrasting element; but notice should be taken that at times there is no element to crown the slenderness of the column-tower, and instead it is truncated by a smooth cutting or of sharp profiles that can also change round the shaft or impose its angles from the very base.
In the cases of Sao Paolo and La llave de la torre (The Tower Key) – the former, from 1998, set up in a populous artery of the homonimous Brazilean city and the latter from 2000, at the National Fine Arts Museum in La Habana – the sculptor takes up again that unique quality that results from piercing the center of the piece to allow the spectator’s space and view to penetrate the metal’s structure, adding unsuspected perspectives to the work itself and to the surrounding environment.
On the other hand, a triad of pieces sculptured in Mexico in 2001 radicalizes the subversion of the columns. Thus, in Palma Real (Royal Palm) (polychrome-painted steel), the column leaves aside the relative unity of its form to rise in a monumental ensemble of two plates that cross each other, rise and narrow at the threshhold of its peak to finally open in sharp-pointed crests. In Archipiélago (Archipelago) (steel), the rough, angular forms cause unevenness, step by step, in the linearity of the rise. Whereas in his Columna infinita (Infinite Column), a geometrical and monumentary structure that evoques Brancusi, it is the successive borders of the material itself (also steel) that break its rectangular shape, embracing a mass of scrap that – alike those incredible columns of the Rumanian – would seem to intend to prop up the heavenly dome.
Occasionally, Villa’s sculptures return to a more discreet scale and spread out in ondulating and sereme projections that establish an organic dialogue with the horizontal line, as may be observed in pieces such as Ola (Wave) (rose marble) – created in Portugal in 2000 –; Fragmento de muralla (Wall Fragment) (black marble) and Muralla Santiago (Santiago Wall), the last two from 2000 and 2003, respectively, set up in La Habana and Santiago de Cuba in the headquarters of Banco Financiero Internacional. In these cases, the versatile marble textures have been combined with unique elegance, opposing the shining stripes of the plane surface of one side with the unpolished roughness revealed by chisel blows of the other.
And this is, in general terms, the type of sculpture that Villa always preferred and which he planted in so many cities that, may or not recognize him as “the author of the Tobogán”, “the author of the Regata”, the author of any of those towers or columns that animate their parks and avenues…, but exhibit them with pride as credentials of good art and good taste, and as eloquent cultural signs of their modernity.
At a given moment, at the height of the year 2000, when the mature and established sculptor Villa had allegedly renounced to the juvenile dream of humanizing in bronze and expanding through the streets – on sidewalks, within a hand’s reach of anyone who would want to greet them – those illustrious men – and women – of history, doomed by secular tradition to “live” petrified on top of affected, prohibitive, unsurmountable bases, in Napoleonic attitudes, always strange to the simple gesture that once distinguished them…; when there was also an absurd pretension of discovering in his works the demanding modelling, the realistic accent, the rigor of that “other” craft he learned as a young man in the Academy in Prague, Villa created a bronze Lennon, serene and lost in thought, virtuous and impeccable – at the height of The Beatles’ impeccable virtuosity – and sat him in a park in El Vedado where the public began to pay him a tribute that was warm, spontaneous, in complicity and above all, different.
Afterwards he modelled a sitting Tin Tan that was set up on the edge of a fountain in the center of his native Ciudad Juárez; then he sculptured El Caballero de Paris, whom he placed, arrogant and errant – as many Cubans recall him – in a street of the Old Havana; and still later, in the courtyard of a neighboring convent, Mother Therese of Calcutta, whom he represented submerged in the Holy Scriptures, in the unruffled peace of her retirement; and Preso 114 (Prisoner 113), that hardly known image of Martí as a young man, almost a child, as a prisoner in the stone quarries.
Villa has made, in addition, another Lennon for a garden in Denver, and a smiling Hemingway, standing – about to taste a daiquirí – at the bar of the legendary Floridita. All of them are images of an exceptional naturalism, of a perfect modelling of faces, figures and clothing, of such human and convincing realism that one dares not call it “realism”. Their novelty consists particularly in the uniqueness of the gesture, the essential capturing of the personality of the portrayed, the humanization of their memory and, with it, the – radical – change of meaning of the celebrated gesture.
This, however, does not mean that José Villa has reoriented his activity toward sculptoric figuration. He has fulfilled – even with pleasure – this type of commission, and in doing so, he has succeeded in mobilizing sensibilities not known hitherto of both participants and public; he has managed to break old schemes; once again he has demolished stereotypes hoisting new and necessary negations.
But at the same time he has continued creating his sculptures of always – those he always preferred – because, contrary to what one might believe, those are the ones that demand more determination and craftmanship from him. Thus, the Lennon is almost parallel to Karibik, just as El Caballero de Paris is parallel to the Obelisk of Guadalajara, and the Hemingway to that gigantic chip – MX35P, acero del 2003 (Steel From 2003) – which has just been set up at the Sculpture Promenade of the University of Informatic Sciences of La Habana.
In recent times he has also inserted his works in the enlivening of hotel facilities, the same way he had been doing it – since the decade of the eighties – in projects of artistic qualification of hospitals, tourist centers, management and commercial buildings. In 2002 he conceived a Banco (Bench) in black marble, a magnificent sculptoric piece of furniture that may be used and enjoyed in the lobby of Hotel Panorama. Whereas in the recently inaugurated Hotel Barceló Cayo Largo Beach Resort, Villa has set up two pieces that pre-announce new aesthetic and conceptual routes in his vital production: one is Canopus y Sirio, formed by two stainless steel columns whose silhouette hardly persists, as if in resolute minimalist urge only the climbing will outlined in ethereal and superb metallic bars remained of the former massive structure; the other is the work entitled Quilla (Keel) – also of stainless steel – a sort of sculptoric rail that expands its geometrical play in appliques and reliefs that frolic on the adjoining wall in such a way that part of the piece is also part of a stairway – or vice versa –, with which the artist is offering us a sculpture that is, at the same time, both environmental and utilitarian.
Therefore, we must not think that an unexpected turn has taken place in José Villa’s sculpture. Villa is fifty-three years old – three less than the age of Pablo Picasso when he painted his famous Guernica, eight less than Constantin Brancusi when he sculptured at Tirgu-Jiu his masterly Columna infinita (Infinite Column). And because he is its own master, mature and at the same time active and non-conformist, his is a sculpture that unfolds, diversifies, widens, projects itself in new and extraordinarily promisory dimensions.