Stan Douglas--Cuba

by Donald Goddard

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Beach Resort
Beach Resort / Cultural Centre, Tarara, 2004.
C-Print mounted on aluminum,
40" x 32"

Quarry Vedado
Quarry, Vedado, 2004.
C-Print mounted on aluminum,
48" x 73"

Quinta Rosario
Quinta Rosario /
"Fructuoso Rodríguez Secondary School, Vedado
, 2004.
C-Print mounted on aluminum,
57" x 48"

Barbacoa Vedado

Barbacoa, Vedado, 2004.
C-Print mounted on aluminum,
48" x 54 3/4"

In some of the photographs it's hard to know where you are, what the surrounding space represents. Beach Resort / Cultural Centre, Tarara has a plain wall slanting to the left, with a large, circular cutout through which one sees the landscape beyond. The space drops down in front of us with a staircase descending into the darkness in the lower left. The floor at our level appears at the left with a rail in front of it guarding against the drop into the space. The composition is a perfect arrangement of major diagonals, a few verticals, the horizontal of the landscape, and the circle of the cutout (which we know is not a perfect circle but accept as one), like a Constructivist page design that carries in each of its insistent directions the oddities of typography and other human evidence. These photographs are different, though. They allow the art of others to be recorded, to intervene and become part of the photographer's art--structures designed or improvised by people; roads and lawns and clumps of trees; the phrases and names of people who have passed through, in this case the Ukrainian (or Russian) graffiti of children afflicted with radiation poisoning from the disaster at Chernobyl who were living and being treated here for a while. That is the prism, both theirs and Douglas's (and therefore ours), through which the circular landscape, the earth, is seen. The landscape stretches out, through the green and the tiny figures on the path at the left, toward the distant horizon where the smoke of the industrial, or simply the modern world, rises into the gray clouds, all this before the facility, apparently, is to be renovated to accommodate visiting foreign businessmen, when, presumably, another context will be created and this aesthetic will no longer exist, except in this picture.

There are layers upon layers, as in an archaeological dig, and, in fact one of the photographs, Quarry, Vedado, is almost precisely that. The earth in the foreground is excavated, as though for some kind of reconstruction or need to go beneath the surface. But of course it is a quarry, a mine, the one in which the Cuban revolutionary hero José Martí worked when he was a political prisoner at the age of sixteen in the late 19th century. The apartments and streets grew up around that space, partly as though it were not there but also in recognition of its significance. The buildings seem suspended around the quarry; it is part of their existence, and certainly of their form. Like one of the rings of hell, it underlies the full range of human activities and structures. Following the trees from right to left, one is led to a barely perceptible opening onto an elevated street and sidewalk where people stroll, a street that begins with the quarry but always with the suggestion that the quarry is beneath it, through the door in the rock wall that supports it.

Most of Douglas's pictorial spaces are like vestibules, places into which we have been ushered to await the unfolding of events. They are very evidently encapsulations of time, from before the Revolution, or before before the Revolution, until now (or then, when the pictures were taken). While we are waiting, there are more details to see than in any other works of art I can think of--a dog lying asleep on a roof, clothes on a line out the window drying in the sun, the reflection of a man hunched over a desk, leaves fallen on the ground, surface textures of infinite variety--all related to one another and all absolutely of the moment they were seen together. In Malecón, depicting the promenade around Vedado and Havana, the sea crashes against the retaining wall and the great plume of water seems to dance with the angled cannon and the tall, stooped street lights. We may be waiting, but we really are there, in all the complexity of thereness.

Some of the pictorial spaces actually are places to wait--lobbies, courtyards, promenades, parks--like the Quinta Rosario / "Fructuoso Rodríguez" Secondary School, Vedado, which shows what was a room in a private home and is now a waiting area outside the principal's office in a secondary school. The décor is rococo, Ionic columns supporting a frieze with elaborately set paintings, a continuously garlanded joining of wall and ceiling, and a large, oval ceiling painting of some heavenly realm, only partly seen here, all sort of peeling and fading golds, blues, white, and yellows. We are faced squarely with this noble apparition, from behind which light emanates through the windows. We would be prepared for some kind of elevating experience beyond were it not for the black, overstuffed chairs that stand in front of us, not so much as guardians but as inflated comic deflators or grounders of our expectations. Bloated blackness and newness defeat the aging mathematical perfection of the scene that their symmetry might otherwise support.

An alteration of equation also occurs in Barbacoa, Vedado, in which the geometry of the porch supported by three Doric columns with one Corinthian pilaster at the left end is interrupted by a newly painted rectangle with window that is flush with the columns and seems to absorb one of them. This is the façade of a barbacoa, or "barbeque," colloquially, an extra room that has been added to the old structure (in a very odd place) to accommodate another person. The overall structure of the house and its portico is completely squared to the rectangle of the picture, the roofline bordered by an even strip of deep blue sky, the base by a strip of sidewalk, and all other horizontals and verticals absolutely parallel to the top, bottom, and sides of the picture. There are minor diagonal rhythms between horizontals and verticals--the repeated ovoid décor of the balustrade, some shadows, and the pile of gravel at the lower left. Surfaces crumble and fade within this grid in an indescribable manner that makes it seem a ghost structure. In this ambience, the new cubic room, on its concrete stilts, is no less mysterious as an assertion of life than the place of which it has become a part. It is as though the abstract elements of the picture had simply been rearranged.

Donald Goddard © 2004

The exhibition was on view at David Zwirner, 525 West 19th Street, New York, NY 10011.

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