Experimentation in Art and Life by Piter Ortega Nunez
Juan Luis Pérez (Havana, 1970) is a profoundly anti-academic, irreverent and rebellious artist. He creates uncomfortable works, difficult to place in labels so admired by critics. His work is contrary to the notion of unique and “personal style.” His art is chameleon–like, always in flux and not constant. And these characteristics bother, perturb, mostly to the mechanisms of the art-institution: markets, gallerists, curators, historians, etc. The “small world” of art needs to define, classify. When it cannot be done, that world destabilizes. Juan Luis is then a “stone in a shoe.” An enfant terrible.
When he invited me to his studio and I observed his work for the first time, this is what I sensed: the diversity of his work disarmed me; it left me momentarily without words. It is because Juan Luis is sometimes abstract and other times figurative; at times he uses strident and contrasting colors, and in other cases, employs an enormous chromatic sobriety; sometimes he uses dense and pronounced textures, while in others he opts for the very plane forms; at times he is expressionist, other times pop; in some works he’s inclined to representation of the human face, in others he avoids it; momentarily he is more conventional, in other cases he turns extremely experimental and adds resins, newspapers, alcohol; at times he is visually minimalist, other times he is more baroque. In summary, we are in front of an eternal adventurist, without a defined course, for whom nomenclatures are not to his liking. The only word that best describes his art is “liberty.” Liberty of thought and liberty of action. And that is also his life, as Juan Luis is an intrepid traveler, who has lived in Spain, France, Italy, Argentina, Africa, Brazil, Cuba, and the USA. From all of these places, he has extracted life experiences for his works. Which I find fascinating. I have always thought that the major forces of inspiration for an artist should not be books nor theory, but the act of living life (and to live it to its fullest). This is what Juan Luis Perez has accomplished. Therefore he self-identifies as “Don Juan”: an authentic bon vivant, a genuine enthusiast of life and art.
In the artist’s own words: “If I think of something and I feel it, I create it. I don’t follow any guide or model because for me art is freedom of choice. Rules do not apply to my world. My personal motto is: technique is learned in school; one is born with art.” The artist is self-taught, he learned on his own, at his own pace, without the straightjacket of the academic world. Perhaps this is why his works are such breaths of fresh air, with so much spontaneity and daring. When one talks with Juan Luis, it is as if he follows his own light. As if he were so sure of himself that he does not allow to be intimidated by commentaries (sometimes well intentioned, other times not so) of the complex world of art.
One of the artist’s most interesting series is the one dedicated to female faces (think of pieces such as “Missing you,” “Lost in Lust,” “Insanity,” “Reflections of Time,” “Seduction,” “Satisfied,” “Vicious Love,” “Wild Heart,” “101 Thoughts,” among others). As indicated by the titles, these works are inspired by the most diverse of human emotions and sentiments. More than physical pictures, they are psychological pictures of varied personalities. In this sense, the ability of the creator to tell stories through the views of these personages is greatly highlighted. In the eyes of all these female characters are seen memorable life stories, experiences, dreams, yearnings, features of authentic personalities. Each of these visions is distinguished by a very special poetry and mystery. These women pose more questions than answers. They attract me, something I can’t deny.
But there is also much sensuality, and even eroticism, if you wish, in these faces. The presence of an elegant curved line; the use of free and expressive drippings, full of glamour; the treatment of lips and skin of his figures; the voluptuous stains on the canvas or wood provoked through the use of alcohol; just as the use of color range and textures, are all proof of the above. At times it is a mixture of sensuality and violence, tenderness and aggressiveness. It is because Juan Luis likes opposites. Antagonistic pairs.
If all the works of this series are valuable, there is one that I most prefer: I refer to “Curiosity” (2016). I can’t even explain why, but without doubt it seduces me in a very emphatic manner. Perhaps it is that mischievous, daring and defiant look that intimidates me as well as provokes me. Perhaps they are those flattering lips. Or, probably, what attracts me most is the force of the visual composition created by the artist, which exhibits an attractive mobility and fluidity.
Numbers and their symbolism for different cultures (not only Western) are also relevant within Juan Luis’ visual production. It is thus we observe 67, 69, 101, 22, 43, 70, 92, XV, in what would appear like a secret and encrypted panorama, to which the artist launches us through the benefit of the doubt. It is something like a numeric brain teaser that becomes enigmatic, charged with occult codes that perhaps only the artist manages to comprehend. But since humans enjoy difficult tasks and challenges, I find these numbers very appealing, while intriguing.
In other works, the artist distances himself from figurative representation and completely immerses himself in abstraction. It is here where he is most content, most to his taste. The ample freedom of abstraction is like a perfect fit of glove in hand to the desire of the artist to experiment. It is in these cases where the artist’s brushstrokes are most free, where lines are most chaotic and colors acquire unsuspecting contrasts. Examples of these characteristics are: “Landscape of the Soul,” “Flowers of Tomorrow,” and the series “Silent Noises,” among others. The first above is undoubtedly a masterpiece within Juan Luis’ trajectory. The many layers of color that create an esoteric and magic visual jungle; the visible fissures created by the artist’s spatula; as with the massive overlap of lines that penetrate each other, convert “Landscape of the Soul” in a veritable feast of the senses (tactile, visual and even olfactory, why not?). It is one of those works where one senses that nothing is missing. All is in its just place. And, even more, nothing is superfluous: the tools of the artist were set aside in the precise moment.
There is one other work that merits a detailed analysis, due to its transcendence. It concerns the work “Judgment Day” (2016, acrylic on canvas). In it appear two shaded and mournful personages, in the midst of an atmosphere of opaque colors. As per the title, one of the two judges the other. Possibly it represents the divine final judgment. Perhaps its significant meaning could be more earthly. What is certain is that this canvas is evidence of a very important feature that distinguishes the work of Juan Luis Pérez: the lack of definition of time and space. The artist’s works inhabit a temporal/space ambiguity that makes them very seductive. His personages appear out of context; it is difficult to locate scenes in a precise geographic or cultural zone, like we are unable to define the historic moment in which the images can be located. The artist’s subjects and sceneries pertain to the past, the present and the future, without distinction among them. In the same manner, they are citizens of the world, universal subjects (multi-cultural).
Another indispensable work by this artist is “La verdad inevitable” (2016). This oeuvre is distinguished by the monumentality of its dimensions. But beyond that characteristic, it is the most mysterious of all the works by this artist. I mean “mysterious” as much for its content as for its form. Its theme revolves around the phenomenon of death and its consequences in the plane of family and humanity. It is thus a tragic and painful work, where a loved one is lamented with profound suffering. But the most curious element, from my point of view, is the anatomy of the figures represented in the work, because their appearance is not completely human, rather a more complex and diffused hybrid, a mixture of a terrestrial and alien that results in something very perturbing. It is an overwhelming piece, with a powerful expressive force. It concerns perhaps a work where the artist projects his fears, his demons, his anguish and his most intimate secrets. A form of visual confession, which reminds us – through the title and in a direct manner – the inevitability of death.
With the inquietude and the adventurous character of the artist, Juan Luis has also realized sculpture and installation art. This adventuresome can be viewed in his beautiful wood installation dedicated to the memory of the victims of 9/11. It is a group of pieces elegant in their minimalism and simplicity, based on the color white as a symbol of purity, of the transparency of ideals and a nation that rose victorious above ashes.
It would not be surprising then if Juan Luis in the future enters the world of video-art, digital art, etc. His ambition for creative expansion knows no limit. And, without doubt this is a very positive element in his favor. Let us keep track of his development.