by Elvia Rosa Castro
(translated from the Spanish by Ted Henken)
The best thing that can happen to painting in our time is for it to be unaplogetically self-conscious of its status as artifice. However, such a reductionist and transparent approach to art should not be merely an exercise in empty rhetoric. Instead, it should aim to provoke a productive dialogue that exposes painting’s limitations and responsibilities as a fictitious mode, as human construction, as a representation. Once we arrive at this particular “ground zero,” we are left with no other choice than to openly admit and even proudly proclaim the fundamentally “symbolic status” of art. Only then, in open recognition of art’s independent nature and capacity to simultaneously make perfect sense and be completely senseless, can it become legitimate.
In my opinion, this boldness and honesty has been the guiding characteristic of the artistic career of Armando Mariño, regardless of the varied and always-evolving styles in which he has worked. For this reason, over the past two decades his work has been able to transcend its particular style and essential visuality moving successively from Ausencia de obra (“Work’s Absence,” oil, 1996), to name one work from the end of the 20th century, through his solo exhibition Amsterdam (2005), to the present work, Recent Paintings from the Year of the Protester (2012). Mariño is well aware that his paintings attempt to wrest away from art, or better yet, from creation itself, a last minute of glory, along with the right to remain among contemporary artistic practices as a legitimate subject, capable of historicizing that which simultaneously historicizes us. An art that is able to become competent within its own context is produced only by an artist who continually challanges painting through the curious act of challenging himself.
It has been common for artists of Mariño’s generation to consciously create art that references the major themes and indelible images of the canonical works from the history of art. Especially common is the appropriation of fragments from Renaissance and Baroque painting, using that symbolic legacy as an allegorical language with which they can comment on Cuba’s long-taboo ethno-racial issues and the “end of history” as a meta-narrative. Using painting as a tool with which to efficiently represent Cuba’s changing reality, Mariño made his appearance in 1995 taking first prize at the First Exhibition of Contemporary Cuban Art that year with his Relato sobre el fin de la utopía (Tale of the End of Utopia). This was a sort of postmodern pastiche which immediately placed him in the critical spotlight, with both curators and art students finding in his work the best example of both the prevailing neo-historicist trends and neo-baroque fashions of the mid-nineties.
As Mariño’s work is saturated with references to and “quotations” from canonical works from the Academy and well-known treatises on Art, his paintings critically examine long-dominant pedagogical traditions as well as the role of artists as members of the so-called “metaphorical illuminati” – including their conscious theatricality and the deliberate “staging” of their work. Because of this eagerness to emphasize the “tyranny of the signifier” in his works, Mariño is able to not only challenge artistic representation as a mode of fictional and arbitrary architecture but also – and above all – as a space of elitist exclusion.
Now largely removed both temporally and geographically from his original Havana context, Mariño has changed the focus of his work becoming less interested in narrative and altering the compositional syntax of his paintings. Nevertheless, he continues to recycle the visual codes embedded in the pictorial tradition in order to insist on the immanence of art – its nature and reach – as an unparalleled tool of efficient, if symbolic communication.
In turn, he has begun to move beyond his past focus on racism toward what I call an expanded political consciousness that now includes ecology, economic crisis, and war, with their concomitant quotas of violence. Reaching this point in his career, his former obsession with artistic citation has begun to dissolve despite its continued subtle presence in his work. Of course, his approach to the issue of social unrest is not that of the reporter in search of the most tragic storyline or sensational scoop. Mariño departs from them since – as an artist – his vocation is to convert the raw material of reality into spectacle, as mediated by his imagination and creativity.
“If I transform violence into fireworks, into spectacle,” asserts Valeriano Bozal, “at that very moment the most fundamental aspect of violence – its destructive aspect – disappears and we are left with the fog of agitated movements of people and objects…” Nevertheless, there is a metaphor that has stuck with me through the years and it is Achille Bonito Oliva’s phrase which describes the manner in which we consumed the media coverage of the Iraq war and especially the bombing of Baghdad as an innocuous “dew of war.” The ethical dilemma implied by the aestheticization or domestication of such a violent event – from the moment it becomes “breaking news” and is then converted into art through painting – constitutes the axis of the recent work of Armando Mariño.
Appropriating images whose authorship and authority become less important (ordinary, everyday) and to which ordinary mortals have instant access via the web or print media, Mariño launches a new kind of neo-historicism. He atomizes the citation (which is no longer sacred), a process made evident through a procedure of pictorial distancing – a distortion of a distortion, we might say – in which the original reference is totally lost. In this sense we can affirm that his images carry the bastard sign since their true lineage is unknown. And yet, the works continue to carry a certain mysterious aura since they have been converted; extracted from their origins and sublimated into art works.
In a kind of covert operation, Mariño manipulates his “found material,” creating images that verge on abstraction. He alters the initial, literal sense of the image and confuses the spectator with a beautiful image where the essential element is very often exactly what we can not see. We are forced to rely on our other senses to fill in where they can. Thanks to this pictorial treatment, the “epicness” of the image overtakes us, but as an evocation not evidence. Thus, in our perception of the image there is something missing whose very absence hints at the fact that we are viewing an alteration. Moreover, Mariño’s chromatic treatment –bright pigments and fluorescent colors in tune with these times – leaves us with a visual residue that is hedonistic, even perverse. In short, these paintings should not only be seen, but felt in all their fragmentation.
This conscious exile of the evidence (or dissolution of the referent) becomes, by extension, a critique of our political apathy and indifference by dint of living passively with a sublimated or naturalized violence. Its very everydayness makes it invisible. However, Armando Mariño’s entire artistic modus operandi is also a commentary on painting itself. Once again, his discursive substance reappears: The representational capacity of the pictorial, its responsibility as guarantor of tropological ambiguity, and its keen ability to deal both in the arena of the art world and beyond.
As the artist himself has said: “Once again, I am playing with the symbolic status of painting and its capacity to, at once, monumentalize and trivialize human drama.”
 To paraphrase Heidegger.
 A topic that was not adequately addressed by Cuban art of the 1980s.
 “We are living in a time of the aestheticization of violence.” Valeriano Bozal, interviewed by Urkiri Salaberria.
 Mariño is not necesarily interested in intense or central conflicts but instead in borders and margins, in colateral damage; nothing of the main event but yes to the side-show.