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José Manuel Mesías, The dawn before purgatory, 2022-2024.

José Manuel Mesías: the stream bed


February 22nd- March 23rd, 2024

Friday - Saturday, 11am - 6pm

& by appointment

35 Lispenard Street, New York, NY 10013

Andrew Reed Gallery announces the stream bed, a solo exhibition of José Manuel Mesías. For this show, the Havana-based artist has compiled works that have been in progress, in his mind, for a number of years. According to Mesías: “these pieces come back to digging in the depths of my personal history and the primordial and formative principles of my persona. I try to explore the archetypes of my subconscious through dreams and images that come from my experience. In addition, many works deal with recent loss.”

The central work of the stream bed is also the largest: a double portrait of Mesías’ maternal grandmother and paternal grandfather. These relatives were central to the artist’s upbringing; he credits them with instilling in him key aspects of own personhood. In Mesías telling, his grandmother was the matriarch of the family, a severe but loving figure. His grandfather, meanwhile, was a funny and loose guy, an art aficionado, musician, painter, carpenter, and dandy. José took care of them both at the end of their lives, which subsequently brought him even closer to them. This Hockney-esque double portrait is an idea Mesías initially sketched out more than a decade ago. He was able to take their picture together at a family reunion, but the painting itself never crystallized until now, in the exhibition in which it anchors. 

A plasticine skull appears on the windowsill of The dawn from purgatory, while that same object is in much sharper focus in Back to purgatory. These works take as source a picture which Mesías captured during his last visit of his grandmother – the same grandmother in the double portrait – during her final hospital stay. Mesías fashioned the skull from sealing wax used for the doors of the hospital, a very archaic system used to this day in Cuba. In one work, we see the east skyline of Havana; in the other, the feet of the artist’s grandmother. A couple hours after this sunrise, in the very same view, the Saratoga Hotel exploded.

Pairings and crosscurrents between works further appear in The derision of luck and The density of the archetypes. For Mesías, these explorations are not necessarily conduits from one to the other; rather, his experiences, musings, and imagination coalesce around motifs which reappear. In The derision of luck, Mesías references the poem of Eliseo Diego, a famed Cuban poet, who envisioned a procession of thousands of crabs filling the road. Says the poem: “Repugnantly light” / “mute, grossly metallic, waving themselves as madness” / “simple and dreadfully alive”. The painting also alludes to a Tarot card: “The moon”. The moon casts a glow across the surface of the work, and a dog barks at one of the crabs which has strayed too near the house. Meanwhile, in The density of the archetypes, Mesías captures the memory of a friend who recounts driving on a road particularly laden with crabs and toads. 

Several works in the show take on a Surrealist quality: the artist sleeps on a couch surrounded by locusts; a boyish Mesías donning a full mustache in a poster for his missing cat; a guitar back which reveals an image when caught in its reflection. Again, these paintings are deeply personal and self-aware, probing Cuban literature and linguistics while melding with the artist’s own wit and humor.

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Photography courtesy of Gordon Chin Wang Ng

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