A Cuban Artist’s Take on Identity

  • Armando Mariño, The Tree of the wounds, 2019
The Cuban artist Armando Mariño takes his inspiration from many places – from literature, to the current political climate, to his roots and the Afro-Cuban experience. In his current show, he gathers works made over the past year or so under the theme of “La Selva Oscura” (The Dark Forest), and explores questions of identity, gender and acceptance. The solo show of 10 new large-scale oil paintings, as well as some smaller works and watercolors, opened May 3 and runs through May 25 at the FACTION Art Projects Gallery near Strivers’ Row in Harlem.

In an interview, Mariño, 50, talked about the show and some of the impulses behind his work. The title for the show derives from Dante’s journey into hell, which is a metaphor, said Mariño, for the confused and troubled times in which we live. Many of the paintings juxtapose abstract forms with human forms, and in some, faces are obscured or not discernible. “I want to see a human in nature – for me a figure is a figure,” the artist said. In “The Mexican,” a huge figure is draped in a cloak of white flowers and blue vines twisting against a brilliant yellow background, while the figure’s features are indistinguishable. In “Persona,” a figure in a red hoodie seems to peer at the viewer, yet the features are blurred. “Persona,” said Mariño, asks whether there is a mask we give people.

In a couple of paintings, figures are bathed in a deep blue hue, a deliberate attempt to de-emphasize race. In many paintings, figures are standing in water. The Cuban artist says that water is almost “something religious” in the Afro-Cuban tradition – the ocean birthed the world and its creatures, while rivers are credited with creating civilizations. A few of the landscapes Mariño started painting remained as landscapes without figures, and show an intriguing tangle, seemingly of twigs, trees and forests.

Armando Mariño (left) at the opening of his show on May 2. (Photo by Karen Pennar for Voices of NY)

One of the most powerful paintings in the show, especially knowing its backstory, is “A Boy with a Future,” which depicts the artist’s son, now 13, in profile. Here, he said, “the face is more obvious,” with both a melancholy and a hopeful air. For Mariño and his family, some of the adjustments to life in the U.S. have been difficult, and he said that his son has experienced hatred and bigotry in school. “It’s the first painting of my son. It’s important for him and for me, and I dedicated it to him.”

Mariño moved to the U.S in 2010, having lived in Spain for 15 years. Some new opportunities have presented themselves, he noted. He joined a competition for an art installation at the Brentwood, Long Island, train station and as the only Latino entrant figured he never would get picked – but he was, and his glass mural, “The Guardian Angel,” was recently installed, featuring flowers from the country of origin of many of the town’s residents, such as Mexican Dahlias, Peruvian qantu, and Salvadoran Flor de Izote, as well as native flowers of Long Island. Another first: he will be working with an American writer to illustrate a children’s book. “This type of thing only happens here,” he said.

Mariño sold seven paintings the night of the show’s opening. The attention he’s received as an artist in the U.S. has been good, but, he noted, “it takes sacrifice, and it takes patience.”

Born in Cuba, Mariño studied art in Havana and Santiago de Cuba in the 1980s and 1990s, and in Amsterdam in 2004 and 2005. He lives and has a studio in upstate New York.

 “La Selva Oscura,” paintings by Armando Mariño, is on exhibit through May 25 at FACTION Art Projects @ Gallery 8 New York, at 2602 Frederick Douglass Blvd. in Manhattan.

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