Yoan Capote: Beauty and the Bite

Phoebe Hoban

Yoan Capote’s art accomplishes something unique: it combines wit, heart, and beauty in equal measure. In recent years, conceptual art has often given irony a bad name. Work that is either cynical, or deliberately unaesthetic, or both, has frequently dominated. But Capote carves out his own idiosyncratic niche; he consistently finds ways to merge classical aesthetics with contemporary concepts, creating pieces that are appealing on a physical, emotional and intellectual level.

Sometimes, the humor is obvious, as in “Racional,” 2004, an academically rendered plaster cast of a male torso, which boasts a sly organ-transplant: instead of genitalia, this crotch sprouts a brain. Other times, it is more subtle, as in the piece entitled “Stress,” in which multiple bronze casts of human teeth support sections of a cement pillar, a literal representation of tooth-grinding anxiety that only reveals itself upon close examination. As in much of Capote’s work, the specific flows seamlessly into the universal: the artist got the idea from his own nocturnal tooth-grinding, but his use of anonymous dental molds from a Havana clinic raises the piece to a collective level. In its austere simplicity and aesthetic elegance, “Stress” exemplifies Capote’s gift for transforming cerebral ideas into visually powerful and readily accessible works of art: beauty with an actual bite.

While much contemporary art has emphasized the abject element in human physicality, Capote’s work focuses on the sensual, erotic and even the tender. His delightfully clever “in love (After Brancusi), (2004)” is a hinged wooden cube that opens to reveal a male/female allegory: a cylindrical member, itself a kind of hinge, plugging a hole. The sanctity of the closed cube, smoothly split in half, exposes the hidden intimacy of the gently interlocking parts. A similar piece, cast in bronze, replaces the “male” member with a digit, and is called simply “Touch.”

A different view of [male/female] union is on display in “Married,” (2004) in which a woman’s shoe merges with a man’s shoe, creating a single leather unit. This stylized uni-shoe is punctuated on one side by a male shoe, and on the other by its female counterpart, which function as visual parentheses; witness the “before and after” of the connubial state, at least from a sartorial point of view.

Capote is wide-ranging in his use of scale and materials. Take his modest but potent 2004 piece “Nostalgia.” It consists of the artist’s own suitcase, which traveled with him from Havana to New York and then back, this time filled with Manhattan bricks, creating a visual pun—the artist weighed down with “baggage”—the experience of his trip. In “in Tran/sit” an earlier piece (2002), it is the exterior of the luggage that communicates transience: a series of concrete and metal suitcases form a bench that looks as much lost as found.

Capote’s use of visual metaphors based on quotidian objects evokes both Magritte and Duchamp: the surreal readymade. But there is something particularly lyrical about Capote’s work; his solutions to the artistic problems he poses are not just singularly pragmatic but also strikingly poetic.

Born in Pinar del Rio in 1977, Capote began studying art at the age of 11 at the Provincial School of Art in his hometown. By the time he was fourteen, he was attending the National School of Art in Havana, completing high school at the Higher Institute of Art. He studied with Rene Francisco at Havana’s Instituto Superior de Arte, and participated in a group called DUPP, an acronym for the Spanish words “Dsde Una Pragmatica Pedagogica” (which means, “from a pedagogical pragmatics”). By the time he was 24, he was also teaching at the school.

“I think art is sensitivity and thought,” says the artist, who begins each piece by giving it a title in his sketchbook. In affect, his art starts in the act of naming his idea. The title and the subject it evokes sow the seeds of the individual work, and also determine its scale and material. For Capote, content comes first, followed by form: “The most important thing is not how to produce the work: the really important concern for me is how to get in touch with the spectators’ mind,” he says.

Capote works out of a rough-hewn two-story studio space in Havana. One enters a large, raw area that boasts one of his prize possessions: a vintage tk car—the sort of old-fashioned American automobile that has become an iconic image of a contemporary Cuba frozen in time. (Think of those sepia-toned photographs of Havana.) But like many artists of his generation, Capote strives to transcend his geographical and historical roots. And while his art is certainly shaped in part by his everyday life, his vision extends well beyond the Malecon—the famous seawall between Cuba and the world.

“I think that my experience as a Cuban artist is reflected in my works in many ways, and I think that most of the time it is unconscious,” he says. “I feel it is not good to exploit too much identity exoticism. Because it leads the art to stereotypes, and it can become a vicious circle that can make the work banal. It is the big challenge of my generation: to find an equilibrium between our strong personal and contextual experiences and our need to project ourselves as international artists. I want to expand my daily concerns through a human sensibility, because the human sensibility itself is an international language.”

It is this international language—the lingua franca of the human condition--that Capote eloquently articulates, with both insight and ingenuity, in his original and compelling oeuvre.