Gabriel Sanchez’s Cuban Portraits Grapple With Home and Belonging
by Caroline Ellen Liou of Hyperallergic
LOS ANGELES — Gabriel Sanchez, who was born in Miami in 1993, became the first in his family to return to Cuba after 60 years in the US — the long-lost son returning to his homeland. Sanchez documents his re-entry into Havana society through the ensemble of characters he meets, such as Jaime the barber, the young couple Bryan and Ricky, and most notably his wife Laura, in a series of portraits featured in the artist’s first solo exhibition, Mirando al Mundo at Luis De Jesus Los Angeles. As with all homecomings, there is a tinge of something slightly amiss — or a search for something missing, perhaps — that underlies all of his portraits. It is clear that Sanchez is grappling with how to belong to a country, a culture, that is not quite his. In working out his relationship to his newly adopted country, Sanchez navigates what it means to not just paint, but what it means to represent others.
The artist’s uncertain search for connection is reflected in the wide variety of approaches he takes with each painting. Some home in on scenes of domestic life, while others point to the fraught politics of Cuba by depicting the nude figure swathed in the country’s national flag like a blanket. His most arresting paintings, however, are his large-scale works which allow for the viewer to get lost in a vast expanse of skin. The intimacy of flesh pressing up against the window of the canvas prompts the viewer to consider all of the ways in which, and by whom, Cuba is embodied.
Despite the artist’s more provocative paintings that attempt to provide social commentary about Cuba, it is when Sanchez’s attention is truly focused — in his reverential tribute to his wife, “Laura” (2020), for example — that the viewer is compelled to start paying attention, too. The exquisite amount of tenderness he takes, with each tendril of her hair, the exact purse of her lips, even the wisps of her lower eyelashes, is a reminder that paying attention to others is sometimes the most radical act of all.