In an essay on education, the American pedagogue Lee Shulman noted that two of the quasi-divine privileges granted to humans according to the Book of Genesis were those of naming and counting. The first privilege was granted to Adam, who was entrusted with naming all animals in Eden; and the second privilege was granted to Noah, when God entrusted him with building an ark so that the animals named by Adam could find refuge before the Universal Flood. Obviously, given Adam's limited scientific knowledge, the animals saved by Noah must have been a handful of those existing today (indeed there are still new species being discovered today). However, the most important thing in this story is that it illustrates the power of naming and counting, which is the power of creating a meaning, classifying, imposing a regularity and an order on the chaos in the world. As Shulman claimed, counting three objects like 'one, two, three' is indeed determining that they are equivalent; saying that hundreds of varieties of vegetation are all called trees is an act of extraordinary power. And just like any superpower, it is fascinating to exercise it.
Jairo Alfonso has no Adamic vocation, yet his drawings of full-sized objects remind us of Noah. Just as if each painting was a box, an ark of human creations, more or less important at the discretion of each consumer, Alfonso places goods until he fills the picture space in the most dissimilar formats. It's like a Tetris game, but with irregular shapes. It cannot be said that they are countless, since each one is literally counted once the drawing has been completed and so the cumulative amount gives name to the painting, or to the current exhibition, 1350. This counting and then naming thing is the opposite of Genesis—de-creation. By placing all objects indiscriminately, without grouping them depending on their characteristics, without making any distinction whatsoever on the basis of their monetary, sentimental or utilitarian value, Alfonso exercises undisputed authority. If each thing was thought and designed to meet a need (whether real or perceived is another matter), that's inconsequential—they are all reduced to a consecutive, equivalent number.
Perhaps something in Alfonso's biography might shed some light on this cumulative and equalising obsession. Formed as an artist in Cuba during the worst economic crisis of the last century, Alfonso witnessed first-hand the shortcomings and their antidote—a culture based on the optimised use of materials and objects, which were used or reused for multiple purposes until they almost disappeared. His relationship with arts education might almost be thought in this manner. Following his academic education at the Escuela Nacional de Arte, Alfonso completed his studies at the prestigious Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA). In line with the ISA's pedagogical programme, students were treated de facto as professional artists, who had to think critically about their ideas and the semantic possibilities of each aspect of the creative process: theme, materials, iconography, scales, styles in dialogue with the history of art, inter alia. Alfonso used everything to give it a second life, as people did with objects.
At that time, Alfonso made his works become symbolic carriers of the memories of his childhood in a sugar-producing town, which was threatened to disappear by adversity. For example, on an installation made of barbed wire, simulating a land-dividing fence in the Cuban countryside, Alfonso hung scraps of fabric, drawings, objects, as if they had been torn apart and left behind while crossing. In another series, of paintings in shades of brown, he recovered many photos of the family, of charming spots, as if they were fragments of a developed camera film. Later on, when he settled down in Spain for several years, his work was fundamentally transformed, giving way to his current concerns about the object of consumption, which could be said to be consumption itself. The clash with the culture of discarding and replacing almost instantaneously, in which the short life of goods leaves barely any time for creating an emotional bond, had a great impact on his rescuing sensibility.
I say rescuing and not conservative, because even though Alfonso is a kind of Noah of the artificial, of the human material culture, his procedure is undeniably disturbing. Each object is represented life-size and coexists in a picture space that Alfonso has turned into an ark, splashed by the water that stains and blurs the contours of the shapes. It could be said, playing on words, that this is an arkaic space. Plastic or plush toys, cookbooks, sophisticated telecommunications equipments and ancestral African or pre-Columbian sculptures along with images of religious or cultural idols such as pop music stars. Some come from commercial establishments and internet sites—real and virtual markets where transactions can be public or secret, excessively expensive or an expression of an economy of gifts. But nothing of this contexts appears. As with every chiaroscuro and every photo, what is hidden is more than what is revealed.
The juxtaposition or proximity of objects can suggest significant associations to the spectator, but this is something that Alfonso is not interested in taking advantage of. Even if everything seems to be in order so as to make their contours look good and be counted, chance and chaos prevail. Each motif is equivalent in its sterility, like the letters of a dead alphabet. In this manner, the artist has discovered in the inanimate the trait that characterises the material culture and, at the same time, he has relinquished the power of symbolic representation that he learned at the academy, perhaps as a gesture of modesty. By using the language of mimetic representation, which is the basis of Western aesthetics, while subverting it through the silence of signifiers, Alfonso underlines the background similarity between art and consumption.
No matter how close we get to the forest, even if we give attractive names to each species—those that are there will still be trees. All the objects of that human de-creation that we call goods—'one, two, three, three hundred'—are basically numbers of the same series, equivalent, that is to say, replaceable. Except one, the painting itself, which Alfonso does not count among the objects even if he has turned it into an ark, usable again and again, that is to say, non-disposable. Naming and counting were undoubtedly divine privileges that served to cement scientific knowledge. But renaming and discounting, as Alfonso appears to demonstrate, are also invaluable for human beings to exercise the act of extraordinary power that we call art.
Elvis Fuentes, Santiago de Cuba, 15 de enero de 2018.