Cuban painter Roger Toledo takes the visual measure of his homeland by land, sea, and air in five immersive landscapes at the University of Pennsylvania’s Arthur Ross Gallery. Soy Cuba/I Am Cuba: The Contemporary Landscapes of Roger Toledo is a small exhibit of large works documenting the natural vistas Toledo encounters when he hikes across the island nation, living on the land and becoming part of the environment.
From a pilot’s-eye view to that of a coastal diver, from highest peak to swamp to seaside, Toledo unfurls a Cuba few tourists see. “We are an island and the sea is our physical border,” Toledo says in Cuban Canvas, a short film running in the gallery. “The landscape is about the physical limit of man.”
Meaning in the doing
As if to probe his limits as an artist, Toledo is not content to simply record what he sees. “I always impose a change in the creative process on myself,” he has written. “I focus on the meaning of the piece more in the process than in its intellectual quality.”
In Soy Cuba, Toledo’s creative change was to lay decorative metal sheeting over the canvas, perhaps inspired by his parents, who are leather workers. Using a palette knife to distribute color, he painted the patterned surface stamped with ovals and squares. The result is a canvas covered with pointillist-like daubs.
Distance to understanding
From a foot away, each work is an abstraction of geometry and color. Step back a bit, and swatches take on the contours of an incomplete jigsaw: it’s something, but what? Cross the gallery, maybe 20 feet away, and the puzzle is transformed. In 2018’s Al Anochecer (At Dusk), blue, yellow, and lavender dollops melt into a panorama of moonlit waves easing into shore.
In Hacia el Canto Del Veril (Toward Veril’s Edge) (2018), Toledo assays a landscape Jacques Cousteau would appreciate: the submerged marine platform surrounding Cuba. Eighty-five feet down, just off Cuba’s north shore, Toledo achieves a quality of light and color that immediately signal this green-blue vista is not on dry land. He places us on a ledge looking into a briny horizon, features that nondivers will find surprising.
Other works transport viewers to the Caribbean’s largest wetland, the humid thicket
Ciénaga de Zapata (Zapata Swamp) (2018), to Cuba’s highest peak shrouded in mist, Amanecer en el Pico Turquino (Sunrise at Pico Turquino) (2018), and to the heavenly side of a thick blanket of cumulus, Aterrizando (Landing) (2018).
“Nothing is foreign to us”
The exhibition was developed by students participating in a Penn curatorial seminar taught by Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, associate professor of art history. Curating Soy Cuba with Shaw and Arthur Ross associate curator Heather Moqtaderi, they created a quiet exhibit that allows the enveloping works to speak for themselves. Brochures provide extra information for those who want it, and the video enables visitors to see and hear Toledo as he chats with other Cuban artists.
For wall text, the students chose evocative passages from four authors—three Cuban, one American. “Nothing is foreign to us,” reads a verse from poet and essayist Nancy Morejón. “The land is ours. Ours the sea and the sky, the magic and the vision.”
The sentiments and breathtaking images remind those who know the land only remotely that Cuba is more than a political argument, a once-forbidden travel destination, a place caught in a time warp, or an issue that cycles in and out of American consciousness. To those who inherit its past, live its present, and will write its future, Cuba is home.
What, When, Where
Soy Cuba/I Am Cuba: The Contemporary Landscapes of Roger Toledo. Through June 2, 2019, at Arthur Ross Gallery, University of Pennsylvania Fisher Fine Arts Library Building, 220 South 34th Street, Philadelphia. (215) 898-2083 or ArthurRossGallery.org.
A wheelchair-accessible entrance to Arthur Ross Gallery and Fisher Fine Arts Library is available from a path off of 34th Street from College Hall, and from the parking lot. Access the entrance through the Duhring Wing on the south side of the building across from Irvine Auditorium.