The Stories Within
The history of art is a collective anthology of intimate moments; of memories, beliefs, and sensations. Stratifying in the geology of humankind, recording within them historical moments, cultural trends, and personal attitudes, these layers of human knowledge paved the way that legions of artists have traversed, learning from each other and fervidly innovating on their journeys forward. In our recent history, places like Montmartre and Montparnasse in Paris, Greenwich Village in New York City, and Soho in London’s West End, among numerous others, offered sanctuary to diverse and creative minds hailing from a multitude of backgrounds. A bridge between North and South America, and everything in between, the relatively young and bustling city of Miami is a melting pot of its own accord; a city seemingly bent upon becoming a major player in the global art scene. The appeal of year-round tropical weather, and a rapidly growing and diverse culture, have attracted artists from all corners of the world for decades.
Alvaro Labañino and Miguel Saludes, two Miami artists whom met as teenagers in art class at South Miami Senior High Magnet School of the Arts, have been endeavoring to help cement the city’s mark in the contemporary art scene in conjunction with their own. Together, over the years, they have built a rapport of artistic collaboration and a shared vision. Inspired by artists partnerships of the past, such as those between French native Georges Braque and Spanish immigrant Pablo Picasso or that of British native Francis Bacon and German immigrant Lucian Freud, American-born Labañino and Cuban émigré Saludes, likewise, fervently pursue an artistic legacy of the like within Miami and abroad.
Labañino was born in Miami, Florida of Cuban and Honduran parents. His work blurs the boundaries between the genres of still-life, landscape painting, color field abstraction, and abstract expressionism. Within the traditional quadrilateral, Labañino depicts windows into his private living quarters; a small studio-apartment in the Miami suburb of Shenandoah. His interior spaces remind us of the living quarters once scrutinized by Vermeer or of those humanized by Van Gogh, and even of those haunting, hallucinated spaces by Bacon. Labañino sets out to make sense of the objects that surround him: an espresso percolator, a handful of paint tubes heaped inside of an easel cabinet, a bookshelf, a bed, to name but a few. Observed with detachment, these ‘things’ have no meaning or inherent beauty, no significance, nor life of their own. However, to him, these objects and spaces are externalized parts of his soul, where a cryptic and taciturn heart which seldom opens itself up to the world lays itself bare on the surface of a canvas. Intimate moments and emotions too grand to utter are thus expressed in the form of hard lines and polychromatic shades of thick and delicately glazed oil paint.
Labañino’s urban and bucolic scenes offer another perspective of how the artist experiences his surroundings. Through the same language of glazed color planes, geometric lines, and loose brushstrokes, Labañino constructs abstracted exterior scenes. The abundant settings from around the world include depictions of the Red Light District in Amsterdam, the famed El Retiro Park in Madrid, the alpine landscape of northern Spain, a section of the Berlin Wall, and the vast Florida Everglades, among others. These environments show us another facet of the artist, one that evidences the insatiable hunger of a lone traveler. Labanino’s landscapes appear solitary with the absence of any human figures, and through them, we’re offered the perspective of a hermit of sorts, constantly seeking to make meaningful connections with unfamiliar spaces. There is an element of the sublime that comes through his work, spellbinding and terrifying all at once, that Romantic resource which Caspar David Friedrich, William Turner, and Mark Rothko knew best how to cultivate. In these landscapes one may paradoxically feel lost and found, sheltered and dispossessed, eviscerated and whole.
Saludes was born in Cuba, and as a teenager immigrated to the United States with his family which settled in Miami, Florida. To get inside of Saludes’ pictorial mind we must place ourselves in a quiet space, away from the stress that permeates our lives; as the walls around us dissolve, we set ourselves free in the natural world where we’re overcome by a sense of immediate presence and of inner peace. In that space we may be able to tune our ears to the soft bristling pine leaves as they articulate the soughing sound of the wind. We may then go down to the creek, submerge our feet and hands in its crisp crystalline waters, and stay there until the cold benumbs our skin. We may, too, walk towards that wild blackberry shrub and wonder at its many blossoms of shimmering pearlescent flowers, which hanging over a shaded thicket, resemble stars in a boundless heaven. How often in life’s humdrum do we stop to contemplate these fleeting moments? How often do we allow ourselves to become conscious of the world around us; to feel alive and to contemplate the miracle of existence? Saludes postulates the value of such experiences in his work, and invites us to slow down for a moment and contemplate reality anew.
Saludes’ recent paintings might be considered a blend of the genres of still-life and landscape. His painted gardens are tailored and idealized depictions of commonplace sightings of the natural world, which Saludes encounters on the day-to-day. These ornamental compositions, which set out to interpret the local flora, are clustered and often devoid of a horizon line. The natural elements present in these paintings populate an all-encompassing foreground, where we may experience a wide range of details and subtle color shifts that the artist perceived at arm’s length from his subjects. The prevalent dark backgrounds that characterize these works borrow a resemblance from Dutch-Baroque still-life paintings; his take on this historical theme, however, sees the flowers unrestrained by the traditional vase holder and rather set loose in the wild patch where they were found. Otherwise, the artist captures the landscapes of rural America, experienced with that sense of reverence and devotion that drove the likes of Georgia O’Keeffe, Grand Wood, Andrew Wyeth, and more recently, Wayne Thiebaud, to paint their homeland again and again. Likewise, in Saludes’ paintings, we see evidenced an immigrant’s desire of belonging and relating to his adoptive nation.
Socrates is attributed to having once said that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” This old adage carries new meaning behind these two artists who continuously challenge each other as they search for truth within themselves and their artwork. Labañino and Saludes are recognizably different artists; yet there remains unseen a long-lasting bond of friendship and artistic collaboration that undeniably has had a significant impact on their development as painters and storytellers. Artists need one another to escape the bondage of self-deceit and stagnation, and Labañino and Saludes have, consequently, found in each other invigorating inspiration and blunt honesty. Indirectly recorded in their artworks is an enduring dialogue of matters as diverse and wide-ranging as art history, politics, world travel, aesthetics, ethics, family, and friendship. These conversations have, over the course of their friendship, reinforced their personal idiosyncrasy and inevitably defined the course of their work.
Encoded in their artworks is the exploration of two individual artists constantly pursuing a higher understanding of their craft. To Labañino and Saludes, each painting presents them the opportunity to start again upon a clean slate which many mistakes and corrections are made, and where ideas, imagery, and techniques ebb and flow in a constant state of change. To these two individuals, life is imbued with plenty of meaningful experiences, and in painting they find the perfect means to unravel them. Every artwork is therefore, to them both, a one-of-a-kind, unrepeatable chance to reason the sometimes unreasonable mysteries of life, and to capture that often imperceptible and fleeting trace of beauty that exists all around us.
The title of this exhibition, “The Stories Within,” alludes to the inward nature behind the presented works, each one delicately tailored from memories of people, places, and life circumstances that have affected and defined both Alvaro Labañino and Miguel Saludes. This exhibition presents its audiences with the opportunity to experience the resulting works of an enduring collaboration between two living artists whom are mutually inspired to search for the ideal form of painting; a worthy pursuit of the unattainable which drives them both to question the nature of their work, and pushes them on to reinvent the canvas every time.
© Miguel Saludes
With contributions from Alvaro Labañino
South Florida, July 2019