Somewhere between quiet commotion and iron poetry

Tomás Núñez, known as Johny, detests leaky pipes; it bothers him when people litter by tossing paper or cans out in the street, hurts him when somebody walks on freshly-mown grass, or openly “mistreats” trees, walls, rocks, paving stones or fencing. Indifference makes him uncomfortable, and these are deep-rooted convictions that “are not fashionable, but deeply felt,” he says.

That sustained disquiet has led him to creating artwork by assembling bits and scraps that he personally collects or finds in his path, and, without being over-theoretical about it, he has immersed himself in the “iron poetry” that enjoyed its peak period in the late 19th and early 20th century, when Art Nouveau elevated iron to the level of art.

Johny—which is not an artistic name; it was the second name that his parents gave him when he was born on Feb. 4, 1973 in the eastern Cuban province of Granma—had an inclination for the arts from a very early age, but nobody in his family was involved in that field. However, he says, he had teachers who encouraged him and he studied technical drawing, something that “has been very useful for my work, especially for lettering.”

For family reasons, he spent his childhood both in Havana and in Granma. While he was never able to enroll in the San Alejandro Academy of Art, it was his “greatest dream.” The young artist, who was still finding his own way, arrived to the Advisory Council for the Development of Monumental Sculpture (Consejo Asesor para el Desarrollo de la Escultura Monumentaria, CODEMA) when the essential sculptor Rita Longa was its director. She assigned him to be a producer, a job that opened up a whole new—and now indispensable—universe for him, because it allowed him to learn in-depth about the infrastructure behind a project: “That is a specialty that is not taught in any school, and it is absolutely necessary. I trained with great sculptors like José Villa Soberón, Tomás Lara, Rafael Consuegra, Eliseo Valdés and Ramón Casas,” and subsequently, he has exhibited and participated with them in different projects.

Early on, Johny realized that painting was “too spontaneous,” and volume seduced him, because the three-dimensional quality allowed him to play with space. “Touching a piece, turning it around, observing it from every aspect is a unique sensation,” he says.

In his rising career as a sculptor, he has participated in more than 70 collective and 11 solo exhibitions. He has large-format pieces in Cuba, Mexico and the Canary Islands, and he unites that type of work with small pieces that he calls tableaus. In those tableaus, he uses materials such as metal, stone and marble, combining them with plastic scraps, resin, wood and oil paint. “These tableaus involve a long process. First I give them a patina to create an evident sensation of aging, and when I reach the final result, you realize that it is a consequence of everything prior and that it holds elements of painting to achieve sculpture.”

Johny works on his tableaus in series, but each piece has a particular meaning that he achieves not just through its composition, but also through a personal experience, either real or imagined. “I combine and put together a little theater, and I capture it in each tableau. One resource that I use is time, based on the clock icon—it may not work, or it may work backward—as well as brands, which represent, define and characterize the consumer society so much.”

His workshop is at 465 Obispo, the emblematic street in Havana’s colonial district, and belongs to the maestro Alfredo Sosabravo. It was there, during the recent XI Havana Biennial, that the (collateral) project Alboroto quieto (Quiet Commotion) was born, bringing together 35 graphic designers, painters, sculptors, draftsmen and engravers, both young and experienced, assembled by Johny to leave their mark on a ceramic medium. “These media are square-shaped modules, circular tubes, and round plates, and they left their own expressions in them.”

Alboroto quieto will become an exhibition during the first half of this year, because that is a request from the Benito Juarez Casa del Benemérito de las Américas cultural center, or the Casa de México, as everyone knows it. However, more “commotion” is surely on the way, because the prestigious National Museum of Contemporary Cuban Ceramic Art (Museo Nacional de la Cerámica Artística Contemporánea Cubana) has expressed its interest and intention of “continuing the project.”

As these plans come into being, Johny’s imagination continues to run wild. His dream is to create a winged container more than 16 feet tall, combining metal and marble, that he pictures standing near Havana bay and accumulating non-biodegradable waste. This would include car tires, enduring iron elements that have been used before, and of course, stories from the past. He insists that his work “is not a newspaper,” but that he is concerned about having a dialogue with the onlooker, and that people should interact with and touch the pieces with their hands. “I’m interested in people thinking, reflecting and communicating through the language of art; the piece has to say something, not just because of its esthetic or design, but because of its content.”

Tomás Núñez—unstoppable on his own personal crusade to save water, eradicate improvised dumps, prevent unnecessary squalor—says “No!” to indolence with his Alboroto quieto, and his work is the best example of that.

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