June 28, 2018
Perez talks nostalgia with the Provincetown Banner

For those of us who grew up during the Cold War, Cuba’s 1959 revolution and the threat it presented — of nuclear missiles 90 miles from the U.S. coast; the spread of Communist totalitarianism — were a drumbeat of right-wing politics. The waves of refugees arriving on our shores only served to seal the deal.

The artists who remained in Cuba after the revolution, living through decades of an American embargo, developed a style that recalled the surreal and modernist movements of the early 20th century. The connection to the West had become tenuous. Cuban artists were seemingly uninfluenced by the changes that pop art brought in the 1960s.

That can’t be said of the paintings of Karlos Pérez. At age 28, he’s a Cuban millennial. He grew up at a time when pre-revolutionary Cuba was just a memory. Even so, a vision of that past, embodied in photographs that remain from that era, is what dominates his art. Pérez paints large oil paintings that are inspired by those vintage photographs. They are photorealistic — a style of painting that is an outgrowth of pop — but he says that the images on his canvases are only loosely inspired by specific photographs. They are not meticulous reproductions. Pérez adds in the details of age — cracks and folds in the image, stressed surfaces, faded colors — as a representation of their distance from the present. “Every piece is handmade,” he says by phone from Miami. “I only re-create that type of image through the paintings. I use my own technique, my own materials.”

Pérez, who will have a solo show of his artwork, “Lost,” at Galería Cubana in Provincetown with an opening on Friday, grew up in a small inland town, and this beach culture seems particularly distant to him. “When I grew up, I went to the beach one time a year, because it was far,” he says. “My grandpa has a lot of photos of people on the beach. That type of image was all the time on my mind. I started to collect them. I got family albums at garage sales for many years. I have a big, big collection of photos.”

Pérez has also been exposed to the international art scene since the beginning of his career. He graduated from Havana’s prestigious Instituto Superior de Arte in 2014, and his work has been shown throughout Europe, Latin America and, more recently, North America. This is his third show in three years at Galería Cubana, and the second time he’s been to Provincetown for an opening. He’ll do an artist’s talk at the gallery at noon on Sunday.

“Most of the art world visits Cuba for the Havana biennial, and they invite you to show your work,” he says.

Pérez insists that his nostalgia for images of the past is not political. Yet in some ways, his curiosity about those images, and their rarity, is a result of politics. “A lot of Cuban people do not have memories from that time,” he says. “In the beginning of the revolution, most of the photos [that people took] were of political acts or political campaigns. Regular people photos, of people on the beach, we lost that. For me it’s like a lost memory. People who see my work can connect with that.”

Many of the paintings in Pérez’s current show might be seen as homoerotic, since they glorify men’s bodies. But he doesn’t identify as gay, and to Pérez, it’s all about reclaiming the past.

“Some images of a beach club in Havana have that type of muscle guys, who practice sports, play ball,” he says. “I only put my mind to these types of images because, when I hear a lot of histories about Cuba in the ’50s, [I’m reminded that] we don’t have country clubs, we don’t have that type of thing. In my work I bring you to the old times.”

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