“My work is a joint ceremony, an intimate delivery, a dance, so that there is light, to be enlightened.” Andy Llanes Bultó
Despite frequent pronouncements of its death, the human figure endures in art with an immutability that ought not to surprise us. We are, after all, beings comprised of bodies. When presented with an image of the body, an instinctive flash of recognition compels us to consider, in terms both literal and metaphorical, our selves, our nature, and our existence. Although it has periodically fallen from favor due to powerful cultural and religious forces, the nude has a long and particular history in Western art, stretching back through various movements and eras, from Modernism to the Baroque, from the Renaissance to ancient Greece, Egypt, and Mesopotamia, to the Late Stone Age, when sculptural works like the Venus of Willendorf (24,000 B.C.E.) were crafted. Andy Llanes Bultó’s work is a contemporary extension of this rich heritage. Building upon specific aesthetic and symbolic traditions of the male nude, Pillow Fight examines orthodox maleness in its present form, and in so doing so, asks if such analysis can engender new, more liberated and expansive definitions of masculinity.
Perfectly proportioned and imbued with obvious strength, Bultó’s idealized figures are instantly and recognizably aligned with the aesthetic and canonical male bodies found in both ancient Greek and Renaissance art. By choosing Pillow Fight as the exhibition’s title, however, the artist hints that his subjects’ apparent supremacy and heroism is more guise than gospel. “We are fighters by nature,” Bultó says, and at first glance, it appears that fighting is what these men are doing, yet careful inspection makes that assumption less certain. Physically engaged with each other, the men possess undeniable mass, yet each figure is dependent upon at least one other individual for balance and bearing, highlighting the necessity and importance of alliance and interdependence rather than the ubiquity of inevitable discord.
Still, the line that separates intimacy from conflict is tenuous. Saturated with a poetic, ceremonial aura, Bultó’s paintings might be portraying combatants, but they could just as easily be depictions celebrating the camaraderie of soldiers, lovers, or amicable sparring partners. Some of his compositional arrangements are directly inspired by the work of Eadweard Muybridge, whose nineteenth century studies of locomotion and chronophotography expanded the accepted understanding of the human body and changed perceptions of what it meant to look and see. Muybridge influenced countless artists, especially those who worked with the nude, including Edgar Degas and Pablo Picasso; his multiple exposure photography directly inspired Marcel Duchamp’s revolutionary Nude Descending a Staircase no 2 (1912). An artist formed in the shadow of colonial Britain’s cardinal authority, Muybridge was in essence a taxonomist who sought to understand the world by dissecting, studying, and naming it. Such probing and classification might aid in understanding life, but it neither assures nor establishes truth. The ambiguity expressed by the figures in Pillow Fight reminds us that human beings cannot be so easily categorized.
Bultó cites Francis Bacon as another influence. Bacon’s voyeuristic work, which also borrows from Muybridge, as in his 1953 painting Two Figures, which depicts two men—possibly Bacon himself and his lover Peter Lacy—wrestling on a bed. Conceived in the aftermath of the horrors of World War II, Bacon’s figures are filled with visceral, existential angst, and seem destined and built for brutality. Skin to skin, Bultó’s figures wrestle, too, but the mood is decidedly dissimilar. While there may be conflict—real or ritualistic—there isn’t obvious pain. There may even be pleasure, and the fact that we can’t quite discern the difference makes the work all the more compelling.
Rather than existing in a state of resistance, Bultó’s figures seem to consent to intimacy and to one another, almost as if they’re dancing. In his native Cuba, Bultó says, nearly everything can be related to dance, and this fact can be traced back to the beginning of colonization in Cuba, when the Spanish arrived with guitars and other strange new instruments and mixed with the indigenous culture. Pared down to a minimum, Bultó’s materials—gold leaf and oil paint—are at once intentionally spare and opulent. Gold is, he says, “a material of seduction,” and one that he employs as a way to “elicit the viewer’s desire to possess;” this word conjures connotations of colonialism, conquest, and even romance, all of which are strongly associated with gold itself. Gold, says the artist, “is a material related to the gods for being the purest matter extracted by man.” Bultó is, in a way, questioning the intersectionality of cultural conceits, and simultaneously testing our instincts: where we might expect to find conflict and strife, there may instead be a sense of redemption and affection.
–John Brooks, Artist and Writer, Louisville, Kentucky
Andy Llanes Bultó was born in Havana, Cuba, and graduated from the Institute Superiore de Arte. He is the recipient of several awards, including the Sager Braudis Scholarship (US) and the Isolo.17 scholarship (Italy). His works have been exhibited in the US, Europe, and Asia, and are in numerous private collections around the world. He currently lives and works in Louisville.