Ahí viene el hombre, ahí viene
embarrado, enrabiado contra la desventura, furioso
contra la explotación, muerto de hambre, allí viene
debajo de su poncho de Castilla.
Ah, minero inmortal, ésta es tu casa
de roble, que tú mismo construiste.
From Carbón, by Gonzalo Rojas.
By Claudia Taboada Churchman | Curator
Serlian Barreto was born in Cuba in 1997, on the outskirts of Havana, in a humble town in Artemisa whose main economic sources are agriculture, the construction materials industry, and charcoal production. It also has Amparucha, one of the best schools that prepares for the Academy of Fine Arts and where numerous artists have combined talent with a kind of human sensitivity that is almost impossible to go unnoticed. Barreto attended this school thanks to the insistence of his grandmother who trusted in the idea that he would not only grow as an artist but, even more, as a person, enhancing his human values through coexistence and intellectual exchange with others. And as the artist himself said, he went from being the worst in his class to one of the best, so much so that he graduated eventually with honors from the San Alejandro Art Academy. Serlian's work has been exhibited in several galleries in Cuba, in the Havana Biennial and in institutions in Naples, Italy. Most of Barreto's works are in private and public collections, including The Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation (CIFO), Miami, FL, USA; Jorge M. Pérez Collection, Miami, FL, USA; and, El Oficio: Magazine Collection of Art and Literature, Havana, Cuba.
His family environment also led him to grow up surrounded by nature and therefore with great respect for it. His mother and grandfather were veterinarians by profession and since he was a child he raised all kinds of animals, which turned out to be his "toys". Serlian took care of him guinea pigs, horses, snakes, birds, among many others as well as cactuses that have later been symbolic elements of representation in his work. His grandfather was also dedicated to the production of citrus, but following the arrival in Cuba of one of the most damaging pests for these crops, the government, instead of proposing solutions for their recovery, found that the most suitable option was to replace this source with natural resources. for the production of coal which meant exchanging an ecological approach with one that was not self-sustaining.
Barreto grew up with his grandfather and was thoroughly familiar with the specific procedures for converting organic materials into carbon. Normally, in an industrialized world, nobody stops for a second to think about the people and resources that make it all possible. Perhaps Serlian didn't think about it either until he migrated to the United States, where processes are optimized so much that any past success goes unnoticed in this consumer society, in which depersonalization is assumed to be a natural phenomenon.
Serlian BarretoSobre la hojarasca (On the Fallen Leaves), from Carbon series, 2020 Acrylic on canvas
115 x 90 in
292.1 x 228.6 cm
This exhibition is a tribute to my grandfather...
Serlian Barreto’s paintings are a tribute to his grandfather, but also to nature, to the people, and to each entity that remains invisible behind the whirlpool of a globalized world. The artist has thought of the Carbon(Coal) series as a literary chronicle, where each work resembles a notebook that contains an exquisite description of the process: from the collection of dry leaves, logs and snails, to the conception in the oven. However, the series title is mentioned at all times but curiously it is not represented. In this sense, Serlian's aesthetic has always been based on an idea, fundamentally influenced by artists such as David Hockney, Hernan Bas, and Enrique Martínez Celaya. The contemporary use of perspective, brushwork and the way of understanding painting without limits has led him to build his own aesthetic, where there always seems to be room for more definition; this effect of not being fully completed makes the viewer a participant, responsible for filling these sensory gaps.
The series is made up of large, medium and small format works; however, each one justifies its size conceptually. Two of the large-format works, “Sobre la hojarasca” (On the Leaf Storm) and “Allá sobre las Cumbres” (There above of the hilltop), represent the natural settings that are the protagonists of the production in an almost life-size scale. On the one hand, Serlian represents himself collecting raw material for the construction of the ovens and in this representation he dwells on the details of the dry leaves and the vegetation that surrounds him as if for a botanical record. The same thing happens in the work "Allá sobre las Cumbres", with a diagonal composition, in which the artist's presence is enunciated by the title; this time he is as a spectator to show us a landscape re-constructed with its own elements. , disconnected from life. It is no coincidence that in the entire series there is an elliptical trend of avoidance of representation of coal itself: because, after the entire cooking process, it is significantly reduced as a physical product, which justifies even more the idea of presenting these formats on a gradually smaller human scale, thus making the viewer part of the scene.
Serlian BarretoAllá sobre las cumbres (There above of the hilltop), from Carbon series, 2019 Acrylic on canvas
90 x 115 in
228.6 x 292.1 cm
Serlian BarretoCarbón (triptych), from Carbon series, 2020 Acrylic on canvas
115 x 270 in
292.1 x 685.8 cm
On the other hand, Barreto conceived an oversized triptych, in which he pays homage to the figure of the coal worker, called charcoal burner, placing him in the center panel; meanwhile, on both sides, he decided to add the figures of two birds related to this activity, and named by the same name as the man: charcoal burners. This exquisite metaphor is a call to the value of life regardless of the hierarchies of the intellect, which makes it one of the most forceful pieces in the series. Both characters are represented in their most precarious and hopeless states: the birds are perched on half-dry trunks, almost inert, and the man wears an insecure protective suit with a homemade lighter added as a helmet to work at night. And here is the great paradox posed by this piece: the charcoal burners as victims of their own creation. Serlian is very careful in his compositions and tries to associate the shape, size and color with the concept; and in this work there is a connecting visual line that enters and crosses the 3 panels, which formally supports the idea that the three are semiotically connected. The colors of these pieces are not as bright as the ones in the works mentioned above, they have colder and more opaque tones, even at a pictorial level there are not as many details involved; which makes us think that they are precisely the characters the least embellished in this process, the ones that Serlian wants to acknowledge in some way.
Other medium-format pieces are listed as close-ups, describing each process in detail. The artist tries to play with the scale and position of the spectator, and places this as the climax of his visual-literary chronicle. “Por qué el sombrero de la noche vuela con tantos agujeros?” (Why does the hat of the night fly with so many holes?) is a work that refers to poem VI, from the Book of Questions, by Pablo Neruda, where the possibility of finding something beautiful in what is not is basically questioned all the time. Antithesis as a literary method is used by the artist to bring us closer to questions that we may overlook but that we only understand when we minimize ourselves, and thereby are able to see around us.
(...) in some way, we have all become a metaphor for coal.
Finally we have the small format - really a very small one in relation to the rest-: paintings that, like charcoal, have been reduced to their minimum expression, and which paradoxically contain the weight of everything that this process borrowed from nature to never return: entire landscapes -no details or close-ups-. These pieces were inspired by a trip that Barreto made with his grandfather to the Guanacabibes Nature Reserve, as part of his first return visit after migrating. Somehow these small paintings also recreate those minimal spaces of nature preservation. Upon his return to Miami, he connected with the feeling of the Everglades, a space “preserved” but reserved for tourism, which implies a refocusing of the landscape’s exploitation. That visit to the Everglades, more than a sentimental return to one’s origins, meant finding again a refuge where to isolate oneself for a moment from technology: in some way, we have all become a metaphor for coal, with narrowed capacities because of what silently consumes us from outside.