Cuban horizons

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw’s art history class curates a new Arthur Ross Gallery exhibition of paintings by Roger Toledo after visiting his Havana studio.

Four people standing in front of a painting, clapping and looking at each other.
At the opening of the “Soy Cuba / I Am Cuba” exhibition, from left, Associate Professor of History of Art Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, Arthur Ross Gallery Executive Director Lynne Marsden-Atlass, Cuban artist Roger Toledo, and gallery Assistant Director Heather Gibson Moqtaderi. 

Five monumental landscapes now on display at the Arthur Ross Gallery represent the unique style of Cuban artist Roger Toledo, his layering of thick acrylic paint over a metal grid, creating vistas of personal and historical significance in the island nation. 

The paintings also represent nearly a year’s worth of work and collaboration with students and faculty in a history of art curatorial course taught by Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, including a class visit to Toledo’s Havana studio and two visits by him to Penn. 

And the exhibition represents a risk taken by the gallery curators on a 32-year-old artist who just completed the works for this project, as well as on the uncertainties of embargos and travel between the United States and Cuba. 

“We made it,” Toledo said last week, as the canvases were unpacked from two wooden crates and hung in the gallery. 

“I imagined seeing the paintings in the gallery, but I was amazed by the way they actually look here,” says Toledo. “They came out really well, and I am proud of them. I feel very happy with the result.” 

“Soy Cuba / I Am Cuba: The Contemporary Landscapes of Roger Toledo” opened Saturday and will be on display until June 2, when the paintings will return to Cuba. 

A curatorial course taught by Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, left, focused on Cuban artist Roger Toledo, right, who created five monumental landscapes for a new exhibition at Penn’s Arthur Ross Gallery. 

“I was totally overwhelmed,” says Shaw about when she saw the paintings in the gallery. “They are so beautiful and so powerful and look absolutely magnificent, like they were made for that space, which, in fact, they were. The work and the installation that we conceived fit perfectly.” 

At an opening reception on Friday the curatorial class stood with Toledo and Shaw as the crowd of more than 100 burst into extended applause. 

“It’s so emotional,” said Ramey Mize, in her third year of studying for a Ph.D. in art history. “I’m just holding back tears. To go to Cuba and to work with an artist as talented as Roger was such an amazing experience.” 

Toledo will be on campus through April 14 will be available at several events, including a color-mixing workshop at the gallery April 12.

The eight students have created a bilingual website with their reflections and research and documentary photographs, soycubapaintings.com. An online catalog features their scholarly essays based on in-depth individual interviews with Toledo in the fall, both when he visited Penn and when the students went to his studio in the Vedado neighborhood of Havana. Personal blog posts include their thoughts along the way. They are also creating an audio tour that will be available on mobile devices, meant as a companion while viewing the exhibition. 

“I love that the students have taken over the online component of the project and created it themselves,” says Heather Gibson Moqtaderi, assistant director and associate curator of the Gallery, who was involved throughout the course, including travel to Cuba.  

Artist and professor and curator and students gathered in front of a painting.
The curatorial team of the exhibition, “Soy Cuba / I am Cuba.” 

“Because this exhibition is based on the Cuban landscape, I think it was essential for our curatorial team to experience that country in person, the home of the artist, to really get a sense of where the inspiration is coming from,” Moqtaderi says. “We got a feeling both for the landscape as a natural resource but also the political, economic and colonial history, all of which are incorporated into Roger’s vision in his paintings.” 

A course in the making

It was at a dinner four years ago when Shaw met Toledo, while she was in Havana leading a Penn Alumni Travel tour. Meeting him on several other trips, including as part of her Penn in Havana summer abroad course, she saw his studio and work and interactions with students.

“We were able to see what it is like to be a young artist in Cuba, in a society not structured for commercial studio sales,” Shaw says. “I thought it would be great to bring him here and bring our students there.”

Shaw then set about creating a curatorial course and exhibition around the solo artist, in part, she says, because of his ability to communicate about his work with a student audience, given his years of teaching at the University of the Arts in Havana. 

“Roger is really adept explaining the process of making, and explaining visually and orally, and not all artists can talk about their work in that way,” she says. “So for this curatorial seminar, he was the obvious natural choice.” 

The artist is showing a student an iPad while other students look on, standing in a semicircle, in the Arthur Ross Gallery.
Toledo visited the Arthur Ross Gallery in September to evaluate the space and meet with Shaw and the students in the curatorial course.

The course is one-of-a-kind, Shaw says, with Toledo coming to Penn in the fall and the spring to work with the students and the gallery to create the exhibition. “The artist is not usually embedded in the whole architecture of the course,” she says. “His works are all about Cuba, all about landscapes all about being there, and also what it means to bring them here and in this context at Penn.” 

The students in the course included five pursuing doctoral degrees—four in art history and one in history— and three undergraduate art history majors. “All the students were really focused and really committed to making this work with me,” Toledo says. 

The approach to this seminar provided a rare opportunity for the students to study an artist as he was in the process of making the paintings. “Seeing the works in progress was very special,” says Kaylee Slusser, a senior from Mocanaqua, Pennsylvania, a double-major in art history and in philosophy, politics and economics. 

“So much of what makes Roger’s work special is how they are made. And to hear about how they are made and then watch him make them was incredible,” says Slusser, who wrote her essay comparing his work with the geometric tiles that are so prevalent in Cuba. “Art historians rarely get to work with artists who are alive, much less during the painting process.” 

Artist holds metal mesh up to painting while students watch.
The students spent three days working with Toledo in his Havana studio, including in-depth interviews about his artistic vision and process. (Photo by Heather Gibson Moqtaderi.)

A unique process

Toledo created his process using materials available to him in Cuba. Because there were no large canvases, he created the works by combining six square canvases that blend together into one work measuring 200x300 centimeters, or about 6 ½ by 9 ½ feet. They are the largest paintings he has created, and the first series meant to be viewed together. 

The technique he developed involves layering acrylic paint—dried in the sun first to make it thicker—with a palate knife. What makes it unique is that the application is over the metal mesh often used in radiator covers. The paint builds up in the holes, making a consistent pattern of texture across the canvases when the metal sheets are removed.

“The goal with these paintings is to manage color in two different levels, the level of the canvas and the level of the texture,” he says. “Each has at least two layers and can go to six or eight.” 

The process requires a lot of paint. The Penn team brought him acrylics and other supplies when they traveled there in October, as he cannot get enough quantity of the paints in Cuba. Toledo creates dozens of custom colors, in one painting more than 50, that blend together. 

Three people looking at metal mesh and paints.
Students got a close-up look at Toledo’s technique, which  involves applying thickened acrylic paint over a metal grid on the canvas to create texture. (Photo: Brett Robert)

He calls the works abstract and the effect is nearly like pointillism but more like pixels, with the colors next to each other while distinct with the texture. “If you look at a small portion, it is complete abstraction, but when see the entire picture you will start recognizing the landscape,” he says. 

“Experiencing the paintings in person is a game changer,” says Francesca Bolfo, in the first year of her Ph.D. studies in art history. “The painting technique and optical illusion are mesmerizing to engage with.”

Each painting has multiple layers of significance as well, based on photographs of meaningful locations, starting in the sky and moving down to the sea, and also through time from the start of the day to the end. 

Toledo says he refined and improved his technique along the way, each painting taking two months to complete.

Level horizons

Critical to the experience is that the horizon is at the same level in each work, a challenge for hanging in the Arthur Ross Gallery, which has hip-high wood wainscoting and large windows. 

“One of the goals I had was to put the viewer in different landscapes at the same time in the same position. You are not looking down or up. You are looking in front of you. In just one room you can connect all the landscapes with same horizon line,” Toledo says. “This idea of stability but at the same time mobility in different landscapes is really important.”

To make that possible, he designed free-standing white walls along three sides of the gallery. On the fourth wall are his photos that he used as inspiration, including the color notations, the students’ idea to include. 

Person standing in front of landscape painting.
The five paintings are all hung on floating walls with the horizon on the same level. They are of scenes ranging from the above the clouds to below the sea, from dawn until dusk. 

“The way the exhibition is installed, with these floating walls allows for an immersive experience,” Moqtaderi says, calling it an “elegant solution.” 

Also on the walls are quotes chosen by the students while they were in Cuba, a request Shaw made in the last class before they traveled. She also asked them to get a perspective on Cuba’s isolation, looking out the window from the airplane.  

“Look at where we’re going as much as possible and think about how it feels to come in,” she says. “And then also as we leave, how different is that perspective on the way out.”

While in Cuba the students traveled to points around the island, taking in some of the vistas that inspired Toledo’s paintings, but also the landscape of Havana, traveling by bus, staying in private host homes. 

Students in street in Havana, Cuba looking at the historic buildings.
The curatorial class traveled to Cuba and explored the countryside and the city of Havana. (Photo: Brett Robert) 

"I think there is a tremendous advantage to studying a place while you are in the place,” says Brett Robert, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in history with a focus on Puerto Rico in the 20th century and on hurricanes in the Caribbean. His interdisciplinary research for this course focused on the idea of home, linking the pattern the metalwork creates on the paintings to both interior and exterior spaces in Cuba. "The essay I produced about Roger's work is firmly rooted in the history of places, and it gave me a way as a historian to write about art." 

The study of art history tends to focus on studying projected slides side-by-side, Bolfo says, so being with Toledo in his studio was critical for her. 

“It was beyond invaluable as personal experience and really understanding the work and Roger’s process, which is so integral for understanding the series,” she says. “I wouldn’t have been able to produce the paper I wrote without immersing ourselves in Cuba.” 

Bolfo’s essay is on the intense work with the colors, which she studied closely during the three days they spent at his studio, where they could explore his experimental works that would otherwise never be seen. 

Her favorite place, she says, was a little outside balcony. “The tiles are stained with the paint. That balcony holds all these indexical traces of the artistic process,” she says. “I will always think back to that trip and think about that balcony.” 

Coming to America 

Working to bring Toledo and the paintings to the U.S. was a complex process, requiring him to go to Mexico to apply for a visa. The paintings went on a nearly three-week journey, first to Panama before stopping in Miami on the way to Philadelphia. The Arthur Ross Gallery staff handled the details. 

“We had a lot of paperwork and policies to get through to get these to the United States,” Moqtaderi says. “It was incredibly difficult, but worth it. I feel like this is going to be a significant moment in Roger’s career, and students should be really proud of being a part of that,” she says. “As a curator, one of best feelings and biggest goals is to advance an artist’s career and bring something fresh to the public.” 

The website and social media are added bonuses, Toledo says, as those aspects are difficult to develop in Cuba. “The website looks amazing,” he says. “That kind of feedback for my work will also help me by making me more visible.” 

Toledo says he will continue to work on landscapes with this technique but evolve to replace the prefabricated metal sheets to ones of his own design. “I want to create a pattern that has to do with the idea of the landscape,” he says. “That would be my next big project for these paintings.” 

Many people in the art gallery with the paintings visible around the perimeter.