CURIOSITY DOESN'T KILL THIS CRAFT 


When I was 8 years old, my brother and I and two buddies liberated a flea-infested doghouse from approaching garbagemen who were doing their morning rounds. The four of us needlessly hurried our find into my garage, never looking back at the no doubt thankful workers. Adrenaline shot through me as I contemplated the explanation I would give at my next Saturday confession (working title: "My Introduction to Outlaw Culture").

My garage took on the feel of a chop shop as we mounted the doghouse on my red wagon and took turns riding in it. Two kids would push and one would pull, and the kid inside didn't have to do anything but scratch fleas. Later I connected a skateboard to the wagon handle, so the front kid could skate instead of pull the "Skatemobile." I asked my parents to look into a patent. They laughed – just like they did when my Kon-Tiki-inspired raft made of discarded picnic tables quickly sank.

It would be easy, and not very visionary, to view my creations as defeats. Seeing the works by Cuba's Los Carpinteros that are currently on display at Tampa's USF Contemporary Art Museum has not solidified any ideas of evolving my childhood projects. But it has given me a revisionist's take on the concept of defeat. Maybe defeat is part of the creative process – a stepping-stone toward possibility.

The art of Los Carpinteros (loscarpinteros.net) is diverse and difficult to quantify. Quantifying only addresses limitations, an approach that definitely won't work with these guys. And who are "these guys"? Los Carpinteros are Dagoberto Rodriguez and Marco Castillo, the two current members of a collective formed in the early 1990s at the prestigious Instituto Superior de Arte in Havana. (Third member Alexandre Arrechea recently left the group.) They were given their name, which means The Carpenters, by classmates.

Most of the artists' early works and many of their current pieces are made of wood, which can be easily scavenged for free in Cuba. The young men – now in their early 30s – started out by illegally removing and recycling woodwork from abandoned mansions near their school. The incorporation of remnants of the Colonial-style architecture into their art is a reminder of a Cuba that once was, while the act of recycling is a reality of the nation's present. The availability of materials is usually a deciding factor in Los Carpinteros' projects, yet their many residencies and travels have introduced them to a world of other materials. This has contributed to the unpredictability and diversity of their drawings, sculptures and installations.

If you have any apprehensions about making the 90-minute drive to see Los Carpinteros: Inventing the World, know that it's your only opportunity to see this work in the South. After it closes in July, it will travel to the Chicago Cultural Center and the Cincinnati Art Center for exhibitions in 2006.

At USF, the first signs of Los Carpinteros' presence are three 24-foot watchtowers that stand in front of the art museum. A watchtower suggests an ominous, intrusive force, but these towers (topped with aqua polycarbonate casings) look like they could be used as lifeguard stands. In both the outdoor and indoor displays, the playfulness of Los Carpinteros' work understates its boldness. Herein lies their unique ability to engage the eye and make a statement about oppression.

For instance, "Estuche" ("Jewelry Box") is more than 7 feet tall; it may store jewelry, but it looks like a beautiful wooden hand grenade. And "Panera" ("Bread Box") is a large wooden missile – displayed on top of two sawhorses – with a practical feature that might make Grandma's eyes light up: side compartments for storing many loaves of bread.

Set up behind the museum is "Ciudad Transportable" ("Transportable City"), a city of tents patterned after buildings in Havana. The tents, which were previously seen in 2001 at P.S. 1 in New York, look ghostly when lit up at night. Sadly, they come down May 11, due to wear and tear. (Sprinklers drenched them with reclaimed water during an April 8 opening event.) If the tent meant to represent Havana's capitol building looks familiar, it's because that edifice took the one in Washington, D.C., as its prototype.

Speaking of D.C., Los Carpinteros missed the installation and opening of the exhibit because they couldn't get visa extensions from the U.S. government. (In checking with various sources, there's no clear reason why their visas weren't approved or what this bodes for Cuban artists wanting to travel to the United States in the future.) The two artists had just finished a residency in USF's legendary Graphicstudio, where they worked on a rapid prototype machine. The RP uses CAD drawings to produce a three-dimensional finished product. That's how Rodriguez and Castillo made "Proyecto Sandalia" ("Sandal Project"), a large flip-flop with a topographical map of Havana as a footprint.

Los Carpinteros' residency inducted them into the who's who of artists who have passed through the Graphicstudio, including legends Robert Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist, Ed Ruscha and Vito Acconci. Although known mostly as a printmaking shop, the studio's primary function is art research, and it works alongside the schools of visual arts, engineering and architecture. It was the perfect environment for Los Carpinteros' curiosity. And I've got the image-rich $50 catalog to refer to – in between revisions of my previous defeats.

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