"Rafael Espino: El Internacional" Rhizome Gallery Emergency Arts 520 Fremont Street
August 8 through September 11 Gallery Hours: Thursday through Saturday 1pm to 5pm First Friday Reception September 4
Saturday was the opening night for Rafael Espino’s first gallery show, “El Internacional," and he took the bus. The humble ride is another moment in long journey that began in Cuba, including 22 years in prison for defying Fidel Castro’s revolution. That’s where he became an engraver. He then moved to the US in 1993, to Las Vegas, when at 74-years-old he began to be an emerging sculptor at the age of 74. Now 87, his statues made their debut in his front yard throne and attracted those passing by. That included Justin Favela and Jesse Smigel, who together curated Espino’s figures to be contemporary folk art that now fills the small Rhizome Gallery at Emergency Arts.
There is Espino’s exalted nightmare, his personal chupacabra, a prehistoric wolf armed with wings that, as the artist says, is “the only one in the world.” These new visual rituals are his way to remove himself from previous chores of recreating Catholicism populated with saints–yet he is still Bible inspired by way of the grievous sins of Sodom and Gomorrah. Pele stands by one door, and at the other entrance are a giant couple rewarded with sensual shapes. “To really appreciate it you have to look at the back,” says the artist of the female’s derrière, which is just as sublime as the adjacent phallus on the male figure.
When you see the figures, one thinks of the Las Vegas own roadside religion of sculpture, as seen in the signage that floated over the now missing Blue Angel Motel. Espino’s front yard as street side open-air studio and exhibition space is becoming a destination for double-decker buses that deliver people gleeful to take selfies with the work. (Some undisclosed body parts needed constant restoration).
The figures are made of materials found in his neighborhood, says Favela, so the painted Styrofoam, plaster, and scrap continues a commentary from works created with found materials in a city filled with context about the abandoned. The artist does little to hide the roughness of the scape, he says, yet there is a polished craftsmanship. Favela feels Espino tests the boundaries of the materials.
You may need help from Favela or Ortega to translate the gentle coarse voice of Espino, but the Cuban says the work speaks for itself and he has no concerns on which side of the folk or contemporary art border it belongs to. “I’m an artist. It’s what I do.”