Spinning Tales, Creating Encounters: Nostalgia and Identity Are Some of the Themes Featured in Cuban-Born Artist Ruben Torres Llorca's Works

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In the visual world of Cuban-born artist Ruben Torres Llorca, a painting is always a painting, a sculpture is always a sculpture, and an installation is always an installation. But an experience is something altogether different. The task this artist has set for himself is to create experiences for his viewers.

Torres Llorca likens the creative challenges he faces to those confronting a good motion picture director. The work, he says, must contain only the elements demanded by its particular story. Understanding cinema, he adds, is one key to understanding his work; and, in fact, his own biography has a bit of a cinematic character.

Torres Llorca never knew his father, who was trained in traditional painting methods at Havana's Academy of San Alejandro, the oldest art school in the Americas. To support himself, he operated a home-based silk-screen print shop that supplied local movie theaters with their advertising posters.

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Torres Llorca's father disappeared into the Sierra Maestra late in 1956. Cuban authorities suspected he had joined the communist rebels gathering there. But his resolutely apolitical, and then expecting, mother was more prone to believe that he had seen nothing more than a convenient opportunity for abandoning a fledgling family. She successfully sued for divorce and moved to Regla, in the suburbs of Havana, in a decisive break with his father's family.

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Regla itself was "a very tough, marginal neighborhood" and not an easy place for a single mother supporting a family on seamstress' wages. Despite the revolution, social mobility was extremely limited. If you started out poor, you stayed poor, Torres Llorca observes.

"One of the few comfortable spaces that Regla offered was the cinema. I grew up on films from the golden age of Argentine and Mexican cinema, from the 40s and 50s," says Torres Llorca. That experience would help shape the trajectory of his artwork, as would a popular television program, Cine del hogar [Home Cinema], which featured old Hollywood films. He used its name as the title for one of his early solo exhibitions.

Torres Llorca's career in the art world also had a youthful impetus. Given his mother's concerns for his safety and the very early onset of nearsightedness, "most of my opportunities for play were solitary or involved making things, so from a very early age I worked with plasticine and painted."

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By his own account, he was a terrible student. "I was always too imaginative," he says. Before he turned sixteen, Torres Llorca was expelled from school for misbehaving. The school's director, whom the artist delights in recalling would later became one of his students, told his mother that he should have been placed in a special educational setting. Instead, he "had the good fortune of meeting someone who saw some talent in me." This person was Edna de Garrucho, the mother of one of his friends. It was her encouragement that led him to enroll in art school as a kind of escape from his surroundings. "I entered the San Alejandro Academy in part so that I wouldn't become a delinquent, because that was the future that awaited me."

The revolution had done little to change the teaching methods of the San Alejandro Academy. "There were still good professors there who followed the same tradition," he recalls. Still, "no one teaches you how to be an artist. What I needed to know I learned in my first two years in Alejandro."

It was Antonio Alejo, an art history teacher, rather than the instructors in theory and practice, who opened Torres Llorca's eyes to the possibilities that lay before him. He says that Alejo was "probably the most important person, not only in my own education, but in the education of the most important artists of my generation. He was the first person to teach us that art is concept. …