JOSE EMILIO FUENTES FONSECA aka JEFF
Start with a complicated name – Jose Emilio Fuentes Fonseca – and distill it into something simpler (JEFF), or into something that gives the impression of simplicity while keeping the complexity hidden from view. In this way, JEFF’s name is a fine introduction to his work. Some viewers have termed his art "naïve", referring no doubt to visual similarities with the "Naïve" or "Outsider" art movement. But take a closer look at JEFF’s sculptures and installations, and it dawns on you how assiduously he works to bury the thematic complexities. He throws the door wide open, but beware the darkness within.
"I’m always working on the theme of childhood, childishness," JEFF explains. "What I do is manipulate the child’s language toward that of the adult." His first solo exhibition, in 1994 at Havana’s Museo Álvaro Reinoso, was entitled "El Rostro Inocente" (The Innocent Face). JEFF’s installation was a classroom full of broken chairs. On the back of each chair was a pair of wings, made of lead. On the classroom walls were paintings of foetuses with congenital birth defects. "The idea was to consider children who are deformed from birth as opposed to those deformed by their education – that is, to consider how dangerous it is to suppose one type of deformity is preferable to another."
JEFF was born in 1974 in Granma and came to live in Havana at 7 years old. He makes no secret about how much his work has been influenced by his own childhood, "which had been — I wouldn’t say black, but grey. My parents were separated, I had gone to live with my grandparents in Oriente province, I didn’t have many toys. I admired a neighbor kid whose father was a mechanic and was able to make all these toys for him. He had pliers, a saw, a hammer, and I told myself, ’One day I’ll have all that and I’ll make my own toys.’" The "toys" JEFF creates for his installations — sailboats made of jagged, rusty metal, or wooden trains transporting severed limbs — speak to the child’s world of omnipresent danger. Again, JEFF draws from experience: "My brother found a stick of dynamite in a big mound of gravel, and he brought it home. He told me it was a firecracker. It was lying around the house, and one day I wanted to open it to see what was inside. When I punctured it, I lost three fingers." He was 9 years old. "That kind of thing shouldn’t happen to children, but it does happen, all the time."
At 13, JEFF began studying art, and he had precocious talent. At 21, he won a grant from the Ludwig Foundation to produce an installation he called "Landscape at 21." Today he lives and works in Havana’s Buena Vista quarter. His home-studio is spacious and functional (sculpture downstairs, painting upstairs), but he prefers to see it as a kind of cultural center. Neighbors pay frequent visits, and he clearly relishes the interaction. "You can usually see some of my big sculptures on the street in front of my house, on their way to a show or coming back from one. It’s a kind of revolving exhibition for the neighborhood."
The rest of Havana will have a chance to see JEFF’s idea of public sculpture during the upcoming Havana Biennial (March 27 through April 30, 2009). He is making a herd of 12 metal elephants, which he plans to move from place to place throughout the city during the night.