Ese de Serpiente, 1987
Tempera on cardboard, 36 7/8 x 39 3/4 in.
Collection of Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami
Gift of Peter Menéndez
Tomás Esson creates lively, at times grotesque paintings loaded with energy and humor, mythology, and bold political commentary. A central figure of the 1980s renaissance in Cuban art, Esson frequently depicts sexualized and monstrous creatures symbolizing political forces and figures. Notorious for criticizing the Cuban government and society, Esson left Cuba in 1990 and has since lived between New York and Miami. He continues to make paintings critical of the Castro regime, while also venturing into new motifs and even abstraction.
Ese de Serpiente (S for Serpent) features one of Esson’s so-called monsters, which merge humans and animals into hybrids of violence, loneliness, disaffection, libido, and humor.
Expressionistically gestural and vibrantly colored forms are arranged into erotic positions, with exposed genitalia or amputated limbs that spew bodily fluids. In this work, the titular serpiente emerges from a monster’s anus, leading with its hissing tongue.
This painting was included in Esson’s solo show “A tarro partido II” (1988) at Centro de Arte 23 y 12 in Havana, which was censored and closed by the Cuban authorities. Like much of Esson’s work during the 1980s, the monsters of “A tarro partido II” expressed growing ambivalence toward and critical questioning of the Cuban Revolution (1953–59), a project that nationalized and centralized the press, economy, and society instead of delivering the promised revolutionary socialist state. In these works, the Cuban flag and the revolutionary hero Ernesto “Che” Guevara are monsters; for Esson, this suggests the hypocrisies of Cuban society and the failure of the revolutionary project.
Tomás Esson (b. 1963, Havana, Cuba) participated in a number of controversial exhibitions in Havana during the 1980s. In 1990 he left Cuba and began to exhibit internationally, living in Miami and New York. Esson has presented solo exhibitions at Fredric Snitzer Gallery, Miami (2019, 2017); Hammonds House Museum, Atlanta (2008); and Vrej Baghoomian Gallery, New York (1995), among others. He has participated in group shows at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (2017); Miami Art Museum (2006); Museum of Fort Lauderdale (2004); State Russian Museum and Ludwig Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia (2002); and Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Monterrey, Mexico (1995), among others. His work is in the collections of the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Havana; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego; Ludwig Forum für Internationale Kunst, Aachen, Germany; and Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Monterrey.