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“An Original Arpocryphum” for Ricardo Brey . 

  John C. Welchman


Air Instruments

Brey took piano lessons at an early age, but was never much good as a player. In class he preferred to draw between the lines of his sheet music, referring to the traditional five-line stave as a “pentagram.” At other times he got lost in the sound. But he still thinks of himself as a frustrated musician.

These estrangements—from technical adeptness and anchorage in the world—have had a deep effect on the artist, redoubled when he realized that he had some of the capacities of a synesthete. He could sometimes see forms in sounds, or figures in melodies; and sometimes music strangely pre-empted forms that would only later be imagined. Quite blunt about his musical competence—“I don't play music, I can't sing or play any musical instrument”—Brey underlines the importance of music for his work: “I need music to think and to see.”[i]

His first love is for woodwind and brass, which he calls “air instruments” because they remind him of the pneuma, or spirit—qualities he addressed in their avian contexts in several works, including Air-du-Sac (2007), that feature the respiratory systems of birds. Things are blown into with the same necessity that fire needs air, and from there all “connections” are possible.



Conceived by Brey as the complement and sometime opposite of Natural History, ideas and practices associated with alchemy have furnished him with a loose operating system that accommodates important aspects of his longstanding interest in spirit worlds, transrational phenomena, vision-like intensities, and processes of material transmutation or transubstantiation. That these concerns were foundational to the artist is attested by his recollection of an early point of origin for the collusion between “color and secret knowledge.” He recalls the social ritual of spending certain Sundays at his father’s house following the divorce of his parents. The visits took him to a place that held little interest for the overcurious child with the exception of a pile of books belonging to one of his cousins—a chemical engineer who had already emigrated from Cuba and whom the young Brey never actually met. This presented him with his “favorite and only pleasure” during the mandated excursions, as he pored over a large volume filled with samples of dyed textiles, a page-turning parade of tints and textures that seized his boyhood imagination with its “thousands of colors”… seemingly “all the colors of the world.” The sensorial impact of the colored swatches was saliently magnified by the matter-of-fact obscurity of an associated publication that was “full of images of stills… chemical nomenclature” and formulae.[ii]

The book possessed him to such a degree that even today, Brey still “sees” and not merely recalls “all these colors” and claims to feel the effects they provoked.[iii] Of course, it was not the chromatic order alone that engendered such intensity, but rather an impressionable combination of the circumstances of the discovery coupled with a sense of furtiveness that was underlined by the future artist’s lack of communication with his father. It was thus that variegated color, shifts in the texture, form and appearance of materials, and a kind of genealogical self-reliance were convened by Brey in a recondite system organized by the artist’s commitment to counter-rational transformation. While this orientation has little to do with alchemy in the strictest sense, it shares with the hermetic arts a deep understanding of material transmutation, a veiled system of hierarchical development (if not progression) and the adjudication of emblematic revelation. Brey surely caught alchemical lore by the very end of its tale and put it to work—often unawares—on the rebound from his own particulars. How could it be otherwise, when Brey notes that the only other book he greatly “treasured” from his early days was Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d'Arthur, given to him by a friend of the family who was nicknamed “The Knight." While initially most impressed by the illustrations, Brey would have read the quest of Sir Gareth of Orkney (brother of Gawain), which Malory added to what was essentially a compilation from French sources and which recapitulates the alchemical journey beginning with the nigredo phase (the defeat of the Black Knight), continuing with conquests of the personifications of the four elements, and culminating first with victory over the Red Knight (as Gareth passes the rubedo phase), and then in the transformation of his armor into impenetrable multicolored hues, alluding to the panchromatic philosopher's stone.

The contact zone that Brey established with alchemy is constitutionally different from the occasional allusions to and appropriation of alchemical symbols, emblems and theories by a roster of modern artists ranging from Marcel Duchamp and Max Ernst to André Masson and Salvador Dalí.[iv] It differs too from both the more direct and veiled references made by Adolph Gottlieb (Alchemist, 1945), Jackson Pollock (The White Angel, 1946; Alchemy, 1947) and others during a signal turn toward anti-materialist, mythological and occult ideas in American art in the early and mid-1940s.[v] For Pollock, at least, this orientation was colored by Jungian psychology as filtered through The Analytical Psychology Club of New York, which published a series of Papers, ten of which feature in a hand-written list he made in 1940-41, including M. Esther Harding’s discussion of Jung’s “Erlösungsvorstellungen in der Alchemie” (The Idea of Redemption in Alchemy, 1937).[vi] While conceived in relation to precedents such as Gerhald Dorn’s notion of “inner healing” and the unification of the individual (vir unus) with the “world soul,” Jung’s spiritualization of alchemy was predicated on an allegorical sublimation of its material core, so that the hermetic journey was re-mapped as a pilgrimage of self-betterment and the perfecting of the soul. For Brey—as for other careful readers of the tradition—this synthetic re-scripting of alchemy resulted in a blurred double image as the mantras of psychological improvement were layered over the residues of occultist Victoriana. From this point of view, subtracting the “chemistry” from alchemical lore represented not just a dematerialized dead-end, but a flagrant substance abuse.       

While plotted in full consciousness of the material necessities foreclosed by Jung’s recasting of the tradition, Brey’s journey, in fact, unfolded as a kind of dialectical inverse of the alchemical sequence. It commenced (rather than concluded—as we have seen) with an almost visionary encounter with the pluralities of color and had as its objects—if not its finalities—distillations and confections of mark-making materials that led back to black. The drawings of “Universe” were in part created with, but also destined to engender, what the artist refers to as “a universal goulash,” a substance that was neither “paint” per se, nor a specific (or original) “color”, but instead a “mindful material” that was also a “tool.”[vii] Put to work in numerous images from the series (most clearly in nos. 100, 333,367, 372, 373, 375, 376, 426, 427, 709, 731), this complex defining element refused to be arbitrated as either a singularity or a mixture. For it redoubled itself by splitting off into a compound, as its basic components were amalgamated with charcoal and iron oxide to concoct a hyper-basic black material. (That processes of oxidation are crucial not just to “Universe”, but to Brey’s larger project is evidenced by the four-part series of works on paper made with graphite and iron oxide and framed in iron, “The Oxidation” [I-IV, 2009], Brey’s leporello-style book, Silver Oxidation [2013], and other works). The deep opacity of the resulting emulsion shared its physical qualities with tar or untreated oil (Brey included pieces of tar in drawings 616, 618, 619, 622, 625 and 627); while the compound was diluted in various proportions to furnish a highly flexible sub-medium (as in nos. 810, 830, 940, 931).

All this was animated by Brey’s research, especially in the writings of geologist, paleontologist and evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, who rekindled the artist’s “sleeping passion for paleontology and fossils.” This led Brey, somewhat indirectly, to mediate on the profound significance of the tar that names one of the most famous locales in which fossilized mammal bones, insects, and pollens have been found, the oldest of which date back some 40,000 years: Rancho la Brea in Los Angeles, known as the La Brea Tar Pits. Here, a soup of heavy oil fractions (natural asphalt or asphaltum; in English, bitumen, pitch or tar; or in Spanish, brea) percolated to the earth's surface for millennia, trapping and preserving animals and other biota. Brey’s drawings also work on the model of the fly-trap in that they are not just laid down but also erupt from within (chemically, iconographically and metaphorically), and thus conjure up. Sharing Gould’s sense of proportion, they are part of the drift toward general relativity suggested by evolution and—like evolutionary theory when properly apprehended — also help to furnish an “antidote to our cosmic arrogance.”[viii]

Metaphysically, Brey’s substance looked across to the neo-occult of speculative astrophysics—to the hapless forms of dark matter and the negative space of black holes—constituencies of darkness in which— as Brey is well aware—the gap between materiality and metaphysics is potentially eroded. It is thus that Brey reverse-engineered the spectrum analysis of traditional alchemy, purging color back to blackness, affirming his commitment to the fundaments of matter, and taking us by these means—de rerum natura—into the middle of a story based on his vision of things—in media res. 

Bird Humming

Brey modestly, perhaps unfairly, disqualifies himself from the lineage of the alchemical sage or magus. Disavowing his credentials as an expert, adept or connoisseur, he prefers to designate his commitments as those of “a curious traveler or, more exactly, a ‘fisherman.’” These exonerations preface a final self-clarification, in the form of a descriptor elevated as the most “clear” of all: he is, and has always been, he says, “a hummingbird.”[ix]

This association tallies with the artist’s mission in several dimensions, for in addition to the hummingbird’s capacity to hover, the relatively limited color spectrum it can detect, and the extraordinary modulation of energy of which it is capable (in its state of benign torpor the bird’s metabolic rate is slowed to some 1/15th of its normal rate), the Trochilidae is the only avian family endowed with the capacity to fly backwards—a skill of much consequence for Brey’s variant of the alchemical quest. With its feather structure acting as a “diffraction grating” in some species, and others possessed of naturally iridescent pigmentation, the hummingbird is also a cipher for exotic or prismatic coloration, emblematizing the very point of departure from which Brey stages his retreat. 


Brey has long been a prodigious reader, but he is also a hoverer who can journey backwards (Bird Humming) through life and writing, color and art. One strand of readings reflected his preference for expressions of thought that, while based on intensive observation, operate at the threshold of rational perception, as in the genealogy of mystics, visionaries and speculative empiricists that reaches from Meister Eckhart (Eckhart von Hochheim), Paracelsus, Gerhald Dorn and Jakob Böhme to Emanuel Swedenborg, in the western tradition, and includes Mani, the Gnostic texts of the Nag Hammadi library, Ibn ‘Arabî and Shahab al-Din Suhrawardi among Syriac, Persian, Coptic and Arabic-language writings. He claims to read them superficially, but with an eye on their “truth” or what Ibn ‘Arabî described as haqq: the condition of the real, right, worthy, and appropriate.[x]

To these historical writings Brey added more recent studies including discussions of bioethics, technology and Gnosticism by Hans Jonas; the writings of Henry Corbin and William Chittick on Sufism, Shi'ism and Islamic philosophies; Henri-Charles Puech’s investigations of Manicheism, hermeticism and neoplatonism; Joseph Campbell’s compendia of comparative mythologies; Mircea Eliade’s ideas about religious manifestion—hierophany (manifestation of the sacred) and theophany (manifestation of a god); John M. Allegro’s controversial publications on the Dead Sea Scrolls; the research on Renaissance hermeticism of Frances Yates, including The Art of Memory (1966); and Peter Kinsley’s reinterpretation of the presocratic philosophers, Parmenides and Empedocles.  

Just as Humboldt and Darwin, Stephen Jay Gould and Gershom Sholem had inspired “Universe,” these figures served as Brey’s “guides” for the making of his boxes.


The genealogy of the box in the world of art is rich and variegated, ranging from the Wunderkammern and cabinets of curiosity assembled or commissioned by aristocrats and collectors in Baroque Europe, to the annexation of boxes and display containers by Marcel Duchamp, Joseph Cornell and others in the mid-twentieth century, and the prevalence of box-like and cubic forms in the 1960s, including Robert Morris’ Box with the sound of its own making (1963), the Condensation Cube (1963-65) of Hans Haacke, and the open or incomplete cubes of Sol LeWitt.[xi] But while each of these deployments points to a particular aspect of Brey’s cubistry, none encompasses the sheer range of material and conceptual innovation packed into his hand-sized marvels. Brey, typically, takes something from each of these usages and inflects what results with a devouring concentration and signature vision.

Duchamp, for example, took up with the box largely as a storage device for the notes and diagrams in which the potential of various projects was vested. But while the boxes in Brey’s Every life is a fire also start their lives as off-the shelf archival containers, they bear within themselves their own capacities as art. Home to neither salient antecedents, nor consequential remainders, the insides of the box concertina outwards into a life of their own. For Cornell the box form functioned as a vitrine offering viewers a fixed diorama of embedded elements consumed from the outside in continuity with a long tradition of looking in.[xii] Brey in effect breaks through the implied proscenium wall of the spectatorial box so that what’s in it spills, leaps, spirals out against the gravity and better judgment of old-order confinement.

In fact, Brey’s boxes don’t simply open, instead they unfurl like a flag. Their interior conditions are the product of multiple interventions as the artist combines the roles of tanner, joiner, carpenter and welder. The box also houses its own fields of reference activated by the very process of opening, unfolding, unraveling and extending—as if the box were the site of so many bodily organs and the acts of viewing or entering it a kind of surgical procedure. It follows that the nestedness of the contents is a key indicator of the boxes’ self-definition: like parquetry with an accent on the third dimension, what eventuates is not surface articulation but contiguity in volumetric compaction. Indeed, Brey makes a compact with the very properties of the boxes, in the process erasing the distinction between the personal and the social, private and public, even inside and exterior. This is not to suggest that they somehow cancel each other out; to the contrary, they are elements of a dialectic that refuses to surrender to synthesis, so that things that could or should be opposite embrace their antitheses in gestures of uncritical co-presence.  

Some of the implications of the threaded-togetherness of Brey's boxes are revealed more clearly if we consider their relation to the series of "showcaselike boxes filled with family memorabilia—photographs, postcards, toys, mantelpiece fetishes—set among lit light bulbs and accompanied by scribbles and words written on the glass" made by Leandro Soto more than two decades earlier, beginning in 1984. Shown in a one-person exhibition and also at the First Biennial, and collectively titled Retablo familiar (Family Altar Piece), these works were deeply imbued with what the artist himself described as "Emotional Realism" and can be connected, as Luis Camnitzer suggests, "with the 'testimonial' period of Cuban art."[xiii]

Brey’s boxes were also motivated by the desire to contend against the monumental transparency of “Universe,” in which the drawings were serially declared and their means, materials and content spectacularly unhidden. The first term of the boxes is vested in opacity and enclosure and thus returns to the covert operations of the artist’s childhood. Brey thus makes demands of viewers of these boxes, which insist on close personal attention and hands-on contact “for the work to reveal its chemistry.”[xiv] The first term of this new commerce is predicated on the pleasures of unwrapping and opening, which couple with the voyeuristic compulsion of peering inside to encounter what is hitherto unseen and as yet unknown. Brey links this to popular wizardry, the conjuring of a rabbit from the magician’s hat—a situation in which the space of the revelation is always the same, but what is conjured generally different—and surprising: rabbit, handkerchief, bouquet.

As ever with Brey’s thinking, the literalness of his first terms is swiftly engulfed by a more implicit semantics that, while also launched physically, turns on the overlay of various metaphors. “The box is our head,” he notes, “the box is the cave… is the attic… is the memory and the world.” The boxes are an attempt to represent the intensifications of internal modes and their relationships in spatial terms; and what results is a “hermeneutics of the soul” that creates “a topography of the mind.” Articulated like a labyrinth or mandala, Brey considers the box-mind compound the “most metaphysical project” he has attempted, nothing less than “a workshop to produce the invisible” or “the countless” that is also “the way out and the jail.” Cavernous, secret, spatialized, architectural and imagistic, the boxes are a locus for the transaction of “a spectacular alchemical game between qualities, elements and senses.” They are figures of containment—lockers, shells, receptacles, vessels, bodies—that may shelter only nothingness or evacuated will. Though cubic in form their sphere of influence is circular. Produced in a series without number and end, they contain openings within openings and hidden compartments that may never be found. These activation potentials betoken an elemental fraction of the total project that is held in reserve in order to conjugate its “fortune and power.” For Brey all this is achieved through the collision of zahir (the apparent or exoteric) with batin (the hidden or esoteric) at the threshold of batin-al-batin (the inner of the interior, or the esoteric of the esoteric).  



Brey was born into a fisherman’s family in Cuba, in 1955, in the middle of the tumultuous half-decade between the first assault against the Battista regime in July 1953, and the inauguration of a new government led by Fidel Castro on January 1, 1959. During Brey’s infancy Cuba was transformed from a relatively wealthy agrarian archipelago, fringed by resorts and noted for its habit-forming pleasure-products (rum, cigars, sugarcane and casinos), into a Cold War socialist republic tethered ideologically and economically to the Soviet Union and subject to the longest regime of sanctions ever imposed by the United States, many of which are still in place in 2014. 

Brey’s grandfathers were Spanish, both from Pontevedra in northern Spain. His grandmothers were born in Cuba, but his mother’s mother who died young after giving birth to ten children, was of Nigerian ancestry. As a child Brey lived with his mother—“a washerwoman with great passion for movies, books and music, who was totally self-taught and very sensible”[xv]—and his one-eyed grandfather Manuel—who fled his Galician home as a stowaway on a ship bound for Argentina, but arrived in Cuba by accident in 1900. Until it collapsed in the years before Habana Vieja and its fortifications were declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1982, the home he shared with his mother, grandfather, two aunts and various cousins was a venerable colonial palace, La Casa de los Condes de Justiz. Here he was surrounded by a large extended family, some of whom practiced Afro-Cuban religions, Santeria (Yoruba) and Palo Monte (Kongo) rites, admixed with spiritism, while also professing as Catholic.

Partly products of the slave economy of the Spanish empire in Hispaniola, Brey’s kin were caught up in the portentous recalibrations of Castro’s revolution, then cast adrift during the ensuing economic dysfunction and social malaise. Emerging from this context, Brey himself grew up as a fisherman’s son, an experience both parallel and opposite to that of Salvador Dalí who lived among fisher folk in Port Lligat on the Costa Brava and adopted Lidia as a surrogate mother, but whose lineage was inescapably bourgeois—or Pablo Picasso who adopted, then affected, the accouterments of the sailor.

As a teenager Brey took art classes at night school before enrolling in 1970 at the Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes “San Alejandro,” the oldest school of fine art in Latin America. After graduating he continued his studies in the National School of Art (ENA) for another four years, concentrating on painting. One of his teachers told him that he didn’t have an eye for volume and that his vision was “flat”—a comment apparently uttered with such conviction that Brey believed it himself for several years. Like many who lived in Cuba in the 1970s, Brey remembers the decade as a kind of dark ages when the cultural atmosphere was poisoned by government condemnation of the forms of art and music that had flourished in Europe and the US during the previous decades. Abstract art and “foreign” music—from jazz to The Beatles—were dismissed as decadent; and practicing them—even listening to, looking at, or discussing them—was cited as a virtually treasonous surrender to the false allures of capitalism—a collaboration with the “enemy” that often drew swift and penalizing sanction. This was an era of cultural blacklists—Plato, Kant and Borges were just three of a whole constellation of prohibited authors—compounded by the outright persecution of homosexuals, those who practiced their religion, and anyone, especially young people, who asked too many questions or protested too much. What remained was an echoing “void” of the kind the writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante described as surrounding him after he came out against Castro following the publication of Tres Tristes Tigres in 1967.[xvi]

It was against this background of cultural paralysis that a new generation of artists born after the Revolution emerged during the later 1970s and early 1980s, exhibiting in a group show convened under the title Volumen I at the Centro Internacional de Arte de La Habana in January 1981. Exponents of what was known informally as “The New Art” included José Bedia, Leandro Soto, Juan Francisco Elso, Flavio Garciandía, José Manuel Fors, Gustavo Perez Monzon, Rubén Torres Llorca, Israel Leon, Gory (Rogelio Lopez Marin), Tomás Sánchez, and Brey himself, who were supported by the young critic and curator Geraldo Mosquera and Lucy Lippard from the United States, among others.[xvii] This loose group had encountered various aspects of the western art movements of the 1960s and 1970s—including Minimalism, Arte Povera, Performance Art, and Conceptual Art—in the form of reviews, articles, catalogs, and photographs passed through informal networks and circulated clandestinely.

Volumen I [J1] was one of several furtive or underground exhibitions and events that were staged in the 1970s and ‘80s in nations under socialist regimes to protest censorship routines, and signal the exhaustion of propaganda art paradigms. Above all, however, they sought to express the desire both to engage with international avant-gardes and to experiment with new materials and ideas. These manifestations included the Bulldozer Exhibition, an unofficial art exhibition organized in September 1974 in the Belyayevo urban forest near Moscow, and named for the almost instantaneous repressive reaction of the KGB and Soviet authorities, which literally broke it up with bulldozers and water cannons; as well as numerous projects and exhibitions staged in China between the mid-1970s and mid-80s by groups such as the Wuming (No Name), Xingxing (Star), and Caocao (Grass Society).[xviii] Unlike the relatively homogenous and institutionally and commercially defined—and streamlined—“movements” in the West, these disparate activities responded to relatively ad hoc or improvised circumstances, and often espoused an oppositional inclusiveness and solidarity that belied the generic or stylistic eclecticism of individual contributions. For Brey, as for several others from the Volumen I group, the use of “broken,” exhausted or recycled materials was a kind of social imperative; and the ethos of finding and repurposing offered a third way set between the pluses and minuses of the world’s most successful capitalist systems: the zero economy of Zen relinquishment in Japan, and the perverse abundance of U.S. commodity culture.[xix]    

In addition to specific events and triggers, such as the opportunity for discussion presented to the Volumen I group by the arrival in Havana of the Cuban-born Ana Mendieta (then resident in the U.S.) in January 1980, Brey recalls the wider impact of many forms of experimental art from the 1960s and 70s, particularly practices that involved working with “natural elements” (Richard Long), texts (Joseph Kosuth, Robert Barry), and sound (Laurie Anderson). This work was not something Brey—or many of his colleagues—wished to imitate; instead, he saw it as a set of “openings” that might be linked with Cuban life and its own “creative needs.” Mosquera makes a similar observation in a 1987 essay on the work of Bedia, where he notes: “It is a matter of making Western art in [the Third World's] way and for [the Third World's] own benefit."[xx] Part of the impact was also situational, for the new formats for art that foregrounded minimal forms, deployed found, discarded or everyday materials, used texts and concepts rather than physical materials, or were composed with performing bodies, were potentially well-suited to the straightened economic and social circumstances that prevailed in Havana in the 1970s and 80s. 

With the launch of the first edition of the Havana Biennial in 1984—and its promise of an “alternative cosmopolitan modernism,”[xxi] the establishment the year before of the Wifredo Lam Center (which has organized the Biennial since its inception), and a series of visits by artists including Robert Rauschenberg (who had traveled to Cuba in 1952 and returned under the auspices of his Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange [ROCI] in 1988), Kosuth, Carl Andre, the photographer Pedro Meyer and many from the new generation of Mexican artists, it could be argued that there was something of a cultural thaw in Cuba in the 1980s—or at least signs that one might be about to take place. By the end of the decade, however, it was apparent that the regime was re-regulating the amplitude of its “tolerance” and flexibility and that permissiveness was to remain a limited commodity.

Prompted by an invitation to participate in Jan Hoet’s Documenta 9 (1992), Brey moved to Ghent, Belgium in 1991 and has lived there with his wife Isabel and daughter Paula, ever since. This has given him (to date) more than two decades to wax the whiskers of his apocrypha.


Universe (2001), the title piece of Brey’s 2006 exhibition, took the form of a column of dice that looked as if it might topple over, but was, in fact, quite securely anchored. Eight years later, Brey produced a horizontally aligned sibling to the improbable verticality of Universe. Anchored by a rod to a metal base set on the floor, Parallel Universe (2009), splays out, laterally like a squatting clothes-horse. The accumulation and weight of the dice and their supports causes the “arms” of the sculpture to bow, so that in addition to its anthropomorphic connotations, the piece resembles a pair of scales or the balancing pole of a high-wire acrobat. In a prescient overlay redolent of Brey’s artistic method, the larger, or “Gestalt”-referential implications of the work apprehended as a totality—allusions to the human body, to equilibrium and to the scales of commerce or justice—are joined by another round of suggestions arising from the material constituency of the piece as an assemblage of dozens of individual, hand-carved dice. In effect, Brey’s spot-marked volumes are situated in a mode of serial alignment that looks back to Sol LeWitt’s field-like deployment of incomplete, open cubes. Here, however, the disposition of multiple, quasi-cubic structures takes the form of an almost endless row: the little objects are brought face-to-face so that their erstwhile functionality—their defining capacity to be “rolled,” and perhaps the “chance” they betoken—is utterly suspended.

What results precipitates another dialectic of sorts as viewers of the “Universe” sculptures are offered a material thesis (made up of the palpable physicality of the sculptures, their wood, metal and markings, but also their vertical and horizontal extensions, and respective erectness and droop) and conceptual antithesis (gathered up in a symbolic decoding directed through the diverse significations of the dice and their orientations). They are thus confronted by an implicit directive to accommodate aspects of both in a creative synthesis. While this Hegelian modeling is probably not the best way to unpack the implications of Brey’s ways of making, it does usefully point to the intricate staging of relations between things or materialities on the one hand, and concepts and symbolizations on the other, that has characterized his work from the beginning. Brey cannot conceive of the strategic elevation of either materials or concepts in the terms negotiated by the western art world from the 1960s through the 1980s by Minimalism, Conceptual Art, or Neo-Expressionism. Uncomfortable with most of the “solutions” or over-commitments brokered by standardized art practice and its sustaining discourses, Brey has been obliged to look to other sources, including Alchemy and Natural History, for the methods, systems and means by which to accommodate his material conceptualization or conceptual materialization.

The dice sculptures emblematize this conjunction, for while they are apprehended, most immediately, in terms of their mass, shape and material declensions—a reception reinforced by the artist’s provision of wood shavings apparently dropped from the carving process—the dice themselves belong to a class of objects the forms of which are overwritten by specific functions and attributions. While an unmarked cube might have any number of artistic or social implications (possibly referring to built structures or three-dimensional mathematics, on the one hand, or to the “little cubes” that gave the Cubist movement its name, or the “White Cube” that has become a shorthand for the institutionalized commercialism of the art market, on the other), a die bearing one to six dots on each of its sides is vested in the meaning system inhabited by gambling and chance, fate and contingency. Its materiality is thus unstoppably compounded by the symbolic field to which it gives rise as a common artifact. That Brey eclipses the functionality of the dice by splicing them together, that he offers a neologistic dot-matrix comprised by the unfathomable sequential coding of their legible faces—a kind of Morse code stripped of its “Morse”—and that he arrests the motile aspect, or “throwability” of the dot-marked cubes, merely underscores the ultimate location of his work in the hard-won spaces between material and concept, “proving”—as it were—along the way, that the signification of his objects—singular and plural—is an indissoluble amalgam of thing and idea, palpability and reflection, and that neither material nor concept can ever be subtracted from their outcomes. 

Brey’s sculptural redeployment of dice comes at the end of a modernist lineage that effectively commences with Mallarmé’s poem “Un coup de dés jamais n'abolira le hazard” (A roll of the dice will never abolish chance, 1897). Odilon Redon is a key protagonist in this venture, for not only did he collaborate with Mallarmé on a never-completed project to publish the poem accompanied by his illustrations (of which A Throw of the Dice, 1900 is one of the few remaining traces), but he also represented dice in several other contexts, informed by the disruptions of scale and function that mark his dark variant of Symbolist image-making. For example, in Man Carrying Dice from Dans le rêve (In Dreams, 1979), done in pen and ink with gouache, the thumbnail dimensions of a die are amplified to the size of a large boulder, which the eponymous “man” (variants have several men) holds in front of him with a haunting combination of diffidence and recondite purpose. In another work, Redon interferes with the markings or “pips” of a die, producing an anthropomorphic cube vividly described by Joris-Karl Huysmans in Against Nature (À rebours, 1884): “here there was an enormous dice blinking a mournful eye; there, heaving and erupting into fiery clouds, into livid and stagnant skies.”

These vigorous shakes of the die were followed by more anodyne appearances as dice were occasionally adopted into the familiar round of still-life motifs in movements following on from Cubism in the first half of the twentieth century—as with Georges Braque’s Still Life with Glass, Dice, Newspaper and Playing Card (1913), Pablo Picasso's Dice, Packet of Cigarettes, and Visiting-Card (1914), and Marcel Janco’s Mandoline & Dice (1919). While there were occasional instances among artists associated with the Dada and Surrealist movements of an interest in the more active aspects of gambling, as in André Masson’s A Throw of the Dice (1922), it was—several exceptions notwithstanding—the form and appearance of the little cubes that henceforth dominated their inclusion in visual representations. Brey, however, takes dice into a new semantic orbit in which they are physically present but radically pluralized, concatenated or threaded, and shaved (as if in a reprise of the techniques once used to “load” or rig them to favor certain outcomes).  Originally fabricated from the talus or "knucklebones" of hoofed animals, Brey’s use of dice also clearly relates to his investigations of Natural History.

Natural History

First shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art S.M.A.K. Ghent in 2006 as a large-scale installation of 1004 drawings displayed in 99 glass vitrines, “Universe” (2002-03) represented a spectacular outpouring of Brey’s crypto-scientific drive—an almost insatiably abundant issuance of his paleontological, botanical and zoomorphic imaginations. This inimitable bestiary of bio-social forms employed multiple means of marking and fabricating, and took up with composite materials, faux techniques for aging and simulation, intermittent modes of documentary verisimilitude, and imaginative speculation—the latter visible most expressly in his provision of compounds and overlays which create a fantastical syntax of supplements to the archival impulse of Enlightenment histories.

“Universe” came into being at the conjunction of several histories—personal and social—as well as a range of more immediate prompts. During a cold snap in the winter of 2002-2003, Brey recalls seeing off a moment of aesthetic lethargy during which he couldn’t go into his studio, by watching—and then pondering—a BBC documentary on the use of the camera obscura as an aide for painters in the era before photography. His young daughter, Paula, was equally fascinated by the program, watching it back repeatedly in order to work out what it was saying. This presented Brey with another excuse to stay out of the studio: he started to make drawings and sketches of her, at first surreptitiously and always from the same angle so as not to disturb her concentration.

Brey had not drawn from the model since the late 1970s—just before he met Alfredo de la Torre, son of Carlos de la Torre y la Huerta (1858-1950), the most eminent Cuban naturalist of his day, in 1979. The younger de la Torre responded to Brey’s curiosity about the natural world and became his “private professor,” teaching him about malacology (the branch of invertebrate zoology in which his father had specialized, dealing with the study of the Mollusca—mollusks or molluscs),[xxii] geology and paleontology and assisting with the formation of Brey’s first collection of fossils, now lost. It was this friendship that shaped the work Brey made in the 1980s in dialogue with Giovanni da Verrazano, Alexander Von Humboldt and Charles Darwin. The artist looked at “Universe” as the final reflection on and “tribute” to this abiding obsession.

Something essential in the return to model-based work, coupled with the set-up of the assistance routines of the camera obscura—whether their offer of infinite frames each bearing a miniature world, or the exacting mimetic strategies to which they gave rise—moved Brey in the direction of the ambitiously-scaled seriality of “Universe” and intimated their quasi-documentary reach. At around the same time, he received as a gift from his wife, Isabel, some twenty pages of handcrafted paper. This was the deciding factor in a “perfect storm” of propitiousness: as Brey put it “I had the model, the melancholy of the winter, and the material to deal with this.” It was thus that Brey decided from one day to the next that he would make a thousand drawings conceived as a kind of “universe,” which he inaugurated with the work titled Número 1, (number 624 in the exhibited and published sequence).

The papers used for the “Universe” drawings are just as important as the marks and materials deposited on them. They include a wide spectrum of handmade paper from Japan, Tibet, Nepal, Guatemala, and Mexico; as well as papyrus, heavy cardboards, transparent paper, and various papers found in thrift stores and markets—which he put to work in a complex web of clusters and combinations. Some of the papers are so “alien” that they amount to what Brey suggests are works in themselves (see, for example, drawings nos. 405, 481,684, 723, 760, 787, 920). Papers also contribute to what Brey calls his “economy of survival.” The production of “Universe” was assisted by a long-running “promotion” of free samples of an expensive brand of Japanese paper in the store where he would buy artist’s materials. Brey assiduously “collected” these giveaways, which—once the labels printed on them had been cut off—became the prima materia for the small drawings of “Universe” (and for some of the medium-sized drawings of “Annex”).

A number of drawings, including nos. 79, 81, 82 and 227, incorporate pieces of broken shells, stones, and other debris, “souvenirs,” Brey notes, of what he calls his "archeological times" when he was president of an archeology club in Jaruco in the 1980s. The area around the town was rich in caves and had many archeological sites, which Brey and his fellow club members—who numbered less than half a dozen—would visit, investigate and pick over. It was to this area, years later, that Brey and his colleagues took Ana Mendieta when she came to work in Cuba. She spent several months carving various Taíno divinities in the limestone walls of grottos in the national park, Las Escaleras de Jaruco, a project known collectively as the Esculturas rupestres (Rupestrian Sculptures, 1981).[xxiii]

The introduction of collaged elements represented a decisive moment in the genesis of “Universe.” It was prompted in large part by the delivery to the artist in 2002 (by his wife’s mother, Ana María, who was visiting from Cuba) of a small box of “little treasures” that Brey had left in Havana when he emigrated. His powerful reacquaintance with these symbolic objects was fueled by distinct memories of the places and circumstances in which they were found and collected—which included not only locations in Cuba, but also in Mexico, Italy (Via Apia, no. 942) and elsewhere. Beginning with a piece of wood from his former studio (no. 100), Brey began to incorporate his personal herbaria of dried, pressed plants (nos. 541, 614, 645, 777, 820)—a process that extended to the concoction of the media he used to apply to the paper supports, which were also composed from a heterogeneous amalgamation of found and appropriated materials, fraught with memorial and locative significance. The “universal goulash” of “Universe” was, therefore, a molten collage distilled from the “glue, animal hair, sands from different deserts and beaches, small stones and pieces of bones” that were also incorporated in the works in their unaggregated states, or used (as with the glue) to bind and attach them.

Brey’s relation to natural history is quite different from the genealogy of uses, allusions and appropriations taken on by a succession of modern and contemporary artists from Odilon Redon and Max Ernst to Xavier Veihlan and Mark Dion.[xxiv] Each artist in this loosely connected spectrum intervened differently in the strategic space between nature and history signaled—and often elided—by their familiar apposition, but all opened up pressing questions in the associative force-fields between these defining axes of Enlightenment thought. In “Les Origines” and other lithographic series, Redon, for example, used dreams and mythic fabulation to overwrite the natural economy with a nightmarish archive of spooks, demons and corporeal part-objects, in the process severing many of its relations with history—and restructuring others.  The defining orientation of Ernst’s Histoire Naturelle (Natural History), on the other hand, eventuated in the contact zones between disparate objects and surfaces—floorboards, string, wire mesh, crumpled paper, crusts of bread—and sheets of paper activated by rubbing the surface with a pencil or crayon. The frottage technique gave rise to a menagerie of discrepantly autonomous figures, things and their contexts rubbed into existence through the contingencies of differential resistance, and then variously augmented or “completed” by the artist once a founding shape or form had emerged.

In his introduction to the thirty-four collotypes made in 1926 (selected from over one hundred and thirty frottages produced the previous year), Hans Arp harnessed the vagrant semantic energy of Ernst’s titles in order to underline the thoroughgoing defection of the series from the classificatory logic of the scientific organization of the natural world. "This introduction,” he wrote, “contains the pseudo-introduction, the original, the variants of the original, the pseudo-original as well as variants of the pseudo-original, the apocrypha, and the incorporation of all these texts in an original arpocryphum with apocopated whiskers as well as fifty calcinated medals and fifty suns of fifty years because the medal rises."[xxv] Arp offers here a parody not only of the positivism of the scientific method, but also of the potential chaos of the “apocryphal” variants that might replace it. Brey shares with Arp the desire to search for the forms, possibilities—and limits—of "another value for man in nature";[xxvi] and with Ernst the double-binds of mystery and fascination (Le Fascinant Cyprès [The Fascinating Cypress]); the exclamation of natural forces that punctuate human affairs (Les éclairs au-dessous de quatorze ans [Teenage Lightning]); the guardianship of secrets (Elle garde son secret [She Guards Her Secret]); the privileged interaction of carbon forms (Les Diamants conjugaux [The Conjugal Diamonds]); the places and predicaments of falsehood (Les Fausses positions [False Positions]); and practices of warding-off that begin with magic and superstition and end in prophylactic science (Le Pain vacciné [The Vaccinated Bread]). All three artists have worked (and lived) in the conflicted space to which Michel Foucault pointed when he compared the deceptive simplicity of a Magritte drawing related to Ceci n'est pas un pipe to "a botanical manual: a figure and a text that names it."[xxvii]

For Brey, however, writing was as much the “ground” of his drawings as paper was their “support” and material their literal “content.” Wave upon wave of what were once known as “influences” or “motivations” course through “Universe,” refigured as constitutive substrates. There is a strand of redemptive ecology, informed by the parapsychological speculations of Rupert Sheldrake—though not without a nagging anxiety about his later works that prompted Brey to reach out directly to the author of The Rebirth of Nature: The Greening of Science and God.[xxviii] Brey’s interest in Sheldrake is both a cipher for the explanatory limits of biochemical inquiry—and the scientific method in general—and a caution against the diffident imperialism of intuitive speculation and New Age excess. In addition to the general drift of his thinking about evolution, Brey derived from Gould an understanding of Lagerstätten (repositories, or “lode places” of "extraordinary completeness and richness", such as the Paleozoic Burgess shale, the Devonian Hunsruckschiefer of Germany, the Carboniferous Mazon Creek near Chicago, or the late Pleistocene La Brea Tar Pits),[xxix] which he added to his own vocabulary and used as a “key word” to describe his work. Using Gershom Scholem’s lectures on Jewish mysticism and the Kabbalah,[xxx] Brey smuggled into “Universe” “another universe” of references in a regimen denominated by his titles and various covert symbols. The most telling pressure on drawing itself (“my main influence”) emanates from the vera icon of the Shroud of Turin;[xxxi] and in like manner, the fronts between art and science negotiated by Leonardo da Vinci, between the visionary and the everyday (William Blake), and between the ordinary and the fantastic (Jorge Luis Borges) are “always… always” present.


                Music that accompanied the making of “Universe”:

Craig Armstrong (The Space Between Us)

Miles Davis (All)

John Coltrane (Stellar Regions and Blue Train).


[i] Ricardo Brey, email to the author, December 17, 2013.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] James Elkin provides useful references to the literature on modern art and alchemy in the notes to his "Four Ways of Measuring the Distance Between Alchemy and Contemporary Art," HYLE—International Journal for Philosophy of Chemistry, Vol. 9, No.1 (2003), pp. 105-118; http://www.hyle.org/journal/issues/9-1/elkins.htm#n32

[v] See e.g., Jonathan Welch, "Jackson Pollock's The White Angel and the Origins of Alchemy," Arts Magazine, Vol. 53 (March 1979), pp. 138-41.

[vi] Michael Leja, Reframing Abstract Expressionism: Subjectivity and Painting in the 1940s (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997), p. 150. For a list of Jung's discussions of alchemy beginning in 1929, see William R. Newman and Lawrence M. Principe, Alchemy Tried in the Fire: Starkey, Boyle, and the Fate of Helmontian Chymistry (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), p. 36, note 3.

[vii] Brey, email to the author, December 17, 2013.

[viii] Stephen Jay Gould, Ever Since Darwin (New York: W.W. Norton, 1977), p. 14.

[ix] Brey, email to the author, December 17, 2013.

[x] A well-known saying of Ibn ‘Arabî puts it like this: “Everything has a haqq, so give to each that has a haqq its haqq”; cited in William C. Chittick, The Self-Disclosure of God: Principles of Ibn al-'Arabi's Cosmology (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998), p. xxiv.

[xi] On the proliferation of cubic forms see “From the White Cube to the Rainbow Net,” Chapter 7 of my Art After Appropriation: Essays on Art in the 1990s (London: Routledge, 2001).

[xii] For a discussion of the different valences of “seeing into” or through, see John C. Welchman, (ed.) Sculpture and the Vitrine [Subject / Object: New Studies in Sculpture] (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2013). 

[xiii] Luis Camnitzer, New Art of Cuba (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994), pp. 31-35.

[xiv] Ricardo Brey, “Wisdom, madness and folly – paraphrasing R. D. Laing,” statement (January 2013). Subsequent details and quotations are taken from this text unless otherwise noted.  

[xv] Brey, email to the author, December 17, 2013 [“Cuba”].

[xvi] Marie-Lise Gazarian Gautier, "A Conversation with G. Cabrera Infante": http://www.dalkeyarchive.com/a-conversation-with-g-cabrera-infante-by-marie-lise-gazarian-gautier/

[xvii] See, Luis Camnitzer, New Art of Cuba (1994); Geraldo Mosquera, “The New Cuban Art”, in Aleš Erjavec (ed.), Postmodernism and the Postsocialist Condition: Politicized Art under Late Socialism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), pp. 208–247; and Rachel Weiss, To and from Utopia in the New Cuban Art (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011). See also, Rufo Caballero, “La decada prodigiosa,” Caiman Barbudo, Havana, August, 1990, pp. 12-15.

[xviii] The exhibitions Blooming in the Shadows: Unofficial Chinese Art, 1975-1984 (shown at the China Institute, New York, 2011) and Light Before Dawn: Unofficial Chinese Art 1974-1985, an expanded version (Asian Society, Hong Kong, 2013) and their accompanying catalogues, offer useful surveys of the activities of the Wuming,  Xingxing and Caocao groups.

[xix] See, Ricardo Brey in Philippe Pirotte, "Embracing the Elephant’s Leg: A Conversation with Ricardo Brey," in the catalogue for the Flemish Community Trattenendosi, 48th Venice Biennale, Zitelle, Venice, June 10 to October 3, 1999, p. 93.

[xx] Mosquera, cited in Camnitzer, New Art of Cuba, p. 44. 

[xxi] See, Miguel L. Rojas-Sotelo, Cultural Maps, Networks, and Flows: The History and Impact of the Havana Biennale 1984 to the Present, Doctoral Dissertation, University of Pittsburgh (2009): http://d-scholarship.pitt.edu/6302/

[xxii] Mollusca are the second-largest phylum of animals in terms of described species after arthropods.

[xxiii] See, Bonnie Clearwater (ed.), Ana Mendieta: A Book of Works (Grassfield Press, 1993) and Olga M. Viso, Unseen Mendieta: The Unpublished Works of Ana Mendieta (New York: Prestel, 2008), p. 230. 

[xxiv] On Xavier Veihlan’s relation to these questions, for example, see my “A Museum of Unnatural History”, in (exh. cat.) Xavier Veilhan: Le Plein Emploi (Strasbourg, France: Musée d’Art Moderne, 2005).

[xxv] Hans [Jean] Arp, "Introduction," to Histoire Naturelle (1926); reprinted in Jean Arp, On My Way: Poetry and Essays, 1912-1947 [Volume 6 of The Documents of Modern Art] (New York: Wittenborn, Schultz, 1948), p. 38.

[xxvi] Arp, On my Way, p. 47.

[xxvii] Michel Foucault Ceci n'est pas une Pipe (Montpellier: Éditions fata morgana, 1973); trans. and ed. James Harkness (Berkley: University of California Press, 1983), p. 19. The English translation also reprints Magritte's two 1966 letters to Foucault. First published in Les Cahiers de chemins (1968).

[xxviii] See, Rupert Sheldrake, The Rebirth of Nature: The Greening of Science and God (New York: Bantam Books, 1991). A year after finishing Universe, Brey notes: “I was looking for the Spanish translation of another of his books that was out of print. We contacted him directly and he was kind enough to send me one of his own copies. I sent him Universe back.”

[xxix] See, Stephen Jay Gould, Wonderful Life: Burgess Shale and the Nature of History (New York: Vintage, 2000).

[xxx] Gershom Scholem’s lectures were published as Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (Jerusalem: Schocken, 1941; New York: Schoken, 1961, 1995).

[xxxi] Brey cites the work of Ian Wilson who has written numerous books on the Shroud of Turin including The Turin Shroud: The Burial Cloth of Jesus Christ? (1979); The Evidence of the Shroud (1986); Holy Faces, Secret Places: An Amazing Quest for the Face of Jesus (1991); The Blood and the Shroud: New Evidence That the World’s Most Sacred Relic Is Real (1998); The Turin Shroud: Unshrouding the Mystery (2000); and The Shroud: The 2000-Year-Old Mystery Solved (2010).

“An Original Arpocryphum” for Ricardo Brey .  Essay from John C. Welchman

Qué le importa al tigre una raya más (the futility of intentions)  MER Paper Kunsthalle, 2014