Artist to Know: Los Carpinteros

Liz Catalano
Published on

Rago Will Offer Three Early Sketches From Cuban Artist Collective

It was 1991, and the Soviet Union had just collapsed. The economic impacts were felt worldwide but were especially acute in Comecon-supported Cuba. Food shortages and mass financial hardship closely followed the government’s hasty austerity policies. During this time, now known as the Special Period, artists found themselves without patrons, materials, or the means to survive. To escape these circumstances, three college students banded together to form Los Carpinteros, an artist collective grounded in craftsmanship and collective ownership. They went on to become one of the most notable artist groups in Cuban history. 

Rago’s upcoming 20 | 21 Art sale will feature three early works by Los Carpinteros. The live auction will begin at 11:00 AM EST on December 16th, 2020. Learn more about this Cuban artist collective before the bidding begins. 

Los Carpinteros (Marco Castillo and Dagoberto Rodríguez) with Octagonal, 2013. Image from May Tse/ South China Morning Post.
Los Carpinteros (Marco Castillo and Dagoberto Rodríguez) with Octagonal, 2013. Image from May Tse/ South China Morning Post.

Marco Castillo, Dagoberto Rodríguez, and Alexandre Arrechea were students at the Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA) in the 1990s when Cuba’s economic troubles began. Together, they formed Los Carpinteros for both practical and ideological reasons. Their combined skills allowed for fluid shifts between mediums informed by communal expertise. Principles like artisanal craftsmanship and slow creation also paid homage to long-extinct artist guilds. 

Los Carpinteros started to interrogate their society through their work. They abandoned individualism to explore the intersections of artistic mediums and the spaces where they reside. The artists valued every stage of the creative process. Many of the group’s projects started as careful sketches before being reimagined as watercolor paintings, sculptures, installations, and even architecture. 

Arrechea left the collective in the early 2000s, but Castillo and Rodríguez continued to collaborate as Los Carpinteros. Many of their works struck a balance between whimsy and serious critique. Everyday objects and situations were imbued with complex meanings dependent on culture and context. This balance was particularly visible at the Havana Biennial in 2012. Los Carpinteros’ Conga Irreversible, a choreographed live performance, showed dancers and musicians marching backward while reversing their movements and melodies. While the performance recalled traditional carnivals, it also alluded to the “irreversible” march of Cuban socialism.

“The political dimension… isn’t usually expressed explicitly, but rather in a space where references are subtly explored, a space not free of irony that can be easily identified by ordinary Cuban citizens familiar with local gags and slang,” Orlando Britto Jinorio explained in an essay for the Daros Latinamerica Collection.

Los Carpinteros, La Fuente, 1996. Image from Rago.
Los Carpinteros, La Fuente, 1996. Image from Rago.

The upcoming Rago auction will feature three early pencil and watercolor works from Los Carpinteros that reflect a deep interest in objects. La Fuente, for example, examines a group of brick wells from various angles. Placed in this object study are items that may take the viewer by surprise— a mirror is shoved in one square-shaped well while a shovel and pickaxe dangle above another.

For Sale, which is available as well, shows several unrelated objects carefully arranged in a room. Among them is a pink palm tree made of sliding drawers, foreshadowing a later sculpture series that turned the buildings of Havana into wood bureaus. Both of these works have presale estimates of USD 12,000 to $18,000.

Los Carpinteros, Catedral, 1995. Image from Christie’s.
Los Carpinteros, Catedral, 1995. Image from Christie’s.

With time, Los Carpinteros’ fame grew beyond Cuba’s borders. The collective is now represented by Sean Kelly Gallery in New York. According to ARTnews, their gallery prices range between $16,000 and $58,000 for works on paper. Prices for sculptures and installations run anywhere between $18,000 and $182,000. 

Los Carpinteros’ pieces come to auction less frequently but have become more popular in recent years. Christie’s offered a mixed media work by the collective in 2018. Catedral depicts a pair of tourists standing before a cathedral in Old Havana. Arrechea is shown asking the couple for a stick of gum. The piece achieved $456,500, setting an auction record for Los Carpinteros. It far surpassed its estimate of $200,0000 to $300,000. The collective’s watercolor paintings and preparatory sketches typically fetch more modest prices, between $15,000 and $80,000. 

After more than 25 years working together as Los Carpinteros, Castillo and Rodríguez announced in 2018 that they would pursue individual careers. They still exhibit together as Los Carpinteros, including at the Phillips Collection’s recent Cuba Va! show. Despite the dissolution, the work of Los Carpinteros remains relevant today. It invites thoughtful reflection on Cuba’s complex past, present, and future, along with a gentle reminder not to take oneself too seriously. 

Los Carpinteros’ watercolor paintings will be available in Rago’s upcoming 20 | 21 Art auction. It will start on December 16th, 2020, at 11:00 AM EST. Find the complete listings and register to bid on Bidsquare.

Looking for more Latin American artist profiles? Learn more about Mexican sculptor Jorge Marín on Auction Daily