Carlos Quintana

Something strange happens when Carlos Quintana paints. He goes into a meditative state not unlike that of Sufi Dervishes who spin round and round until they reach a state of bliss. Quintana, though, reaches a different kind of place, a place where an act of mischief is magically transformed into an eloquent work of art. But magic is only one part of the process. "[Painting] is something physical for me," he tells Havana Cultura, "with violent movements, effort, truth..."

Quintana paints on giant surfaces, turning his canvasses upside-down as if to free his paint to drip in new directions. He spreads the paint with his hands. He dilutes colours with turpentine or with his own saliva. "Sometimes I even piss on my paintings," he says, "so, yes, I interact with them in different ways."

Figures arise from this gestural chaos even if you don't expect Quintana's paintings to be anything but abstract. He was always good at drawing and maybe those old habits die hard. The subjects emerging in his paintings frequently look to be Asian in some way, and that's another mystery. Quintana has been to China two times in his life, the last time for a major solo exhibition of his work during the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, but he was painting buddhas and samurais long before he ever set foot in the Far East. By way of explanation he shrugs and says, "My influences come from the stars, I guess."

Carlos Alberto Quintana Ledesma was born on November 29th, 1966 in the Vedado district of Havana. His grandparents were illiterate. His mother attended school until the third grade, his father until fifth grade. There had never been an artist in the family. His father was a bookseller. When Carlos was 16 he enrolled at the famed San Alejandro Academy of Fine Arts but he lasted only four months. "Studying didn't do me any good," he recalls. "I couldn't accept the rigors of school –the discipline, the schedule –because of what was going on in my life." Quintana is not clear about whether he was kicked out of art school or whether he just stopped going to classes, but the result was the same. He taught himself to be a painter.

"Everyone treated me like some kind of strange animal," he recalls. "I was like other kids – I threw stones, climbed trees, stole horses from my uncles. But I also had other tendencies, spiritual and artistic interests that nobody in my family understood, nor supported, nor respected." The one exception was his aunt Elena, his father's sister, who saw her young nephew's potential. She lent him a little room on Avenida Paseo where he painted on bed sheets he stole from his mother.

When Quintana was 26 whe moved to Spain. He kept a studio in Madrid for 11 years, then in 2003 he moved back to Havana. "I fell in love with a Cuban woman and I'm still with her," he says. He also became something of a nomad, exhibiting his work around the world, painting whenever and wherever he had the chance.

If finding a place to paint wasn't much of a problem, moving his work around was trickier. One time he was coming into the United States with two huge tubes containing his rolled-up paintings and drawings."Hey," an airport guard called to him, "what are you carrying in there? Missiles?" "No," the painter replied matter-of-factly. "It's just art." Another time, in Venezuela, a policeman scrutinized his drawing of human heads in serving dishes –a common Quintana theme –and asked if those might happen to be murder victims.

In the spring of 2011 Quintana moved into a new studio space on Avenida B in Miramar. When we interviewed him there he was just starting a new painting, which involved consecrating his canvas with spit and the occasional mouthful of beer. He was also contemplating the idea of showing his work for the first time in Havana's National Museum of Fine Arts. The show, which opened in October 2011 and runs until December 2012, is mischievously entitled Nada and features a lot more than nothing –to be exact, you'll find 20 large canvasses Quintana painted in Asia, Europe and North America.