Douglas Pérez

Douglas Perez is a highly controlled painter with a sure and apparently easy mastery of his medium. He is quick to correct this impression. "Painting, in my case, requires a great, great deal of work, sincerely. It's almost an agonizing act; it actually uses me up physically. Sometimes when my day ends it's as though I have been carrying bags of sand or cement; I'm sweating".

In many cases the themes of his work may be at least as painful as their production. "Ecosystem" is a polyptych in five parts, each 130 by 150 cm. It is both massively long and extremely detailed: a piece of art that cannot be grasped at once, for from a distance its detail is imperceptible, and close up it literally cannot be seen from one end to the other. At one end, the long fresco-style work shows Lilliputian figures cycling and strolling down a long backbone of a crocodile skeleton. The skeleton opens its jaws to greet an intricately depicted worm. The sections of the worm are naked black men and women. Tiny, smiling cartoonish bankers in black spats, top-hats and with money-bags stroll down their bodies, several of them branded with logos (Chanel, Louis Vuitton). There is no obvious emotion in the oil painting – no squirming or howling from the enslaved bodies. These are simple facts, the painting seems to say, leaving the strongest emotions to leap from the viewer as (s)he gasps with shock when the small bodies jump into view.

"Ecosystem" was part of the Queloides or "Keloids" exhibitions, an ongoing group project that first arose in Havana in 1997, and which focused on race and the scars created by race in Cuban society. (A keloid scar is a disfiguring and permanent reaction to a wound that is more frequently found among people of African origin).

In another, very early work, "Antropofagia del falalismo geographico" (The Cannibalism of Geographical Fatalism), in 1996 –when Perez was 24 –he depicted, with tremendous care, in oils and in the style of the great academic narrative paintings such as Géricault's "Raft of the Medusa", a black slave tied face-down on a ladder, being whipped. The nearly naked slave closely resembles the painter himself, down to the paintbrushes still gripped in his fist; the African gods Ogun and Shango float alongside him as he, exhausted and bleeding, exhales a bright blue cloud of sweat in the shape of the island of Cuba.

Still, the communication that Perez creates in oils is determinedly narrative and very concerned with his roots; not so much figurative as magical-realist. "I think the narrative aspect of art has been barely sketched out in our visual arts, and that it's very important to intensify that narrativity," he agrees. "I believe that a country like this is rich in anecdotes that express culture and values, and the way we can keep that culture and those values in constant dynamic can very well be through art and paint. Contrast attracts me, and Cuba is a country full of contrasts and contradictions. Stirring through those contradictions, in a way that may sometimes be critical, and sometimes thoughtful, is one reason why I'm interested in making art."

Perez continues, "It's really very difficult in today's world, which is so filled with elements and phenomena and projections from different worlds, to break the barriers of bulimia and boredom they can create. Many people feel that painting is dead, that it belongs to the past, perhaps precisely because of the enormous tradition that carries it. But I don't agree. I think we can still scratch meaning from the language of paint, and that we can create a platform of communication that is so dynamic and rich that no other medium can equal it."

Perez is currently working on a series of urban landscapes he calls "Pictopia", inspired by pulp comics, particularly 1950s science fiction, with its particularly innocent view of scientific progress and its romantic view of the future. His paintings are visions of a future Havana, parodies or triumphalist visions of a flawless super-society on which are superimposed deliberate mistakes – stains and blotches of lurid paint – that suggest the probability of catastrophe or decay.