Lucid Dreams

Lucid Dreams

Entering Christian Curiel: Between Reveries, NXTHVN’s first solo exhibition, is a bit like walking into a very quiet party. Curiel’s colorful, cryptic portraits seem to be looking at you, withholding their stories, even waiting for you to speak. Wander long enough, though, and you’ll begin to pick up fragments of narrative.

Curiel, who lives in New Haven and Miami and teaches at the Yale School of Art, is telling fragments of his own story through his work. The subjects are sometimes people he knows. The settings are his as well—the pennant flags of his father’s auto shop, the pile of discarded furniture and personal items left behind when a trailer park was suddenly sold. But he leaves the sorting out of these “open-ended narratives” to the viewer. “I like to think of myself as a visual poet,” Curiel told an audience at Utah State University in 2018. “I enjoy the world of telling stories; however, it’s almost as if I don’t want the story to end. Visually, my works are open-ended, intentionally left for the viewer to be part of the work’s life.”

sponsored by

The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven

The title Sister Sister (2020), for example, tells us only the relationship of a young woman and a girl in one of the exhibition’s smaller-scale paintings. The girl, wearing a pair of overalls with streaks of brownish blonde hair wisping over her shoulder, is turned away from us. Her arms are draped over the shoulders of the young woman, who turns to look at us as if to say, “Leave us alone” or, “It’s your fault” or, “I don’t know what to do here—help me out.” The middle background glows fiery red. The grass is speckled with tiny flowers, and splotches of pink against a turquoise sky suggest the low branches of a flowering tree. The sisters’ story could take any number of turns.

What we do come to understand is that we’re really standing in the midst of one larger story in Between Reveries, as curated by NXTHVN’s Victoria McCraven and Kalia Brooks. Fragments of a repeated floral block pattern are stamped on many of the paintings, marking them as items in a set. Likewise, many of the figures’ bodies are stamped with tattoos, themselves like stories with repeating images. Flowers, candles, water, clocks all appear and reappear from one painting to the next. The long, black tendrils that drape like vines over and around the figures in Todo Pasa (2018-2021) are echoed in the drooping lines of black pennants in the diptych A Power Couple (2019-2021) and the slender trunk of a tree growing up through a junk pile in King of the Pile (2017).

A magical quality suffuses these portraits, many of which literally sparkle in the light. Several of the figures are haloed. The woman in Todo Pasa stands in the jungle holding a fan that echoes the shape of the moonlike orb behind her head. Some halos are more figurative: a crown of flowers or of spiky sticks reminiscent of a crown of thorns. In this company, even the blue brim of a felt hat reads like a nimbus. The heads of the male figure in Todo Pasa and a solitary woman in Mystique (2018) are suffused in a strange, pale light, with an explosion of color around them like a constellation of thoughts or energy.

In every case, details invite the viewer to step in closer. In the female half of A Power Couple, a barefoot young woman in shorts and a tank top stands with her arms at her sides while behind and around her strings of black and pink pennants drape and fall to the ground. Surrounded by carnival colors, she’s smiling gently. Stick around and you’ll notice numbers sketched onto the background, a penciled mousetrap, grass growing up through the triangles of the grounded pennants. Orange splotches like paint balls and black orbs like cannonballs float around her. And there are words: nothing, here, pinch, Love. Even the wallpaper behind the larger-than-life mixed media portrait is part of the work, a soothing shade of sea glass green with tropical birds, fronds, flowers—and trash: stray plastic bags, crushed cans, discarded masks.

What to make of all this matters less than the feeling of being in the gallery with Curiel’s work. While his Caribbean colors and Latino and Black subjects point to his Cuban heritage, Puerto Rican childhood and coming-of-age in Miami, there’s also a mystical hush that makes this feel more like a gallery of Medieval paintings with deep, rich colors and gilded surfaces, retooled for the 21st century.

The back stories of a man lifting a necklace over his head or a woman half submerged in a dark tropical pool remain obscured, but the painter’s reverence for them shines through in the pathos of their expressions and the shimmer of candles reflected in the water. We seem to be gazing at reflections, too, and they’re mesmerizing.

Christian Curiel: Between Reveries
NXTHVN – 169 Henry St, New Haven (map)
Wed-Sun 2-6pm or by appointment through 11/28
Upcoming Event: Christian Curiel in conversation with Titus Kaphar on 10/28

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Images photographed by Chris Gardner and provided courtesy of NXTHVN. Image 1 features Todo Pasa. Image 3 features King of the Pile.

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