César Trasobares: Social Fabric
Old Pillows and Recent Money Works

"No eres gringo si tu sabes el lingo."


It's Miami in the doldrums of the mid nineteen-nineties, true. But still, what would cause a man to heap dozens of directors chairs huggermugger at the very entrance of the Center for Fine Arts—Miami Art Museum's predecessor as home of the city's cultural poohbahs—chintzy things stenciled with undisguised bad taste; with blasphemies, in fact: "Board and Community Schmoozer," one reads, "Shifter of Paradigms, isms, etc." says another, and, not to put too fine a point on the offense of it all, "Big-Dick Lawyer" teeters brazenly at the very top. By what sneaky contrivance was this man allowed to pull such a boner in the local art world's sanctum sanctorum; scratching his ass, as it were, in the very faces of his betters?

You could explain it by saying that even though he'd been invited, César Trasobares was at bottom callow and a malcontent and not properly grateful for such favors, not to mention the smidgeon of authority passed down to him by the very power structure he was now razzing. For awhile the director of the county's public arts program, long a willing functionary in the machinery of the arts bureaucracy, as helpful a fellow as ever there was, as an artist Trasobares got too unzipped by far.

It turns out he'd been this woolly before, once slapping some of the most wizened, most long-suffering faces of the Cuban exile community—his own people, the very bosom—with gauche parodies of the Quinceañera, that much beloved, almost sacred rite of "coming out" (which in those days referred strictly to bluppy teenage girls in tiaras, sequined gowns, and gloves).

But if you bothered to look unskeptically down the almost three decades of Trasobares's career and art, if you gave yourself over to the vulgar charm of his shredded money sculptures or his embroidered pillows with their droll, fractured take on Miami's absurd, often entirely dissociative way of looking at things, you might conclude that César the stout fellow and César the troublemaker are pretty much up to the same thing.

He is an exile, after all, a man juggling two languages and, as he likes to put it, someone who is "far from the temple;" for whom aphorism holds tantalizing mysteries and zany paradoxes, quirks that many of us may have forgotten like we forget the peculiar slants of our own faces as we behold them in the mirror day after day. The enigmas, the puzzlements tend to be more noticeable in crisis and siege times, which may describe the atmosphere in Miami for all of recent memory, heightened only a little, really, during the Elián Gonzalez fiasco; and in the course of his persistent unriddlings Trasobares has come upon essential ways that language reflects our grasp of the world—or our estrangement from it—one of the most important being that language has a public face and a private one.

A once and future factotum himself, he knows well that public pronouncements come from above, in commanding and officious tones, however insensible. That the cliches and euphemisms that pour daily through the newsholes of the world only sound true. That when it comes down to it, the bromides that whisper to us across the years, even with the voice of some known, cuddlesome ancestor, are never quite up to the job of dealing with actual pain and loss.

What we say in private, on the other hand, is rough trade to public language's scrubbed, creamy face. At their best, our comradely exchanges are ripe and real, thoroughly full of themselves where what we say in polite company almost invariably suffers the embarrassment of meaning something else. The goosey talk of the playground, the chummy, conspiratorial air of the breakroom, thoughts that we unkindly entertain and largely keep to ourselves.

It has been Trasobares's unwelcome talent—and his great personal satisfaction—to romp through the placid waters of civic life by saying aloud what most of us gasp in alarm to hear. In Miami, just to contemplate, hardly moving one's lips, in the most guarded moment of one's daintiest privacies, "Fidel y Mas Canosa son la misma cosa," let alone to fastidiously embroider the phrase in gothic-industrial script on an heirloom-like cushion, would be criminal in the eyes of some citizens, if not insane. Yet Trasobares—not insane, Your Honor, and not guilty, either—has taken pains to memorialize these very words, muttered by some geezer in some cafeteria fastness in the heart of Miami's Little Havana. Perhaps it was Versailles.

The artist himself may or may not believe that Fidel and Mas Canosa are the same thing, but he certainly thinks it's worth reporting, as redolent of the moment as a stinking piece of pickled herring. He does that sometimes, becomes a kind of coat-hanger antenna and crystal radio set for the little ironies, outrages, and inadvertent wisdom that waft his way. Or perhaps it would be more appropriate to compare him to a gypsy crone channeling the wailing shades that inhabit the Beyond, since what he does with this news is to painstakingly commit it to the fabric of colorful, fetching cushions and decorative pillows that look exactly, except for their bizarre messages, like old-fashioned, homespun sampler-work.

The phrases are not always as incendiary as the one that puts the dictator cheek to jowl with the exile firebrand; in fact, they rarely are. But they are frequently as hot as a two-dollar pistol. Originally Trasobares intended his pillows as critiques of the celebrity drift of the art world in the 1980s and 90s. His first attempts, like Eight Pointed Star, from 1991, were boxey and somewhat lumpy affairs owing to their stuffing of shredded art criticism. But, Trasobares says, apart from an overall conceptual poke at the gassiness and hobnobbery that were dominating art world popular discourse, he was more concerned with achieving formal harmony as he quilted together magazine pages and fabrics of varying colors and textures.

A pillow-maker's progress is a tedious thing, to put it mildly, allowing vast stretches of time to minutely consider art world slights, neglect, miscalculations, bad reviews, actual bruisings, and so forth, and the more Trasobares practiced his craft, the merrier—which is to say, the more critical and rococo—his ideas and methods became. As you can see, several of the pillows, like No Se lnsulte, Pregunto Por Saber (1994), are backed by a shiny, moiré-pattern material, of the sort that abounds in traditional Cuban bourgeois households. The velvet, brocade, and tassels approach to Spinning Artmag, from 1992, produced an old auntie appointment farcically detailed with art gallery listings around a Barbara-Krugeresque central design of white lettering on red.

After a few stabs at quilting, the fragility of his chosen materials began to show and Trasobares turned to reproducing pages and patterns as digital transfers on cloth, while embracing ever denser and more arcane texts for an increasing assortment of reasons. The melancholy testament that decorates Glass People (1992-93) is one of the last Writings by the late New York artist David Wojnarowicz, who Trasobares deeply admired. On the other hand, Multi-Culural Cushion (1993)—as slick and loud as a polyester suit in front, bachelor-pad zebra pattern behind—has a fragmented transcription of the celebrated, hilarious John Gotti FBI tapes, a riff on the art star as cheap-suit, self-deluded mobster.

It was when he began to embroider, that grandmotherly pastime, a tradition as hoary and quaint—and, by implication, as useless, art-historically speaking—as keeping too many cats, that Trasobares's critical thinking and refined, if eclectic, tastes blossomed, in a profusion of social commentary, comedic wordplay, interpersonal needling, and generational pep-talk. In such pieces as N.I.M.B.Y. (1992), Surrender and Compromise (1992-93), Subversity, Perversity (1993), Cuadro de subasta (1993-94), Show or Die (1994), and the glorious, let's-poke-theold-dog-with-a-sharp-stick Fidel y Mas Canosa son la misma cosa (1993), the artist gives ample vent to impulses high and low, and new shades of meaning to the term "colorful."

N.I.M.B.Y. is an acronym for "Not in my backyard"—a provincial sentiment not peculiar to Miami, perhaps, but certainly indicative of the city's more than occasional outbursts of civic peevishness—and it's the malign echo of the syrupy "Home sweet home" that a colonnaded manse by a green stretch of lawn would ordinarily signify. Likewise, you needn't gaze too long into the strange and jolly wooziness of Subversity, Perversity to be reminded that grown men and women once marched in Dade County brandishing signs that read "It's not diversity, it's perversity," a response to the county's human rights ordinance that was no less heartfelt for being mean-spirited and obtuse.

But to dwell on Trasobares's feel for the plasticity of language is to slight both the solid workmanship of his homely artifacts and their roots deep in the history of contemporary art. One sees the mysteriously coded gridworks of Joaquín Torres García in the glad and gaudy Cuadro de subasta, and an appreciation for Bruce Nauman in Show or Die, where the electricity of overlaid reds and greens cannily replicates the fluorescence of actual lighting. Even the redoubtable ghost of prodigious folk art huckster Howard Finster—who plastered everything at hand, even his telephone, with obssessive doodling and Christianflavored ejaculations like "Call Heaven!" and "Get in Touch with Jesus!"—hovers in the enthusiastic overdoing it with which Trasobares places colors side by side.

If these pillows from the early and mid-90s merrily partake of one kind of American folk tradition—giving it, as we used to say, a good old country goose—Trasobares's recent work, money sculptures as perky as chia pets though considerably more dangerous-looking, makes rowdy use of another. The money pieces are based on the prevalent habit people have of marking dollar bills, as a dog would mark a doorway, and passing them along. This popular vandalism actually has countless strands and permutations: dollar bills as chain letters, as handbills for sloganeering, as pickup notes and suicide notes; as a canvas for painting and a page for diary entries, poetry and sentiments both lofty and flea-bitten.

Just as language is the currency of official ideology, money talks, and Trasobares avails himself of its fluency. His collection of altered bills is impressive, and he has made numerous doodlings, paint jobs and origami himself. He also wrote a chronology of his love affair with money that begins in Cuba when he is eight years old and stashing silver dollars in a cigar box, dreaming of life in the USA.

Over the years he has undertaken many small money projects, but it is in his profligate shredding of money and reassembling the scraps into sculptures that Trasobares waxes most subversive. Money is capitalism's bricks and girders, its blood and sinew, and, moreover, only the government is supposed to control its circulation. Yet here he is, a government unto himself, taking the stuff out of circulation when he pleases and then returning it, but in a currency of his own choosing, that stuff of dubious value, art. It's breathtaking, like hearing what's best left unsaid. And the works he fashions from the ravages are as various and disquieting as those pillows, whose comforts are scant indeed. There is a body of faux desert foliage in shot glasses, as spiky as medieval maces or abundantly hairy like ciliaed sea life.

He has a series of coral and money pieces which he calls SoBe Bonsai, and numerous others: puppet men tatooed with pyramids and American eagles, with penises as anatomically correct as parchment will allow; a slithering cobra on a stick; a bra fit for a doll-size Wagnerian opera.

Such restless intelligence, so much arcane knowledge sopped up from whatever life and learning's cast his way, and you have to factor in temperament, the forbearance of a bohemian dwelling many years among clods: the thing that would cause a man to heap up chairs in the lobby of an art museum is that what he's heaping up is words, spelling things out; and embellishing pillows like a nineteenth century spinster gives a man time to think just how to really put what he's been mulling over his whole life; and if you tear up enough dollar bills, you can tell the Devil himself to go on back to Hell.

Joel Weinstein,
Social Fabric: Old Pillows and Recent Money Works catalog, pages 5-12