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These Surreal Paintings Should Make You Worry About the Earth

Cuban-American artist Juan Travieso brings his Pop-meets-surrealist paintings to New York's Jenn Singer Gallery.

With Cuban-American relations opening up, the time has never been more ripe for artistic cross-pollination. With four museum shows, a clothing collection, and a solid following of art collectors, 28-year-old Miami-based Cuban painter Juan Travieso plants his roots deeply into the American art scene, and the results marry Pop art with surrealism and environmentalism. Travieso now has a solo show at New York's Jenn Singer GalleryLittle Robot [Future Loading]. In these new paintings, he “deftly uses his passion for color as a prolific language to jolt us into facing one possible path of our shared uncertain future: a world so distracted by technology that humans have mindlessly pushed virtually all animals into eternal extinction, forever changing our earth.”

This focus on environmental issues is typical of his work: Travieso has an ongoing series of paintings of endangered birds, made in the hope that the sheer number of paintings will effectively communicate the great loss. Drawing on his experiences of nature and childhood, he says in his online biography, “what were before abstractions interacting with disappearing animals, are now figures of disappearing and transforming ideologies and culture.”

Blood Ivory, 2015. Oil and acrylic on canvas. 36 × 36 in (91.4 × 91.4 cm)

The exhibit, in particular, revolves around a painting of a little boy, the so-called Little Robot, “a futuristic representation of an innocent and hopeful child... looking at dioramas of species long lost.” According to the official press release, the paintings explore the “impermanence and decay of nature... To visually capture the fragility of these endangered animals, Travieso combines pop, realism, and abstraction, leaving his figures broken-up into spaces and forms like 3D models.”

The Creators Project spoke to Juan Travieso about immigration, imagination, and the artistic process:

Eastern Predator, 2015. Acrylic and Gouache on Paper. 17 × 14 in (43.2 × 35.6 cm)

The Creators Project: Your work incorporates a lot of environmental themes. Are you involved with anything concerning these issues outside of your art? What sparked your interest in this?

Juan Travieso: World Wildlife Fund is an important cause for me—not only am I a supporter of their organization, but I incorporate animals from their list of endangered species into my paintings.

I’m an activist at heart and want to be aware of and research as many environmental issues and concerns threatening our future as possible. My natural curiosity sparks hours of study and interviews with fellow environmentalists, which leads to the foundation and creation of each of my paintings.

Endangered Bird #157, 2015. Acrylic & ink on yupo. 10 × 10 in (25.4 × 25.4 cm)

Can you speak about the mix of super-modern Pop art style with natural animal imagery in your work?

The juxtaposition of my geometric shapes with realism is inspired by my desire to showcase the distinction between the natural world and the man-made.

Grey Wolf, 2015. Micron on paper. 14 × 11 in (35.6 × 27.9 cm)

I read that your appreciation for color stemmed partly from growing up in Cuba when art supplies were limited. How else has your upbringing influenced the images in your work?

In Cuba, a communist society, everything is censored and you have to be careful of what you say to protect yourself. Your very existence is threatened just for expressing your truth—for being who you are. My compassion for endangered animals stems from this. Imagine roaming a forest and being slaughtered for just existing in your natural habitat. Being eliminated because of what you are. The Cuban people, under communist control, are in the same boat as these animals—powerless, silenced and literally starving.

My Cuban upbringing was very modest and it helped me appreciate every bit of what I did have. When I came to the US and had more options at my disposal, whether it was art materials or access to information and resources, I was desperate to draw and paint as much as I could. I don’t just want to paint one species; I want to paint ALL the species that are endangered to raise awareness and give my audience access to my passion of promoting this global issue of endangerment, whether political or natural, which threatens our very existence.

Endangered Bird #135a, 2015. Mixed Media. 10 × 10 in (25.4 × 25.4 cm)

Did your work change when you moved to the US? In other words, how did the immigration experience impact your work (if it did)?

I moved here when I was 10 years old, so I didn’t technically have work yet. However, I was drawing cartoons back then based on the 30 minutes a day Cuban TV aired Russian, Polish and Cuban cartoons that were available to watch. When you first immigrate to a country where you don’t speak or understand the language, you feel like you’re further silenced and from another world. But suddenly, I had access to all this material to work with, which encouraged me to draw more, and led to me becoming an artist. I was obsessed with libraries—we didn’t have all of the books and encyclopedias US libraries have. I was able to read and learn so much after arriving here, taking in information at a rapid pace. I couldn’t get enough and it fed my desire to create.  

The Little Robot, 2015. Acrylic on Panel. 18 × 18 in (45.7 × 45.7 cm)

So much of your work is concerned with animal preservation. Would you say you prefer nature to man?

We are nature. Man cannot continue to exist without preserving & protecting it. Humans have been conditioned to believe that it’s us against nature, and that we need to fight it. But we are fighting against ourselves. We’re destroying our earth and it will eventually destroy us if we don’t take care of it.

See more of Travieso’s paintings below:

Endangered Bird #116a, 2015. Mixed Media. 10 × 10 in (25.4 × 25.4 cm)

Swan Songs, 2014. Acrylic on 16 panels. 40 × 40 in (101.6 × 101.6 cm)

Expiring #1, 2015. Acrylic on panel. 30 × 24 in (76.2 × 61 cm)

Endangered Bird #138a, 2015. Mixed Media. 10 × 10 in (25.4 × 25.4 cm)

Little Robot [Future Loading] is on view at the Jenn Singer Gallery (72 Irving Place) from October 14-November 11.

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