Hector Frank’s portraits are as colorful as the Havana you can see when searching Google images. Presumably, they embody the spirit of Hector’s real Havana (to which I’ve never traveled), the vibrant but politically tumultuous city he grew up in.
“The color is natural in me,” Hector explained when I spoke to him a week after his opening at the Bryant Toth Fine Art show at Gallery 151 in Chelsea. Part of an exhibition that stemmed from the American Bryant’s love for Cuba and Cuban artists, whose work has been so difficult to traverse US borders for so long, Hector’s work reveals a compassion for the people of his country and their indomitable collective spirit, one that he certainly shares.
As an artist in Cuba during Communist party rule, Hector faced many problems. “You don’t have materials, you don’t have many other things,” he said.* “But it’s okay for your brain. You need problems for your brain to keep working, for inspiration. And my country has many, many problems. The people are happy…but they have nothing. There is never a complete solution for your problem, never. But for me the best is just going through and following your own path.”
Born in 1961 in Havana, Hector followed his path when he left his electrical engineering career to become a full-time artist. He at once seems to take the craft very seriously and with extreme lightness.
The lightness shows through his lack of self-critique. When asked if he has a favorite work in the Bryant Toth show, Hector replied, “All my favorite.” He starts creating one portrait, and when it gains the “energy” he desires, he’s finished. Maybe it’s the language barrier between us (Hector speaks Spanish better than English), but this strikes me as a less than heavy approach to artistic creation.
The seriousness comes through in his clear dedication. “I put my heart in this, and my time, and my brain. Look at this,” Hector held out his dry, possibly paint-covered (or maybe just very dry) hands. “This is my brain…my idea, my composition when finished comes out in this, my broken skin.” He described fighting an internal battle with himself as he creates each new piece of art “alone in my studio in the middle of the night…[I] work all night long, it is fantastico. No wife, no children, nothing…”
His portraits clearly look like they’ve been labored over, with love. Besides the bright, hectic but cohesive color palettes and the aspects of collage, Hector’s signature lies in his simplicity. He depicts faces with a few, judicious lines, some more defined than others, where a few drips of paint manifest a nose. The eyes are bright, the expressions varied. Several of his subjects (“no specific people”) wear headphones. Hector sees this as a commentary on information control, that people increasingly rely on media constantly fed through personal aural devices, and on personal isolation.
“Ten more years, and you’ll have a chip inside,” he tapped the side of his head. “People are very important for me, and in this life, people take more distance.” He noted that a common goal, once a person acquires capital, is to move away from others and create more and more space between themselves and their fellow humans, and this distance creates more problems. This is why people wear headphones, he said, “so people get away.”
While Hector uses painting as an opportunity to get away, spending long hours by himself in his studio, it is clearly in celebration of people, the joyous ones that he paints, collages, and even cuts out of wood. His dedication translates to his advice for aspiring artists. “Cuando vas a pintar como artista, tu no peudes pensar que nada mas [When you go to paint like an artist, you cannot think about anything else]. Not on money, not on nothing, only your work,” he said. “Yo quiero pintar porque necessito pintar [I want to paint because I need to paint]. If you spend a lot of time in your studio, you are going to be an artist…most important, be sincere. Don’t paint for others—paint for yourself and it will be for everyone.”
After our interview, Bryant, who had shown up midway through, went across the room and with a flourish, placed a little, red circle sticker on one of the painting’s placards to show Hector it had been sold. The latter leaned in and told me it was to go to one of the actors in “Game of Thrones.” He then went over to Bryant (who is tall and skinny), picked him up, and spun him around on his shoulders.
Before I left, Hector insisted I visit Cuba because everyone there is friendly and there are wonderful museums and art. He has two sons, one of whom is an artist, and they both speak English “very well.”
For more information about Bryant Toth Fine Art and Hector Frank, visit this website.