Coffee medium, memories of Cuba shape artist’s paintings

By Donald Miller

Some artists work their whole lives without being truly inspired. Others find their medium of expression through an accident.

So it is with Cuban artist Reynier Llanes, who has been exploring an unusual medium since before leaving Naples for Charleston, S.C., three years ago.

There, under the aegis of former Neapolitans —the renowned artist Jonathan Green and his art collector partner, Richard Weed man— Llanes has perfected his favored medium: watercolors consisting of light-to-dark washes made from his mother’s Cuban espresso coffee. He discovered this medium by accidentally spilling coffee on a drawing and appreciating its effects in his compositions.

Of course, the ancient Romans used sepia made from the common cuttlefish’s ink sac.Leonardo da Vinci wrote his notes in this ink. And brown-toned prints on paper and then photographs were popular in the 19th century and later before the advent of commercial color. But, simply put, Llanes’ accident has inspired him, and what was old seems fresh again in hishands.

While living in Naples, Llanes, now 27, used rich colors, but now he is showing 26 recent brown-toned watercolors on white archival paper in white frames at the Naples Depot Museumthrough April 25. The exhibition is part of Collier County Museum’s yearlong “Viva Florida 500” celebrating the Sunshine State’s 500-year history.

But what a difference three years has made since Llanes left here as a fairly conventional realist. His newer work, among 24 images in the show, is both realistic as well as what Llanes calls magic realism, which is popular in Cuba. It reminds me of neo-surrealism: meaning fantastic ideas that go beyond literal interpretation, arising from the ghost of 1940s surrealism in 1980s New York.

Llanes often lets his imagination soar with memories and new interpretations of Cuba, where he recently visited after five years away. He has gained a new visual vocabulary that goes beyond the simple act of using coffee-colored washes.

In “Returning Home” a young man, presumably the artist, imagines a young nude woman,perhaps his girlfriend, clinging to the neck of a colorful giant rooster that might be a stand-in for himself and his thoughts of her. He has an important love interest in Charleston, he said,adding, “I try to depict a feeling of the moment. The subject matter is inspired by my culture. I want to educate people to my work.”

The rooster appears again in “Awakening Monument” and “The King of the Farm” with a splash of color in his plumage, recalling Llanes’ rich colors from his time in Naples.

Those familiar with the plight of Cubans who are unable to leave their island by water will detectthe significance of “The Day I Decided to Go Fishing,” in which a large folded paper boat sitsastride the roof of a very old automobile. This fantasy reminds me, having learned the significance of paper boats from an exhibition of Cuban art at the von Liebig Art Center a few seasons ago, of a popular metaphor for the difficulty in escaping the island by water. This painting juxtaposes the irony of a fishing excursion with the reality of near-imprisonment.

More obscure, but clearly related to Llanes’ impressions of Cuba, are paintings in which a large number of Cuban houses are being forced into a pot that cannot hold them. It is clearly relatedto “Roof Top,” in which people converse while sitting in a pot, a rooster standing on its handle and all resting on top of a house. Another painting, “Next Station,” depicts an old train emergingfrom the open toe of a worn high-top boot, presumably another Cuban reference.

Llanes’ paintings from Richard Weedman’s collection include a 2010 portrait of a large-eyed young man, Llanes, smelling a Cuban cigar, reminding him of his former home. It parallels2013’s “Immersed in Passion,” in which he relaxes in a wide-brimmed straw hat with a cigar in his mouth.

Weedman, who attended Llanes’ opening at the Depot Museum, said the artist works threedays a week for Green and him, has been very helpful tracking and maintaining JonathanGreen’s production records as well as overseeing computer operations.

“They are helping me with my income,” the artist said appreciatively. This allows time for him tocreate his stunning images, coffee-colored and not.

Art critic Donald Miller lives in Naples. Reach him at