You don't have to pay for art school in Cuba, but your career prospects tend to be limited to an in-country job. When Raúl was given the opportunity to study in Europe, he never looked back, spending seven years in the Netherland mastering his own craft. He studied oil painting in Poland for several years, too, improving and refining his skills in the medium he specialized in for thirty years before getting sick and starting his art anew - with acrylic. Turns out he is highly allergic to oil-based paints. For him, working with them could be deadly. "The difference in painting with oil and painting with acrylics is like racing a Ferrari and a bicycle. With oil you can do subliminal more. Acrylic is like a joke for people you know how to paint," he lamented, explaining that he learned how to use an airbrush to replicate some of the complexities he enjoyed creating with oils.
Now based in Mexico City after spending 27 years in Brooklyn, New York, Raúl is expressing his passion in art renowned for the big statements he makes, working on up to five paintings at once, each speaking volumes about life today. True to his artistic calling, he is a keen observer, watching the comings and goings around him with unbridled interest, studying the sights and passers-by, not with a critical eye, but a painterly one. Raúl went on to explain how we lost our intimacy with life when the Internet was introduced. I couldn't help but compare that thought with his life in Cuba where his painted opinions would be censored and his personal views replaced with impersonal regulations by the local government. The Internet has also taken away those intimate one-on-one possiblities, replacing them with public connections that speed-date through the "getting to know you" process rather than stopping to connect with what or who they see. His work, however, changes that in an instant, compelling people to stop, look and block out the distractions of the world to experience a very real moment in time. Part of the lure is his visual invitation for viewers to literally connect the dots in his paintings. His dots are his alphabet, a pictorial representation of the fact that everything in this world is made out of particles. He created them many years ago to make words, changing them to make outlines of drawings or mark points of emphasis on the composition of his paintings, before making words of them again. Sometimes he substitutes the dots for light bulbs, illuminating his work with a new reality that plays out in many of his exhibitions today. What he was trying to do with those dots when he first started painting them into his works is key to understanding his mission today.
"I was mostly trying to create a way to write text that is not so easy to understand or read at first glimpse. Some people mistake it for braille when they first see it, but then they discover that the dots resemble conventional characters. Before they realize it, they have spent a few mintues trying to figure it all out. And in those moments, they have started to breathe, relax and unwind and they want to read more," he says. "Today, when people visit art shows, they may be looking at one piece of art, but they are thinking about what's coming next. They don't spend the time focusing on what is in front of them in the moment." And that's the point. Raúl's art gives people a reason to focus, to immerse in its beauty and messaging with a renewed sense of wonder and wisdom. To underscore his point, he shared an observation of first-time visitors to the Empire State Building.
"Tourists stand in front of this very historic building yet they don't actually look at it. Instead, they are looking at it through their phones, reading information about it or taking a photo of it to post on Instagram. We've created a new world of digital reproductions and people are spending more time with a headset, seeing things in virtual reality and not in actuality. We are turning to and relying on digital descriptions of the world, which is how we are achieving things in the real world today."
To offset the disconnections from an increasingly isolating world and simultaneously invite people to reconnect someplace real, Raúl chooses to accentuate the positive in his paintings.
"It is very easy to point out problems and make art that is about the bad things in life. I have always had the philosphy that there are equaly amounts of positive and negative things happening all the time. It all depends on which side you want to pay attention to. If you want to live on a turbulent angry side you can choose to be a lawyer. If you want to live a more beautiful life, you might decide to deliver flowers and have everyone greet you with a smile. I prefer to find the beauty in the world and to enrich it through my art. There is no better contribution to the world than what Picasso and the Cubists did, for example. Why? Because what they did with art, the red triangles, yellow squares and blue circles, found their way into every aspect of life, from cultural icons to architecture and fasion. It influenced so much and everything wanted to look like that. That is what art can really achieve."
Which is why Raúl is inspired to create beauty in his work, combining images with words to reward the viewer with a renewed sense of time and place.
"The phrases are random thoughts I put into words and they become like verses on top of my paintings," he explained.
We see them as poetry of the heart that manifests into art so we asked Raúl which comes first: the image or some words.
"Sometimes the words are first, sometimes it's the image and sometimes both things come to me at the same time. Many times, I just want to paint something, whatever comes to my mind. I may hear something in a song or see something that catches my attention. It's not a pre-fixed process," he answered.
Wherever and whenever inspiration hits, Raúl's ideas come from whatever he is going through at the moment. Like everyone else, he is distracted by the sights and sounds that bombard him all the time, every day. But he not only paints with a dedicated focus that belies the diverse, fast-paced technologies that rule our attention, he puts it into play in his art.
As with art in general, different people see different things in his work and because of that, his work is never really completed when someone buys it.
"People who buy my work put their experience into it, enriching it with their own vision. I am very glad when someone leaves with a painting I made because they are going to see so many things in time in the same piece. Painting is something that goes deep and then deeper. As artists, we through this obsessive relationship with our work that includes days and days of changing something. Then when we think it is finished, the buyer brings it home and continues to find other things. It really becomes a different painting every day."
"Every single painting reminds me of what I lived through when I was making it. My work today reflects the realities we live with today, a mixture of the actual physical and the digital."
While you can find Raúl's work hanging in the champagne-tier of art galleries, like Richard Taittinger Gallery at 154 Ludlow Street in New York City, visitors and residents of Manhatten ahd the unique opportunity to take a time out in Times Square this spring and become part of Cordero's showstopping exhibition, The Poem, "an unexpected oasis - a 20-foot high tower covered in a cascade of mountain laurel that hosted an illuminated poem inside."
"I played with the architecture and the energy of Times Square to invite people inside to find respite from the non-stop hustle and bustle of their surroundings. It's difficult to create meaningful art in an era with their attention is scattered across so many mediums and technologies simultaneously. The Poem seeks to stop time, reminding us to listen to the "secret dialogue of the trees' and read a poem, even while standing in the center of Times Square.
If you think back to a popular childhood game, you may remember how excited, surprised and delighted you were when you "connected the dots" to reveal an artistic vision that didn't come into view until you took the time to closely interact with it. Such is the beauty of Raúl Cordero's art. Purposefully blurred to hint at the reality that lays just inside and layred with dots that spell out a secret message, his paintings remind us not to race through time to see what's next but to revel in the magic of the moment because what it reveals is ultimately the greatest reward of all.