This exhibition of figurative drawings, sculptures and a mural is the impressive U.S. debut of Cuban artist Tonel. Well known in his homeland, Tonel, born Antonio Eligio Fernández, began his career as a graphic designer. He made a name for himself in the 1970s with acerbic and satiric drawings that appeared in a bi-weekly humor magazine, Dedeté. This bit of biography is important to keep in mind since the unifying element here, tying all of the disparate works together, is Tonel's distinctive drawing style; it permeates every piece, including the sculptures.
A group of crisp and pithy line drawings on paper deals with themes of sex, death and human relationships. He pokes fun at Latin machismo and male aggression in general; one of his most poignant, and by now most famous images shows a boxer whose erect penis, poking though the fly of his boxing shorts, looks like a diminutive arm and fist.
Wooden arms and fists are also found protruding from orifices in the sculptures. Some of these dramatic works, all made of cutout pieces of thick plywood outlined in black, are wall reliefs, and others appear as unusual pieces of furniture. While often monumental in scale, these self-portraits are far from self-aggrandizing.
Infused with a disarming, self-deprecating humor, Tonel's vision and voice couldn't have arrived at a better moment. His wit and sense of cautious optimism are more than welcome in the U.S., where, in recent months at least, a feeling of political and cultural malaise seems to have dampened the spirits of many.
"Tonel: Lessons of Solitude," organized by Scott Watson and Eugenio Valdés Figueroa, Jan. 27-Mar. 31, 2001, at Art in General, 79 Walker Street, New York, N.Y. 10013.