In El Bicho: 2008/2009, Cuban painter Tomás Esson takes a detour around the well-behaved superego and instead drives straight for the pulsing flesh of the id. The Hammonds House Museum exhibition comprises 60 of the artist's sexiest, nastiest, most sublime works in an orgiastic feast surveying Esson's creative output over the last 20 years.
A personal menagerie of half-human beasts and beings with confused and confusing bodies populate Esson's large oil paintings. Rear ends substitute for breasts and a phallicized finger spits something aggressive and poisonous. In the show's title work, a creature hunches over, looking more frightened than frightening. Like writhing internal spirits, elemental human parts cover its flesh, the organs disembodied yet entirely connected in a bright network of riotous cacophony.
The smaller works – many on paper – constitute a constellation of vaginas, anuses, mouths, breasts and penises that combine in frenzied, abstract outbursts of color and line. And contrary to contemporary art's often clinical approach to the body, Esson's work is always wet. Fluids spew and leak everywhere, the body unable to contain its vital stuff. Throughout the show, Esson's tone is far more celebratory than foreboding. He makes it clear that the body, mutable as it may be, is ultimately the conduit to a kind of metaphysical liberation reflected in the free, improvisational application of paint. Like British painters Cecily Brown and Jenny Saville, Esson attacks his subjects with the gusto of a shaman in orgasm, a crazed nymphomaniac speaking directly to God.
El Bicho makes for a dramatic response to a recent solo show by Esson's friend and compatriot Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons. While Campos-Pons' Spelman survey was all spirit and longing, El Bicho is all body and immediate gratification. Depicting what Esson calls the "most important masculine and feminine attributes," the artist posits humanity as reduced to the driving impulses that issue from between the legs; he finds that those are the elements that make us most human. With his gorgeously raw brushwork, Esson reminds us that we're only so much reconfigurable meat. But in those reconfigurations lie every dream of freedom, every spark of life.