“Rafael had a hard time sleeping last night. He kept dreaming of African pygmy people,” says Justin Favela, co-curator (with Jesse Carson Smigel) of Rafael Espino: El Internacional, now showing at Rhizome Gallery at Emergency Arts. Favela is translating Espino’s remarks for an eager group of onlookers, who burst into laughter while the artist smiles modestly.
Born in 1928 in Cuba, Espino fought in the Cuban Revolution against Castro, an event that landed him in prison for 22 years. While imprisoned, he learned the art of engraving and became an expert blacksmith. His masterfully engraved objects were shipped around the world, thus earning him the name “El Internacional del Grabado (International Engraver).” In 1993, he came to Las Vegas as a refugee and began sculpting pieces for churches and Santeria altars.
Espino’s lack of formal training allows the artist to form exactly what he imagines using Styrofoam, plaster and paint, completely free of the limitations imposed by fine art. His figures are larger than life and lean somewhat imposingly over the viewer in the 150-square-foot Rhizome space. The Pelé-esque figure challenges you to a friendly game of soccer, while the nude male and female gaze intensely at each other, causing viewers to hesitate to walk through the space. And if you peek around the corner, you’ll find the cute white cat Espino made to keep his real cat company.
With his first solo art opening under his belt, who knows where Espino’s dreams will lead him next?
Rafael Espino: El Internacional, Through Sept. 11 at Rhizome Gallery, 520 Fremont St. (in Emergency Arts), 702-907-7526, RhizomeGallery.com.