It is telling that Prieto's whole 2009 series of 47 "Dumb Drawings with Montblanc Ink"—doodles on note paper—was immediately bought by a leading Spanish gallery, confirming the works' comment on fetishistic value. (Just scribblings, but using a Montblanc pen!) If I were to distill "Prieto's way" in a single formula, it would be: sharp idea + simple artifact = maximum meaning. However, as with Meireles and Orozco, a visual sensibility is usually evident.
Latin American artists are known for some of the more superminimal works in art history: the most compact and concentrated in significance. This vein began at an extreme with Meireles's Southern Cross (1969-70), a half-inch wooden cube displayed alone on the floor of an empty museum. The contrast between the minuscule, precarious object and the museum's grandeur and legitimating power established a theme that was taken up by Orozco and Prieto. Southern Cross refers to Brazilian indigenous mythology (the wood he used is considered sacred to the Tupi people), relating this artwork to the vernacular and making it perhaps a reductive conclusion to the exploration of cultural tradition so crucial for modern art in Latin America. Orozco and Prieto, instead, often strip such references from their work and employ banal objects to create open visual metaphors. Except in certain early pieces and although his art frequently emanates from everyday experiences, Prieto usually does not depend on Cuban tradition but focuses on "universal" concepts.
The marriage of simplicity and deep content that we find in Prieto's oeuvre is characteristic of today's Cuban art, which likewise tends toward an international perspective. For Prieto, the inclination to social and political criticism-a trademark in Cuban art since the mid-1980s-persists through the 2000s. Take, for example, Speech (1999), consisting of rolls of toilet paper made out of Cuba's leading official newspaper, or Apolitical (2001), Prieto's best known work: flags of all countries rendered in grayscale and set on flagpoles. Apolitical might be seen as a critique of nationalism as well as a utopian statement about a world free of political divisions. It has an indirect precedent in Gonzalez-Torres's Untitled (Passport), 1991, which consists of a pile of blank sheets of paper.
Yet Prieto conveys more than the political. Speech refers to the recycling of newspapers as toilet paper in Cuba (because of the scarcity of the latter), at the same time that it humorously suggests the fast obsolescence of news (yesterday's newspaper is worth nothing) and its intimate role in readers' lives. In Untitled (The World), 2002, another superminimal work, Prieto painted a world map on a chickpea, creating a poetic, philosophical image that alludes to the humble place our planet occupies in the cosmos. However, chickpeas also have been a staple of the Cuban diet for decades. Although they provide vital nutrition, people are sick and tired of them. Furthermore, dependence on imported chickpeas indicates the failure of Cuban agriculture to provide basic sustenance. Thus the work's "universal" metaphor is grounded in the multiple, often conflicting implications of its material, which are largely lost on international audiences.
Prieto plays with the classic Conceptualist attraction to tautological statements. He may, for instance, illustrate an old saying in a literal way, as in Time Is Gold (2007)—a gold watch hanging from the ceiling. If at first a piece like this could be seen as a mere joke, it ultimately prompts thoughts about the changing relation between "words and things," as Michel Foucault would have it. In Bread with Bread (2011)—a sandwich made of a roll between two halves of another roll-vernacular reference operates again: the phrase "bread with bread" in Spain (Prieto lived in Barcelona for some years) refers to lesbian sex.
A linguistic spirit permeates the artist's output. However, this interest in language never materializes into actual texts, apart from his titles. Prieto embeds language into "reality" by making objects that complicate representation, while avoiding any suggestion of a world beyond language's loaded mediation. Following Ludwig Wittgenstein, we could go further and say that the artist shows the directly referential relation between language and reality. He also explores the verisimilitude of visual language, such as using tempera paint to make an actual tree's green mangoes appear mature in the piece Op Art (1999).