Catalog essay for Shauna Fahley and Ernesto Gutiérrez Moya

To accompany the exhibition "The thing which is not: two artists, two poems," at Emerson Dorsch Feb 18 - Mar 23, 2024

February 14, 2024

By Tyler Emerson-Dorsch

Horses, earth, fire, wind and water


Included here is a deeper look into the resonances of Shauna Fahley and Ernesto Gutiérrez Moya’s works in the exhibition The thing which is not: two artists, two poems. The author has chosen to share some of the extraneous lines of research along with the most relevant, under the assumption that sometimes the longer journey has its own pleasures and insights.


From the exhibition statement and biographies, it is established that Ernesto Gutiérrez Moya grew up, attended art school and taught painting in Havana, Cuba. He immigrated to South Florida seven years ago. His paintings respond to and riff on architectural spaces. Shauna Fahley grew up in Western Washington state, where she rode horses, first in the Western Pleasure style and then Dressage. She pursued expertise in hand built ceramic sculptures, building credentials at some of the best programs for ceramics in the United States. She lives in Brooklyn. Her work focuses on honoring Equus caballus.


Ernesto Gutiérrez Moya and Shauna Fahley engage in structural disruptions that provoke questions about the tension between being and being governed, between outside power and inner strength.

Moya’s Garden series depicts landscapes whose contrived pleasures have gone to seed. They verge on post-apocalyptic, and maybe they are.

Ernesto Gutiérrez Moya

Frames, Follies and Reflections

Baroque style picture frames are characterized by deep-relief carving of organic forms, especially leaves. In one of Ernesto Gutierrez Moya’s oil paintings, called Secret Garden (2023), he represents a bas-relief panel, perhaps carved from cement. The scene within is a forest’s understory whose tendrils curl around a fountain. Its base has the shape of a bird bath. Its waters bubble up into stalagmites. The whole scene, since it is a painting of a cement bas-relief, is eerie, frozen and still.

These baroque stylistic details place Moya’s paintings in the company of dramatic and ornate 17th century architecture, perhaps not surprising since he came from a city whose built environment bears the imprint of four centuries of continuous Spanish colonial rule. Allusions to other architectural possibilities emerge, as if in visions and meditations, in the form of shapeshifting fountains. Moya’s paintings are adjacent – in distant memory or imagination – to the colonnades, baroque embellishments and grand arches of Havana’s colonial architecture.
He writes about his fascination with Giorgio de Chirico’s empty plazas, where, Moya imagines, he might find some of the fountains which so fascinate him. His most recent series of paintings are studies of fountains he encountered or imagined during his travels from Cuba, to Florida, Los Angeles, Vermont and Spain. Buildings in one place imitate a style from another time and place in dizzying vectors. His spaces – around the fountains, in gardens – can be dynamic, or arrested in time, or literally on fire – pero, no hay nadie. There’s no one there.

Many buildings and markers in Cuba are copies of architecture in the seat of power, or they justify power by copying powerful symbols of power, like the Roman Empire. One of the newer buildings in Havana’s Plaza de Armas, El Templete, is a 19th century imitation of a Greek temple. There is an aspect of simulacra in the architectural milieu that Moya evokes. Miami, where he moved seven years ago, often copies Cuba’s architecture. [i] He visited Spain last year, a voyage that took him the farthest back in time, but after Cuba (his first home) and then the United States (his second).

Let’s return to Secret Garden, Moya’s representation of a concrete relief of a garden folly. The cement rendering freezes the water’s motion. It is such a nondescript scene that I wonder if an artist who would have made this relief would capture the water in this way. Or is Moya playing with his ability to represent a thing inside of a thing?

Garden follies were hallmarks of 18th century garden design, a trend toward imitating a ruin in (a created) place. They are an early example of kitsch. Representations of them throughout art history played their part in 18th century Romanticism and evocations of the sublime – one man looking moodily out into the distance, and etc. The follies’ ridiculousness angered working people throughout history, not least just before the French Revolution. Folly-like elements dot Moya’s Garden series, which depicts a landscape whose contrived pleasures have gone to seed from one season to the next. They verge on post-apocalyptic, and maybe they are.

Moya’s subsequent series of fountains, a specific kind of garden folly, of which Secret Garden is a part, takes as subject an object of meditation. Moya says he likes to look at fountains; he finds them peaceful. The water’s swoops, splashes and plumes combine with structural elements to create their own architectural moment, one that absorbs and echoes many references. Water’s surface can literally mirror the surroundings, the plazas that frame them. His paintings don’t show distorted, multiplied and amplified reflections so much as they let the flowing elements, water and air, give them form.

Mirrored images change the subject’s orientation and context. When multiplied, they can confuse. Moya’s paintings’ enigmatic quality arises first from their strange lack of figures and next from their disorienting quality.

Moya’s meditation and José Martí’s poem

Moya wrote, “I use the fountain as an element of tranquility… I want it to be that place of mental rest.” But he also says that the experience of migration, literally making new homes in new places, gave him “the ability to adapt and create my own space within my work.” [ii]

His meditation, the ease with which he focuses on a moment of respite, seems consistent with the presence of poetry. His choice to represent his fountains in a serial fashion, one fountain for each two foot tall painting, echoes the repetition José Martí used in his poem, “If You’ve Seen a Mount of Sea Foam, Verse V.” From the font of Martí’s poetry springs water, the elixir of life. As essential as life itself. In both Moya’s paintings and Martí’s poem, domed motifs repeat.

In this poem, Martí describes his poetry, its texture, content and purpose through a quick succession of metaphors. First, he compares his poetry to a wave, which is both a timeless image and always changing. A wave is also a natural force that is both powerful and fragile. His art is powerful too. It can recast itself to adjust to the exigencies of the moment. To flirt, it can become a fan. In service to country or higher calling, it molds into a dagger. [iii] A wave, a fan, a glen.

With the line “a wounded deer seeking forest cover unseen.” Martí compares himself and his poetry (he is his poetry) to the deer seeking refuge. Moya also seeks succor in the spaces his paintings represent.

Both a poet and a revolutionary, José Martí (1853–1895) is a national hero to Cubans. He spent much of his life campaigning for Cuba’s independence in exile, and his writings – journalism, essays, and poetry, even a magazine of poetry for children – are considered of utmost importance to Spanish letters and certainly to Cuban identity. His verses slip effortlessly between observations of the natural world and utter conviction in the need to harness that spirit in the service of freedom for his people.

Making one’s own space is no small thing when one dreams of freedom. Throughout his time in Cuba, Moya watched his wooden home morph multiple times reflecting the growth of a family. Moya left barbacoas, which are middle class neighborhoods in Cuba filled with colonial buildings fragmented into smaller and smaller apartments. They are romantic to tourists but harder to inhabit. In other economic circumstances they would have been destroyed to make way for new buildings, better suited to their function and the number of people. But in the combination of external and internal forces, between embargo and communist rules, solitude there was only a dream.


Equestrian sculpture of José Martí

Rearing high on a plinth in New York’s Central Park, a bronze equestrian sculpture of José Martí captures the moment he rode into a Spanish bullet, playing his ultimate part in Cuba’s break from Spain. Made in 1959 by American artist Anna Vaughn Hyatt Huntington (1876–1973), she presented this work to the Cuban government for them to give as a gift to the people of New York. Having something to do with the timing – it was the year of the Cuban revolution – the Cubans accepted this proposition and also financed the sculpture’s dark granite pedestal.

As the granite plinth uplifts the sculpture, so too does the integrity of the horse’s hooves determine his ability to carry his rider. Who, ultimately, is placing this knight? The story of this sculpture shows the role of public monuments in the theater of power. [v]

Structures of relationships between a people and their government and/or ruler is a recurring theme when researching equestrian monuments and whether or not they survive. [vi] Additionally, picturing the rider and horse as an analogy for ruler and ruled, appropriator and appropriated leads to all kinds of associations. Horses alone can be seen as analogies for freedom, but Fahley’s equine sculptures do not fit easily into this reading.


Shauna Fahley

A new kind of equine monument

First, some background. Fahley grew up in Western Washington State riding horses with her local 4-H club. As a rider, Fahley witnessed a dramatic change in her horse when she switched disciplines from Western Pleasure to Dressage. Many of the standards in Western Pleasure are arbitrary aesthetic standards, like judges’ preference for a horse who trots while holding his neck long and his head below his withers. Some trainers achieve this by drugging the horse. The standards in Dressage are much more empirical and measurable. They have the capacity for much greater levels of difficulty and mastery. They also spring from an appreciation of the horse’s natural abilities and his participation in the athletic partnership that is the endeavor between horse and rider. So, Fahley’s observation that her horse thrived after switching to dressage was evidence that he was responding to both increased athletic demands and also to intellectual engagement. Her joy that her horse was happy flows from the love many riders feel for their charges, a regard that rivals relationships with humans.

Her project has been to make equine monuments that acknowledge, critique, and transcend the history of the horse as pedestal, accessory and mode of transportation in Western art. It also rests, fundamentally, on her love for them.

Fahley overtly states that her intention is to create equine monuments rather than equestrian monuments. By making the distinction, it is important to understand what her work critiques in order to grasp what it is.

In 2020, as protests following George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis washed over the world, many public sculptures became objects of protest and many of those were equestrian statues. At the time, Fahley was pursuing her Masters at Alfred University, where the sculptures, Sunder i, ii and iii, would debut a year later, in 2021. Fahley recalls wanting to recover the equine from the equestrian statue paradigm.

Before assessing equine sculptures, we’ll look into the history of equestrian sculptures, a tradition Fahley is refusing to represent. Riding horses made possible both nomadic civilizations and the possibility of empire, for war campaigns could be waged over larger distances. A Greek mercenary general and student of Socrates, Xenophon wrote a treatise called On Horsemanship that informs dressage to this day. Later, Roman philosopher emperor Marcus Aurelius was immortalized in a bronze equestrian statue that would be copied as the model for the display of power across Europe. [vii] Spanish kings would have their own equestrian statues, yet their statues and their new world emissaries would not survive revolutions. Not a single colonial-era equestrian statue of a conquistador or Spanish monarch still stands in the New World. [viii]

One of them, the equestrian statue of Charles IV of Spain was erected in Mexico City in 1803, and in 1821, Mexicans threatened to destroy it to make coins. It was removed in 1822, but saved for its artistic merit. Mexicans call it “El Caballito,” favoring the horse and ignoring the royal rider. [ix] In North America, American revolutionaries destroyed the bronze equestrian statue of King George III to make bullets to fight the British. Indeed, throughout history rebellion and contingency have led to iconoclasms, and equines in equestrian sculptures bear the consequences of their rider’s reputations. [x]

Fahley is indignant that in equestrian sculptures the horses serve as mere pedestals to elevate and enhance their rider’s qualities. Hers are not bucolic representations of carefree steeds at pasture. She hand built these life-sized horses in clay, in positions that are decidedly artificial or broken. Their colors and glazing evoke bone, terracotta, marble and patinas – equines frozen in sculptural form through the ages.

Xenophon began his book On Horsemanship with a chapter on how to avoid being cheated when you buy a horse. Unsurprisingly, the horse to this ancient man was property. One to be respected, but still a subject to be manipulated and built up, part by part. He begins that first chapter by exhorting the reader to check the horse’s hooves. Like a good foundation in a building, only good hooves could support a strong horse.

Or good subjects for a good civilization.

Fahley wanted to create a new kind of equine monument and yet make it seem to have appeared already archaic. They are larger-than-life and made of ceramic–clay hardened in fire. The variety of glazes evokes various sculptural materials used in ancient art. Asked why their legs and extremities are missing, she responded that the Venus de Milo, one of the most famous – and objectified – sculptures in history, is missing her arms and still is utterly unforgettable. Fahley’s sculptures present as if they are fresh from an archaeological dig.

Let’s consider for a moment some representations of horses in ancient history. Among the oldest surviving sculptures in the world were small carvings of a horse in mammoth ivory, found in Germany. One of them is a horse’s head, and the other is a horse’s body with its legs broken off. More than 30,000 years old, these carvings are 15,000 years older than the cave paintings at Lascaux. [xi] At that time, humans hunted horses. The sculptures were meant as talismans or offerings; their scale indicates that they do not play a role in the impression of a group or ruler’s dominance. They carried resonance of a sort, perhaps mystical or related to luck.

Ancient monumental sculptures of horses without riders do survive. In the arrangement of marble sculptures from the Parthenon’s pediment, there rests a sculpture of a horse’s head, pointing upward, on its truncated neck. Part of the so-called Elgin Marbles, the sculptures were made in the 5th Century BC. Then, the British removed them in 1803 from their original site for display in the British Museum. Made to be a significant part of the way the city-state of Athens imagined itself, what remained of the Parthenon’s sculptures were later removed by agents of a more powerful empire, to display as evidence of their cultural patrimony and their empire’s might. The British Museum’s claims to this custodial role are now facing questions that they are finding harder to answer. Again, the horse plays a role in the contest for influence and power.

A different sculpture known as Lion Attacking Horse, dated to 350-300 BC was transported to Imperial Rome as a spoil of war. In its time, painted blood would have poured from the horse’s wound. The 30-ton marble sculpture became a more important symbol of Rome to its people than the sculpture of the wolf nursing Romulus and Remus, because it projected an image of ruthless domination made beautiful. It is not known where the sculpture originally came from, though it is likely that this sculpture, like the horse’s head in the Parthenon’s pediment, was part of a larger program. But there is a third point in history that impacts it, and that is when, in the Renaissance, one of Michelangelo’s students restored the horse’s head and legs, in an interpretation that may or may not be similar to the original. That is to say that, like the Parthenon’s horse head, this sculpture was also an archeological fragment. It too was likely commissioned and later appropriated (stolen) as a conspicuous signal of great power. Even when monumental sculptures of horses were not ridden, they were pawns in the game of branding, not unlike depictions of women in large building projects. [xii]

Shauna Fahley focuses on the horse as elemental, rising in and out of the earth, as if of the earth, like the clay it is made from. In this sense, her sculptures’ subject has been on this planet as autonomous creatures since the prehistoric era. At the same time, Fahley cannot forget the magic of contact between horse and rider. Riders communicate with the horse through points of contact – the rider’s hands connect to the horse’s mouth, their legs and feet to the horse’s sides, and the rider’s seat to the horse’s spine. Cooperation between horse and rider constitutes a neurological transmission from one being to the other. [xiii] The best riders transmit through their seat, so that their other cues–their hands and legs–can remain soft. [xiv] Sunder iii has a human pelvic bone affixed to its back as if it was grown there. This sculpture is her strongest reminder that humans and horses have evolved together. Referring to the rider with a bone, not an entire human figure, is emphatically different from the equestrian statue paradigm.

As I mentioned in the exhibition statement, I associated Fahley’s sculptures with Carl Phillips’s poem “Defiance.” [xv] A number of connections convinced me that the association was compelling. The first was the most literal. The horse’s head in the poem is disembodied, floating like an artifact. Second, Phillips, a former high school Latin teacher, peppers his poems with references to Classical culture, including Marcus Aurelius, Sappho and Homer, to name a few. Clearly, the already-ruin aspect of Fahley’s work has me hunting for clues in ancient history. Third, the tenderness in this poem echoes Fahley’s love for her horse. The poem is brilliantly structured. The heart of the poem is bracketed by armor, a vestige of war. Believing in love at all means leaving oneself vulnerable to heartbreak. “It’s only troubling if we want it to be,” Phillips writes.[xvi] This is the other side of believing–delusions, another kind of armor, protect the heart. Finally, the poem’s ending is a benediction having to do with touch, holding a beloved’s scarred hand. It’s not so different from that spark when one pets the horse’s velvet muzzle as he snorts, his head at least as long as an arm. Then there’s the miracle of working with clay; shaping the wet, malleable material can make you feel like a god.


Xenophon is often referenced in articles about the sport of dressage. That said, Leo Strauss is the scholar most credited with resurrecting Xenophon’s writings for modern American and English readers outside the insular world of equestrians. A Jewish political philosopher who fled Germany in the 1930s, Strauss wrote extensively about Xenophon, using him as a vehicle to convey either a model citizen or a model way of governing. Frankly, I am not sure. His writing is deliberately opaque. What I have discovered is that the men who became the major forces of neoconservatism were his students and/or readers, and, a few generations later, in a sad tale of slippage from philosophy to nihilism, Strauss’s theories have been parsed to death, carrion for far-right pundits seeking to decorate their proposals with an air of authority.

It was Strauss, in “Persecution and the Art of Writing” (1941) who quoted Jonathan Swift’s characters from Gulliver’s Travels, the Houyhnhnms, a species of perfectly rational beings in the bodies of horses. The Houyhnhnms could not lie, and so their term for a lie was circumspect: “The thing which is not.” In a dizzying rhetorical knot, Strauss seems to be using the term to echo the writing between the lines necessary for dissenters under threat of persecution. Such coded messages may be a way to slide heterodox and/or unappealing opinions past logica equina, a polite, but derogatory term for the thinking of the masses or the government-sanctioned view (ironic considering the reference to the Houyhnhnms). Yet the morality of such a practice is not guaranteed. Persecution can come from any direction, and coded messages can serve any master.

What prevents us, when absorbing the theories of the most intrepid questioners, from losing hope?

I found one of the answers, amazingly, in Marcus Aurelius. Carl Phillips re-introduced me to him. It was that first line in “Ghost Choir,” the poem that proved so influential to my interpretation of Paula Wilson’s work while researching her exhibition in 2022. “What injures the hive injures the bee, says Marcus Aurelius,” wrote Phillips. [xvii] In Aurelius’s collected private musings, now called Meditations, he records his thoughts, affirmations and self-admonitions on how he can cleave to a middle way, to be a good man and to be a good man to govern his people. This leads to the question stalking me throughout this project: if most of us are always somewhere in the middle or bottom of the hierarchy, ridden, if you will, then – how do we want to be governed? [xviii]

In the moment a human decided to ride a horse, civilizations were made possible. Horses became vehicles and actors in both the act and theater of war. In military parades, imagine the pomp and flair of a mounted general in front of a brigade, marching in unison.

A display like this could have happened in the Plaza de Armas, in front of El Templete, a 19th century Greek style neoclassical temple, which marks the legendary spot where Havana was founded in 1519. On the other side is the 16th century Renaissance style Castillo de la Real Fuerza, the first fortress with triangular bulwarks to be built in the New World. The streets are paved in cobblestones, except in front of the 18th-century Palacio de los Capitanes Generales. [xix] There is a park in the middle of the square. [xx]

Xenophon wrote to any aspiring general: “But now suppose that you, sir, being at the head of the procession, rouse your horse and take the lead at a pace neither too fast nor yet too slow, but in a way to bring out the best qualities in all the animals, their spirit, fire, grace of mien and bearing ripe for action—I say, if you take the lead of them in this style, the collective thud, the general neighing and the snorting of the horses will combine to render not only you at the head, but your whole company down to the last man a thrilling spectacle.” [xxi]

Now recall the mercenary’s maxim, beginning with the third paragraph in his entire manual, that the hoof is the foundation of a horse fit for war, and that, in his view there was no greater virtue, or art even, than the production of war. The ultimate test of the hoof’s health is that it rings like a bell on stones. Remember the sounds of the parade? Now, turn to Fahley’s clay sculptures, made to look like parts of bronze equine sculptures recovered from destroyed monuments, from an earthen pit. Earth from earth, their extremities seem to have been lost to time, including their feet.

They rest on the floor with only improvised supports. She insists that visitors encounter their looming grandeur without distance.

What survives? The architectural time capsule that is Habana Vieja only survived because “five hundred years of historic buildings – all built with profits of rampant capitalism – now remained standing only because real estate development had been halted by communism.” [xxii] The prototype of equestrian monuments, Marcus Aurelius, only survived because a later Christian regime assumed the sculpture represented Constantine, the first Christian emperor and thus an acceptable role model. [xxiii]

Moya left barbacoas and now his paintings capture wind, water and fire flowing through and around decaying follies. Fahley makes ceramic equine ruins that imitate their ancient bronze, marble and stone representations. She places them split asunder, in unnatural and impossible positions.

Phillips as ever may offer some wisdom for this scene where we can only articulate what it is not. He nests a warning in his poem of love and memory: “To believe in ritual in the name of hope, there lies disaster.” [xiv] For all that one can love the study of the past, one cannot, should not take it as a manual for the present and future. To do so is folly.

There are no prophets hiding in the past, only the endless process of making sense of present(s). There are horses, earth, fire, wind and water.



[i] Especially Alhambra Circle in Coral Gables, which seems to copy the plazas in Habana Vieja, and the diagonal avenues in Havana’s once middle-class neighborhood Vedado.

[ii]  Ernesto Moya Gutiérrez, in an email to the author dated Monday, January 29, 2024.

[iii] Interpretation courtesy of a comment on Verso V posted July 2005.–Verse-V–by-Jose-Marti. Last accessed February 8, 2024.

[iv] Ernesto Moya Gutiérrez, ibid.

[v] Central Park Monuments, Jose Julian Marti [entry]. Official website of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. Last accessed 2/8/24.

[vi] The equestrian sculpture of José Martí is one of 248 equestrian sculptures in public view in the United States. 15 of these have women riders, 7 of which are Jeanne D’Arc. Only 2 more of the riders are named, individual women; the rest are goddesses or archetypes. Of the fourteen women riders, four are by Anna Vaughn Hyatt Huntington. Kees van Tilburg,  Last accessed Jan 28, 2024. There is a proposed public sculpture of Sojourner Truth, but it has not been funded. Notably, in this sculpture Truth walks beside her horse. Wendy Bellion, “A Toppled Statue of George III epitomizes the ongoing debate over America’s monuments,” Smithsonian Magazine. January 28, 2022. Last accessed January 28, 2024.

[vii] Allison C. Meier, “Why are cities filled with metal men on horseback?” Jstor Daily. September 16, 2019. Last accessed Jan 28, 2024.

[viii] Kees van Tilburg,  Last accessed Jan 28, 2024. Some conquistador equestrian sculptures took until 2021 0r 2022 to remove – social justice protests during 2020 in the US galvanized indigenous protesters to demand removal of the last conquistador equestrian sculptures. Valeria Costa-Kostritsky, “The Spanish conquistadors heading for a fall in Colombia,” Apollo Magazine. 23 August 2021. Last accessed Jan 28, 2024.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Wendy Bellion, “A Toppled Statue of George III epitomizes the ongoing debate over America’s monuments,” Smithsonian Magazine. January 28, 2022. Last accessed Jan 28, 2024.

[xi] See the “Wild horse” of Vogelherd Cave. “Jeremy Norman’s Exploring the History of Information and Media through Timelines” Last accessed Jan 28, 2024.

[xii] Shelby Brown, The Iris Blog. December 4, 2012. The Getty Museum. Last accessed February 12, 2024. See also accessed February 13, 2024.

[xiii] Janet Jones, “Becoming a Centaur,” Aeon. ed. Pam Weintraub. Last accessed Jan 24, 2023.

[xiv] Jones, ibid. See the video of Charlotte Dujardin on Valegro.

[xv] Carl Phillips, “Defiance,” Pale Colors in a Tall Field. New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2020, pp 50-51.

[xvi] Phillips, ibid, 50.

[xvii] Phillips, “Ghost Choir,” Pale Colors in a Tall Field. Ibid, pp 42-43.

[xviii] I recalled the question “How do we want to be governed?” from the title of an exhibition at Miami Art Central in 2004. In the exhibition, the curators, Roger M. Buergel and Ruth Noack, and many artists critiqued the neoliberal order imposed on European countries post-WWII.

[xix] A former governor who enjoyed his siestas ordered cobblestones in front of the Governor’s Palace be replaced with wooden tiles to dampen the sound of horse’s hooves.

[xx] Some pictures of the Plaza de Armas:

[xxi] Xenophon. On Horsemanship. The Floating Press, 2009. Proquest Ebook Central. Created from unca on 2024-01-22 19:15:07. page 59. Emphasis mine.

[xxii] Rosa Lowinger. Dwell Time: A Memoir of Art, Exile, and Repair. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2023, p 242.

[xxiii] Meier, “Why are cities filled with metal men on horseback?” ibid.

[xxiv] Carl Phillips, “Defiance,” ibid, p 51.



February 7, 2024

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