From a marketing perspective, artist Cristóbal Toral picked the perfect moment to make his Texas debut. Titled “The Permanent Voyage,” his comprehensive solo exhibition arrives at Art of the World Gallery to tackle themes of immigration, placelessness, and evolution—totally knowable topics from a locally unknown practitioner.

Stylistically, the 77-year-old Spaniard has doubled down on realism across decades that birthed the decidedly unreal images of abstract expressionism, pop art, and other movements some people love to hate. In other words, while artists like Mark Rothko were producing gauzy color fields, Toral painted still life of fruit.

Yet somehow, the realism has never felt dated. Instead of parroting the old masters, Toral appropriates their techniques to riff on their subject matter; he is a student of art history but never a slave.

Toral toes that line in The New Collection of the Archduke, a direct reference to a 17th century painting of Archduke Leopold Wilhelm surveying his gallery, where the walls are festooned with classical paintings that illustrate Biblical scenes and mythical figures. Toral’s version maintains the Pilgrim-era fashion but swaps out the paintings for what the archduke would collect if he were alive today, including pieces by Warhol, Picasso, Mondrian, Magritte, and other modernist masters. He even inserts a small rolling suitcase in the foreground as a cheeky reference to himself.

This is, after all, an exhibition about travel, and the suitcase has taken over much of Toral’s work and life. He maintains a vast collection of thousands of pieces of luggage purchased at auction, which means that if you, like me, have ever lost a suitcase at Madrid Barajas International Airport, there’s a chance Toral lugged it back to his farm in Toreno, Spain, where he warehouses the collection to one day serve as the subject of his paintings. 

Ultimately, the luggage is the fodder for both striking watercolor compositions—“the most difficult painting method,” at least in Toral’s mind—and desolate landscapes. In some cases, he tears apart and manipulates the physical suitcases for striking monochrome assemblages arrayed in primary blues, reds, and yellows. Elegant black and white paintings such as The Wait and Traveling show figures waiting with their bags on various street corners without another soul in sight. Area of Control, one of the exhibition’s most recent works, shows a humiliated woman subjected to a strip search while her suitcase awaits its owner on a nearby conveyor belt.

Given the escalating immigration debate stateside and the refugee crises erupting internationally, one could call Toral’s fixation on displacement and rootlessness prescient, even prophetic. But the suitcase motif instead signals an enduring conflict between continents and peoples that Toral has studied since he zeroed in on the motif in the 1960s. His Landscape with Luggage, for example, depicts prehistoric fields of abandoned suitcases stretching toward the horizon, suggesting an innate rootlessness to life—that the nature of the world is to pick up and keep moving. The suitcase is the embodiment of that nomadism, Toral explains, and systems of control such as borders and airport security are there to stifle that impulse. “Really, it’s very important to me to make Real Art,“ says Toral, explaining how a suitcase is rarely just a suitcase. “I’m not here to decorate.”

Don’t be duped into thinking Toral is a serious man, however. The technically exquisite still life Apples in Colors is one of many deceptive vehicles for the artist’s whimsy. An inky black canvas is arrayed with constellations of apples, figs, and cherries, all floating in planetary orbit. Space—in all its meanings—has long been an obsession of Toral’s; the introduction to the exhibition catalogue recounts how Toral rented an astronaut suit and paraded through the streets of Madrid following the first moon landing in 1969.

No, despite this show marking his Texas debut, this elder statesman quickly appeared at home, guiding visitors through the gallery wearing one of his many rumpled baseball caps. Houston is just one stop on Toral's "Permanent Voyage," and the city should revel in his timely work while it's still here.

Cristóbal Toral: The Permanent Voyage. Thru May 19. Art of the World Gallery, 2201 Westheimer Rd. 713-526-1201. More info at artoftheworldgallery.com.

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