Exiles on Main Street

A gallery near the end of the ground floor includes a small group of works that struggle, mostly unsuccessfully, with religious themes. At this late date in the history of twentieth-century art, it's not enough simply to surround a fragment of a Rubens Crucifixion with a quartet of Warhol electric chairs, as Emilio Falero's untitled oil does. Or maybe it's too much -- the juxtaposition is crushingly literal for a subject as complex as religious oppression. A resonant exception to the literalness of so many of the religious-themed pictures here is Rogelio Lopez Marin's When the Angels Fall (1996); an eerily realistic acrylic portrait of a severely damaged statue of an angel, it projects an unearthly melancholy. Like the aforementioned Serrano's The Morgue (and, for that matter, his inflammatory Piss Christ), this is religious art that moves into the realm of volatile metaphor.

In the smaller galleries upstairs, the emphasis is on photography, drawings, and mixed-media works, including videotapes and a couple of elaborate installations. At the top of the staircase, Silvia Lizama's disappointing, washed-out photos of Dade County after the ravages of Hurricane Andrew -- which strike me as tarted-up photojournalism -- give way to a large pair of haunting prints from Eduardo Aparicio's Cuerpo Publico series (1992-1995). These torn and mutilated images of striking young men -- enigmatic snapshots from lives full of unrealized potential -- take a moment to develop their full emotional impact.

In spite of a wall plaque that proclaims the merits of Cuban photography, there's nothing extraordinary about most of the shots on display. Even the two gelatin silver prints that make up Kevin (1991), a Tampa AIDS patient caught on film by Tomas Lopez, have a rote familiarity. The same is true of many of the drawings, including Umberto Pena's Untitled (Suite of Eight) (1996), a series of charcoals displaying a hermetic fascination with the letter X. There's one bleakly beautiful standout among the drawings: Gustavo Ojeda's Untitled (Subway) (198485), a charcoal on paper that transforms its subject into a set of opaque, vaguely defined shapes receding into an intense blackness toward a jagged patch of light in the distance. The drawing is like a small preliminary sketch that might provide the dark raw material for some grand Anselm Kiefer project.

In fairness it may be that the sheer size of this sweeping exhibition works against our fullest appreciation of some of the art, particularly the photos and drawings, most of which are concentrated in the final galleries upstairs. For only the second time since it opened about a decade ago, the entire Museum of Art has been given over to a single exhibition, and it's easy to come away from "Breaking Barriers" feeling a bit overwhelmed.

Although you have to admire curator Jorge Santis' efforts to reunite the visions of Cubans whose exile has scattered them all over the world, what exactly does this show accomplish? Is the goal to find and explore a common ground in the experience of exile, or is it to use exile from Cuba as an excuse to bring together many works that otherwise have little or nothing in common? "Breaking Barriers" works only in the latter sense, I think. There is no common denominator to exile, other than the fact of exile itself. Its circumstances cover as broad a range as any other human experience, as this exhibition's diversity of artistic voices makes clear. The imposition of the theme of exile from Cuba is just an attempt to tame and organize art that is inherently unruly and resistant to categorizing; and while that may give us a convenient handle with which to grasp the work, it hardly explains it.

I admit to approaching the exhibition with a certain initial nervousness: Did I know enough about Cuban culture to understand this art? Would I get it? The anxiety was unfounded, even beside the point. Like all art worth our attention, the best of these works start with the personal and then transcend their specifics to address broader concerns relevant not just to a particular subculture, but also to what art has always taken as its subject matter: the human condition and its infinite manifestations. You needn't be Cuban or in exile to appreciate that.

"Breaking Barriers: Selections From the Museum of Art's Permanent Collection of Contemporary Cuban Art" will be on display through January 4 at the Museum of Art, One E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale; 954-525-5500.

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