Exiles on Main Street

The big surprise about "Breaking Barriers: Selections From the Museum of Art's Permanent Collection of Contemporary Cuban Art" is how little of this large, ambitious show is explicitly political. Sure there's a nod to Che Guevara here, a reference to raft refugees there, and a handful of works include oblique allusions to the Castro regime's less-than-sympathetic treatment of women and gays. But Fidel himself is conspicuous only by his absence from the show, which runs through January 4 at the Museum of Art in downtown Fort Lauderdale. For the 91 artists whose works -- more than 150 pieces -- are on display here, to acknowledge Castro directly, even in the most critical terms, would be to accord him more status and power than they think he deserves.

This is especially notable considering that so many of these artists now live in South Florida, a place sharply divided on issues relating to Castro and Cuba. Such divisiveness is one of the reasons this exhibition is taking place well to the north of Miami, where Cubans of various affiliations sometimes seem to have trouble agreeing on just about anything -- the current debate over whether or not Cuban-Americans should return to Cuba for the Pope's upcoming visit, for instance, or the controversy over whether they should visit the island under any circumstance. But there's unusual accord on at least one count among the artists represented here: Whether they departed from Cuba soon after Castro came to power or stuck it out until much later, they're virtually unanimous in their refusal to dignify the dictator by recognizing him.

The iconoclastic young Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar once explained that one of his greatest artistic goals was to utterly deny Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, to make movies as if Franco had never even existed. These Cuban artists seem to share a similar attitude toward the man whom they feel, directly or indirectly, forced them into exile. But while he may have driven them from their homeland, they refuse to let him dominate their art, even though his legacy sometimes leaves lingering traces in it.

One of the show's few blatantly political works, Julio Antonio's acrylic painting The Repressor (1993), summons up a nightmarish inferno worthy of Dante. Amid sharp orange and yellow flames, a series of spiraling dead-end passageways trap human figures frozen in anguished cries that echo Munch's The Scream. These starkly isolated characters could as easily be from Stalin's gulags as from Cuban jails. Another canvas, Eleomar Puente's The Escape (1994), features an angular makeshift raft jutting out of a turbulent, red sea that could be either blood or flames, an ambiguity that makes the image even more powerful. This journey toward freedom and opportunity, the painting implies, is not without extraordinary peril, both physical and psychological.

Then there's The Morgue (Gun Murder) (1992), a huge, chillingly immediate Cibachrome-silicone-Plexiglas photo construction by Andres Serrano (yes, he of the Piss Christ furor at the National Endowment for the Arts). The photograph puts us in the uncomfortable position of standing at the head of a slain man and looking down his wounded, lifeless, barely covered torso, and it manages to suggest Christ after the Crucifixion even as it comments on humanity's barbarism against itself. And for raw emotional impact, I can't think of a more startling, poignant evocation of totalitarian repression than Demi's oil portrait Boy With Black Pacifier (1993), which also works uncomfortably well as an image of child abuse.

Most of the other works in this sprawling exhibition make their points more indirectly. Exile from Cuba may be the defining common denominator among these artists -- each ID placard on the wall next to the art indicates the year the artist fled the island -- but they respond to the complexities of life as exiles in a breathtaking variety of ways, drawing on equally diverse influences from established masters and articulating their visions in a wide range of styles and media.

The lackluster first paintings on the curved wall to the right as you enter the main downstairs gallery, however, don't make an especially good initial impression. Guido Llinas' Black Painting (1992), with its thick, blunt brushstrokes and "FOR BACON" lettering (an ill-conceived homage to the great Francis Bacon?), comes across as warmed-over abstract expressionism. So do the nebulous shapes in Luis Marin's Untitled, an adjacent oil on canvas. The next two canvases, grouped with their predecessors because of their stylistic and thematic debts to African influences on Cuban art, are something else altogether. The hypnotic, multilayered maze of undulating lines and subtle gradations of color that make up Deer in the Woods (1993), a mixed-media canvas by Leandro Soto, merge human and animal forms in near-subliminal ways. And a few feet away there's the electrifying abstraction of Santiago Rodriguez-Salazar's Camaleón Triste, an oil whose tiny, intricate patterns and shapes in bright, contrasting colors seem to pulsate from within. It's as if a Mondrian had somehow gotten its wires crossed with a beaded Haitian voodoo flag.

Around one corner there's the distinctly Daliesque Double Portrait of Jimmy in NYC (1984), a Juan Gonzalez watercolor elaborately matted under glass that surreally juxtaposes two profiles of the male title character, flowers, candles, and other objects, all rendered in the hyper-realistic detail of late-period Dali. Such vivid realism is also at work on a very different canvas around another nearby corner, the gigantic acrylic River-bank (1995), by Tomas Sanchez, whose remarkably rich palette of greens is applied to a tropical rain forest that looks more Brazilian than Cuban.

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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