You're on Your Own

I knew next to nothing about Uruguayan art when I set out to see the "3rd Uruguayan Art Exhibition" on display at the Broward County Main Library. And now, having seen the show, I know... only slightly more than I did going in, other than the obvious fact that some of the 13 artists represented are seriously talented, and some are not.

The show has been assembled with an almost total disregard for the average gallery visitor. The only informational handout is a one-page flier that does little more than list the names of the artists. Little ID cards alongside the pieces are also stingy with details: title (sometimes in English, usually in Spanish with no translation), medium (ditto), and dimensions (sometimes inches, sometimes centimeters). The artists' names aren't even included; you have to match the often-hard-to-read signatures on the works with names on the flier.

Maybe the sponsors -- the Broward County Library and the Broward Public Library Foundation -- assume that, because the show is set in a library, people will dash off to the stacks for a crash course on Uruguay before approaching the art. Not likely.

Let me fill in for the curator, then, and ground you in the basics. Uruguay, which is perched on the southeastern coast of South America between Brazil and Argentina, is a bit larger than North Dakota, a bit smaller than South Dakota. Most of its population of just over three million are Spanish-speaking, of European descent, and Catholic. Uruguay's economy is heavily agricultural, and its history is marked by social and political upheaval, including civil war, both before and after independence was established in 1828.

Now to the art. A handful of city scenes and landscapes by Patricia Suarez are reasonably well executed but as bland and uninvolving as the work of any American Sunday-afternoon painter. The same is true of most of Gustavo J. Scarrone's pieces on the other side of the gallery, including a garish oil of a female nude called Hiding and a trio of heavy-handed charcoals called Reflections, The Last Drag, and Homeless but Not Thoughtless.

The work of two other artists is wildly uneven. Ruben Dante Uriarte's impressionist-style landscape El Descanso, featuring feathery yellow trees and green grass reflected in a pool of still water, is painted with such delicacy that the wisps of pigment seem to float on the surface of the canvas. And his Silencio y Vida is an equally deft rendering of an action scene, a sweeping American West-style vista with cowboys pursuing a herd of wild horses down a slope toward a body of water. The same artist falls flat, however, when he tries to do a couple of detailed closeups of big jungle cats.

Marcos Augusto Cabrera is represented by erratic work as well. His Pasiones looks like a cheesy illustration from a soft-core men's magazine, with several sets of nude couples painted in a lurid palette of reds, purples, and oranges. In El Adios, he offers a stark, crudely executed evocation of impending suicide in which a strangely distorted room is of far more interest than the male nude at its center. Cabrera's best work is found in two canvases of inanimate objects, one brimming with realistically painted musical instruments, the other juxtaposing various masks and totems, including a stone head like those on Easter Island and a Mayan-style pyramid.

The abstracts of Anibal Fernandez, which feature a spiky, eyeball-like object in different settings, come across as failed science fiction. Diano-Tourne's abstracts are another matter. Half a dozen of them, all entitled Encounters, are distinguished by fine-line brush strokes and fluid, meandering streaks of color. One includes some fragmented geometric shapes on a dazzling field of warm yellows and plummy purples. This is true abstraction, evoking emotion with nothing more than a bravura handling of shape, texture, and color.

Scattered among the canvases are six sculptures by Juan Miguel Vazquez, whose obsessive motif is the TV set -- there's at least one in every piece. But the sculptor, who has a sharp eye for composition, seems to have only a fuzzy sense of what he wants to say about TV. Three of the statements are pretty obvious: In Meditation a male nude has a TV for a head; in The Glowing Black Hole, a handful of people are being sucked into a TV set; and Modern Egg shows a cracked-open TV with people spilling out of it.

But it's unclear what Vazquez is up to with Redemption, which pins a gaunt Christ to a cross made up of 19 small TV sets, his arms and head swarming with small human forms. In Maternity the shattered TV at the base of the sculpture undercuts the rest of the piece, a graceful image of a mother and child, executed in the sleek, highly stylized lines of, say, a Henry Moore or Constantin Brancusi. The massive Fossil again subverts the raw power of the image -- a human crouched in a fetal curl, surrounded by pieces of a TV set -- by editorializing on an adjacent panel: "All his civilization committed suicide by drowning themselves in their own waste. It is known that the light chamber shown in the fossil was used to increment their unlimited needs. His tendency to suicide drove him to live for buying."

Two artists sporting drastically different styles kept drawing me back. Gabriel Orenstein has come up with a technique, identified only as "pigment and water on canvas," that yields mesmerizing results. Because the grainy texture of canvas shows through the washes of dark color, the content of the images seems to be in constant flux; whether they're slowly coming into focus or slowly receding into darkness is hard to say. Boxes within boxes populate these pieces, some generating a sense of unsettling whimsy. In Games, for instance, a tiny clown in the cradle of a slingshot is held by a large, disembodied hand, while in Origin Series two hands hold a box containing a screaming clown's head that owes more than a passing nod to Francis Bacon.

Bacon's influence is also evident in the magnificent Temple: in the half-dozen solemn heads in boxes that run along the bottom of the canvas, in the deep-red bust that sits in a box to the upper left, and certainly in the vague anatomy revealed in the big central box, which could pass for an X-ray or a cutaway view of some alien-human hybrid.

The six untitled acrylics by Silvio Caballero Esteve are as haunting as Orenstein's work, although in a much different way. Esteve works in muted colors and with elaborately drawn compositions that fill the canvases to their bursting points. Tribal in nature, the imagery features ghostly human shapes that don't go much beyond stick figures, along with skulls, birds, and horses. One picture, a simple portrayal of a crucifixion, packs an inexplicable punch.

At the far side of the gallery, a few feet from the dizzying view supplied by the library's sixth-floor windows, is the work of the young Daniel Pontet, who has, perhaps unwittingly, provided a stark reminder of one of the dead-ends of modern art. It's a linked series of pieces dripping with self-satisfaction. Reflection I: The Fine Arts purports to be an "oil on canvas," when it's really just an unprimed, unpainted canvas with the artist's signature on it. Reflection II: Shame is the same, except that the canvas has been reversed to show its wooden frame and metal brackets. Reflection III: The Most Important is nothing but an empty frame, and Reflection IV: Price and Size is a scaled-down version of the first piece, labeled with a $1 tag. Reflection V: from-to is a mixed-media construction, a large "package" covered with stamps, post office labels, and addresses (and the inscription "Art Works Handle With Care"). The silliness and pretentiousness of Pontet's works are compounded by a couple of artist's statements posted nearby.

The cruel irony at work here is that, of all the art in this show crying out for commentary, the most obvious and derivative pieces are the ones that get it. Let's hope the "4th Uruguayan Art Exhibition" is put together with a little more respect and consideration for the audience.

The "3rd Uruguayan Art Exhibition" is on display through September 10 at the Broward County Main Library, Bienes Center For the Literary Arts, Sixth Floor, 100 S. Andrews Ave., Fort Lauderdale, 954-357-7444.

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