Magic Realism No Mas?

Csar Menndez' truncated horses

Having ragged on Fort Lauderdale's Museum of Art (MoA) a few times recently, I figured it was only fair to check in again to see how things have been going after a series of major staff changes and budget woes. The news is both good and bad.

First, the bad news: The new upstairs wing is still devoted to the museum's much-beloved (by some) William Glackens collection. Other upstairs galleries display an exhibition by a trio of artists from the CoBrA group -- another MoA favorite, this one more justified, although the show has gobbled up precious space since December and will remain up until late July.

But during my visit, a whole downstairs section was roped off and inaccessible; when I peered around a corner, all I saw in the dim space were large crates. And once again, there were no exhibition brochures, much less catalogs, for the current rotating shows.


"Central American Visionaries" and "Embracing the Present: The UBS Paine Webber Art Collection"

Museum of Art, One E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale

On display through March 31 ("Central American Visionaries") and April 20 ("Embracing the Present"). Call 954-525-5500.

The good news is that one of the downstairs shows, "Central American Visionaries," is one of MoA's best in recent memory. As the introduction posted on the wall explains, "With this exhibition, the Museum of Art confirms its commitment to display art that reflects the diversity of South Florida's multicultural population." Fair enough. In 1997, MoA was brave enough to mount an exhibition of contemporary Cuban art, which became part of the museum's permanent collection, that no institution in Miami-Dade County would have dared touch.

The focus of this show is half a dozen artists from "seldom-featured countries nestled between Mexico and Columbia [sic]," as a handout characterizes them. Two of the artists (Brooke Alfaro and Guillermo Trujillo) are from Panama, two (César Menéndez and Benjamín Cañas) from El Salvador, and one each from Nicaragua (Armando Morales) and Guatemala (Elmar Rojas). The six share an interest in what is known variously as magic realism or magical realism, which has most recently been associated with the work of Gabriel García Márquez and other modern Latin American writers.

The first two Menéndez canvases quickly establish the ease with which these artists combine the fantastic with the ordinary. An untitled acrylic from 2000 is a composition with two human figures flanking a horse -- seemingly mundane until you notice that their limbs have been truncated or distorted in some way. Nacimiento de la Inocencia (The Birth of Innocence), a 1991 oil, features a carnival carousel full of animals, with one rider on horseback seeming to come to life, springing off the ride and on the verge of leaping off the canvas altogether.

Morales' Oracle from Managua: Homage to Ernesto Cardenal (1989) also juxtaposes horses and humans, to even more dramatic effect. It's a large canvas pain-ted with oil and wax, featuring four people, a trio of horses, two dogs (one, with its tongue lolling out of its mouth, reminiscent of Eadweard Muybridge photos and the Francis Bacon paintings they inspired), an old-fashioned carriage, a smokestack, a bicycle, and a tire tube. It's a busy composition, but it's rendered in such dark, muted hues and accented with such subtle distortions here and there that it's almost eerily calming.

A palette that in other hands might seem gloomy and oppressive serves Morales exceptionally well. His Forét Decidue (Selva) (The Deciduous Jungle) (1992) is one of the show's standouts, an exquisitely rendered dense thicket of trees. This gorgeous set of sinuous lines, captured in dark, delicate tones and creating a great sense of depth, is ordinary and enchanted -- the essence of magic realism.

Morales, who was born in 1927, is one of the show's two oldest artists. The other is Trujillo, born the same year but working in a much more volatile style -- he's as hot as Morales is cool. His Guerreros (Fighters) (1990), for instance, is a stylized portrait of aggression, with primitive, tribal-looking imagery painted in fierce reds, oranges, and yellows.

At his most feverish, as in Diáspora (Exile) (1991), Trujillo achieves astonishing results. This medium-size acrylic is populated with highly stylized figures that come across almost as an assembly of squirming worms, a surprisingly vibrant mass given the toned-down color scheme, which tends toward pale olive greens, beiges, and the like. It's as if Panamanian Trujillo set out to demonstrate that Cubans have no monopoly on the turbulent emotions of exile.

The remaining three artists in "Central American Visionaries" are competent, but they pale in comparison. Rojas goes for vaguely humanoid figures in various stages of distortion. Alfaro opts for the darker, more nightmarish side of magic realism; his El Clarividente (The Clairvoyant) (1992) plays off Madonna-and-child imagery with its portrait of a woman holding a knife-brandishing child who has apparently inflicted a slit below one of the adult's breasts. And his Mil Muñales (A Thousand Daggers), from a year later, features a man with knives in his chest, his hands gripping his thighs.

Caña, the only artist in the show who's not still living (he died in 1987), is the most heavy-handed of the three. There's an untitled 1977 oil here with a child and a tiny old woman holding a disembodied arm that's pretty much warmed-over surrealism. And in his Los Críticos (The Critics), also from 1977, he places a laurel wreath on an artist's head while portraying the title characters as a fat man and a woman baring her breasts. Call me sensitive, but I took mild offense.

As satisfying as much of "Central American Visionaries" is, the show also left me wanting more, which seems to be part of MoA's current predicament. Without the financial resources to mount big, ambitious exhibitions -- such as the de Kooning and Herb Ritts shows of a few years ago -- the museum, one of South Florida's premier venues, has settled into a sort of holding pattern in which several low-key shows are on display simultaneously.

Now, a brief return to the bad news. The museum's main upstairs galleries -- a good chunk of its prime display space -- house "Embracing the Present: The UBS Paine Webber Art Collection," an exciting exhibition title if ever there was one. And the show's about as dry as its subtitle.

I'm all for corporate support of the arts, which need all the help they can get these days. But there's something a little sterile about a collection that seems to have been assembled by someone more interested in brand names than in quality.

Plenty of big names are among the more than 40 artists represented in this show: Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Anselm Kiefer, R.B. Kitaj, Cy Twombly, Francisco Clemente, Ed Ruscha, Gerhard Richter, Damien Hirst. The trouble is that the works here are by and large substandard for the artists in question. Among the few exceptions are Untitled (Sewer Mystery), a Gregory Crewdson color photograph as enigmatic as a de Chirico painting; a series of half a dozen large, vaguely impressionistic Susan Rothenberg oil paintings of figures in motion; and Post Visual (1993), a Roy Lichtenstein interior executed in his trademark style.

Then there are such art-world darlings as David Salle, Julian Schnabel, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Cindy Sherman -- artists whose presence in this scrambled show suggests that the people in charge of the UBS Paine Webber Collection have their eyes more on the market than on the studio or the museum wall.

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