I´m Your Puppet

Objets trouvés. Found objects. In the right hands, so to speak, few words are as charged with artistic possibilities. And when the hands are those of someone as ingenious as puppeteer extraordinaire Pablo Cano, whose ¨Pablo Cano: Marionettes as Sculpture¨ exhibition has been extended through the summer at the Coral Springs Museum of Art, the results can be spectacular. The Miami-based artist, who was born in Havana in 1961 and was on the last flight exiting the island right before the Cuban Missile Crisis the next year, has an uncanny ability to find aesthetic potential in the most mundane objects.

In The Violinist (1997), for example, Cano works with, among other things, fragments of wood and paper, a dustpan, a small sieve, and one of those metal food steamers that open like flower blossoms, all combined in a graceful design to suggest the title character. Her violin is a small clock -- still working! -- housed in a metal case shaped like a violin. Cano´s ingenuity is such that even the kitschiest items gain a measure of dignity when pressed into service for one of his marionettes.

Earlier in the exhibition´s run, Cano served up live performances in The Florabel Theater, itself a work of art. It´s a small, portable theater, dating back to 1985, in which the artist presents his puppets in the quirky plays he concocts for them. It´s essentially a simple frame on wheels to which Cano has affixed his usual assortment of found objects, supplemented behind the scenes with a CD player, lights, and other theater paraphernalia.

Unfortunately, no additional performances are scheduled. But as I can attest from having seen To Sin or Not to Sin (2001), presented at the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami, which has commissioned a Cano work annually for the past decade, Cano´s live performances are magical. If you ever get a chance to see one anywhere, go for it.

That´s not to say that the marionettes, presented here as sculpture, aren´t magical on their own. It´s a wondrous sight to walk into the Coral Springs Museum´s spacious main galleries and see them dotted with puppets on pedestals as well as hung from the ceiling at various levels. A handful hangs from a rack alongside the theater, weirdly like outfits waiting to be put on.

The show is also supplemented with lots of Cano´s preparatory sketches, some in pencil and some in ink. Some of these are on simple paper place mats from Versailles, the wonderful Cuban restaurant that´s a focal point in Miami´s Little Havana. The artist apparently grabs his ideas on the fly and makes sure they´re preserved. The drawings are intricate but also childlike in their simplicity and directness.

The marionettes, sketches, and other related mixed-media works are loosely clustered throughout the galleries based on the plays with which they are associated. But unless you´re expecting to see these puppets perform in the theater, the groupings are more or less arbitrary, with the works calling out to you to experience them on their own merits. Radio Man and Pani TV Man, both from a 2005 play called The Beginning, recall the inspired whimsy of some of the anthropomorphic characters that populated the now-classic TV series Pee-wee´s Playhouse.

St. George & Dragon and Occidental Series, both from the 2003 production Canvas Construction, are wall-mounted works that come across as gigantic variations on playing cards. They´re echoed in a nearby space by La Cafetera and Princess Calle Ocho. Since there are no puppetry strings in evidence, I can only conclude that they are used as set décor.

For a trio of puppets in the far left corner of the museum, also from The Beginning, Cano introduces photographs of human faces into the equation. Madonna´s face appears on a marionette called Eve, with Orlando Bloom not far away as Adam. This, I think, is a big mistake. Part of the allure of Cano´s ¨characters¨ may be their combination of the alien and the familiar, but the presence of celebrity faces upsets the delicate balance.

A large selection of marionettes from the City Beneath the Sea production finds Cano working in a more traditional mode. The puppets aren´t exactly realistic, but they´re much more stylized, and they don´t rely on found objects at all. And although they´re beautifully (and obviously lovingly) made, they aren´t nearly as interesting as the artist´s funkier creations.

To me, anyway. I admit a hopeless weakness for three-dimensional art that´s dependent, to one degree or another, upon found objects. There´s something exquisitely sneaky about taking things that were intended to be used a certain way and then subverting that intention. It all goes back to Marcel Duchamp and Dadaism, the men´s urinal upended and labeled Fountain and attributed to R. Mutt. You don´t get much more subversive than that.

And yet I somehow get the sense that Cano probably wouldn´t consider himself a latter-day Dadaist, much less a subversive artist. Rather, his work conveys the resourcefulness of someone used to scrounging for the ingredients that make up his art. (In that regard -- and in that regard only -- his work reminds me of that of celebrated Miami street artist Purvis Young.) He´s still in on the joke, however -- when Cano uses the legs from pieces of furniture for the legs of his marionettes, he knows exactly what he´s doing.

Sometimes, the joke falls a little flat, as in the series Soldiers, from the Toy Box production. They´re really nothing more than relatively crude collaged faces affixed to two-by-fours. But in a grouping a few feet away, 6 Geese, Cano´s ingenuity manifests itself in its fullest glory: With minimal modification, he takes half a dozen empty spray bottles of the sort that would contain an ordinary household cleaner and transforms them into the amazingly evocative birds of the title. Even if you knew nothing of his skill as a puppeteer, this simple work would compel you to acknowledge that Cano is a wizard.

The exhibition is dotted with a few random pieces that quietly affirm the artist´s mastery. The Violinist mentioned earlier has its partner in Piano Man (1997), which takes a ramshackle toy piano and turns it into a person by plopping an assemblage of found items on top of it. Then there´s Policeman (1999), essentially nothing more than a cylindrical metal head with a hole for a mouth that reveals a rotating red light inside and the upside-down spout from an old coffee pot as a nose.

It´s exhilarating to see so much inventive work on display in one place, just as it´s comforting to know that, as long as people discard things, Pablo Cano will never run out of raw material for his art. There's something exquisitely sneaky about found art.

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Michael Mills