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Shutter to Think

Don't go into "María Martínez-Cañas: A Retrospective," now at the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale, expecting anything remotely resembling what we ordinarily regard as photography. Martínez-Cañas is usually characterized as a photographer, and she uses the medium of photography and the tools associated with it, but the results she achieves are an exotic mixed-media hybrid combining elements of drawing, painting, etching, and collage.

Indeed, I reached the top of the museum's grand staircase only to wonder momentarily whether I was in the right place. (Given MoA's dismal programming during its recent, troubled months, that's not an altogether unexpected reaction.) From a distance, especially, Martínez-Cañas's pieces seem hardly connected to photography at all but rather look like high-resolution graphics.

That's not to say that the work of this artist -- who was born in Cuba in 1960, raised in Puerto Rico, educated primarily in Philadelphia and Chicago, and now lives in Miami -- isn't extraordinary. It is. In fact, I can safely say I've never seen anything quite like it, with the exception of some of the work of Man Ray (more on that later).

This large retrospective is Martínez-Cañas's first one-woman show at a South Florida museum, and it encompasses more than a hundred works, the vast majority of which are identified as gelatin silver prints (although, again, not the kind we're accustomed to seeing). A handful of other prints was made with a platinum/palladium compound, and nearly a dozen ghostly, rich blue pieces labeled "diazo photograms" are essentially cyanotypes -- primitive, cameraless images processed using photosensitive paper and such fancy-sounding chemicals as potassium ferricyanide and ferric ammonium citrate. Three short videos round out the show.

The first dozen or so pieces on the curving wall to the right at the top of the stairs are from the artist's "Map Work" series, from 1986 through 1996. They display a preoccupation with geometric shapes and carefully balanced compositions, and the imagery is highly fragmented. Only on close inspection can one discern that Martínez-Cañas has incorporated snippets of tiny black-and-white photographs into these pictures.

In some posted commentary, Martínez-Cañas refers to her longtime fascination with maps, and several of these pieces include an outline of the shape of her native Cuba, often highly stylized. "Through [my photographs] I constantly confront myself with personal issues like belonging, alienation and my position in the world," writes Martínez-Cañas, who has traveled and studied throughout the world. "I hunt for images to achieve a new vocabulary."

Isla Nada Mas (a mi padre) (1986-87) features a horizontal Cubanesque shape positioned more or less the way the country is seen on maps. Such stark but intricately textured pieces as Territorio Cubano and Punta Arriba y Punta Abajo, both from 1988, upend the island and tinker with its contours.

Some of the pieces have borders of sorts made up of broken or spiky lines. Others feature recurring imagery -- the closely cropped male nude from Isla Nada Mas, for instance, appears to be the same one who turns up later in more complete form in Muralla, Guerrero y Fortaleza (1986-87). Buildings, ruins, statues, and other nudes reappear in work after work.

Occasionally, Martínez-Cañas constructs surprisingly forceful images out of the barest ingredients. The long, narrow, vertical piece Dos Huellas (1989) consists of a few irregular shapes containing photographic fragments strewn over a large empty space, with a series of tiny black triangles cascading from top to bottom. Two long, narrow 1984 horizontals called Tríptico #2 and Tríptico #3 are similar, with spare, lively lines and shapes that fairly dance across the surfaces.

During the mid- to late 1980s, the same period Martínez-Cañas was working through her fetish for maps, the artist simultaneously branched out in other directions. The earthy, elemental quality of her "Piedras" series was inspired both by a visit to Stonehenge and by the knowledge that a close friend was seriously ill with AIDS. "I started thinking about vulnerability and the passing of time, about our existence, and the human connections we experience in our lives," she writes in a panel posted alongside excerpts from this series.

She started shooting with one of the most rudimentary photographic tools, a pinhole camera, focusing on the things she found in her own yard and garden. She also began to incorporate pieces of onion skin into these works as metaphors for eroded fossils, explaining, "I am fascinated by marks that signal the passage of time."

Although no specific context is given for three large images from the "Flight (Hospital Bed)" series, created on linen instead of photographic paper, there's the strong suggestion that they deal with the continuing deterioration of her ailing friend. Much like the famous AIDS quilt, the large linens are divided into panels and displayed on the floor. The two most emotionally powerful -- numbers II and V -- feature, respectively, plant imagery and pages from books or magazines, along with, in each case, the pale suggestion of a human body superimposed over the entire image.

These linens, the aforementioned blue photograms in the adjacent gallery, and the six samples from the "Hortus" series of gelatin silver prints near the end of the exhibition display a strong affinity with the work of pioneer surrealist Man Ray. In Paris in the early 1920s, Ray discovered that photographic images could be created without a camera by placing objects directly onto photosensitive paper and then exposing the paper to light.

The resultant pictures, known variously as "rayograms" or "rayographs," are disarmingly simple, and yet they can have enormous resonance. In Martínez-Cañas's case, the "Hortus" pieces, in particular, seem to show her moving away from what she earlier described as work addressing "issues of decay, mortality and memory" and into territory more evocative of fecundity and regeneration.

The retrospective's pieces that all but demand categories of their own are of two varieties. The first is a series of ten long, narrow verticals mounted side by side on the curved, freestanding wall to the left at the top of the staircase to the second floor. These representatives of the "Totem Negro" series of the early 1990s are each less than a foot wide and nearly five feet tall. In them, Martínez-Cañas seems to be drawing on many of her preoccupations at the same time: an amazing sense of balance and composition, the combination of traditional and manipulated photographic elements, and a mystic's sense of wonder at the natural world.

Finally, there are the three works on video, shown on a continuous loop in a small darkened area near the end of the exhibition. One, the two-and-a-half-minute Blue Hand (2001), features negative imagery of a human hand filmed in extreme close-up, with both the hand and the camera in slow but constant movement -- a glorious study in undulating light and texture, as if we're watching as a NASA camera explores the topography of an alien landscape.

The other two videos -- Un Problema de Identidad (first shot in 1984 and reedited earlier this year) and An Eye for an Eye (2002) -- are nothing special. The former juxtaposes a voice-over by a woman speaking in Spanish with some footage of masks and a nude female floating in water, to no obvious purpose. The latter is a gimmicky bit in which an eye peers at us through a peephole, a hand removes the peephole and reaches through the space, and then the peephole and eye return.

In other words, two out of three of these video shorts suggest that the artist should stick with still photography. Then again, when a photographer's body of work is as solid, original, and distinctive as that of Martínez-Cañas, she has nothing to worry about.

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Michael Mills

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