From Stem to Stern

Summer in the city of Miami, backs of our necks getting sunburned and sandy. In this season of jet skis and lobster diving, the main branch of the Miami-Dade Public Library offers two exhibitions of nautically themed work, most of it done by local artists. "Boat Images from South Florida Collections," on the library's first floor, features large-scale paintings and sculpture, while "Becalmed in Miami," on the second floor, showcases small three-dimensional toy ships and other seagoing objects.

Boats are fertile symbols that immediately evoke such themes as travel and adventure, recreation, discovery, transportation and industry, history and progress; additionally, they remind us of the humbling strength of the sea on which they ride. First recognized as a genre in Flanders and the Netherlands in the late Sixteenth Century, the marinescape has a rich history that includes some of British painter Joseph Turner's most sublime nineteenth-century canvases, as well as Joaquin Sorolla's luminous pictures of Spain's Mediterranean shore. (Sotheby's considers nautical painting important enough to devote a special annual auction in London to such work.) Marine subjects are evergreen elements of landscape painting, and they continue to provide irresistible fodder for the work of any artist residing near the ocean.

Of course Miami is a natural location for nautical art, and over the past few years a particular subset of work alluding to ships and the sea has developed here; accordingly, the paintings and sculpture by the artists featured in "Boat Images from South Florida Collections" -- many of whom are immigrants to the U.S. -- most often depict boats as vehicles for emigration, focusing specifically on the humble crafts of rafters embarking for South Florida from Cuba and Haiti. These artists share a pictorial obsession with the potential tragedy inherent in such journeys and with the general trauma of displacement.

Just inside the door of the library's first-floor auditorium, where the show has been assembled, rests Immigration Law, a sculptural work by Joe Nicastri. It consists of a smooth coffinlike wooden case containing a crude, handmade oar; this case sits on top of a larger solid wooden structure. The top of the box holding the oar has been opened, and a passage from the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act has been pasted inside the lid. It reads, "Exclusion proceedings are aimed at preventing the entry and enforcing the departure of aliens whom Congress has deemed ineligible for entry into the United States."

While this text is unsettlingly specific, Nicastri's construction takes a purposefully ambiguous form. The tiny wooden coffin, which has a small brass handle, can be also seen as a suitcase. The larger wooden structure recalls a sarcophagus, but it also could be interpreted as a counter at U.S. Customs, or, ultimately, simply as a base for an anthropological display. By exhibiting the oar as an artifact, Nicastri effectively characterizes the rafters as victims of history, underscoring their dehumanization by officials on Cuban, Haitian, and U.S. shores.

Some artists have taken this idea of the dehumanization of the rafter one step further, fixating upon the boat people as a kind of quasireligious icon. The image of the rafter as the ultimate martyr is taken to the extreme in Paul Sierra's Gently into the Night, which shows a prostrate man levitating above a rowboat. Painted in a figurative, slightly surrealist style, Sierra's celestial vision exudes bathos. And placed next to a thoughtful work such as Nicastri's, it seems trite.

Other painters broach the subject more successfully. A haggard, wild-eyed face peers out accusingly from 86 1/2 Days Journey, a visceral painting by Luis Cruz Azaceta. The artist has scrawled numbers all over the work, creating a claustrophobic feeling akin to that of being surrounded by water. Carlos Cardenas alludes to the frequent frustration of attempted exodus in an untitled triptych from 1991. In the painting on the left, a calm, empty sea laps beneath a blue sky; in the center painting, the figure of a skeleton is etched over a high pile of gray boats, stacked up like coffins; in the right-hand picture, three people in a boat pray to a virgin hovering in the sky. Cardenas uses a graphic, realist style that borders on kitsch. A dark irony infuses his images as he contrasts the innocent dreams of the rafters to their likely fate.

Nearby, Florencio Gelabert's superb sculpture Existential Logic conveys a similar suggestion of futility. An open container formed from rusted metal grillwork evokes the now-familiar sarcophagus-ship dichotomy. With a boat that cannot float, Gelabert philosophically ponders the logic of impossible voyages and the political standoffs that spur them. Gustavo Acosta and Ernesto Pujol make subtle contributions to this iconography of exile. Acosta's menacing Hunt is a predatory portrait of a submarine that looks like a shark, while a deceptively jaunty pattern of sharks and paper boats covers Pujol's canvas Sharks and Boats.

Among the notable works in this show that do not refer specifically to South Florida's most recent immigrants is Their Boats, a large canvas by Overtown "outsider" artist Purvis Young. With a bright palette and a wildly expressive hand, Young has painted a ghostly central figure presiding over a chaotic scene lit up like a ghetto on fire. The artist's depictions of boats filled with black travelers make reference to slavery and biblical journeys, and his orange slashes of paint and hectic figures converge in what seems both a celebration and a violent encounter.

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