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.

Edouard Duval-Carrie illustrates a spiritual journey with his sculpture Spirit Patrol, a small ceramic boat decorated with the artist's personification of Vodou deities. Simply executed, Duval-Carrie's work alludes to the legendary journeys of the spirits of Haitian slaves back to their African homeland, a voyage said to occur every ten years.

Charo Oquet also chooses mythology as the subject for her painting "Big Heart," which depicts a formidable Mother Earth with a knife through her heart. She reaches for her babies, who are falling into the water below her, where several boats toss in the waves. Oquet's robust, earth-toned figures (with features of indigenous Latin American peoples) have the look of those found in Mexican murals. And her interest in feminist themes recalls the work of Frida Kahlo, updated to address her own concerns and current events.

As its title suggests, "Becalmed in Miami," displayed adjacent to the elevators on the library's second floor, takes a more whimsical approach to the marine theme. The nearly 50 artists included here were asked to contribute a small boat for the exhibit, and most responded with something made specifically for this show. Unlike the works on view in the auditorium downstairs, the ones here are very diverse, and wonderfully so. The library's call invoked responses that range from Pablo Cano's model steamship made from dog food cans to a stack of polyurethane cupcakes contributed by World Famous J. Johnny. Carol Todaro's Dadaesque work was assembled from parts of an antique iron; Teresita Fernandez constructed a surreal object from an aluminum gravy boat she filled with concrete. Janet Paparelli equipped a piece of driftwood with paintbrush oars, and Rafael Salazar created a fleet of paper boats from color Xeroxes. Steve Bollman formed a delicate chicken-wire vessel filled with white feathers; working in clay, James Harring sculpted a headless naked man kneeling in a tiny boat; and Fred Snitzer contributed an erotic abstract sculpture.

Inevitably, some of the works here can be related to the Cuban and Haitian rafters. These include Robert Chambers's wry, bicultural kitsch installation, which incorporates a "boat" made from a portrait of Jesus painted on a slab of wood, a compass, Coast Guard-issued drinking water and dehydrated chocolate nut cake, and a plastic Sesame Street Ernie doll with a bullet cartridge implanted in its head. Jaqueline R. Lipsky, on the other hand, chose to express her feelings about Miami's taste for immigrant-related images: "Help! Save me! I'm a Miami artist and I'm not Latin" reads a pink flag sticking out of her little rectangular boat filled with bottle corks.

While the second-floor display entertainingly surveys the diversity of an array of South Florida artists, the first-floor exhibition seriously explores themes quite specific to this region. With "Boat Images" and "Becalmed in Miami," Barbara Young A the library's curator -- has provided an unexpected antidote to the numbing sea of summer rerun group shows now on view in area galleries.

Artyfacts
Elsewhere in the library's main branch, an update on the controversy surrounding Edward Ruscha's images of boats in the first-floor children's room (first reported in the June 15 issue of New Times). When the main branch was constructed a decade ago, Metro-Dade Art in Public Places commissioned Ruscha to create paintings throughout the interior of the building; the most notable of these can be seen in the rotunda. Subsequently Ruscha signed a 1987 contract with Art in Public Places to make works for the archway lunettes in specific locations in the library, including the first-floor children's room. Recently some main branch employees have contended that the paintings of silhouetted gray schooners Ruscha did for that room frighten young readers (he intended them to symbolize adventure). And in an effort to brighten up the back wall, last year one former staffer, with the library's blessing, painted her own jungle-theme mural on three of the vacant lunettes.

In July, Metro-Dade Art in Public Places director Vivian Donnell Rodriguez received a letter from Ruscha requesting that the cheerful jungle painting, done without his permission, be covered up. The mural violates the artist's contract, he pointed out, which specifies that the empty spaces in the lunettes are an integral part of his artistic concept. "He wasn't happy about it," relates Rodriguez. "So, in accordance with his contract, he has asked that the mural be removed."

For now the jungle mural remains on the back wall, competing with Ruscha's more subtle images. "The mural will be left there for the time being," says library spokesperson Lainey Brooks. Instead of just restoring the lunettes according to Ruscha's original instructions, Brooks explained, library administrators are waiting to speak with the artist about the situation. She adds the library wants to design a child-friendly room while simultaneously preserving the integrity of Ruscha's work. "They're discussing putting something else in the space," says Brooks. "They want to create an attractive space for the children that is harmonious with the artist's work and the desires of the artist. We will paint over it [the jungle mural], but we need his input on exactly what he wants there and what will go in the space.

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