Tales of the Macabre

By the late Eighties, the combination of Eiriz's refusal to bow to government pressure in the Sixties and her self-imposed retirement from painting had given her mythic status. There was renewed interest in her work by a younger generation of artists, who, in their own work, had begun to express subversive criticism of the system; they saw her as a stoic role model. In one of the testimonials included here, Umberto Pena, a graphic designer and student of Eiriz who now lives in Miami, writes, "She was able to show us the other side of her island. [She was] inspired by Goya's statement, 'The dreams of reason produce monsters,' as a leitmotif."

Once again the Ministry of Culture recognized Eiriz's talent, and she received several artistic awards in the late Eighties. In 1991 she had a solo show in a Havana gallery, her first exhibition of paintings since 1964.

As the Fort Lauderdale exhibition allows viewers to observe, Eiriz's most recent works, painted from the time she arrived in Miami to just before her death, are stylistically and thematically consistent with those from the Sixties. This is not to say that she simply was rehashing old ideas; in fact the artist's talent in her later years was as vital as ever, and Miami provided a new vantage point for her bleak, biting observations on society.

Ten white and black canvases line the far wall of the gallery. With titles such as Descendimiento (Descent), Maternidad (Maternity), El Lado Oscuro (The Dark Side), and No Somos Uno (We Are Not One), they are like enormous flashcards illustrating humanity's common triumphs and tragedies. Here, Eiriz's figures are more clearly drawn than in her previous works, although they retain the familiar blank eyes and open mouths; however, unlike those earlier amorphous subjects, these figures have severed limbs. For Eiriz, according to the catalogue, these mutilated "bonsai" beings represented the repression of the individual in society. But they must have had a more personal meaning for the artist. Eiriz suffered from polio as a child, and she used leg braces for the rest of her life; frequently she made public appearances in a wheelchair. "She had a very intimate familiarity with pain," notes Barciela.

The artist's final paintings are more colorful than her earlier work, and they suggest an even more discernible organic sensibility. From a distance, Es Lo que Parece (It Is What It Seems) looks like a muted mountain landscape. But a closer examination reveals it to be a mountain made up of crowded human figures who hold their hands over their ears. They look down on a field where a white tube lies; the tube resembles a sewer pipe covered with a shroud, and the outline of a skull -- or perhaps a monster -- can be seen lurking inside of it. (The tube also resembles a worm, which could be a reference to gusanos, as Cuban exiles are known.)

Vereda Tropical (Tropical Path) is another dark look at the lush tropical landscape usually identified with Cuba. Beside a dirt road that extends off into the sunset, Eiriz has painted a hill composed of a jumble of faces; they lie staring, witnesses to the barren land, the moral vacuousness of a people.

Eiriz's paintings undeniably speak of the artist's own place and time in history. But these works are far from didactic. Possessed with an extremely evocative power, they lead the viewer to discover multiple layers of meaning. "She never would describe her paintings or interpret the paintings," Barciela recalls, remembering her aunt. "She said that everyone saw different things in them, and what everybody saw was right."

Antonia Eiriz: Tribute to a Legend. Through November 26. Museum of Art, 1 E Las Olas Blvd, Ft Lauderdale; 525-5500.

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