Water, Water Everywhere

Not surprisingly, boats, the most obvious symbols of exodus and displacement, have emerged as central pictorial components in the work of contemporary Cuban exile artists. The images of watercraft created by Cuban immigrants to Miami typically document real-life occurrences -- most recently the rafter crisis in the summer of 1994 -- and trigger an immediate emotional response in viewers, one that has been conditioned by news photographs and television images of those same, often tragic, scenes.

In Written on Water, an extensive series of conceptual paintings and sculptures now on view at Gutierrez Fine Arts on Miami Beach, Lydia Rubio undertakes a probing analysis of the iconography of ships and their inextricable ties to politics, commerce, and personal histories, notably her own. Rubio, now in her mid-forties, came to the United States from Cuba as an adolescent; it was a voyage that dramatically changed her life. (The show's title, incidentally, quotes poet John Keats's epitaph: "Here Lies One Whose Name Is Writ on Water.") Rather than literally document current events in these works, the artist has chosen to depict quasi-fictitious episodes inspired by the politically charged climate that has pervaded the Cuba-South Florida passage over the last 50 years.

On one side of the gallery hang Rubio's fourteen "Chronicles": small realist oil-on-wood portraits of ships -- tankers, cargo carriers, ocean liners -- on the open seas in varying weather conditions. A description of each boat and its location is written in Spanish or English on each canvas in the form of a ship's log entry. One painting, for example, reads, "August 1962. Russian icebreaker Mockba on a Caribbean mission." The message cryptically refers to the Soviet Union's paternalistic attitude toward Cuba during the height of the Cold War. Rubio's paintings are replete with innuendo and inside jokes, best suited to the bilingual reader with knowledge of the Cuba-Miami connection. Accordingly she locates one ocean liner among swirling dark clouds at "Mira por Vos Passage," an actual geographic point off the eastern tip of Cuba whose name would seem to hold a caveat for embarking exiles: "Look for Yourself."

Other works succeed in capturing the surrealistic quality of exodus. In one part of the triptych El Sue*o (The Dream), a tanker eerily floats in the air, suspended above a green sea. And August, 1994, la Lancha de Regla Leaving the Bay of Havana depicts the somewhat incongruous sight of a ferry chugging out to sea under a night sky. But this particular image, fantastic as it seems, is quite accurate: A ferry to Regla, one of the suburbs of greater Havana that must be reached by boat from the city, was hijacked by desperate Cubans during the 1994 crisis.

A Harvard-trained architect who studied design in Rome, Rubio takes a traditional, representational approach to these works. Her intense, natural palette and realistically detailed renditions of ships recall the efforts of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish maritime painters, as well as those in eighteenth-century England A painters who celebrated great vessels in an age of discovery. But while these works highlight Rubio's talent as a draftswoman, they are somewhat stiff in their execution, and their impact is dulled by the complex intentions of her overarching concept.

With "Chronicles" Rubio attempts to pull back and analyze events specific to Cuba in a global -- almost objective -- manner, rather than take the more visceral approach found in most Cuban-American art. This ploy perhaps works too well, because these paintings are virtually devoid of emotion. And the same can be said of her four sculptures, scale models of ships representing the four elements (water, earth, air, fire) that Rubio has constructed of wood and various metals. All four are impeccably made, but the results are merely decorative.

Twelve paintings hanging on the other side of the gallery more successfully fuse ideas and images. This series, "Mar de la Furia" (Furious Sea), consists of similarly small works A some round, some square A depicting ships. But here Rubio chooses to experiment with form, framing the boat images with circles within the square canvases, and squares within the round canvases, while at the same time she creates a tension between the figurative and the abstract. For example, Deseo de (Longing for) shows two schooners lolling on a horizon that's erupting into a fiery sunset, while in Angustia Amarilla (Yellow Anguish), a tanker explodes into a glorious fireball.

These works better convey Rubio's lyrical, expressionist side A and cover more personal ground. The twelve canvases correspond to both the months of the year and Rubio's own horoscope, illustrating a yearlong seafaring journey that the artist plotted out by laying her astrological chart over a map of the Florida peninsula, the surrounding Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea, and nearby islands (Rubio intentionally deleted Cuba from the map). Some viewers might consider this technique spiritual in nature, as the artist does; others might find it hokey. Whatever, the execution of these works was obviously a passionate endeavor, with "Mar de la Furia" posing an interesting puzzle that imposes the artist's life on the historical events that have shaped her experience.

A recent tour of New York City's gallery-choked SoHo area turned up a number of exhibitions evincing a backlash against art-world trends. There were those that demonstrated a revindication of the values of straight white men, as seen in one show that features paintings in the style of rock-magazine covers and album-cover artwork. There were revolts against the current sluggish art market, notably in several shows of tired (but still expensive) work by Eighties art stars. There were also signs of a backlash against the festering atmosphere of censorship: One artist staged his own tacky porno videos; another covered the gallery floor with hundreds of latex casts of, as the gallery owner delicately put it, "her anus." All seemed sad commentaries on the state of art in the U.S.

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