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.

One numbing source of desperation for American artists is the fact that this past summer Congress passed legislation to cut federal arts funding. The casualties are starting to mount. A case in point is the Southern Arts Federation/National Endowment for the Arts Southern Regional Arts Fellowship Program; as of 1996, the grant program for Southern sculptors will be discontinued. An exhibition of work by this year's ten sculpture fellows is now on view at the South Florida Art Center's Ground Level gallery on Lincoln Road in Miami Beach.

The exhibition at Ground Level has the feel of a garden. And the work of half of these artists does in fact resemble various types of gardens or natural elements. In the gallery's window, Eunice Kambara, from Tampa, has suspended rows of small Plexiglas panels (about the size of piano keys) from wires above a sandy floor. Each panel is inscribed with a letter; it takes some time to discern, but together they spell out "Row, Row, Row Your Boat." And in fact Kambara's piece, which she has called Round, has a musical sensibility; the viewer can imagine the tinkling of the glasslike panels, particularly at night when a spotlight reflects off them and lends the work the illusion of movement. It also exudes the meditative quality of an oriental garden.

That idea is taken more literally in Xuhong Shang's Garden to the Unknowing Pilgrim. Shang, from Savannah, has constructed a Buddhist garden with a wooden bridge and a pebble-covered floor below it. One area of stones is darker than the rest, suggesting a grave or the shadow of a spirit. But the work does not quite succeed; the bridgelike platform that viewers walk on to experience the pebble garden is clunky and does not provide the spiritual atmosphere that the artist apparently sought.

Nearby, Roxie Thomas creates a revisionist Garden of Eden. Her glass and metal sculptures, which rest on a carpet of rock salt, represent ancient women who the artist feels did not receive their due in the Bible. Her Eve is a glass and metal mesh swing; its two chambers are filled with white ceramic eggs, symbolizing the mother of all things. Her Jezebel is a giant glass spinning top lying on its side; inside it she has placed bones that resemble human ribs. Elsewhere the artist offers a box (titled Anonymous) lined with mirrors, designed to celebrate the unnamed women in biblical pages. The execution of these works is impeccable. Thomas, from Sarasota, subscribes to a formalist, modernist style, using traditional shapes and sleek lines.

Upstairs the work of Carol Jacque, the only Miami-based artist in the show, has more of an edge to it. Jacque, who previously worked with used crutches and bandages as media, continues to be interested in the language of everyday artifacts. In her untitled piece she places wooden folding chairs back to back on round platforms that look like gears; a white mailbox has been attached to the underside of each chair. The platforms look as though they should revolve, but when one attempts to move the sprockets, the gears stick fast and refuse to budge. Jacque has a fine sensibility for the placement and juxtaposition of her materials, and her installation offers an intriguing comment on relationships and communication A or the lack of it.

These and other sculptural works by artists from Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina show little of the provocative bravura of the art (made by Mapplethorpe, Serrano, et al.) that has fueled the federal funding debate. One almost wishes these ten had used this opportunity to act out a bit more. Instead, they used their grant money to -- Sen. Jesse Helms's opinions to the contrary -- work hard to develop personal artistic visions. This is a dignified swan song that reminds us of the need for regional public support for artists living outside New York and other jaded urban art centers.

Written on Water. Through December 30. Gutierrez Fine Arts, 1628 Pennsylvania Ave, Miami Beach; 674-0418.

Southern Arts Federation/NEA Fellows in Sculpture Exhibition. Through December 30. Ground Level, 1035 Lincoln Rd, Miami Beach; 674-8278.

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