Canvasing the Caribbean

Tie-dyed, graffiti-scrawled canvas huts and paint-spattered model kayaks have turned Fredric Snitzer's new gallery off Bird Road into a funky tent city. Wooden rods suspended from the ceiling support the sunset-colored, vaguely Bedouin-style structures; visitors can enter one titled El Gran Canibal through an open flap and see a childish patch of sky painted inside. Two steel, bullet-shaped kayaks encrusted with drops of paint dangle overhead like mobiles. A third boat fashioned from pine beams rests in the middle of the gallery floor.

Puerto Rican artist Rafael Ferrer was already a colorful art-world figure when he erected some of these tents and others like them at New York City's Nancy Hoffman Gallery in 1977. The show caused a sensation: Time magazine critic Robert Hughes even touted Ferrer as the art world's answer to writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez. During a decade in which many of his peers tended toward minimalism, the Puerto Rican artist made lusty use of a wide variety of materials, irreverently indulging in an untidy show of excess. More significantly, Ferrer's works were seen as groundbreaking expressions of Caribbean culture at a time when contemporary Latin American art was an exotic novelty for most Americans, who had little exposure to what was being produced outside the United States and Europe. Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, first published in translation in 1970, piqued gringos' interests in the surreal Latin sensibility now commonly known as magic realism. But American museums had yet to adopt the "multicultural" exhibition policies that have since brought Latin American art into the institutional mainstream.

Ferrer moved to the U.S. in the late Sixties, after a period spent scandalizing a rigid Puerto Rican art establishment with sexually explicit paintings and disturbing installations of old shoes, car parts, and other junk that spoke of the country's social ills. The younger brother of actor Jose Ferrer, the painter worked as a Broadway stage manager and as a drummer on Upper Manhattan's salsa circuit; he also taught at the Philadelphia College of Art, where Fred Snitzer was his student. As a visual artist, he first became known in the States for conceptual works that valued process over product -- in one instance he placed blocks of ice on the doorstep of the Whitney Museum and let them melt.

Ferrer's Seventies works reveal the influence of abstract expressionism, particularly Jackson Pollock's frenetic canvases. And his association with surrealism via the Spanish artist Eugenio Granell, his teacher at the University of Puerto Rico, is apparent in his use of found objects and a sense of spontaneity. But while he makes use of artistic precedents, Ferrer's work retains a biting Caribbean flavor. This installation, Works from the '70s, is loud and showy, celebrating the aesthetics of a barrio culture that Americans tend to view as tacky and inferior: Tropical colors that typically symbolize peace and restoration for the Northerner are applied to his tents aggressively. Scribbles on the canvas surfaces recall graffiti on the urban shacks that tourists don't want to see when they visit vacation islands. Menacing-looking palm trees appear on the side of El Gran Canibal; the piece's title refers to the United States, which Ferrer has called "the North American giant, tired and bleeding from excesses which were never meant to produce pleasures except perhaps those of a puritanical order...." Images of clocks are painted on a larger tent, Sahara, that evokes visions of refugees wandering endlessly across the desert, and throughout the world. Plunked down here, the tents create separate spaces in the gallery, suggesting not so much shelters as the compartmentalized confines of all kinds of ghettos. The whimsical kayaks, on the other hand, look fast and free, a means of escape.

Viewing this fantastic installation today evokes a hippie trip in a VW bus; the gallery could serve as an MTV set for a Phish Unplugged concert. But the vibrant huts and fanciful flotilla amount to more than a psychedelic flashback. Ferrer's visceral work is an affecting meditation on the enduring themes of migration and displacement, the pleasures of possibility, and the sobering tedium of everyday life.

American abstract expressionism was a great influence on a group of avant-garde artists in Cuba in the Fifties. For Los Once (The Eleven), as for the members of the New York School, abstraction was the route to freedom from established artistic doctrines -- in Los Once's case, notions of "national" Cuban art and "typical" subject matter like tropical landscapes and still lifes. The group opposed the government of Fulgencio Batista and demonstrated its discontent by staging alternative exhibitions across the street from national salons and noisily refusing to participate in public art projects and other state programs.

Now the work of Guido Llinas, an Afro-Cuban artist who was one of the founders of the group and who has lived in Paris since 1963, is the subject of a show at the Art Museum at Florida International University, curated by museum director Dahlia Morgan.

The exhibition's title, Guido Llinas and Los Once After Cuba, is somewhat a misnomer, in that not all of the artists affiliated with the group actually went into exile, and the work of only five members is included here -- Llinas, Hugo Consuegra, Raúl Martinez, Tomas Oliva, and Antonio Vidal. This makes some sense: Though Los Once disbanded in 1955, these five members continued exhibiting together until 1963. But other than Llinas (with 27 paintings on display), the artists are represented by only two works each, and those are all from the late Fifties (Oliva's black metal sculptures are undated).

Martinez still lives in Cuba, where he became much more prominent after Castro's reign began, appropriating a Warholesque pop style incorporating Cuban iconography. Critic Gerardo Mosquera writes that "the image of the Revolution that will endure in Cuban painting is [in] the works executed by Raúl Martinez in the Sixties and Seventies." That may well be; it would have been interesting to see some of his paintings from this markedly different later period. And the show certainly would have benefited from the addition of work by more of the artists. Not included here is the great Antonia Eiriz, who had loose ties to Los Once in the beginning. She moved to Miami in 1993 and continued painting here until her death in 1995. Her sublime canvases express tortured emotions and at times allude to the repressive policies of the Castro regime.

By including these and other works, the museum's exhibition could have told a more thorough story about this innovative era in Cuban art history. The truth is that despite the show's name and an intriguing catalogue essay on Los Once by local scholar Juan Martinez, this is really a retrospective of the work of Llinas. It traces his output as he departs from post-cubist abstraction to pictures reminiscent of Wifredo Lam's that incorporate Afro-Cuban religious symbols (the most interesting) to more expressive colorful canvases. There are some emotional, engaging paintings here, but by the time you get to his later works (through 1994) it all feels rather repetitive. And the scant paintings by other artists seem like an afterthought. Had Morgan fulfilled the promise of the exhibition title, this would have been a smashing show. As it is, it's merely a tease.

Works from the '70s. Through April 8 at Fredric Snitzer Gallery, 3078 SW 38th Ct; 448-8976.

Guido Llinas and Los Once After Cuba. Through April 2 at the Art Museum at FIU, SW 8th Street and 107th Avenue; 348-2890.

Admission to both shows is free.

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