Living Lessons

Art that explores what we know and whether we should know it

Artists never make art in a void, but autobiographies are more concrete in some peoples' works than in others. Such is the case with the newly opened Blue Door Art Studio's "The School of Unlearning" ("La Escuela de Desaprender"), an installation by the intriguing Paloma Figueiro, a 24-year-old Cuban-Brazilian artist with no previous academic training. Her father was a Brazilian missionary who took his wife to Lagos, Nigeria, where Figueiro and her sister were born amid the civil strife that shook that nation between 1974 and 1976. The endemic social chaos proved too hard on the family, and they separated. Figueiro's Cuban mother took the girls to Miami; her father stayed behind, anchored in his beliefs. Years later Figueiro, who still lives in Miami, returned to Africa to redeem some of her past.

Figueiro's art is bold, instinctive, and viscerally open. So charged is the work that one almost can imagine how difficult it would be to grow up as she did, and how that experience formed her. Her iconography resembles a kind of Neoexpressionist graffiti, with conceptual muscle. Within “The School of Unlearning,” two rows of thinly branched trees guide the observer to a small desk that sits across from a board hanging from a beamed ceiling. This is the school classroom. On the desk, which is perforated by a huge nail, a notebook reads, “The Asylum.” The board is a collage with insectlike depictions and sketches labeled in Latin. This “entomological” lesson is about relationships between males and females, and political exploitation that involves hints of pious dictates. The odd mix is dense yet inviting.

Two machetes affixed to the board illustrate a subtext pervasive in Figueiro's diverse background. Machetes are instruments of labor, used in the sugar-cane fields of the Caribbean and Africa. They can also serve as tools of political oppression and of extraordinary violence; for example, in the mass slaughter in Rwanda and in the amputations in war-infested Sierra Leone. On the trees drawings are clasped to the branches, like bits of data in a dendritelike network. Figueiro's designs look surprisingly accidental, and as can happen with her kind of creative impulsiveness, a few may miss their mark. Yet without a doubt her scribbling communicates immediacy.

No, Nada by Paloma Figueiro
No, Nada by Paloma Figueiro
Works by Paloma Figueiro are on view through July 8, from 2:00 to 7:00 p.m. at the Blue Door Art Studio, 2132 N Miami Ct; 305-572-0022.

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Some of the drawings contain cardinal clauses, such as the zigzag How Can I Explain Myself? or Tanta Mierda por Tu Vida (Your Life for So Much Shit). In Mano Util (Useful Hand) the image mimics a kind of cyborg appendage. The hand represents human evolution. Is this wiry assemblage the learning hand? Figueiro's classroom suggests the doom caused by our mechanical, spiritually empty learning habits and their ruinous outcome for human behavior. In other words learning, depending on what is taught, can be a two-edged sword: The result can be enlightenment or destruction.

To the right of the row of trees is a cordoned-off area filled with trash scattered on the floor. A big sheet of paper among the debris reads: “No puedo mas” (“Can't take it no more”). A computer is hooked to a can of tar, next to Sun Tzu's Taoist manual The Art of War. For some reason I remember what Wang Xi counsels in chapter four of this book: “What everyone knows is not called wisdom.” Beyond the row, to the left, a TV lies on the floor amid a pile of more drawings.

Most of the paintings surrounding the installation are untitled, with a few exceptions. In Cordura a brush is glued to a dilapidated wood panel, dripping black paint on a white swath of latex filled with minute anthropomorphic depictions. Un Mundo Feliz (A Happy World) shows a black blotch of hardened tar encrusted on paper covered in a delicate tapestry of tiny blue and green circles. One untitled piece shows Little Red Riding Hood in ominous company. The artistic gestures are obvious: The wolf is done in three swift strokes of black paint with two little white circles for eyes. The best part is that it looks scared. El Manifiesto de la Locura (Madness Manifesto) repeats the message “I'll soon forget,” which is Xeroxed on a gray surface splattered with zigzag designs.

Even using language Figueiro's graffiti is not so much verbal as it is pictorial. Her lexicon consists of impulsive dabs of paint filled with quieter, cerebral doodles. They evoke childish organic representations -- mostly faces -- where head and trunk make up more of the body than do limbs. Out of layers of seemingly chaotic gestures and collages, her images happen, as if by chance. The surplus of images represents the burden on intelligence that is the overload of information and byte accumulation of our virtual epoch.

For an inaugural show (which is coming to a quick close), Figueiro's is quite promising. It piques interest in what will come next out of this artist's complex autobiographical reservoir. On that note the Blue Door Art Studio is complex in itself, part of more than 16,000 square feet of property that Paul Greco, a young fashion photographer newly arrived from Paris, wants to turn into an arthouse and photo studio with garden. Beware, the place is a little hard to find, tucked away off North Miami Avenue, just to the west of the new performing arts center. Although there is some telltale blue color on the exterior of the building, don't let the “printing” sign confuse you -- the brand-new studio really is there. Greco recently purchased a vacant grassy lot adjacent to his warehouse: “This will become a ... kind of little oasis.” In the past three months, Greco has committed most of his time and energy to restoring the huge property he's developed in the heart of what is sometimes called the Fashion District.

 
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