Home Is Where the Art Is

Two Latin-American artists head south for inspiration

Ramon Alejandro's "Baralanube," at José Alonso Fine Arts, makes us see how tradition still can find its way into a novel production. "Baralanube" includes most of Alejandro's original drawings; collaborations with contemporary exile Cuban writers such as Nestor Diaz de Villegas, Antonio José Ponte, Felix Lizarraga; and even that infamous historic figure in Cuban history, Karl Marx.

Alejandro's work appears in his self-funded publications, Éditions Deleatur. Illustration gives Alejandro the opportunity to work with writers. "This job is a way of getting out of myself," he commented. This double duty makes sense, since both illustration and the art of printing have a common history, their roots stemming from the fifteenth-century printers who were content to use the printed image as a means to gain wider mass accessibility. "Baralanube" is a compendium of Alejandro's highly personal pictorial vocabulary. We see the artist's etchinglike designs, shaded with dotted and delicately linear grooves. His style is reminiscent of the Renaissance bestiary. The figures are classically rendered with a curvaceous, sensual pulse. The fancies come in pairs: soft and hard, human and beast, shell and membrane, life and death. Best is the yes and no coupling, which becomes a way for Alejandro to express the Caribbean's rich mythology. "Yes and no" is the contradiction inherent in a colonial conquest based on deceit, the slave trade, assimilation, and mixed identity.

In the drawings for Marx's treatise, The Eulogy of Crime, we discover the nuances between opposites. "Yes" and "no" appear inserted between two crossed pairs of hands showing off a middle finger. Another illustration from the same text aptly captures Marx's wit and vitriol: From the horn overflowing with cornucopia's riches hangs a fishhook. For Marx unbounded wealth was just another trap of capitalism. Also from Marx's writing comes Alejandro's gun and cock, a dramatic phallic image pointing out the pervasive force of male aggression throughout history.

A he-she beast by Ramon Alejandro
A he-she beast by Ramon Alejandro

The images are strong. For Diaz de Villegas's book of poetry, The Strangler from Flagler Street, Alejandro produces a canine beast whose back is a female torso; the monster's two front legs also are human. In another book by Diaz de Villegas, Anarchy in Disneyland, Alejandro depicts a flying she-he devil with a petard in its hand, sticking out its tongue, breasts, and penis in defiance.

These illustrations are concise in comparison with Alejandro's big fruit drawings, such as Palmarito or El Rompemontes. In these Alejandro creates a Baroque, tropical Arcadia, a world that reminds us of the fantastical forms of the early German and Flemish artists. Alejandro's vision of so much swollen pulp and turgid fruit skin seems ready to spoil under the tropical sun. As a friend remarked, it wasn't hard to imagine what this voluptuous profusion of sultry edibles would smell like.

Still a teenager when he left Cuba in the early Seventies, Alejandro aligned himself with the Parisian avant-garde at a time when the reigning philosophy was Structuralism. He made friends with a circle of Cuban émigrés in Paris, among them the writer and critic Severo Sarduy. Alejandro slowly moved from an iconography of machinelike constructions suspended in space to autobiographical landscapes filled with more human forms surrounded by tropical vegetation and fruits. This conceptual shift cost him dearly. While his early works had been lauded among Structuralist circles, his later output found a stubborn resistance to his stylistic change. Alejandro began his professional style with a clean slate, but gradually his island memories became too strong to be ignored. The artist accepted -- perhaps unconsciously at first -- his "tropical shift." Yet I see both Alejandro's fruits and machines as a fundamental rejection of the void, the fear of losing one's cultural identity in a faraway land.


In Coral Gables, Meza Fine Art gallerycafé opened "La Patria del Sur" ("The Fatherland of the South") by Argentine artist Miguel Angel Giovanetti, a veteran artist with a history of exhibitions in the most prestigious galleries of Buenos Aires. "La Patria del Sur" explores Argentina's civil and political identity through the manipulation of military symbols and their impact on civil society. "La Patria del Sur" is Giovanetti's critique of the omnipresent influence of the military in Argentina's history. The artist carefully plays historically charged militarist symbols, such as the decorated uniform and the helmet, against civilian symbols such as regional shields, republican declarations, official stamps. Giovanetti then questions the fairness of the nation's articulated history by exposing the images of the exterminated aboriginal populations of South America.

These works are done on a type of vellum paper, which Giovanetti manipulates on both sides. On the front he draws jingoist emblems; on the reverse side he applies primary colors straight from the tube. The effect evokes a Rio Plata-colored mood, though it's one overwhelmed by the militarist commentary.

Against this setting we better understand pieces such as Escudo y Morrión, (Shield and Helmet), which ostentatiously unveils both symbols over a red and Argentine-flag-blue background. The piece aptly expresses the cost of conquest in the resulting human suffering and exploitation. In Gloria a ... (Glory to ...) wealth and power go hand in hand: Images of historic leaders are subverted by a collage of currency bills against the paper's back surface. Finally, in Sólo un Poco de Luz, (Just a Bit of Light), a pompously decorated general shares the stage with an aboriginal statuette. Giovanetti's musings contain a powerful dose of irony. His critique of Argentine militarist culture touches a deeper nerve in South American, and by extension, Caribbean cultural manifestations.

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