Return of the Real Native

After a century of imposed style, the Third World takes back its art

The very notion of "modern" in art rests on a historical fallacy. At the height of European colonialism, the movements of fauvism and Cubism adapted the "primitive" as an emblem of artistic liberation from bourgeois academic clichés. The primitive set them free, but they supplied the iconic stereotypes. One example among many: Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (the archetypal twentieth-century work), which groups together the "African" along with allusions to savage sexuality. Once appropriated, these so-called primitive symbols set the wheels of the European avant-garde into motion. Sadly they returned to the Third World as hackneyed images -- validated now as "authentic." It seems as if, when it comes to art, the West has always had the last word on what counts as legit.

Today, with modern art behind us, the question of what counts as contemporary art remains as important. Though the term contemporary hints at something marked by the characteristics of the same period, within the art establishment it means validation (plainly: counting on the dictates of the market).

What goes on is pretty weird. In spite of their avid consumption of pop culture, many contemporary artists feel withdrawn from crucial aspects of their immediate reality, which some see as mere virtual constructions. Yet in order to come to terms with this deficiency, they turn increasingly narcissistic. Young artists seek what they perceive as less oppressive forms, only to alienate themselves from the very notion of art they were spoon-fed to begin with.

Gavin Perry's work can make you feel like you're cruising in a Cutlass, circa 1968
Gavin Perry's work can make you feel like you're cruising in a Cutlass, circa 1968

Details

By various Caribbean artists through March 15 305-891-5577. “You were always on my mind” By various artists through March 1 at Ambrosino Gallery, 769 NE 125th St, North Miami 305-759-1110.
Diaspora Vibe Gallery, Bakehouse Art Complex, 561 NW 32nd St.

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In truth our artistic culture ruptures us from some fruitful aspects of social organization and cultural traditions that are still prevalent in developing countries. Overly concerned with reception, many contemporary artists in the West would cringe at the idea of producing art that is somewhat politically or socially committed.

The show "Immigration and Boundaries," spotlighting artists from Grenada, at the Diaspora Vibe Gallery precisely explores the ambivalent premise of contemporary art in the Third World. I'm not referring solely to the well-known pictorial lexicon. While negotiating with contemporary vocabularies, these artists from the Caribbean reveal a way of seeing and producing art primarily embedded in their own milieu, and it's a different substance than we're used to.

Curator and founder Rosie Gordon-Wallace is trying to illustrate the idea of contemporary found in the Caribbean and how it plays in relation to power politics. Even in the Caribbean, one is received better if legitimized elsewhere. No wonder immigration becomes a desired option for artists and intellectuals. Leaving the islands seems, for many, the only alternative out of anonymity and economic stagnation. Yet for Gordon-Wallace, "those people who stay and produce in the islands remain authentic in their definition."

Susan Morris deals with issues of identity and loss. Her idiosyncratic paintings depict scenelike memories. Some places have changed; some remain the same, especially to those who are left behind. Morris works with traditional primitive-symbolist language, which serves as a tool to explore the art of politics in Grenada, as well as Western perception of Grenadine art. Let's not forget that tourism (one of the biggest sources of revenue) contributes to the perception of the place as primitive and exotic -- a view that remains unchallenged in spite of efforts by some local artists to break those stereotypes. Artist Roger Brahwaite's photographs examine shared heritage in Grenada's history, while articulating themes of oppression and self-determination. He uses a neat collage presentation technique to superimpose mood, color, and image in heterogeneous and commensurate perspectives. His art is so direct that it may seem, at times, a bit didactic. In Roots Brahwaite conveys a symbolic narrative with a photo collage of two different trees growing in opposite directions from a shared trunk. One gets the impression that in the destiny of a small island there is always a past and a future, bridged by a now, which seems timeless and endless amid a vast blue sea.

Raw emotion, texture, and color are present in the art of Oliver Benoit. True to his origins, his doodled, patterned abstractions are evocative of places with plenty of sun, nature, and ocean. At times his designs become microscopic, almost as if denoting nothing more than color-dotted fields, like in his Celebration. Though both Brahwaite's and Benoit's works borrow from contemporary vocabularies and traditions in the West, they are able to impart significant issues and contexts of their own geographies.


On the other side of town "You were always on my mind," curated by artist William Cordova, is the latest show at Ambrosino Gallery, a place that has produced consistent, contemporary exhibitions for almost five years now.

No work in the show necessarily connects with the show's title, which throws off expectations and is a welcoming change. Nicely done. The pieces are brought together by process, according to Cordova. I particularly see his point in Nate Cassie's five peculiar square paintings -- in different color combinations, displaying perpendicular yet slightly asymmetric grid networks. Patterns seem to shift by way of color moods. Surprisingly, the self-revealing optic illusions are guided by the languid pulse of the force of gravity.

Gavin Perry's Switchesis a handsome painting, dense with odd semiotic humor. The combination of luster, parsimony, and color resolution took me to a moment in American car history. Two equidistant clippers in this large, olive-green polished flat space put us inside a cruising 1968 Cutlass Oldsmobile. Perry's color squares in the adjacent room, with shifting rectangular bands, pleasantly drift toward warmer moods.

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