Lamstravaganza!

Why the outrage? MAM's Wifredo Lam show is art at its finest.

Returning to Cuba after nearly 20 years in exile, Lam exploded. He fused elements of Afro-Cuban symbolism with the aesthetics of the European avant-garde, soon painting his masterpiece The Jungle, one of the most important works in the collection of New York's Museum of Modern Art.

Study for The Jungle (1943), a striking oil-on-paper piece mounted on canvas, is on view at MAM. It depicts the hybridized, spiritually charged part-human/part-animal figures, inhabiting lush tropical thickets that best reflect Lam's mature style.

The work depicts a mysterious Afro-Cuban deity with a gibbous moon-shaped head and a monstrously proportioned foot. A snake slithers against a sugar-cane stalk off to the side, while a foxlike bird appears suspended in midair. The mysterious forms are rendered in subdued tangerine, lime, chalk white, and red hues.

Dark Malembo, God of the Crossroads: Not a horse we'd want to ride.
Dark Malembo, God of the Crossroads: Not a horse we'd want to ride.

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Through May 18. Miami Art Museum, 101 W Flagler St, Miami; 305-375-3000, www.miamiartmuseum.org.

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One of the works from this period that should freeze spectators in their tracks is the ominous Le Sombre Malembo, Dieu du Carrefour (Dark Malembo, God of the Crossroads), also from 1943.

The painting detonates with the dazzling tropical palette of Lam's homeland, with rich greens, blues, yellows, pinks, and purples filling the canvas. Two powerful figures dominate the composition. The one on the left sports a horse's tail; the one on the right a horse's hooves. Both have round, horned heads, a nod to Eleggua, the Afro-Cuban deity and trickster figure who guards the crossroads.

In Santería, priests who channel the spirits of powerful deities are called caballo, or horse, describing they are being "ridden" by an orisha during possession.

Several of Lam's paintings on exhibit feature female subjects with horse heads, tails, and hooves, which directly reference spiritual transformation.

Perhaps the most arresting work here is La Rumeur de la Terre (Rumblings of the Earth), a sprawling horizontal painting from 1950 rendered in dark monochrome tones and loaded with palpable erotic tension. Hallucinatory, almost abstract figures populate the scene of what appears to be a black magic ritual.

Although there are plenty of compelling works from Lam's later production — including a silly untitled Jackson Pollock-inspired dripfest — his stunning works from the Forties and Fifties steal the thunder.

It's difficult to imagine anyone protesting such compelling art. But while there have been no public denouncements of the MAM show, the Herald's blogosphere has been swamped with troglodytes slamming Lam's Castro connections.

Local dealer David Castillo expresses surprise at the reactions, noting that art is a fundamental expression of freedom separate from the opinions of those who create it.

"This is a wonderful show for Miami because of the Cuban population here. It is a rare and special treat focusing on Cuba's most important artist, encompassing his entire career, and one we should all be proud of," Castillo says.

For anyone here who doubts it, a visit to MAM sweeps away the cobwebs. Cubans on either side of the pond might now call Lam their island's greatest painter, but the world claimed him long before Fidel appeared on U.S. radar. Lam's art belongs to the ages, and the unassailable proof has finally arrived on our doorstep.

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