Above the Original Din
Primitive iconography is dramatic and seductive, but it also can be trite and manipulative. How to tell the difference is the key: In general look for consistency of symbols and the substance behind the style. The primitive must deliver immediate expression, raw and succinct. Unfortunately of all the stuff we see, little seems genuine. We are cheated by easy images from a third world exporting a stereotyped past they never knew, or the Western idea of how that paradise must have looked. That's why "Decade 1990-2000," an exhibition of paintings by the Cuban artist Andres Puig at the Barrio Museum, stands out in the genre's primordial forest.
Among recent additions to the Cuban primitive vein, Puig's work remains modest yet potent. His images are not sleekly grandiose, as José Bedia's are; or academic, as Juan Boza's were; or ritualistic, as young Cuban painter Roberto Diago's are. Puig doesn't go installation, either. His generation leans more toward the challenge of the pigment and that abstract quality of expressing the sacred through the brush on canvas.
Instead of dwelling on urban Afro-Cuban customs, Puig mines an Afro-Cuban pictorial style grounded in agrarian traditions. (Puig himself is a native Indian from the Sierra Maestra.) I like that Puig has moved from a primitive-Expressionist style to a more refined, almost baroque Pan-American imagery. Treat yourself to a serious pictorial trip through the well-known geometric African patterns as well as Puig's pantheon: stars, dotted circles, fish eyes, birds' heads, isolated beaks and paws, and other more demonic looking visions.
Puig solves his primitive riddles by dreaming. For the Surrealists dreams are far more than just a poetic theme or means of inspiration; they represent a total experience, both physical and metaphysical, from which man will emerge different, changed. Puig's totemic style reminds me of Surrealist leitmotifs. Think of Max Ernst and Brancusi, who also worked with such emblems, though in different contexts. Yet not all his recent work fits this mold.
There's the less baroque, more playful Miroesque Puig, as seen in his Pantalla de Luz, or his beautiful Paraíso Cósmico. In comparison to his semi-Expressionist works, I prefer Puig's more figurative Changó y Yemayá and Changó y Oya. And Puig's amazing diptych Panteón Yoruba shows an already fully developed style.
Most of Puig's canvases are treated in a peculiar style of Pointillism, creating the pictorial elements that emerge from a network of white lines and splotches (the untouched original gesso coat). Exposure to the mossy topography of the Sierras may explain Puig's fondness for the greenish and reddish saturation of color and texture in his work. His orishas, Afro-Cuban deities, also sprout from this terrain.
Puig also can be political, as in his Grito del Tercer Mundo (Scream of the Third World), Los Que no Llegaron (Those Who Didn't Come), or the dramatic El Látigo Que Nos Han Dado (The Beating We've Got), the only installation and a central piece of the show. These uncover Puig's own pain, and those historic events beyond him. But I think the artist should use this theme sparingly; his style strikes me as poetic enough that no political crutch is needed.
Frank Chinea, a local entrepreneur, is the Barrio Museum's director. Through Puig and other artists such as Sylvia Cejas and Lee Cohen, Chinea would like to expose the public to the barrio art down by the Miami River, an area whose history and charm could make it "the next bohemian hood of Miami," he says.
"Hernan's Merit and the Nouveau Sissies," by artist Hernan Bas at Fredric Snitzer Gallery, is another exhibition by a young New World School of the Arts alumnus under Snitzer's wing. Bas's Egon Schiele-like Expressionist sketching successfully dabs at sociopolitical satire, bringing a stereotypical magazine cover boy to life from the pages of "fag limbo," as Bas puts it. What we get is a young Bas look-alike man in toned-down, PG-rated homoerotic camp episodes, either alone or with other boys. It is Bas's gamble with public opinion over what does or does not count as socially deviant.
I thoroughly enjoyed Bas's short and biting manifesto -- don't miss it. He unveils the "nouveau sissy," a fad tripper blind to his own sexual intentions. He takes a stylistically dubious stance in order to deride "fag limbo" (a lesser kind of imagery than what Bas actually is capable of), though the artist is smart enough to include himself in the ambivalence.
Finally Alejandra Padilla's "Providence," at Diana Lowenstein Gallery, is a pleasant surprise. Padilla's dizzying kaleidoscopic collages with swelling, shrinking, warping patterns were amusing. She adroitly cuts and pastes from the world of high fashion and advertising, testing your perceptual experience and conceptions. Her geometric reiterations are never tedious; they make you ponder the value of a motif and the relative (in?) significance of a point of view: Stand back, look straight, and her proliferations become calmly cohesive.
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