Sculptor Florencio Gelabert -- whose work is the subject of a solo show at the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale -- arrived in Miami in 1990, the first of several dozen Cuban artists who decamped here at the start of the decade. At the time, these young emigres caused a considerable buzz on the local art scene and beyond, as much for the political and social context in which their work had been engendered as for the (generally) high quality of the art itself.
They have since settled into their lives as part of the exile community and adopted new identities as Miami-based artists, with varying degrees of success, or have moved away, seeking greater opportunity in New York and elsewhere. The novelty of the influx has passed, but there were some heady days here in the early Nineties, and the excitement that permeated decorous Coral Gables has certainly not been felt since. Most of it was centered in Fredric Snitzer's gallery on Ponce de Leon, where Snitzer could usually be found in those days trying out his rudimentary Spanish on some recently arrived artist or entertaining one of the museum curators who came from all over to get a glimpse of the new art from Cuba. (Snitzer has since parted ways with all but a few of the Cuban artists and relocated to a less tony neighborhood off Bird Road.)
Gelabert and the other exiles who followed were among the first generation born and educated under Castro's revolution, members of an avant-garde credited with radically changing the accepted notion of art on the island. Very conceptual, their work has largely been characterized by a coarse organic style in installations that incorporate found objects and paintings with heavy expressionist textures, or more minimalist graphics filled with appropriated icons.
The work had immediate aesthetic and ideological appeal on these shores: Derogatory images of Castro or metaphorical depictions of the island as a prison by artists such as Tomas Esson and Carlos Cardenas (both of whom have since moved to New York) proved popular early on with Cuban-American collectors, while the Afro-Cuban-inspired work of Jose Bedia struck a note with multicultural-minded curators nationwide. Generally speaking, what immediately drew viewers to such works was their visceral quality. The aggressive use of symbols infused with social and emotional commitment was particularly strong at the time of the 1994 balsero crisis, when work commonly featured images of boats and rafts and the subject of exile became chillingly pertinent among artists living in Miami, as well as their counterparts in Havana.
Existential Logic, Gelabert's variation on the theme, is one of the best of his works exhibited at the Museum of Art: a rusty, rough welded metal structure that leans against one wall, resembling both a small boat and an open coffin. Questioning the wisdom of trusting oneself to the mercy of the ocean, the vessel-sarcophagus comes across as a starkly realist response to the rafter issue, as well as an open-ended spiritual meditation on death.
For Gelabert, creating a sculpture directly based on real-life events was something of an anomaly, if not a concession. Unlike most of the 36-year-old artist's Cuban colleagues, he does not consider himself a conceptualist; his emphasis is on aesthetics, not ideas, and he has said that his work is "universal."
That assessment is a little hard to swallow when you're looking at Existential Logic, or, for that matter, Sacred Work, a piece consisting of a huge red wooden hammer cleaving a pile of rocks on the floor. Directly above the hammer hangs a circle of suspended sickles touching tip to handle, creating a kind of halo -- or perhaps a crown of thorns. Despite the obvious communist references in this intriguing work, Gelabert denies it's about Cuba. When pressed he says its a symbol of universal strife -- which, coincidentally, is the theme of the entire museum exhibition, entitled Beyond Violence.
Eulogy of Violence is a wall sculpture that features an oxidized flat rectangular tiller blade from a tractor, below which hang four ax blades and a feather duster jutting out from beneath each. The large blade suggests a long ship, for which the ax blades become rudders, the dusters propellers. To Gelabert it's an abstract conglomeration of sharp and soft edges. Has the Miami audience (myself included) been conditioned to search for symbols of Cuban identity and issues such as exile in the work of artists from Cuba, or is Gelabert denying the extent to which he has become dependent on particular images, such as the ships of exile? Both, probably; but it really makes no difference. Works such as these are ultimately strong enough to encourage more open interpretation.
Such is the case with a series of powerful sculptures that can be seen to resemble primitive farm instruments or torture devices. In Fusion IV, for example, a forked tree branch is wrapped in barbed wire, with two menacing rusty sickle blades curving out from its ends, while Antidialectics consists of branches arranged like a wheel around a studded steel hub; sharp knives, arranged counterclockwise, extend from the spokes, suggesting a stagnant circle of hate.
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Gelabert impeccably crafts these objects with skill and imagination. Despite their clean lines, they have a suggestion of grittiness that makes them successfully evocative. Elsewhere, perhaps in an effort to get away from concrete imagery, the artist's work becomes more formalist -- and subsequently less effective. Pieces like To the Death, a polished wooden rod with a metal blade attached to its center, are pretty but not particularly memorable.
The newest work included in the exhibition, Prisoner of Within, is an installation comprising several sculptures: a wooden figure shaped like a bass, smooth in the back, but with nails sticking out the front; a spoked iron ball; a ball and chain; a heavy saucer-shape object. These pieces are cleaner and colder than the earlier works, which have both a cruder sensibility and a strong emotional quality.
Perhaps it is a sign of his assimilation that Gelabert seems to be moving toward a more postminimalist (read: American) style. These clearly transitional works are obvious attempts to create art that is more universal, that cannot be immediately read as "Cuban." But in leaving behind some of the techniques and thematic concerns that were previously present almost in spite of the artist, the passion in Gelabert's work is obscured as well, at least for the time being, by polish.
Through August 3 at the Museum of Art, 1 East Las Olas Blvd, Fort Lauderdale; 954-525-5500.