Taking off from the turbulence of life in El Despegue
Taking off from the turbulence of life in El Despegue

Creatures Without Comforts

Cuban artist Lazaro Sigler's "Las Criaturas de la Isla" (“The Island's Creatures”), at Domingo Padron Art Gallery in Coral Gables, is an absurd little show because it uses absurdity to dissect a much harsher world. But we almost missed it on a Friday night, after a circuitous first-of-the-month tour of gallery openings. With its small window, this space doesn't scream “gallery,” squeezed as it is between a computer store and a flower shop in a kitschy late-Seventies mall along Ponce de Leon Boulevard.

Inside, the images are more complex. Sigler's metaphoric iconography is akin to the work of Gothic painter Hieronymus Bosch and filmmakers Terry Gilliam and Emir Kusturica. His art explores the bizarre reality of today's political subjects under totalitarian rule. Sigler became an artist while doing time as a political prisoner in Cuba at the end of the Eighties. In the early Nineties, his father suffered a stroke and became paralyzed. “Our lives changed forever. Things were really hard,” Sigler recalls, referring to the fate of having a big family with a handicapped member during Cuba's so-called special period. “For some reason I used my father as a model; I studied his face, his suffering. He became a model for my art.”

Sigler became obsessed with the lives of the elderly. “I would frequent nursing homes and look at old people's behavior in search of answers to my father's condition,” he remembers. The artist soon decided that senility is equivalent to a kind of regression into infancy. “I concluded that the older we are, the more naive we become.” Later, according to Sigler, he came up with the idea of designing “toys” for older people (some of these studies are part of the exhibition). One result of Sigler's research was the shock of returning to the past only to find something new. “I've been exploring this theme of coming back to one's past. I call it recycling,” Sigler offers.


"Las Criaturas de la Isla"

Domingo Padron Art Gallery, 1518 Ponce de Leon Blvd, Coral Gables

By Lazaro Sigler. On view through September 30; 305-444-9360.

Diaspora Vibe Gallery.
At the Bakehouse Art Complex, 561 NW 32nd St, 305-759-1110 www.diasporavibe.com

But there's also something else: Sigler takes a particular moment from modern Cuba and re-creates it in a fantastic world very much his own. We see baffled elderly people at the point of physical or spiritual departure, surrounded by a collection of memories and wasted utility. Old sewing machines, hats, kerosene lamps, worn military boots, bicycle wheels, silverware, pieces of china, scales, and empty cans all seem to belong in some early twentieth-century children's sci-fi book. They all keep company with disheveled cats, flying fish, donkeys, and gigantic storks -- their long bills adorned with all sort of trinkets. To top it off, the people live above an underworld populated by elves, who mimic the actions of their human counterparts. Is this not a hilarious metaphor for class inequality in the land of utopian equality?

Sigler is a pessimistic social-moralist with no illusions. His paintings show traumatized people who prefer to forget -- which may explain some of his own explorations of senility. In paintings such as Cazadores de Azulejos (Tile Hunters) and La Yagua de los Locos (The Tree of the Mad), humanity seems wasted by man's very presence in it.

These works resemble cryptic Bosch-like sermons, often addressed to those initiated in similar authoritarian experiences. Sigler's choices of symbols represent the eventual entrapment of man in the evils of political abuse. The images invariably hint at the trauma of leaving something behind. In El Despegue (Take Off) we spot the artist himself, dressed in a prisoner uniform, riding a picúa (a paper plane) over a heap of old trash. He carries a typewriter and a lamp, as a cat struggles to keep its balance on the tip of the plane. One thing is certain: These characters have lost something very important and they need to reclaim it. Yet, amid the upheaval, they appear unpretentious, even candid, in a duplicitous world. They may even suggest the opposite of pessimism: Wherever it may be, there is always the promise of a better life where history can be recovered.

On the other side of town in Wynwood, the Diaspora Vibe Gallery opened its last Friday of the month with a show by Bolivian artist Rimaj Sungo Barrientos. The concept behind DVG at the Bakehouse Art Complex on NW 32nd Street, is to give immigrant artists a chance to show their works -- in particular, artists not from Cuba, says Rosie Gordon-Wallace, DVG's director. “Many non-Cuban artists in this community felt they were not welcome by the local galleries,” she says. So four years ago Gordon-Wallace came up with the idea of creating a community center to show art by local immigrant artists. It wasn't easy at first. “Diaspora started in my room,” she explains. Since 1997, when DVG opened at the Bakehouse, Gordon-Wallace has produced about 30 exhibitions with artists from Haiti, Martinique, Jamaica, Grenada, Puerto Rico, and Bolivia. DVG also has consistently shown African-American art. “We try to explore significant themes that have an impact in our community,” Gordon-Wallace notes with satisfaction. “Not long ago we created a hip-hop environment for our show at the Bakehouse. The music reflected the art.”

DVG conducts an annual summer miniresidency from May to October, where each artist works in the DVG studio space and eventually is exhibited on a night dubbed “Final Fridays.” The evening tries to capture the essence of the DVG artist of the month, including the cuisine of his or her home country, as well as the music, poetry, and, of course, the work produced during the miniresidency.

There was indeed a groove at the Bakehouse on a recent Friday, and as promised, tasty food, live music, and poetry readings. It felt real. The next last-Friday-of-the-month at Diaspora Vibe is a two-ticket show by African-American Torkwase Dyson and Susan Mains, from Grenada.


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