A white horse clops across the small stage in the Museum of Contemporary Art's pavilion gallery. Steady on articulated legs made from wooden dowels and metal hooves that formerly capped the ends of chainlink fence posts, the steed carries St. Barbara, an oil-can warrior with the beatific plaster face of a household Madonna, framed by Coke-bottle-cap curls.
The horse bows, and soon Pablo Cano emerges from behind the stage to join the rest of his cast: All over the gallery, marionettes stand on the floor, swaying on strings that descend from the ceiling, conversing in shadows on the concrete walls. Cano, who has the quiet, congenial manner of a small-town pastor, becomes as ebullient as a stage mother when he introduces his characters, twirling Jean-Honore Fragonard's strings and fondly patting St. Catherine's shiny cigarette-foil skirt as he walks around the room. A violinist fashioned from an upturned ribbed metal garbage can and fitted with a streamlined oval reading-lamp head sits in the corner. The puppet holds a worn bow that moves mechanically back and forth across its instrument, so that it appears to be playing strains of Vivaldi emitting from a speaker by the wall. A grinning, horned pianist whose body is a Red Devil varnish-remover can bobs over the keyboard of a tiny white grand.
The show, which represents twelve years of work and includes characters from two puppet plays as well as other marionettes and sculpture fashioned from found materials, is Cano's first solo museum exhibition. It's about time; Cano is one of Miami's most ingenious artists, and one of the most neglected in terms of public exposure. A circle of local collectors has long been familiar with his work, which the 36-year-old Miami artist creates in his house in Little Havana, a house adorned with ceramics he fires in his back-yard kiln and neatly packed with chandelier crystals, chair legs, dolls, Clorox bottles, and other castoffs he usually discovers in the street.
"I like to find things accidentally," says Cano, whose round baby face is sharpened by a short beard. "Objects can have new functions. It's almost like life re-creating itself in front of you."
Cano's work obviously follows in the tradition of Picasso's sculpture, Dada objects, surrealist still lifes, and pop art assemblage. It also has common ties with installations by other contemporary artists who use recycled materials, some of whom are represented in a group show, "Tableaux," in MoCA's main gallery. But Cano's intent departs from that of the artists in the other room. Paul McCarthy's mechanized, deformed Native American woman doll, for example, which beats a tom-tom while carrying a man on her back, is an eerie comment on social ills and Disneyish fantasy. And the junk assemblages by the late Ed Kienholz and his wife Nancy Reddin Kienholz are social and political statements that often bring the seamier side of American life into the gallery. But even though Cano says he feels some affinities with the work of the Kienholzes, his imagination resides in a courtly old world populated by princesses, angels, saints, and gallants. Inspired by medieval icons, classical painting, popular mythology, and his parents' yellowed photographs of the privileged life in pre-revolutionary Cuba, he is a committed romantic, a conscious innocent who creates art devoid of cynicism and shy of calculated intellectual concepts.
"I do mean it," Cano insists. "I do place art on an altar and I don't want to take it off that altar. For me, beauty is very important."
Cano's work is truly enchanting, especially when it is displayed as extensively and thoughtfully as it is at MoCA. But the products of the artist's fairy-tale imagination could be mere saccharine trifles if it weren't for the sophistication with which he works, and his unfailing ingenuity and sense of humor with materials. One character's skirt is a stretched canvas painted on the front with an abstract expressionist design. The back sports a pop art collage of flattened cracker boxes and part of a Danish cookie tin. A gentleman's "gloved" hands are cut from a metal serving tray with a flowered design. A rusty chain lock becomes a dapper pocket-watch fob when attached to a marionette's midsection. One version of the artist's Casanova figure (not included in the show) has a toilet handle for a heart that "flushes" out discarded lovers. Cano points to a perforated ornament glued to the bosom of Marquise de Pompadour, who is made from the kind of round steel air vents found on the roofs of buildings. "See, she's very Cuban, because her brooch is an espresso coffee filter," the artist asserts, straight-faced.
Another character, a trumpeting herald whom Cano employs as a narrator in his puppet plays, has a guitar for a body. The figure immediately recalls Picasso, but Cano says it actually represents his father, Pablo Sr., a classical guitarist.
Cano became interested in the arts at a very young age. His mother Margarita, who formerly worked in the Art Services Department at the Metro-Dade Public Library, paints religious icons. Cano remembers that when he was a child, she would leave her paintings on the air conditioner to dry. He soon started making his own pictures of saints, concentrating on the story of St. George and the dragon, which most captivated his imagination. By age eight he was also working in clay, creating little statues of the Madonna and child and other figures.
Cano attended Miami-Dade Community College and the Maryland Institute College of Art. By the time he arrived in New York to join the master's program in painting at Queens College, he was struggling to define his own style.
"I didn't know what to do," he remembers. "I was in my twenties and I didn't know what experiences I had that I could draw on -- I really hadn't done much except travel a little bit. So I decided to draw upon my childhood for inspiration."
He went back to the things that had previously intrigued him -- the stories of the saints, and the medieval altarpieces he had seen in the Lowe Art Museum as a boy. Grabbing a pen, he quickly sketches one particular canvas that has stayed with him, an anonymous painting of a boat carrying a beautiful woman with a monster lurking in the sea below.
"It's all there," he says passionately. "The woman in distress and the drama implicit in it."
Cano felt that the best way to bring this drama to life was through some form of theater. Influenced by the Russian constructivist artist Alexandra Exter, who made marionettes, and the Japanese and European traditions of artistic puppetry, he decided to make "operatic art," as he calls it.
"With the marionette approach, you always have a wealth of ideas and plays and ways to create," says Cano. "It gave me a focus. When you look at the empty stage, you have your frame, and within it you can do whatever you want."
For his master's thesis, Cano decided to fabricate a cast of marionette characters for a play about the stories of five saints and their martyrdom. Working with his uncle, writer Rafael Fernandez, he created Animated Altarpieces (one of two plays that will be performed this Saturday, June 7, at MoCA). He also made mounts for the puppets, so that when they were not being manipulated theatrically they could stand as sculpture.
The chairman of the school's painting department was not amused. "He threatened to kick me out of the program," the artist recalls. "He called it a perversion of painting. I thought what I was doing was so based in art history and so valid, I couldn't understand how he could say that." Cano stood his ground and got his degree.
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In 1990, having returned to Miami, he collaborated with his great friend, the late art critic and collector Giulio Blanc, on another play, The Pursuit of Love, which will also be performed on Saturday. The story is based on a series of paintings by Fragonard that the friends saw at the Frick Collection in Manhattan. The piece consists of monologues by Fragonard, Voltaire, Casanova, and the Marquise de Pompadour, played by the marionettes. Cano controls the puppets and does sound effects; the characters' voices are on tape or are performed live by volunteers.
Suddenly moved to act out a scene from Animated Altarpieces, Cano grabs two marionettes and heads for the stage. A moment later a pop is heard, and St. George -- a Cafe Pilón can on wheels carrying a wooden lance with a pin on the end -- has slain the dragon, a kiddie car with a gargoyle's head and dustpan wings and a balloon for a stomach. Cano sits on the floor, grinning, holding the now-deflated balloon.
"It's an escape," he says with a shrug. "Some people have addictions. I have a lot of fun pretending."
Pablo Cano's The Pursuit of Love and Animated Altarpieces will be performed Saturday, June 7 and 28, at 2:00 p.m. at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA), 770 NE 125th St, North Miami. 893-6211. The exhibition continues through July 27.