Much like Aesop, the ancient Greek storyteller, Leonel Matheu is a fabulist of the first order whose vivid imagery combines an everyman figure with animals and nature to caution against materialism, greed, and man's destructive encroachment on the environment.
"Crossroads of the Dystopia," a new exhibit at the Frost Art Museum, marks Matheu's first major museum survey and corrals 20 years of his oeuvre, featuring a collection of more than 70 works ranging from drawings with colored pencils, ink on paper, oil on canvases, public art installations, video and multimedia installations.
The sprawling exhibit is presented by Wynwood's Dot Fifty-One Gallery, which reps the artist locally, and was curated by El Nuevo critic Janet Batet who's deft eye has delivered a seamless impression of Matheu's most distinctive imagery.
On view you'll discover a whimsical cast of grasshoppers, teddy bears, flying birds, sniveling coyotes, snowmen, paper boats, and an omnipresent, anti-hero protagonist whose presence conveys both innocence and wonder and serves as a portal for audiences to identify with Matheu's narratives.
Leonel Matheu was born in Havana, Cuba, in 1967 and grew up in the small town of Bauta, which was the center of the island's modest textile industry.
He graduated from the Institute of Graphic Design of Havana in 1987 and moved to Miami in 1992 where he began developing his distinct figurative, graphic style to inspire viewers to connect with the message of his diverse stories.
"In my work I try to find graphic images that are generic and universal," explains the 46 year-old artist. "The object is to provoke many different readings from an audience that are both psychological and visual. When viewers see them they can fabricate their own personal narratives that exist independent of me," he adds.
Matheu also says that his works are conceptually freighted to deliver a meaning while expressing a paradox.
"From a conceptual standpoint I approach these images as one, a vehicle to deliver a message by introducing a sense of innocence and whimsy to appeal to the spectator while secondly, also including a sense of the contradictory to add a much more profound nature to the overall message," Matheu mentions.
Matheu says that in Cuba he was raised in a society that was stuck in a cultural limbo and obsessed with revolutionary iconography.
"I come from a culture with a deep connection to a theme where the visual language was limited," he observes. "It was solemn and cryptic and mired 70 years in the past without the promise of ever changing. For me it's important for everyone to be astounded every day. I feel it's vital for the public to experience a sense of innocence and to deliver a message that resonates with our daily lives that can be easily understood at a glance whether it's an erudite person or a child who's confronted by it," Matheu says.
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"Spirituality, technology, passion, solitude, dreams, chimeras, and deceptions are at the core of his thoughtful body of work," agrees Batet who adds that Matheu's everyman character serves as both a self-portrait of the artist and a "collective portrayal of a nation marked by Diaspora and dystopia. This symbol embodies the symptoms and stigma of contemporary global society," concludes the curator.
"Crossroads of the Dystopia" runs through October 19th. Exhibit is free to the public and museum hours are Tuesday-Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday noon to 5 p.m. Call 305-348-2890 or visit thefrost.fiu.edu.
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