As a boy growing up in Havana in the 1960s, Gustavo Acosta loved attending matinees at the neighborhood cinema and rushing home to illustrate what he had just seen.
“Back then, the city was dotted with dozens of movie houses — like the Teatro Cervantes and Teatro Actualidad — where you could watch the occasional old black-and-white American pirate and cowboy films and Russian classics like Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky,” the 57-year-old Cuban artist recollects. “They showed a lot of Russian, Bulgarian, Hungarian, and Rumanian movies depicting heroic World War II battles."
But Acosta’s penchant for drawing scenes from the movies he watched on weekends earned him harsh accusations in third grade. “I was doodling in my notebook, and the teacher caught me and kicked me out of school for destroying state property and engaging in a counterrevolutionary act,” Acosta laughs. “Those were pretty rigid times.”
He enrolled at the San Alejandro Visual School of Arts when he was 14 and eventually graduated from the Superior Institute of Art in Havana. “Art school was an easy choice for me to make in the early 1970s because my only other option was military service,” he says.
By the mid-'80s, Acosta had emerged as a rising star in Cuban art circles, and the government allowed him to travel outside the island as part of a cultural exchange program with other socialist countries. He visited places ranging from Mongolia to Romania, Syria to Algeria, and even Yugoslavia.
“In Yugoslavia, I was amazed how there was graffiti everywhere criticizing President Tito after his death. That left a deep impression on me,” he remembers. “In Cuba at that time, the first one to whip out a spray can to denounce the system would be facing a firing squad.”
The early 1990s on the island saw the aftermath of the economic hardships of Cuba’s Special Period, so Acosta and his wife remained in Mexico after traveling there for an exhibit. From there, he traveled to Spain in 1991 before making the permanent move to the United States in 1994. In Miami, he re-joined his compatriots who fled the constraints of the Castro dictatorship.
For his latest solo exhibition, opening this Saturday at Pan American Art Projects' new space in Little Haiti, Acosta displays his large-scale mixed-media drawings on paper. Each piece questions the themes of hope, independence, alienation, and the social and political influence of architecture.
The show, titled “Paper Trail,” combines imagery of the decaying architecture of Havana and Miami’s runaway gentrification.
On a recent weekday morning, New Times caught up with Acosta at the squat Pan Am bunker, painted a gloomy institutional gray. It stands in stark contrast to the cavernous white-cube palace the gallery vacated after a decade in Wynwood. The new location is situated a block north of Miami Edison Senior High School and across the street from Gallery Diet in a residential area erupting with change. The building used to be a gas station in the 1930s and has since been reconstructed to give the building a distinct angular shape.
In many ways, Acosta’s stage-like drawings of buildings in the process of construction and destruction are a timely metaphor for the sweeping transformation afoot between Cuba and the United Sates — as well as the tectonic shift reshaping Miami’s art scene.
Acosta’s drawings depict the skeletal armatures of buildings and skylines dotted with cranes. They are typically rendered in austere, monochromatic black, white, gray, and sepia tones and convey a sense of unease. On display are works such as Piranesi, depicting the Dade County Jail and inspired by the 18th-century Venetian artists series Imaginary Prisons. Other works such as JFK, with its distinct swastika pattern, detail the façade of the Hialeah Public Library. And TMH features the box-kite-like exterior of the old Miami Herald building on Biscayne Bay.
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What is absent from the 14 works on view are signs of life or people dwelling in his landscapes. This detail amplifies the sense of loss, anonymity, and nostalgia inherent in Acosta’s ouevre. “For me, the work has a lot to deal with our fears of change, what we’ve lost, and what’s to come,” he informs.
“These buildings, whether they are going up or being torn down, speak to our anxieties over uncertainty and induce a state of vertigo or a moment when we feel something is slipping through our fingers. In the rush to destroy the past to create the future, we often overlook the reality that what’s happened during the past 50 years — both here and in Cuba — amounts to little more than a blink in the historical timeline.”
Gustavo Acosta: "Paper Trail"
Opening reception 7 p.m. Saturday, April 9. Cocktails with the artist will be served from 5 to 7 p.m. at Pan American Art Projects (6300 NW Second Ave., Miami). Will remain on view until May 15. Call 305-573-2400 or visit panamericanart.com.