Elizabeth Cerejido's 26 de junio, 1971
Elizabeth Cerejido's 26 de junio, 1971

Real Past, Imagined Future

It's 1970, a year of political turmoil in Cuba, marked by a return of militarism and the consolidation of the totalitarian state. People leave by the thousands. One family splits apart, the mother and her young daughter traveling to Florida while the father stays behind. The understanding is that they will meet in a few weeks. But fate has it another way. The father is arrested and thrown in prison. The family will not be together for another ten years. This is Elizabeth Cerejido's premise for "Reconstructing a Family Portrait," an exhibit of photographs at the Bernice Steinbaum Gallery. It is a poignant narrative of political exile, love, and loss.

At the center of Cerejido's tale of separation and reunion is her father's correspondence to her mother, through which she conveys a love story set against the backdrop of a nation shattered by ideological divisiveness. Mix those two and you have an image of sociopolitical forces beyond our control. What happens when things don't go our way? The seemingly absurd unfolding of Cerejido's "family portrait" confronts us with more questions than answers.

The exhibit begins with 26 de junio, 1971, a color photo of an envelope written that year, its postage-stamp image clearly indicating the radical political context of the moment. Then viewers see two photographs of the father's letters -- one right after the separation and one just before the family reunion. In 1980 he would arrive with the Mariel boatlift and for a time be held at a refugee camp in Kansas City.


"Reconstructing a Family Portrait"

Bernice Steinbaum Gallery, 3550 N Miami Ave., Miami

Through April 16. Call 305-573-2700.

After a decade of pain, you can distinguish the shift in the father's pulse. A neat touch is that Cerejido gives his letters a voice, which we hear from the recording of a male voice-over projected into the gallery space.

The correspondence transcribes this man's struggle with his own traumatized hopes. He had to learn to be patient within the solitary confines of his cell. Writing was a way to put his thoughts in order, to offer his wife the best rationale for the chaotic events that overpowered his family. From his prison he chose hope over cynicism. As I see it, the father's exchange offers a compelling validation for how political ideals -- or simply the ups and downs of fortune -- can supersede the most beautiful human dreams.

Cerejido's theme hits home and I digress: In our voluntaristic society, how do we account for our own recent social catastrophes? Amid the disaster, we may lose sight of the larger picture. Is it true that bigger forces -- even chance -- can rule our lives? Sometimes it seems as if our conscious behavior has little to do with happiness or material success. Perhaps an awareness of our smallness can save us needless suffering.

The family's reunification in 1980 doesn't end Cerejido's chronicle. She fast-forwards 24 years to the present. Two years before the death of her father in 2001, Cerejido's mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. As she gradually lost her memory and abilities, she no longer could take care of herself.

We observe photographs of an apartment's bare rooms. Kitchen With Bags depicts the dramatic yet ordinary moment before Cerejido's mother moves out; in Empty Bedroom the windows are covered with shades, a soft light reflected by the floor's surface. By not showing anyone in the photos, Cerejido discloses an intimate portrait of human presence.

Combing I (Sitting) is a black-and-white film of the artist's mother. We see her profile very faintly projected on the gallery wall. Staring out of a bright window, she swiftly combs her long grayish hair. She speaks to herself and puts the comb back on the windowsill. Her gestures seem automatic and remote, lost within, as she wrestles with vanished memories. Can she remember those endless years during the Seventies or did she forget them in order to learn with the heart?

I appreciate the fact that Cerejido has tackled her reconstruction like a naturalist. As she expresses a keen understanding devoid of false pity, she leaves us with a quote from the late writer Marguerite Duras: "The story of my life doesn't exist. There's never any center to it.... No path, no line." But again, who knows the deepest recesses of the mind?

Not far from the Bernice Steinbaum Gallery, right in the heart of Wynwood, is OBJEX artspace. Don't miss "Ubiquitous Images of a Decadent Society" by Francesco LoCastro. He brings Chuck Jones farce, tiki-lounge culture, and Hieronymous Bosch visions to a retro-futurist world out of Men in Black -- only now we are the ones who've become the scum of the universe.

In the not-so-distant future, planet Earth turns into a huge global village in which humans, androids, and mutants hesitantly cohabitate. We are a fanatical, self-centered, materialistic society. To chastise this post-digital, post-global, capitalist nightmare, LoCastro develops a motley cryptogram.

The focal point is The Vicious Circle of Society, a large acrylic panel akin to the fifteenth-century moralizing work of Martin Schongauer. A crowded scene occupies the front of the canvas; it includes characters Prozac and Ecstasy happily bopping along with a decrepit version of a boobed-up Wonder Woman in the company of freaks and less-than-human androids. All are gathered around a ziggurat to worship a Baal-like god of money.

"Ubiquitous Images" contains a large collection of work spanning three years. Drawings, studies, and gadgets commingle. Not all follow a cohesive stylistic line, but they illustrate LoCastro's promising growth. As he embellishes his panels, literally painting over the frames' area with bubbles, vines, and printed-face illustrations, the gallery atmosphere becomes a bit psychedelic.

There is a woman's portrait that could have been taken from Dario Argento's 1980 film Inferno, in the company of mutants whose faces feature hollow, flashing dollar-sign eyes. Another painting shows a thug in a Wal-Mart cap, calmly ready to shoot. With this prospect, our best hope is to make friends with the mutant world, from whom we may find much to learn. LoCastro's Turn on the Magic has singer Tom Waits striking a groovy pose while operating a zapping mutant box from which two ectoplasmic critters gleefully materialize.

Watch out for frightening aliens prowling your favorite resorts, as in LoCastro's Meanwhile in Tokyo, where huge, greenish insect beings battle with robots while a Japanese schoolgirl, whose arm sprouts a Jiminy Cricket mutant face, gets in combat mode.

This is where LoCastro's humor wins. We've literally become the world of cartoons we concocted long ago, whereas mutants and androids populate the Earth and try to imitate our past behavior.

I perceive a Bosch strain in LoCastro's art as the eruption of fantasy articulates these monstrous, apocalyptic scenes; a disconcerting blend of illusion and reality. Yet unlike Bosch, LoCastro is neither a pessimist nor a self-righteous moralist. In fact he sees his work as a fusion of cartoon and Realism, which he labels "dualistic theory."


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