Havana has lived many lives. One of the first cities founded by the Spanish, it became a great port city of the New World, then suffered through the vicissitudes of colonialism and independence to become an eclectically vibrant center by early last century. Then came the upheavals of another revolution, and the Cuban capital lived through Cold War isolation, neglect, and the fall of the Soviet Union. Castro's communism hasn't been kind to the facades of the city; urbanism preservation hasn't been a big priority. So why is Havana still so fascinating?
Ask Ismael Gómez Peralta, a young and proficient artist living in Cuba. He has taken issue with the present condition of the capital in his exhibit "Requiem for Havana," at Cernuda Arte. With an intense expressionist pulse (somewhat close to Anselm Kiefer, only less exhortative), Gómez Peralta uses mixed media to disclose a somber vision of a crumbling city, and a cryptic monument to a glorious past.
Gómez Peralta works within a tradition depicting landscape ruins, which goes back to the seventeenth-century paintings of Nicolas Poussin and the detailed studies of Venetian architect Giovanni Piranesi a century later. To them ruins meant classical ruins, neatly subordinated to a rational order of the space. With Romanticism the style became a pictoral symbol against those ideals -- for instance the Jewish Cemetery by Jacob Ruisdael, so aptly conveying sadness, death, and decay, and Caspar Friedrich's almost sublime Monastery Graveyard in the Snow.
Requiem for Havana
Requiem for Havana By Ismael Gmez Peralta through Oct. 25 at Cernuda Arte, 3155 Ponce de Leon Blvd, Coral Gables; 305-461-1050. Not a Sibling of the Solar System but a Geometric Cousin By Karen Rifas through Oct. 12 at Bernice Steinbaum Gallery, 3550 N Miami Ave; 305-573-2700. gregvulgaris By Patrick Mitchell, Hugo Montoya, Manny Prieres, and Mauricio Abascal, through Oct. 5 at Dorsch Gallery, 151 NW 24th St; 305-576-1278.
More veteran contemporary "landscape" artists are Glexis Novoa and Gustavo Acosta, two well-known Cuban artists now living in Miami whose work, in terms of ideological perceptions, is more divergent than similar. Novoa addresses architecture by building utopias in painstaking detail using the most cerebral of mediums: drawing. Acosta's cityscapes are impersonal evaluations of aesthetics versus the political (think of a mix between De Chirico and Vladimir Schuko).
Here, starting with the exhibit's obvious title, a historic veneer and solemn mood permeates the show. Heavily somber just borders on cliché, particularly among Cuban exiles. Take a piece like Ayestarán y Estrella: It portrays a ghostly white building almost enveloped by a dense bluish aura. Being an exile myself, I resisted the painting's attempt to shape my view, not unlike -- I'd hope -- some lucky Roman viewer in the Sixteenth Century at the sight of the ruins of the Roman Forum portrayed by Vincenzo Scamozzi.
I favor a subtler game, as when Gómez Peralta uses the dramatic content to express theatricality, redemption, and even some fun. In Trocha Hotel, the disturbing anthropomorphic depiction of the whitish front portico seems not melancholic, but creepy. Gómez Peralta's best pieces turn decrepit buildings into sculptural monuments or hallucinating installations, where the scaffolding becomes as crucial as the structure it supports.
Teniente Rey y Oficios is an exercise in Constructivist paradox -- and a blast. Protruding from four Old Havana facades are these three-dimensional triangular structures, trussed together by crisscrossing beams. However, the perspective of the trussed roof above situates the observer right inside the structure: We are not outsiders here.
In Quiroga y Calzada 10 de Octubre, Gómez Peralta takes postmodern license to imagine a Frank Gehry-ish side addition to a neoclassic pillared building, from which shrubs (!) are beginning to grow. Correspondingly, One Day After is not buttressed. Instead we observe a skewed edifice looking like it's on crutches -- like Gehry's fantastic Nederlanden in Prague. And see how Gómez Peralta makes the scaffolding defy the architecture in the puzzling 10 de Octubre y Milagro.
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"Requiem for Havana" succeeds because Gómez Peralta brings a vision close enough to the real Cuban drama without falling into obvious sappiness. He catches a promising moment between dilapidation and reconstruction, past and future, and between premodern and postmodern. It's a fantastic dream, but not in a distant world.
Don't miss Karen Rifas's installation, Not a Sibling of the Solar System but a Geometric Cousin, in Bernice Steinbaum's project room. Rifas, a skillful artist, has been exploring her landmark, a sort of stringed-leaf sculpture, which she keeps changing into all sorts of shapes, organic and cerebral, empty and yet full. She laces the all-white room with her gold leaf from wall to floor, creating delicate traffic of bisecting lines, angles, and empty solids with a charming sense of movement.
Gregvulgaris at Dorsch Gallery is a combined effort by Mauricio Abascal, Patrick Mitchell, Hugo Montoya, and Manny Prieres. The opening of the show had a great turnout, though the gallery was uncomfortably hot due to lack of internal ventilation (the problem could be solved with an air extractor). It wasn't clear who did what, perhaps for the sake of a collaborative spirit. I particularly liked the video -- by Mitchell? -- and Montoya's interesting photos of wall textures and graffiti. Montoya has a feeling for urban poetry, but $500 for a photo may be a little hefty from a novice.