The still life is probably most famous in its nineteenth-century form: assorted fruits on a plate, next to a wine bottle, and a terra cotta figurine on top of the mantelpiece. Cezanne's image of nature, or simply an example of bourgeois décor? But the history of still life goes back to the ancient Romans, who viewed the genre as a microcosm of domestic life. During the Renaissance it embodied a measure of Humanist interest in the real world. Later, under the Reformation, the style flourished as vanitas -- a disparate collection of domestic objects pointing to the inevitability of death and the transience of earthly pleasures.
By confronting the viewer with vanitas, the Dutch taught us that the sensuous could become didactic, a lesson learned by the avant-garde, who took still life as a serious tool of study. Futurists and Cubists in particular made it an essential structure with which to negotiate reality. (Even collage owes a great deal to the genre.)
We don't think much of still life these days, perhaps because of the advent of photography, which made the still life less meaningful as a symbol of a moment in time. Yet a little ingenuity can go a long way. Take Giorgio Morandi, who during the Thirties painted bottles and jars in a monochromatic palette of clay tones, drab greens, and umber browns to convey moods of lyric contemplation.
Cernuda Arte; 3155 Ponce de Leon Blvd, Coral Gables
By Sinhu Vega. Through November 7; 305-461-1050. Transtorment By Sergio Garcia. Through October 27 at lab6 and PS 742, 1165 SW 6th St; 305-324-0585.
An interesting new twist to the genre is Sinuhé Vega's "Tropical Surrealism," at Cernuda Arte. Vega doesn't render material details within an interior. Quite the opposite. This is not the naturalist fruit layout for reality's sake. Vega's trick is to politicize the image of the fruit in various situations: on a tropical beach or crossing the sea. The fruit, an emblem that conveys nurturing, offering, and sacrifice, becomes in Vega's hands a tragic-comedic symbol of 40-some years of recent Caribbean history.
Vega's execution is somewhat akin to early Julio Larraz and Miguel Padura, though his bent is more humorous. Self-Portrait from Behind has a Magritte feel, with the artist in the center at a window, curtains drawn, watching the distant shores, seemingly waiting for his compatriots' imminent voyage.
There's an interesting treatment of political power in Discurso Tropical. A lemon stands on a big white seashell on top of a wood block, as lesser citruses gather around, paying undivided attention -- some almost falling from the neatly draped table. In Havana Hallucinations the entire bunch -- lemons, pears, red pepper, onion, and pumpkin -- awkwardly tries to climb the Malecón wall to check out the seas and the far-off Miami skyline. In The Lovers two pears gracefully kiss on a (Cuban?) beach -- an interesting and odd choice of fruit for the tropics.
Some pieces work better than others. These are frank Realist paintings, and though Vega is careful in his own, still maturing style to create crisp results, one can see he's struggling with the intricate demands of the trade. Some of the canvases have more detail than they need. My advice: Go less for superficial formal details and more for overall technical coherence. Vega's treatment is witty and nonchalant (good virtues for an already stereotypical subject such as the exile), but he could bring more drama and movement and less pose to his Surreal musings. Gaugin's advice also could help: The more you arrange to seek order, the less likely it seems.
Sergio Garcia's Expressionist work is far from still. "Transtorment," his show at lab6 and PS 742, suggests a constant state of synthesis. With a sparse vocabulary, Garcia builds plenty of moral ambivalence between extremes. Paintings such as Demolition-man, Heart-man, and Dark-man depict conflicting "moments" of male humanity, brought forth with a sense of urgency, brutality, and carelessness.
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In Garcia's swirling and daring brushwork around a central targetlike figure in Transform-man I, the artist's own printed palm may indicate a bleak sign of authorship before revolt. This is self-destructive art, to the point where some of the canvases have literally been slashed and stitched back together.
But precisely because of this direct intensity, some of Garcia's works lack a certain rationale. The frantic exercise and the poetic process may override meaningful choices, which define tensions between conception and realization. Garcia's large, empty spaces with color backgrounds -- filled with blotches of gray, blue, or yellow -- require the artist's attention. Something is ready to coagulate, but it doesn't quite happen. It may be that a big painting may require a huge gesture (which is why an artist as melodramatic as Julian Schnabel turned to huge brushes to color his enormous canvases).
On the other hand, Garcia's prints are superb. With less area to cover, the artist's nervous scribbling can go untroubled by color scheme. Dark in mood but truer to its essence, I found this delicately wild penmanship truly conveying subtler human marks.