Tales of the Macabre

Antonia Eiriz's Reincarnation, six oil-on-canvas panels clustered on one wall of the upstairs gallery at the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale, depicts 99 masklike faces floating on a background as dark and deep as a black hole. Placed side by side in rows -- an arrangement that resembles skeletons in an ancient sepulcher, simian specimens on an evolutionary chart, or members of Congress gathered together on Capitol Hill -- the heads stare out accusingly with vacant eyes and open mouths, or they bite their lips in pain.

The tormented figure in Edvard Munch's The Scream expresses a sudden burst of angst; Eiriz's morbid expressionist visages emit a low, lingering howl. Embodying at once hooded executioners and the black souls of the condemned, sacred religious icons and grotesque gargoyles, her clattering human chains of twisted poltergeists contort with the rancor of lessons never learned.

A mesmerizing work painted in 1993, Reincarnation, by virtue of its title, takes on particular significance in this show. Conceived as a retrospective, the exhibition is instead a memorial; Eiriz died this past March of a heart attack at age 65. She came to Miami from Cuba two years ago with her husband, Manuel G centsmez, a decorator and craftsman. Living in Coral Gables, she dedicated herself full-time to painting and exhibiting her work after a long hiatus working as an art teacher and community activist on the island. Although the exhibition's title, "Antonia Eiriz: Tribute to a Legend," smacks of hyperbole, it's not off the mark -- Eiriz was something of a mythic figure in her lifetime.

Born in 1929 in Juanelo, a neighborhood on the outskirts of Havana, the artist began her professional career just before Fidel Castro took power. By 1960 she was exhibiting frequently in Cuba's museums and state galleries, and in 1964 she had her first two solo shows in Havana, and another in Mexico City. Eiriz's talent was quickly recognized on an official level. A large color sketch for La Anunciaci centsn (The Annunciation) 1963-64, her best-known work, hangs at the entrance to the current exhibition. In Eiriz's take on the classical religious composition, a skeletal dark angel descends menacingly on a frightened elderly seamstress, who resembles the artist's mother. The work eventually was reproduced on a Cuban postage stamp, an example of which is displayed here beside the sketch.

Abstract expressionism was a major component of Cuban art from the mid-Fifties to the early Sixties, and as a student of the movement, Eiriz interacted with the members of Los Once, an artistic group that, like their American modernist counterparts, believed in making "art for art's sake." Taking a stand against the nationalist cultural policies of Batista's government, Los Once demanded an art "free of all pseudo-Cuban elements." But as the Revolution progressed, other styles prevailed on the island: hyperrealism, which lent Cuban landscapes and personages a larger-than-life heroicism; revolutionary posters; and pop art, which adopted the aesthetics of Andy Warhol and other American artists to illustrate socialist principles, as well as to render portraits of local celebrities such as Che Guevara.

Eiriz, however, remained faithful to her own kind of figurative expressionism A large-scale, existential canvases encrusted with thickly textured paint and dripping with conflicting emotions. As FIU professor Juan Martinez points out in his informative catalogue essay, Eiriz's historical counterparts include Francisco de Goya, Jose Clemente Orozco, and Francis Bacon -- artists whose work succeeds in simultaneously conveying personal turmoil, social criticism, and universal human tragedy, all tinged with a dark humor.

Given the new precepts of the revolution, it was not long before Eiriz's interpretive work attracted a different kind of official attention. El Vaso de Agua (The Glass of Water) 1963, included in the exhibit, shows a smirking goblin poised on a dais above a microphone. He is flanked by two dark palm trees, symbols of tropical enchantment that under Eiriz's hand become sinister cliches. Many of the artist's works from this period include tribunes and microphones. Some, such as this one, suggest a rabid demagogue. In others an empty dais is surrounded by a dense crowd of zombielike figures.

According to Susana Barciela, the artist's niece, with whom she lived in Miami, Eiriz was publicly criticized by cultural officials in Cuba, and her work began to be excluded from government exhibitions. The artist herself denied being politically marginalized; instead, her niece says, Eiriz spoke often about self-censorship. When, in 1969, Eiriz retired from painting to dedicate herself to teaching full-time, she claimed the decision simply had to do with the death of her mother. A single parent, Eiriz claimed she no longer had time to paint and care for a child alone. At the Cubanacan National School of Art, she became a revered mentor, teaching some of the younger artists who recently have arrived in Miami (their testimonials to her influence have been posted in the gallery).

In the Seventies, Eiriz left the academic art world altogether, returning to her old neighborhood in Juanelo. There she organized a community art project, enlisting her working-class neighbors in a papier-mache workshop. Many of those who joined the project -- people who had no previous contact with art -- went on to become full-time artisans, and the success of Eiriz's workshops became renowned: Some of the papier-mache sculptures were included in the Cuban entry to the 1984 Venice Biennial.

By the late Eighties, the combination of Eiriz's refusal to bow to government pressure in the Sixties and her self-imposed retirement from painting had given her mythic status. There was renewed interest in her work by a younger generation of artists, who, in their own work, had begun to express subversive criticism of the system; they saw her as a stoic role model. In one of the testimonials included here, Umberto Pena, a graphic designer and student of Eiriz who now lives in Miami, writes, "She was able to show us the other side of her island. [She was] inspired by Goya's statement, 'The dreams of reason produce monsters,' as a leitmotif."

Once again the Ministry of Culture recognized Eiriz's talent, and she received several artistic awards in the late Eighties. In 1991 she had a solo show in a Havana gallery, her first exhibition of paintings since 1964.

As the Fort Lauderdale exhibition allows viewers to observe, Eiriz's most recent works, painted from the time she arrived in Miami to just before her death, are stylistically and thematically consistent with those from the Sixties. This is not to say that she simply was rehashing old ideas; in fact the artist's talent in her later years was as vital as ever, and Miami provided a new vantage point for her bleak, biting observations on society.

Ten white and black canvases line the far wall of the gallery. With titles such as Descendimiento (Descent), Maternidad (Maternity), El Lado Oscuro (The Dark Side), and No Somos Uno (We Are Not One), they are like enormous flashcards illustrating humanity's common triumphs and tragedies. Here, Eiriz's figures are more clearly drawn than in her previous works, although they retain the familiar blank eyes and open mouths; however, unlike those earlier amorphous subjects, these figures have severed limbs. For Eiriz, according to the catalogue, these mutilated "bonsai" beings represented the repression of the individual in society. But they must have had a more personal meaning for the artist. Eiriz suffered from polio as a child, and she used leg braces for the rest of her life; frequently she made public appearances in a wheelchair. "She had a very intimate familiarity with pain," notes Barciela.

The artist's final paintings are more colorful than her earlier work, and they suggest an even more discernible organic sensibility. From a distance, Es Lo que Parece (It Is What It Seems) looks like a muted mountain landscape. But a closer examination reveals it to be a mountain made up of crowded human figures who hold their hands over their ears. They look down on a field where a white tube lies; the tube resembles a sewer pipe covered with a shroud, and the outline of a skull -- or perhaps a monster -- can be seen lurking inside of it. (The tube also resembles a worm, which could be a reference to gusanos, as Cuban exiles are known.)

Vereda Tropical (Tropical Path) is another dark look at the lush tropical landscape usually identified with Cuba. Beside a dirt road that extends off into the sunset, Eiriz has painted a hill composed of a jumble of faces; they lie staring, witnesses to the barren land, the moral vacuousness of a people.

Eiriz's paintings undeniably speak of the artist's own place and time in history. But these works are far from didactic. Possessed with an extremely evocative power, they lead the viewer to discover multiple layers of meaning. "She never would describe her paintings or interpret the paintings," Barciela recalls, remembering her aunt. "She said that everyone saw different things in them, and what everybody saw was right."

Antonia Eiriz: Tribute to a Legend. Through November 26. Museum of Art, 1 E Las Olas Blvd, Ft Lauderdale; 525-5500.


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