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The Bleak and the Beautiful

People in Miami often imagine Havana. Some, in their mind's eye, preserve an exile's perfect vision of the city of their sweet childhood home. Remembering recent trips to Cuba, others recall a disconcerting visual composition of the grand Havana Cathedral, ornate hotel lobbies, and the exhilarating ocean promenade, juxtaposed with its crumbling historic facades, empty shop windows, and lonely parks. Those who look to the city's future might conjure up a booming stretch of strip malls, or an architectural treasure restored to its former colonial splendor.

For artist Glexis Novoa, the view of Havana from Miami is solely, relentlessly bleak. Novoa, who was born in Holguin, Cuba, in 1964 and thus grew up with the revolution, moved here earlier this year after three years in Mexico. He does not look back at Cuba with much nostalgia. La Habana Oscura (Dark Havana), his show at Ambrosino Gallery, is a spitting criticism of the Cuban reality shaped by Castro's regime. In a series of thirteen paintings and drawings, Novoa depicts a symbolic landscape of Havana as a stark futurist metropolis crowded with monumental fascist architecture and military machinery, devoid of living human beings.

"A futuristic Sarajevo, destroyed not by bombs but by discourse," Novoa has pointedly written in pencil on a wall on the first floor of the gallery.

"A city that, although it has never experienced war -- in spite of it being announced every day -- lives in a postwar-like physical state," read the artist's lines on another wall.

Elsewhere in the gallery hangs Como Hormigas (Like Ants), a large canvas that Novoa has painted with a busy geometric configuration of gray, green, brown, and pink block-like buildings. A space-age military aircraft, dropping red bombs, hovers over this depiction of Havana. Warships are anchored in the port. A profusion of tiny skulls, drawn on paper and then pasted onto the canvas, flies through the air. The painting has the cool graphic quality of a science fiction comic book or a computer game -- a chilling, apocalyptic vision of fin-de-siecle Havana.

Another painting, 22 X 26, shows a simpler scene of the artist's Havana, seen through a barred window. Again, Novoa paints the city as rows of colored concrete blocks dissected by empty boulevards. On top of one of the buildings is the shape of what appears to be Che Guevara's head on a billboard. In this comparatively spare composition, Novoa effectively portrays his Havana as a once-beautiful place that has dried up and turned ugly, a city in which spirit has been defeated, where humanity is no longer at home.

Displayed prominently on one wall, El Pais de los Muertos (The Country of the Dead) goes further: The city is a cemetery. Novoa paints a vista of mausoleums, each posted with ID-card head shots of young Cuban men and women. Whether they represent political prisoners, perished rafters, or exiles is not clear, but it doesn't matter. Novoa uses them as prototypical victims of the regime.

He reconfigures the urban landscape as the visual manifestation of political rhetoric. In these and other colorful paintings displayed on the gallery's ground floor, autocratic dogma is seen to have shaped not only the social fabric of the city but its physical appearance as well. The canvases have a fittingly claustrophobic sensation, evoking a stagnant environment.

These are provocative works. But they are thematically repetitive, and ultimately not visually rich enough to sustain interest in the entire series. Ironically, the artist's dependence on this cold, symbolic cityscape in itself becomes tiresome and manipulative -- even dogmatic -- in the portrayal of Havana as a politically oppressed ghost town.

In contrast, his large-scale drawings on canvas on the gallery's second floor are more contemplative and emotional. Unlike the crowded, multicolored paintings, some of which seem hurried in their execution, these drawings display Novoa's considerable talent as a draftsman, and shed some light on the complexity of his feelings about his native land.

76 #29-B 06 Buena Vista is another cityscape, in pencil on canvas. As usual, there is no sign of life, except for two motorcycles parked in front of a building that represents the artist's former home (76 #29-B 06 Buena Vista was his address in Havana). Here Novoa fills his city with fancifully designed structures, not just blocks of concrete, making the work more aesthetically intriguing than the geometrically abstract paintings downstairs.

A gargoyle with a common man's plaintive face stares out from the front of a building tower in the center of Monumento al Hombre Solo (Monument to a Man Alone), a work in black paint and pencil on canvas. A sad gray sea stretches out beyond the city.

At the back of the room, handwritten words float on a canvas called Te Fuiste (You Left). This time Novoa draws a more personal symbolic landscape. The words, in pencil, are names of galleries and other places in Havana, or pieces of letters from home: "Thirty years I remember you, son"; "Here everything's the same way that you left it." Some of the sentences continue directly onto the wall from the canvas. There they gradually fade out and disappear, like memories of an exile's abandoned homeland.

The three young artists whose work is on view at Margulies Taplin Gallery are all recipients of the Career Advancement Visual Artists (CAVA) fellowships. The awards provide professional artists with a three-year residency in Miami Beach, including a studio on Lincoln Road. Sarah Walker, Daniel LaBree, and John Hughes, all of whom became fellows in 1994, recently finished the program.

In addition to the CAVA awards, Walker, LaBree, and Hughes have something else in common, as demonstrated by this current group show. They are all consummate craftsmen who create beautiful works with a distinctly contemporary feel.

Walker makes rich, organic-looking compositions, working with acrylic paint on paper that's layered onto large wood panels. Her colorful arrangements of abstract patterns are dense but alive, and filled with natural movement. Flicker evokes the sight of rushing blood seen through a microscope, or a garden awakening from summer rain -- oval pods in swerving lines traverse the painting while round eyeballs float elsewhere, and glowing spheres seem about to explode. Another work, Storm Cycle II, shows divine hands dropping teardrops of rain from their fingertips.

Daniel LaBree's paintings and serigraphs also reflect his interest in patterns. LaBree is drawn to historical printed material -- old maps, currency, postage stamps, etchings -- that he combines with contemporary imagery from computer graphics or photographs. For Buzz Zone, one of three large serigraphs in the show, he has printed a street map of New York City on muslin. The red map is overlapped by a blue, technical-looking grid. LaBree's large works are bold and attractive, and a group of small paintings on wood that juxtapose similarly appropriated images are smart and amusing. In one work, Birdcake, a group of colored birds "perches" in midair around a gilded cupola. In Whirlpool, words ("pep," "dog 50," "Dan") float in and around fluorescent circles of light that from far away resemble Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty and from up-close look like a spaceship in midlanding. Elsewhere, LaBree paints pyramids, ornate grids, various airplanes, and foreign bills. The works emit a random blast of visual information that is something like that from the Web.

Sculptor John Hughes thinks of himself as a toolmaker. He makes his suggestive, useless appliances from a variety of materials, including steel, leather, cotton, rust, copper, brass, wax, and nylon. One of his two untitled sculptures included here looks like a large gyroscope lying on its side. The other is a large, natural-wood receptacle with a headlike form rearing from the top, as if a mutant dressmaker's dummy had come to life.

Together, the work of Walker, LaBree, and Hughes makes for a fresh and attractive show. Unfortunately, the former CAVA fellows will no longer be living and working in Miami, but it would be nice if their work continues to make appearances in local galleries.

La Habana Oscura, by Glexis Novoa. Through October 19. Ambrosino Gallery, 3155 Ponce de Leon Blvd, Coral Gables; 445-2211.

CAVA Artists. Through September 30. Margulies Taplin Gallery, 3310 Ponce de Leon Blvd, Coral Gables; 447-1199.


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