Blurred Vision

An excerpt from writer Derek Walcott's 1992 Nobel lecture is included in the catalogue that accompanies "Caribbean Visions: Contemporary Painting and Sculpture," currently at the Center for the Fine Arts. In his moving essay, Walcott, a St. Lucia native who was awarded the prestigious prize for literature, remarks on the dignity to be found in everyday scenes of island life, contrasting those with vacationers' frivolous images of Caribbean destinations:

"In our tourist brochures the Caribbean is a blue pool into which the republic dangles the extended foot of Florida as inflated rubber islands bob and drinks with umbrellas float toward her on a raft. This is how the islands, from the shame of necessity, sell themselves; this is the seasonal erosion of their identity, that high-pitched repetition of the same images of service that cannot distinguish one island from the other, with a future of polluted marinas, land deals negotiated by ministers, and all of this conducted to music of Happy Hour and the rictus of a smile. What is the earthly paradise for our visitors? Two weeks without rain and a mahogany tan, and at sunset local troubadours in straw hats and floral shirts beating 'Yellow Bird' and 'Banana Boat Song' to death."

Ironically something akin to this unseemly tourist vision of the Caribbean greets visitors to the upstairs galleries of the CFA. The exhibition, jammed with disparate artworks of all shapes and sizes -- a dizzying array of abstract paintings, carved wooden statues, and folk art assemblages, among other things -- recalls nothing so much as an upscale, industrial-carpeted version of a harbor-side bazaar for souvenir-hunting sightseers. But just as treasures can be found among a market's mundane clutter, there are works here that rise above the general level of mediocrity that marks this misguided show.

Organized by Art Services International and curated by Dr. Samella Lewis, a Caribbean and African art scholar and professor at Scripps College, in California, "Caribbean Visions" covers a 50-year period of art from the region and features 92 works by 56 artists from 11 nations, including artists who reside in their homelands and those who have emigrated to the U.S. or Europe. Most represented: Jamaica, with fourteen artists, for reasons that remain unclear. By contrast there are only six representatives each from Cuba, Haiti, and Puerto Rico -- countries with considerable artistic activity. There are seven from Trinidad and Tobago, five each from Barbados and Guyana, four from the Dominican Republic, and a handful from the Cayman Islands, St. Thomas, and St. Vincent.

With revisionist fervor, the organizers attempt to promote aspects of a "true" Caribbean identity, which is basically set forth in the catalogue as the product of Creolization, a mixture of the region's indigenous, European, and African ancestries shaded by the contemporary realities of the global village. Attempting to replace Eurocentric notions and colonial prejudices with a far-reaching pluralistic viewpoint, curator Lewis points to five broad (bordering on banal) themes addressed in the show: the Caribbean landscape, spiritualism, personal identity, political and social commentary, and formalism. Further, she writes in the gallery notes, "The artists may address one or more of these general themes in their individual works." In other words, anything goes.

In the stairwell leading to the exhibition hangs Las Palmas de Morel (Morel's Palm Trees), by Dominican painter Jose Garcia Cordero. Depicting the tiny figure of an artist who stands at his easel below giant palm trees blowing fiercely in high winds, the painting provides an unsettling alternative to the typical tranquil image of the Caribbean landscape. Presumably taken from Argentine writer Adolfo Bioy Casares's classic science fiction short story "Morel's Invention" (about a time machine), the painting's title could be interpreted as a comment on the historical longevity of stereotyped Caribbean images.

Garcia Cordero's painting hints that "Caribbean Visions" could be a provocative survey of inspired contemporary art, but one need only continue to the top of the stairs to become disillusioned. First, a small room located just off of the main gallery hosts a selection of highly derivative abstract paintings -- variations on the works of Cuban master Wifredo Lam (the show also includes an actual Lam), Picasso, Chagall, and even Monet (Waterlilies), most interpreted in "magic realist" colors.

Elsewhere, in the larger adjoining rooms of the gallery, paintings cover every available inch of wall space. Jamaican artist Christopher Gonzalez's arts-and-craftsy carvings of African gods join his countryman Osmond Watson's amateurish oil painting of a Rasta Christ. And Puerto Rican painter Myrna Baez's accomplished, ethereal realist canvases and Guyanan Stanley Greaves's Cubist composition of an outdoor market coexist with Haitian Andre Juste's abstract geometric wall sculpture. Why? What do these artists really share besides geographic proximity? If indeed examples of cohesive "Caribbean visions" are present here, they are smothered in this crowded space. The exhibition suffers from an ailment of the multicultural age -- death by diversity. And it defeats itself by confirming old cliches about so-called Third World artists when it displays works that are of poor artistic quality, that are unoriginal, and that either cater to a decorative bourgeois sensibility or are self-consciously naive.

Perhaps by including African-theme mahogany sculpture, Lewis attempts to make the point that what would be considered craft by a Eurocentric culture is considered art in a Caribbean culture. If so, why not include socially themed work from Puerto Rico's master printmakers, or spiritual paintings by Haiti's Vodou artists? And on the subject of omissions, why are there no pieces by artists living in Cuba? How could a show that professes to be all-inclusive ignore the prolificacy of work being made on the island, whatever the Cuban government's politics? (Works of art, incidentally, are exempt from the U.S. embargo.)

Three of the exiled Cubans included here contribute some of the strongest work in the show. Paintings by Luis Cruz Azaceta, Tomas Esson, and Jose Bedia are also among the largest items in the exhibition, and they effectively obliterate the lesser works around them. Azaceta's two raw canvases use paint and Polaroid photographs to comment on criminal and political violence. Esson's Dos Deseos (Two Wishes) invokes both political criticism and a personal search for identity; a mutilated self-portrait, it also depicts Fidel Castro's decapitated head oozing a sea of blood. In three works, Bedia offers his interpretations of Afro-Cuban spiritual themes.

Other artists' work stands out from the crowd: Trinidadian (now Miami-based) Francisco Cabral's two sculptural installations -- Horse Power and Zebra Crossing -- are forceful comments on the inherent conflicts that exist within colonial cultures. Albert Chong is represented by two of his wonderful "Thrones for the Ancestors" -- a chair covered with codfish skins and Joshua tree spines, and another with cowrie shells -- tactile works in which the materials serve to tell stories of the artist's Jamaican childhood. Trinidadian Shenge Ka Pharaoh's intricate compositions layer images of spirit figures, mythological beings, and animals in powerful paintings that have elements in common with those of the best contemporary Nigerian Yoruba painters.

It is in the works of these artists and several others that the potential of a well-funded traveling show such as this one can be found (it moves to the New Orleans Museum of Art next). Formally polished as well as innovative, they explore personal and social territories, providing us with a complex view of the Caribbean culture and psyche.

"We have made a special effort to consider this art from a point of view of those who produce it rather than from within the context of our own perspective," Samella Lewis and her co-essayist Mary Jane Hewitt write in the exhibition catalogue. But by jamming an uneven, incongruous selection of work into so tight a space, Lewis hasn't done anybody any favors. Caribbean people now living in Miami still might welcome this show as an event that represents often-ignored members of the city's disparate ethnic communities. Very well. But in Miami, the most Caribbean of American cities, we should know better than to use political correctness as an excuse for bad art.

Caribbean Visions: Contemporary Painting and Sculpture.
Through November 5. Center for the Fine Arts, 101 W Flagler St; 375-1700.

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Judy Cantor