No Love for Fidel

At PanAmerican Art Projects, two Cuban artists level their gun sights on the Castro regime. Pedro Pablo Oliva and René Francisco Rodríguez represent different generations and approaches in their work, but their message is the same: Society on the island presents a soul-withering existence for its citizens.

And this is brave. Both men continue to live there.

Oliva, who was born in Pinar del Río in 1949, creates paintings emphasizing the individual, with a distinctive iconography marked by a surreal atmosphere.

Francisco was born 11 years later and is a native of Holguín. Using a cool and detached graphic veneer, he explores the concept of the multitudes and their impact on society.

In several of Oliva's paintings and drawings, which are situated at the rear of the gallery, the artist depicts Fidel Castro as a decrepit and decaying dolt. El Gran Abuelo (The Great Grandfather), a mixed-media-on-paper piece, portrays el comandante with elongated paws and what appears to be a funeral suit; his head is oddly angled as if he has suffered a snapped neck.

Some of the artist's canvases are complemented by fishing rods hung horizontally over their frames, each with a different object dangling from hooks at the end. One such painting from Oliva's Alegrías y Tristezas (Happiness and Sadness) series portrays a demented Fidel sporting wingtips and teetering upon a marble column in a velvety black void. The addled dictator is cosseted in an ankle-length nightgown under an olive-drab tunic as he clutches a frail and naked jinetera to his breast.

The young woman, whom Fidel toys with like a rag doll, represents many of the Cuban girls who prostitute themselves along Havana's famed Malecón, sometimes exchanging their favors for trinkets or food from tourists. The fishing rod corresponding to the piece conveys a sense of hope dangled on a string, represented by a gift box encased in a tarry substance and festooned with a red bow.

Next to it is another work, Hombre Desnudo (Nude Man), in which an emaciated figure perches in profile on a bloodstained stone slab. The rectangular slab gives the impression it is rising from a tempest-tossed sea. Likewise in this canvas, the background is swallowed by a menacing emptiness of pitch black.

In the painting, Oliva seems to be depicting Cuba's Everyman as bereft of control over his destiny. The man is missing both arms and is crippled from fending for himself. His penis has been stretched as if turned on a rack, and then knotted, robbing the tragic figure of his masculinity. A red and blue wingless bird is fused to the man's back while a flaccid Cuban flag droops from the fishing rod overhead.

Oliva's largest work on display is a garage-door-size diptych that nearly engulfs an entire wall. El Inconcluso Milagro del Pan y los Peces (The Unfinished Miracle of Loaves and Fish) references Pope John Paul II's 1998 visit to Cuba.

In the massive painting, Oliva caricatures the pontiff and the dictator almost as Siamese twins nesting in an ornate bamboo chair. Jungle-green, papaya-orange, and lemon-yellow hues wash across the canvas, varnishing it in a citrusy tropical vibe that juices up the surreal nature of the picture.

Daggers, disembodied hands, nude girls, and mystical creatures add to the dreamy mood of the composition. Under the chair in which the pope and Fidel hold court, party apparatchiks mingle with offerings of coconuts and fish. In the end, Oliva seems to say the pope's visit changed little in Cuba.

Despite their sociopolitical themes, Oliva's paintings not only chronicle conditions in his homeland but also offer a distinctly personal view of an inner life enriched by fable, childlike curiosity, and a highly singular style.

For the younger Francisco, the Communist social structure and its effort to leech individuality from his countrymen while making them cogs in the machinery is what drives his stark imagery.

Immediately noticable in his canvases is their unusual texture. Rather than using brushes, Francisco pocks his surfaces by directly applying paint, sort of like squirting dollops of toothpaste out of the tube. The result is a slick pointillism and a dotted buildup of pigment that's both arresting and nifty.

His canvases usually depict throngs of people, reflecting the supremacy of a collective and the obliteration of the individual. He weaves words into his work, typically the title, to hammer home a message.

Historias Cruzadas (Crossed Histories) portrays a multitude of people rushing like lemmings to the ocean's edge. The upper right corner of the canvas is steeped in azure blue. Above the crowd hovers the title, whose every letter is shaped like a prison wall and arranged to form a maze. The letters extend into the horizon like barricades enclosing and separating the island's inhabitants, who are locked in a collective daze. A sense of claustrophobia and desperation is palpable.

In a work titled Heaven, the word is spelled out over fragmented powder-puff clouds in a baby-blue sky. People in the lower half of the composition are packed elbow-to-elbow like canned sardines and can be seen only from the back, as in most of Francisco's paintings. His canvases are monochromatic, hewing primarily to black, white, and gray, with occasional blue fields.

The artist's deliberate use of text functions as a critique of official propaganda and how it drowns public opinion in a cascade of interminable noise. He captures the implosion of the utopian ideal and a collective state of despair where notions of hope seem little more than distant dreams.

In PanAm's project room, Ryder Cooley delicately bottles a pervasive sense of melancholia and existential anomie with her installation, Reliquary. She spent two weeks staining the walls with tea bags, giving the room an almost timeless tone and mood. Inside the space, dozens of drawings mounted on wood line the walls salon-style. Most of the pieces are the size of a shoebox lid, and each represents a cipher of submerged feeling that narrates a greater story when the drawings are considered together.

The works depict people crying or carrying war victims on stretchers. Some of the characters resemble forest pixies that are double amputees. Others look like regal matrons crowned by heraldic deer heads, while in some cases women's eye sockets sprout unruly tresses like a corpse bride at a masquerade.

Decaying forests, menacing apparitions, dead rodents, putrefying sparrows, and soaring church spires add to the bleakness of Cooley's haunting wastelands. Within the tangle of images, a human hair braid, a desiccated sea horse, and a moldy mallard's head jut from walls, nooks, and crevices.

A pair of tiny birdhouses, containing business-card-size video screens and sprouting feathered wings, injects life into the lonely scene. Through their peepholes one observes flocks of crows flying backward while flapping their wings hypnotically.

Suddenly the plaintive wail of a Spanish guitar penetrates the muffled gloom. On a far wall, the shadow of a gypsy girl comes to life and spins like a dervish in a sepia-toned glow. A thin wind seems to pass through the room as Cooley creeps under the skin, creating a beguiling experience that nags at the imagination long after her works are out of sight.

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Carlos Suarez De Jesus