Visual Arts

CINTAS exhibit in Miami celebrates the art of exile

Impact and Legacy, the CINTAS Foundation’s 50th-anniversary exhibition celebrating the work of Cuban artists in exile, is a clear validation of the foundation’s success. The sweeping exhibition features the work of CINTAS fellows and honors the foundation’s benefactor, Oscar B. Cintas, a Cuban industrialist, arts patron and U.S. ambassador, who died in 1957. His estate funds annual visual arts fellowships for artists of Cuban heritage living outside the island and gives awards, too, in music composition, architecture and creative writing.

Among them is Anthony Goicolea, whose work is included in this year’s show.

“I grew up with many stories of what it was like in Havana. Family photos lined the walls of our hallway, and I fantasized about what it would be like to live there, ” he wrote in response to a question about his heritage. “Since I was born in the States, I was never legally allowed to visit. This added another layer of mystery to the mythology of my forbidden homeland.

“After I received the CINTAS foundation grant, I used the money to explore my Cuban ancestry more in depth and began a four-year project based on my family and Cuba.”

The fellowship award is not simply a $10,000 prize for talented artists with strong portfolios and résumés. It stipulates that the artist pursue a specific project and also donate a work of art to the foundation. These gifts now constitute a collection of more than 400 works. Since 2011, Miami Dade College has hosted the collection, the annual award competition and a finalists’ exhibition. Independent juries assemble in Miami to select the fellows.

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Jeremy Mikolajczak, director of the MDC’s gallery system, served as chief curator for the jubilee exhibition, assisted by Natalya Laskis. “The world was our oyster,” he said about assembling the show, which features about 130 pieces. It was challenging to create coherence among works so diverse in scale, style, theme and date.

It would be inappropriate to skirt the political themes vital to so many artists and viewers of Cuban heritage. Mikolajczak and the CINTAS board chose to present the most deplorable aspects of Cuban political history first. Entering the Freedom Tower’s second-floor galleries, audiences pass before Silent Cry, a wall relief of life-size figures behind prison bars.

It’s a jarring encounter, but the tone is relieved by Ernesto Pujol’s I Can’t Sleep. Antique oars flank a wooden headboard, “decorated” with white sharks. The work suggests peril, but also evokes the possibility of escape — by dream or by sea. “It has both that sensibility of the struggles that they went through,” Mikolajczak says, “but also the release that they also feel, and this elation that they have at some point. It really does become the portal to open the exhibition.”

Having made this passage, audiences enter a large gallery that emphasizes primary strategies of art-making. Mikolajczak uses the terms “tribal,” “stripped-down,” “raw” and “gestural” to describe paintings by Baruj Salinas , Gregory Gomez , Juan Abreu and others. This section also includes biomorphic sculptures by Eladio Gonzalez, Enrique Garcia, Alfredo Lozano and Pedro Hernandez — in contrast to Waldo Díaz-Balart’s high-chroma resin boxes.

Organized thematically rather than chronologically, the curators imparted an intuitive flow without strict delineations. Representational works, both monochromatic and lush with tropicalia, dominate a second gallery. Architecture is prominent, suggesting both place and displacement. Consuelo Castañeda flips and perforates Brueghel’s Tower of Babel, creating a complex collage. “It really speaks well to what happens when your world turns upside down,” Mikolajczak says.

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Humberto Calzada’s Atlantida Habanera combines the precision of an industrial engineer with a poet’s memories of the old city, washed by the sea and bearing a broken stained-glass lunette. Migration and exile are writ large and small.

Luis Gispert calls himself “Cuban by osmosis.” He has never visited the island, but affirms that his heritage is a subliminal force. “You can never escape the great narrative of a family’s defection from their homeland,” he wrote. His film and video projects often amplify and distort American popular consumer culture, presenting unsettling juxtapositions with an insider/outsider’s perspective.

Luis Cruz Azaceta wrote, “I wanted to address the Cuban diaspora — Cubans in a state of waiting for many years . . . The irony is that we Cubans — inside or outside the island — remain in wait.” His drawings and paintings, even those not overtly political, reveal a sardonic attitude toward societal norms.

CINTAS board president Hortensia Sampedro Hacker has served the organization for more than 30 years. Asked about the shared characteristics of Cuban culture, she wrote via email, “Attributes which deal with the senses are recognizable by experiencing the impact of the visual, or swaying to the notes in a composition, or soaring the imagination with the words of a Cuban poet.”

That said, the exhibition is not overwhelmed by Caribbean sentimentality. Artists are all over the map — literally and figuratively. Anthony Goicolea’s chilling photograph of Arctic raptors, furs and snowballs defies association with the island of his parents’ birth. He writes of “longing to belong to a past that no longer exists.”

Several artists used their awards to travel — whether to Cuba or, as for Leyden Rodríguez, to fulfill a research project in Paris. Some, like Angela Valella, the 2014 fellow, funded a project that entailed extensive technology and services, although her inkjet print on silver metallic paper, rather than her complex multimedia installation, is presented.

Technology is a consideration for the collection, which is concerned that objects not become “obsolete” or demand complex means of presentation. Jillian Mayer, for example, is represented by a large photograph whose washed-out character is consistent with the identity themes of her much-celebrated video and Internet-based explorations.

Iván Abreu’s work is the collection’s first interactive piece, and was created specifically for the exhibition. It combines sculpture and sound, activated when visitors flip the pages of a “wired” book. “When you actually come up to it and fan the book, it has this idea that you’re the author. You write the book; you create the music; you create the sound,” Mikolajczak says. “But actually, when you look at the book, there’s no words, there’s no anything; it’s just numbers on a page.”

Thematic exhibitions curated from the CINTAS collection date from 1977, when Margarita Cano, a lifetime-achievement awardee, presented the first in the downtown public library that she then directed. Her son, Pablo, a 1983 fellow, recounts, “I was 22 years old and desperately seeking new horizons. The CINTAS opened the door to Europe for me . . . I will cherish the memories of Paris and the Cuban exile artists I met there forever.”

Cano is celebrated for his found-object sculpture and marionettes, whose characters are rooted in cubism, folklore, classicism and whimsy. His Truth sculpture commands a sentinel position in this year’s show.

The list of collections, residencies and international exhibitions achieved by fellows is daunting — all the familiar institutional names plus many more. Fellows are also teachers, scholars and curators.

It’s within the imposing sky-lit atrium space that, according to Mikolajczak, the most contemporary dialogues take place.

Here, Carmen Herrera’s 1966 White and Green engages across the corner with Valella’s 2013 Double image attached. Mikolajczak says both are “investigating similar spaces and using the same visual language to re-contextualize the idea of space and the idea of the picture plane . . . but in two totally different ways.”

Glexis Novoa’s modest-scale drawing might get lost alongside Carlos Alfonzo’s signature whirlwind of vivid color and piercing shapes, but Ziggurat manages to command equal attention. It depicts sculptural monuments to religious and cultural ideals gone awry, perilously suspended above a sinking city.

Maria Brito and Lydia Rubio personalize and contemporize their intimate knowledge of the Renaissance — but very differently. And the wings in Rubio’s work quietly echo those in Goicolea’s nearby photo. This subtle curatorial sensibility generates resonances throughout.

Mikolajczak gave Gean Moreno’s imposing Untitled a deservedly pivotal position. A multi-layered mixed-media work, “It questions the definition of painting. It engages domesticity with its loose fabric and yarn and the hem of a curtain,” Mikolajczak says. “For me, the work can be playful; it’s aesthetically pleasing, but has this other side to it.”

Moreno, a writer and critic, is keen to challenge orthodoxies and audiences. Taking elements of the ready-made, as do Ernesto Oroza’s Provisional Chairs, he proffers the yin to Rodríguez’s yang, with its pristine, straight-from-the-shop vertical blind that plays hide-and-seek with a gilded art “treasure.”

Teresita Fernández examines the psychology and physics of seeing, while referencing and evoking such mesmerizing natural phenomena as mist, fire, clouds and meteor showers. She employs unlikely materials, poetically transforming them through the alchemy of their placement and viewers’ movements.

Movement and communication are recurring themes. For interdisciplinary artist Katarina Wong, the importance and fragility of human connection transcend the limitations of language and derive, at least in part, from a lifetime of family visits on the island.

Magical realism provides a rich, if amorphous, vein for visual artists and writers. Encompassing surrealistic juxtapositions of recognizable elements, dream (or nightmare) images and myriad other fantasies, this genre is represented in depth. Paintings range from the domestic and art-history time convergence of Emilio Falero to Gilberto Ruiz’s frog-plagued nightmare to Arturo Rodríguez’s figure in limbo.

CINTAS fellowships open many doors. In 1987, Arturo Rodríguez was commissioned to paint a gift for Pope John Paul II. In a recent email he explained the process: “Throughout my work and using my own experiences as an artist, I have dealt with converting myth into everyday life, so to create a painting without any obvious religious symbols, I used the theme of “family” or a family that could be placed in Miami.” The work is called Exiles.

The show’s photographs are exotic, domestic, experimental and documentary. Eduardo del Valle and Mirta Gómez show their prowess in capturing unexpected views of Mexico’s people. A celebrated renegade, Andrés Serrano, is flanked and matched by J. Thomás López, whose diminutive Eva is both seductive and alarming, suggesting more rubbed charcoal than photo.

Psychic and psychological situations are interspersed with photo-realist still lifes, portraits and most other imaginable genres. Moods and subjects are disconcertingly diverse, but the total viewing experience entails many more revealing counterpoints than dissonances, and strongly affirms the CINTAS legacy.

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