It isn’t just movies and novels that can have sequels: Art exhibitions can enjoy a good second act as well, as evidenced by the Museum of Art | Fort Lauderdale’s extraordinary “Miami Generation: Revisited.”
Back in 1983, Miami’s former Cuban Museum of Arts and Culture hosted the original “Miami Generation” exhibition, a stirring survey of the work of nine Cuban exile artists. I was all of 1 year old when that legendary show ran, so I have no point of comparison this time around, in which MoA has gathered the work of the same eclectic artists for a three-decade update on their oeuvres.
Like its forbear presumably did, this exhibition finds points of connection over a broad swath of mediums, influences and subject matter. Though this time around, an air of melancholy hangs over much of it: Three of the artists are now dead, we’re told, all victims of AIDS. And they, along with the artists who have soldiered on into the new millennium, often seem to be conjuring the vanishing Cuba of their youth and grasping for a place to call their own, whether it be physical, spiritual or simply imaginary. The palpable sense of escape, displacement and reinvention, therapeutically tempered through the art-making process, are the ligaments connecting the show’s wildly disparate artistic approaches.
The sense of idealization of a Cuba that may have never existed is most pronounced in the work of Humberto Calzada, whose bold, colorful paintings of colonial and neo-classical buildings represent his Cuban heritage. In 1979’s “La reja,” we’re invited to peer through an iron gate and into a partially opened blue door, leading to a mansion. Clean and crisp, open to wonder and expectation, the piece tugs at our gaze and our curiosity. Similarly, “Planning the Eclipse” is a marvel of geometric architecture and evocative shadows. As in “La reja,” no people are present: They would, no doubt, despoil the memory.
“The Mediator” (pictured above) and “The Collapse of an Island,” completed in 1998, are similarly studied paintings of immaculate, sharp-edged edifices, only this time they sit serenely and surreally on bodies of water. What’s happened? Is this a post-apocalyptic Cuba, partially submerged by climate change? But that’s only the beginning: In an untitled work from 2011, fire sparks up ominously behind hills, with one of Calzada’s deco mansions looking small in the bottom right corner of the frame; “Presencing” is a close-up painting of that fire. It’s like his memory of Old Cuba is gradually being undone by the natural elements, a crawling disintegration spread over the decades.
Carlos Macia takes a more realist approach, with paintings that evoke his homeland with an immersive, immediate mix of nostalgia and criticism. In 1983’s “Sixth Avenue Façade,” a possible advertisement for “Scarface” is plastered over other posters, on a wall atop fresh and faded graffiti. In “Warehouse Fronts,” also from 1983, paint drips and stains and peels from an abandoned cotton-exchange building turned urban eyesore, while a newer pink building sprouts up in front of it, blocking out the history, the culture, the tradition.
For the painter Emilo Falero, his sense of displacement manifests through his “Art on Art” series, which juxtaposes classical painting with more modern styles. As a deeply religious man, Falero probably wasn’t thinking of the movies of the scandalous filmmaker Derek Jarman when he painted these works, though his paintings are as similarly challenging and anachronistic as Jarman’s films. Figures in Victorian garb sit in modern sculpture gardens and in front of cubist paintings and industrial landscapes, like time travelers sequestered in strange lands. Their place in the world may have vanished, but the pieces are not without their humor, and it’s a clever enough concept to sustain all of Falero’s contributions to this show.
The sculptor Maria Brito creates her sense of place, most literally, in “24-03-07,” a walkable replica of her tiny studio. In this vividly realized peek into the artist’s cramped hovel, miniature heads in different shapes and sizes line her workstations in various degrees of completion. The only connection to the outside world is a paint-smeared landline. But I was most taken with the emotional implications of her so-called “Self-Portrait,” from 1989: It’s a wheeled, wooden upright contraption capped with a cage, partially aflame.
There are also abstract artists—Fernando Garcia’s meditative studies in vertical lines, Mario Bencomo’s nebulous, fuzzy, hallucinogenic acrylics—and at least one dedicated polemicist and raconteur: Cesar Trasobares, who creates oversized, cloth dollar bills painted over with graffiti and seascapes.
But if there’s one showstopper in “The Miami Generation: Revisited,” it’s the massive sculptures of Pablo Cano, a dedicated Dadaist who has designed puppets since the age of 10 and occasionally stages musical productions with them. His “Lady Electra,” from 2013, is a massive science-fiction puppet created from garbage cans, industrial coils and shards of glass. His “Lena Horns” is a twisted homage to the late actress, a Picasso-evoking marionette fashioned from too many recycled materials to list. His cheeky “Lolita Coffee Cup” dangles inside its performance space, the “Florabel Marionette Theater,” a stage festooned with random compasses, timepieces, chasses and other recovered detritus.
Each piece takes your breath away—each of them a Pixar character in the making. And each is a reminder that sometimes the best way to deal with exile is to imagine other worlds entirely.
"The Miami Generation: Revisited" runs through Sept. 21 at Museum of Art | Fort Lauderdale, 1 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale. Admission costs $5-$10. Call 954/525-5500 or visit moafl.org.