Contemporary Art from Cuba: No Need to Be American

Local Arts Reviews

Contemporary Art from Cuba:

No Need to Be American

Austin Museum of Art -- Downtown,

through November 7

Any teacher will tell you, I think, that they learn from the students they teach. Certainly my recent experience leading a two-session workshop on art criticism for the Austin Museum of Art proved instructive. Looking at art through my students' eyes expanded my vision. Being asked to articulate a process I approach intuitively brought to light issues I take for granted. And, best of all, we spoke at length about my favorite pastimes: looking at art and writing about art. At the end of the class, students were asked to write critical reviews of the current Austin Museum of Art exhibition. Sheri Jacobson's review follows. -- Rebecca Cohen

It's American to the core to believe that everyone else in the world, secretly or not, pines to be American. As a nation, we are sure that we have the best of everything. Yet the artists whose works are included in "Contemporary Art from Cuba: Irony and Survival on the Utopian Island" at Austin Museum of Art -- Downtown firmly rebuff our national presumption.

The 17 young artists in this show -- they range from 24 to 39 years old -- grew up in Cuba after the Revolution. Their works are contemporary in concept and execution. But this is not shock art. Instead of in-your-face antics, the pieces have visual appeal that invite you to linger before them as you consider their content. A standout example is Sea of Tears by Osvaldo Yero. Its undulating waves of plaster casts of artists' hands, each one a mottled turquoise, suggest the ocean that surrounds Cuba and the isolation of that small island nation. Similarly, Jacqueline Brito's Estatis. Sue. XX. "Made When I was 20 Years Old" shows a ship sailing under a sun that glistens over the water and clouds. But in the bottom third of the painting, the sea turns into rivulets of paint that drip off the canvas as a metaphor for, among other things, many Cubans' ancestors who were slaves brought over from the United States to work the sugar plantations.

Some of the most striking works in this show emphasize the innerconnectedness of each person with others by recalling with a real sense of loss those who are no longer part of the community. The previously mentioned Sea of Tears is composed of the hands of artists who have left Cuba as well as those who remain. In Silence, Silence ... Let's Listen (139 Martyrs of the Ministry of the Interior), by Josè A. Toirac, each of the 139 badges bear the name and likeness of an individual martyr, reminding the viewer of those who have been forgotten. Kcho's In Order to Forget has the wooden boat of the balseros, or boat people who left Cuba, resting on an ocean of beer bottles, representing those who remain behind.

Subtle ironies abound in the works, but perhaps one unintended irony of the exhibition is that AMOA has brought to Silicon Hills a show which could be subtitled "Tech Takes a Holiday." As the museum press release points out, the work of these young artists "exemplifies the concept of inventando, the improvisation and creative resourcefulness required for everyday survival." Although this art is contemporary, the show contains none of the video installations or digitized pieces that have become such a familiar part of our contemporary art landscape. In response to the extreme scarcity of art supplies in Cuba, the artists have created their works out of simple and common materials: plaster, beer bottles, wood, a suitcase, an old telephone.

Americans may believe they are the world's cultural bellwether, but if you think these Cuban artists are interested in mimicking their American counterparts, think again. No piece illustrates their feelings about America as vividly as Yero's Dreaming of Things American. In it, he has reproduced some of America's pop icons as garishly painted plaster kitsch scattered over an American flag pieced out of nondescript floral wallpaper -- Warhol's Marilyn Monroe wears a military uniform, and Elvis becomes multicultural. Yero makes it very apparent that while the American way of life can appear seductive, it may not be what Cubans want or need. Though Yero and the other artists look clearly at their country and its problems, they are proud to be Cuban and continue to use their art as a powerful way to consider their homeland.

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