Art Basel set up shop in Wynwood and provided Miamians a glimpse into the art world. But before “socially relevant” art was a prerequisite in an artist’s portfolio and before Cuban-American identity had any cachet, Miami-bred Cuban-American artist George Sanchez Calderon was creating art that spoke of and to his surroundings in the most provocative and profound way.
I became familiar with Sanchez Calderon’s work in the mid to late 1990s — the first time art not only spoke to my soul but also made me question, revise and reaffirm notions and values that were for the most part digested as rote, traditions passed on from previous generations.
Sanchez Calderon’s latest work is PAX Americana, a piece that was unveiled last fall as part of a public arts project in the ritzy community of Bal Harbour. The work consists of two major pieces: a recreation of a Levittown-style house (the quintessential suburban home in the United States popularized after World War II) and a stainless steel sign that reads “AMERICANA.” The sign rests on the lawn of the present day St. Regis Bal Harbour Hotel, which stands on sandy land that was once home to the Morris Lapidus-designed Americana Hotel.
“The work is a reflection on post World War II American values. It was the age of American cultural expansionism, which had a strong impact on our immigrant parents’ generation that was weaned on Platters records and the recently deceased Stan ‘The Man’ Musial,” explained Sanchez Calderon. “I am the son of Cuban exiles who grew up respecting the core American beliefs that Musial embodied. When I learned of his passing I immediately thought of my father.”
The lore of Americana was based on the fundamental promise of freedom and prosperity that so many Cuban exiles who came here fleeing tyranny in the 1960s and ’70s passed on to their children. Part of what makes Sanchez Calderon’s work so eerily grounded is his working-class upbringing. His parents ran the Tastee Bakery on Washington Avenue on Miami Beach for 28 years — that meant nearly three decades of his parents rising at 4 a.m. “Sometimes you don’t know or appreciate how much you miss a person until you have to bury them,” said the Rhode Island School of Design graduate about his father’s passing last year. “With him, and many of his generation, went that well-defined code of ethics that served as a compass for many American Baby Boomers,” Sanchez Calderon said. “And when I say Americans I don’t just mean people born in the U.S. I’m referring to natives of the American continent.”
Pax Americana is yet another example of Sanchez Calderon’s reflective oeuvre. His substantial body of work is devoid of didactic clichés. In his engaging, sometimes brazen conceptualizations and installations, the artist pricks your intellect without pounding you into submission with his interpretations.
What initially intrigued was the cultural relevance, given my Cuban-American heritage and my interest in the Cuban diaspora. However, what made Sanchez Calderon’s work unique and engaging was the thematic universality of human frailty that his pieces exude.
He cleverly summed up for me why throughout the turbulent physical, political, and cultural changes Miami endures, Cuba remains an important issue: “Because we have yet to close that chapter in our lives.”
On March 19 (the first commemoration of the artist’s father’s birthday since his death), Sanchez Calderon will burn the Levittown house in the spirit of the Spanish tradition of “ Las Fallas,” a pagan ritual where large paper mache puppets are burned to celebrate the onset of spring and commemorate St. Joseph’s Day, which is Father’s Day throughout Spain.
The artist will commemorate and put some closure to the era of Americana, Stan Musial, and the deep imprint left by his father.