Miami exhibit by Edouard Duval-Carrié reimagines the Caribbean of colonial times

06/13/2014 12:00 AM

06/14/2014 10:20 PM

The new works from Miami’s Edouard Duval-Carrié that hang in one room at Pérez Art Museum Miami are individually spectacular. As a whole, they make up an art salon that bridges hemispheres and cultures and, not incidentally, forms the most beautiful corner of Miami — at least through the summer.

Duval-Carrié’s work needs no introduction here. His paintings and sculptures have been on display indoors and outdoors for decades, making him one of Miami’s foremost artists. His Haitian roots are always present in his works, usually in telltale tropical colors, but within contemporary frameworks.

The fresh pieces that make up the current show “Imagined Landscapes” are a departure, although the hand behind them is still unmistakable.

Before going into details of the pieces, it needs to be emphasized that the feel, look and ambiance of the entirety of the second-floor room is part of the experience. It’s an oasis of calm and cool beauty, with somber undertones. In the corner is a window that is uncovered, with a view of Biscayne Bay and the port, which is fitting for the story that is revealed on the rest of the walls and on the ceiling. Take a seat on one of the wooden benches and let it all soak in.

The large paintings have lost most of their tropical brilliance in this series; they are mostly black and silver, covered in glitter, with various shades of blue washed in. This gives the impression that they are dripping, like the world after a rain, silent and lush; the scenery with its foliage is undeniably that of a Caribbean island.

On the far wall facing the entry is the first painting created for this series, and the inspiration for the exhibit, called Moonlight in the Tropics. It’s simply delicious. As a moon peeks out above a lagoon at twilight, the canopy of trees and plants awakens from a late-afternoon rain. But this piece also lets us know that “Imagined Landscapes” has a specific theme and tale, one that Duval-Carrié stumbled upon when he first encountered a painting from the 19th century.

From a fairly obscure artist named Martin Johnson Heade, that 1887 painting — a small picture of it is tacked to the wall — depicts a similar scene, including what Duval-Carrié says is “a botanist’s attention to detail.” Heade was documenting his view of then-colonial islands such as Jamaica for European consumption, to attract investment in the Caribbean. A number of other European painters were doing the same thing. The images were lovely, even if drawn by men who may have stopped off on one island for a week.

But what struck Duval-Carrié most was that, although the landscapes might look authentic, the people were missing. All those dark people, he says, who would be doing all the work for those companies that would want to come. All those people who would remain anonymous and forgotten.

He decided to challenge that European view, literally, by repopulating some of these landscapes — landscapes he knows as a native, not a foreign explorer.

In fact, Duval-Carrié laughs about those early depictions as he walks around the room, where the setup harkens to those colonial days, like a palatial salon filled with paintings and tapestries representing imperial power. Some of the 19th century painters didn’t even visit the Caribbean, he says, but just made up idyllic versions. That was the era of the wunderkammer, the cabinets of curiosity, where various objects from conquered lands such as insects, plants and totems would be presented in cases, with little nod to the real artifacts relating to the people. The indigenous populations who were rapidly dying off, and the imported slaves who took their place, remained unseen.

So Duval-Carrié rectified that in his own way. Out of a swamp emerges a glittering man, but still a faceless one. A close look reveals other semi-mystical figures appear in the paintings. They are ghost-like, simultaneously real and in the world’s eyes, invisible. In one, a Lady Liberty is the focus, creating a direct reference to the traumatic history of Haiti’s fight for freedom from France, the country that donated the Statue of Liberty to the United States.

Ever since Columbus landed, the Caribbean has toiled through a troubled history, which Duval-Carrié addresses here. But he has a playful take as well. In After Bierstad, the Landing of Columbus, he sets up a warship representing gun-boat diplomacy floating in the background. In the foreground are the latest non-native arrivals paddling to shore: Disney and cartoon characters, marking pop culture the latest invasive species.

The paintings are framed within rectangular and oval shapes, their glitter and drawings covered in clear acrylic. The shapes are another nod to the Rococo European salon, Duval-Carrié says. Having spent time living and studying in Europe, and especially France, he knows these rooms. In an ironic twist, the palaces and even museums of Europe are now in a sense reimagined, relics of a colonial era that no longer exists.

Hanging from the ceiling are the two sculptures, the only ones with pastel coloring. They are chandeliers, dangling with small purple statues made of cheap resin, of what Duval-Carrié claims are a colonial, outsider’s view of Florida Indians. As in the Caribbean, he says, Europeans who barely knew the indigenous population romanticized an artificial Florida paradise they had helped eradicate. Or, in this case, reduced to trinkets hanging from a glamorous light fixture.

It’s a strange duality to be surrounded by such peaceful imagery that holds so much hidden darkness. But once you exit the room, you’ll want to return almost immediately. Duval-Carrié’s Caribbean is hard to leave.

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