The exhibit that recently opened at the NSU Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale, The Miami Generation: Revisited, is a milestone in so many ways, it’s hard to know where to begin.
But here’s a start. The first iteration took place 30 years ago, when the now-defunct Cuban Museum of Arts and Culture in Little Havana featured nine Cuban artists born on the island but educated here in the United States, part of the first generation of Cuban exile artists influenced in their formative years by Miami as much as by Cuba.
That was in 1983, in a city still roiling from riots and the influx of the Mariel boatlift, but coming to terms with its new immigrants and infused with the energy of a burgeoning cultural arts scene. While the works highlighted from these nine artists had a comartismon tie, in that they were made by Cuban-born people of a similar age navigating a bicultural world, they also showed that contemporary art can not be truly categorized. Their choices for expression ranged from abstract painting to sculpture and collage, some forged out of a tropical palette or a deep sense of nostalgia, others whimsical or matter-of-fact.
Thirty years later, some of these early artworks are on display — not at a tiny museum but in Broward’s main art institution — complemented by pieces created by the artists since then. Since then as well, South Florida’s population, with immigrants from Cuba and everywhere else, has exploded. And the region has become an art focal point, with numerous galleries and museums and Art Basel Miami Beach. In other words, the bookends of 1983 and 2014 make for an interesting cultural time frame.
The first show was curated by Giulio V. Blanc and organized by Margarita Cano, who son Pablo is a featured artist in both exhibits (along with Mario Bencomo, Maria Brito, Humberto Calzada, Emilio Falero, Fernando Garcia, Juan Gonzalez, Carlos Macia and César Trasobares). Most of them had made a name in the art world of 1983; now, Miami art lovers will recognize works by almost all of the artists, as they have been shown extensively.
But even if some of the art is familiar to many Miami visitors, when it’s all put together here, you see the depth of the diversity that these first generation Cuban-American artists exemplified. (In another milestone, Revisited is the swan song of Fort Lauderdale museum curator Jorge Santis, who built one of the first and foremost Cuban and Cuban-American art collections over the decades for the museum; he is to retire later this year.)
Likely, you’ll immediately recognize the out-sized marionettes of Pablo Cano, made from tin cans, tea cups and wooden boxes, some painted entirely over with silver paint. His Alice In Wonderland creations are both joyful and sad. His puppets are childlike and innocent, with a Surrealist bent, but also lonely. Three hanging puppets painted in vibrant color are silhouetted on the screen behind them. Viewable from the opposite room, they are black-and white, looking lifeless and dangling.
Cano has been putting on his interactive puppet shows at MOCA every year during Art Basel and over the holidays, and his unique sculptures and storytelling have become a Miami staple.
The ink on paper from Cano from 1983, however, might come as a surprise. La Santa Sebastiana shows not the classic St. Sebastian but his female counterpart, getting shot through with arrows. Like that of others of his Miami generation, Cano’s work reveals an excitement and unease about a duel life — how to traverse traditions, cultures and identities without losing yourself.
Maria Brito also works with found objects like Cano, and her amazing installation is a stand-alone room in the middle of the gallery; it was shown at the Frost museum several years ago. Brito came to Miami with the Pedro Pan flights of the early 1960s, when thousands of children were sent unaccompanied from Cuba to the United States, a transformative experience without doubt, and she’s the only woman represented in these two shows. Her laboratory room, which you walk into, is another exploration of identity and search for place. Little busts are lined up on a table, and other tiny heads are in jars, growing tails. Disembodied hands are piled in a bowl, and some containers seem to be boiling. Something is brewing here — new life, fake life, amalgamated life?
In Humberto Calzada’s crisp, clear paintings, things are not murky or brewing — they stand as empty, gorgeous facades. Bright, tropical colors radiate from these almost-architectural drawings; golden walls and unperturbed stained glass windows are reflected on a turquoise sea, which seems to be creeping into these newly abandoned villas. Is this a Cuba before the decay, or a brand new world?
César Trasobares is well known in Miami not just for his art, but for his art activism and involvement in public art programs, and for his humorous take on both Cuban kitsch and American consumerism. In this exhibit, for instance, he has a pairing of collages from 1978, one masculine, one feminine. The male piece is a white suit coat, with little trappings of a male wardrobe; the female piece includes lace, gaudy costume jewelry and a bejeweled handbag (in gilded frame) — both are loosely categorized under the topic of the Quince [or Quinceañera], the once-in-a-lifetime ceremonies for teenage Latinas. There’s also a large-scale sculpture from his satirical dollar-bill series, Large Bills, from 2008-14.
Carlos Macia delved into sculptural imagery of facades, such as with his 1983 oil and wood work depicting a corner building with “Scarface” scribbled in red on it, and the unbelievably life-like mural wall painting that combines a Mondrian aesthetic with photo-realism. But he also integrated text to make it an essential element of the work, like the mixed-media series The Spheres, shown here courtesy of Miami’s Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry. Any number of worlds are mixing it up here.
Mario Bencomo and Fernando Garcia’s paintings jump out as the most traditionally abstract in the Western tradition, nonfigurative and using color (or lack of it) to tell the story. Emilio Falero’s painting, on the other hand, sits on a different spectrum, with literal and fanciful recreations of classical works from Velazquez to Picasso.
When The Miami Generation opened in 1983, Juan Gonzalez was the most well-known of the grouping. His dreamy, baroque-like watercolors relate a beautiful pain, of lost worlds and lost souls, and they won’t let you go. Then you’ll pause by his 1988 Sea of Tears, with young men in a pool, a head watching them in semi-sleep and a skull lurking in the frame, and realize another mile-marker. By 1995, Gonzalez, Garcia and Macia, along with curator Giulio Blanc, had died of AIDS, one-third of this first “generation” passed away during their prime, in yet another traumatic wave that profoundly affected the art scene here over the last 30 years. Hard, but important, to note with this show.
But all of the art continues a life of its own, as you can see when looking at where it is loaned from: private collectors in Miami, New York and North Carolina; the Lowe Museum at the University of Miami; the Frost Museum at FIU; the Perez Art Museum Miami; and MOCA North Miami.