Visual Arts

Despite controversy, Cuban art exhibit reflects a fascinating history

Maria Martinez Canas, who was born in Havana and lives in Miami, unveils her mixed media piece “Rebus + Diversions: Untitled 023” during opening night.
Maria Martinez Canas, who was born in Havana and lives in Miami, unveils her mixed media piece “Rebus + Diversions: Untitled 023” during opening night.

Curating a group exhibit — trying to thread themes out of diverse works from individual artists — isn’t easy. Putting together a coherent exhibit that needs to be culled from award winners whose only base criterion is that they are of Cuban heritage is even harder.

Such is the case with the exhibitions of the Cintas Fellows Collection, an organization that annually gives a monetary award to a visual artist of Cuban descent.

The latest exhibition, “Between the Real and the Imagined: Abstract Art from Cintas Fellows,” manages to surmount these challenges, delivering a tight, smart and thought-provoking trip through a slice of Cuban abstraction. Oh, and it’s beautiful too — not cluttered or fussy and therefore able to communicate a fascinating artistic history.

Founded in 1957 by Oscar B. Cintas, the foundation’s board has awarded fellowships for 55 years to people of Cuban descent in the fields of visual arts, music, writing and architecture. The winners donate works to the collection. The Cintas Foundation has moved around, having been hosted at FIU’s Frost Museum of Art and now on long-term loan to the MDC Museum of Art and Design. However, as the MDC museum in the Freedom Tower is undergoing renovations, this year’s exhibit is being held at the Coral Gables Museum after a strange change of another venue. In spring, Cintas created controversy within Miami’s exile community when it decided to open up its fellowship program to Cubans who still live on the island.

As a result, the newly unveiled American Museum of the Cuban Diaspora decided to cancel hosting the scheduled Cintas exhibit (Miami Herald columnist Fabiola Santiago covered the controversy in June).

In the end, exhibit curator and director of Dialogues in Cuban Art Program, Elizabeth Cerejido, had to think fast. With just a few months and a smaller space, she had to make something fit. Cerejido decided on a narrow focus of abstract art but expanded the 27 works to include those not just from the collection itself but also from private holdings. What we see is an incredible range of art that still is nicely defined within the general context of line and structure, from the mid-20th century to the present.

“Between the Real and Imagined” offers a surprising view, in that “Cuban” art is often associated with colorful, figurative painting. Abstract painting dominates here, but there are also examples of photography and sculpture, from familiar and unfamiliar artists, from long-established and emerging artists from several generations.

Two excellent examples underscore the curatorial theme. Upon entering, the visitor walks through a site-specific installation from Vanessa Diaz, born in 1980 in Fort Lauderdale, who was a Cintas fellow in 2016-17. She has draped white cloth and partial white blinds on the museum’s walls and windows, which continues into the main space. It almost points the way to a spare, white-and-green painting from Carmen Herrera, born in Havana in 1915 and a fellow from 1969-72.

The exquisite piece from 1966, in which two white rectangles are divided yet somehow also supported by three green slivers, is a bit of a coup here. Herrera, after years of living in obscurity as an abstract female painter and sculptor, finally achieved some fame in the 2000s and just had a show at the Whitney Museum of Art earlier this year, at the ripe young age of 102. The work of these two women almost frame the exhibit and highlight its scope.

But there is much, much more. Two works are showstoppers, immediately drawing your attention by the color schemes and composition. One is a painting from one of Cuba’s abstract pioneers, Rafael Soriano, who was born in Matanzas in 1920 and died in Miami in 2015 (he received a Cintas Lifetime Achievement award in 2014, as have several others in the show). “Motifs of the Sea” from 1953 is a little more narrative than others; you can discern shark’s teeth and fins. But it is the layering of strong yellows, oranges, pinks swimming in an array of blues that is so captivating. According to curator Cerejido, this painting needed some restoration and has never before been exhibited, and reveals a unique period in the artist’s career.

“Nucleii,” 1972, from Baruj Salinas (born in Havana in 1935 and a fellow from 1969-71) hangs on its own wall, with a bench in front of it. Maybe because you have to sit to take in the large, exploding geometric universe, shaded in pastels.This has never been shown in Miami, and it seems striking and unfortunate that we rarely see works from Salinas, although he lives here.

In much more somber tones — grays, blacks, browns — is the “The Fisherman,” again a rare painting from Carlos Alfonzo (fellow, 1983-84). This stunning painting is also a little more figurative in that you can make out the fishermen and fish, but it is visually stark. Metal pieces seem to be crushing the living species. It was made in 1977 while Alfonzo still lived in Cuba, before he arrived in Miami during the Mariel boatlift and garnered national attention, before dying from AIDS-related complications at the age of 40.

Stylistically the works can seem diverse, but as Cerejido emphasizes, they all work within “the language of geometry.”

The title of Leyden Rodriguez Casanova’s “A Shelf Supporting Two Frames,” 2017, is telling. This clean sculpture, made of recycled wood, aluminum and steel, from the Miami-based, Havana-born artist and 2010-11 fellow, is all about lines. The edges of the two tilted frames line up precisely with the edges of the shelf. Look back from this monochromatic shelf at the brightly colored painting from 1957 from José Mijares (born in Havana in 1921 and died in Miami in 2004, a 1970-72 fellow), and notice that while the painting resembles shards of stained glass, the precision and placement of the lines is again unmistakable.

Angela Valella (born in Havana in 1948 and currently working in Miami, a 2014-15 fellow) also plays with geometric composition in “Double Image Attached,” 2013, while tweaking it for a digital age.

Some pieces don’t quite follow the flow, as is the case in most group exhibits. The well-respected Maria Martinez-Cañas (born in Havana in 1960, lives in Miami and a 1988-89 fellow) contributed an ambitious new piece. It is made from a shipping crate, and the photographic collage printed on the cover is sharp and compelling; inside the crate is a sculptural Wunderkabinett of what looks like 20th century mechanical objects and references to early Latin geometric abstract art. It’s interesting, but it doesn’t have the same “linear” dialogue the way that many of the other pieces have.

Overall the expertly chosen pieces in “Between the Real and the Imagined” do talk to each other and lead us on a journey through one lineage of Cuban art.

Although at times challenging to work with, Cerejido says the fluidity of a collection that is made from works donated by artists and not picked by one eye makes it inherently an organic collection, changing with every new acquisition. And, with eligibility opened to artists from Cuba this year, Cerejido thinks Cintas will truly be able to reflect the ever-evolving definition of Cuban art.

If You Go

What: “Between the Real and the Imagined: Abstract Art from Cintas Fellows”

Where: Coral Gables Museum, 285 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables

When: Through Oct. 22