Photo by Jack Gould We do have a bizarre little cornerof the world to love, don't we? A couple of months ago, when the Orange County Museum of Art's satellite in South Coast Plaza exhibited a bunch of real fancy multiples—lithos, etc. intended to maximize an artist's profit for an image—it didn't take even a full day for someone to call and complain. Why, you ask? Because prominently exhibited were Andy Warhol's silkscreens of dead Chinese bercommie Mao Tse Tung. Our own homegrown John Birch Society strikes again. And don't even get me started on the protesters outside the Vietnamese exhibit at the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art last year. Commies? Bad!
Aside from the occasional Mapplethorpe blockbuster—or last year's single best exhibit, the Brooklyn Museum's "Sensation"—museums tend to shy away from controversy. You can get a trainload of good press by standing up to censors, but you also don't want to drive away your blue-haired membership base—or all its lovely money.
I doubt the Museum of Latin American Art (MOLAA) suspected it would offend anyone by painting socialism as dreary and user-unfriendly. There aren't a lot of commie symps around these days, what with the "death" of Marxism and the former Soviet Union's inability to keep up with our mad military spending; we are the Imelda Marcos of designer weapons systems. So we won, converting Russia to the "free market," which seems to mean misery for all but the very unpleasant Russian Mafia.
But MOLAA did offend us, which just goes to show you can't please anyone these days. The press release for "Contemporary Art From Cuba: Irony and Survival on the Utopian Island" states: "Without taking sides on issues, the exhibit includes work that reflects various views of the revolution and the realities of life under the United States' embargo."
"Without taking sides"? "Various views"? Fat chance. There's one view here, one side, and it's telegraphed neatly in the exhibit's title—a title that makes this assumption: No artist could hope to tell the truth about Castro's hell and survive, so all Cuban art appearing to honor socialism and critique capitalism must be read as irony. That makes the clever curator's job like cracking a code—we hate it here, please save us, invade quickly—as if Fidel himself is so goddammed stupid, so irony-deficient, that he doesn't realize his state-trained artists are actually subverting the dominant (socialist) paradigm. And it makes the clever museum visitor's job cracking the code-cracker's code.
MOLAA's bleached-blond docentprobably didn't realize my mother, who accompanied me, was giving her the fish eye. There we were, humming with love for the juicy works and the island that spawned them, my mother eavesdropping as the well-coifed woman led a tour.
"Socialism pays people not to work," she said in Spanish-accented English; I had her figured for the type of anti-Castro reactionary clogging up Dade County. "Why would you want to work hard if you get paid anyway?"
It may have been the first time I've ever seen my mom hold her tongue. She's an unreconstructed Marxist, and to have some well-kept woman—with her fingernails and her hairdo—extolling the virtues of the free market would normally have been too much for her. She's a good mom.
By then, we had already noticed the decidedly anti-Castro wall texts for some of the spitfire works.
Flying Pigeon, by a three-artist group called Los Carpinteros, features an idyllic canvas of a black man pedaling his bicycle in the shade of a tree-lined boulevard. The lines are softened, the shade welcoming. Attached to the front of the canvas is a carved relief of a train's engine. The wall text, without taking sides on the issues, talks about how the train system in Cuba is really only for the transportation of sugar cane, not humans, and informs the viewer that the painting really reveals the "inversion [in Cuba] of the relationship of human to machine, with human effort propelling the engine. . . . It could be read as a commentary on misplaced priorities, mismanagement of resources, and semantic manipulation."
It also could be read as my foot in your ass. That's right: the zero-emission bicycle, providing both healthful exercise and ease of transportation without glomming up any natural resources, enslaves the man riding it. It's brilliant! Could that really have been the artists' intent? Bicycle as whipcracking plantation overseer? Anything's possible, I suppose. But the man doesn't look overly burdened; he is not sweating while he toils. In fact, he's not even pedaling; he's cruising through the pretty street. Good Lord, he's so pretty he could be a tourism ad. Come back to Jamaica! Plus, he's not going to have to fight for a parking place.
Perhaps the curators of the show spoke with the artists about the works, divining their real "meaning." And perhaps the artists actually did intend that whole bicycle thing as a slam on Fidel. But anyone can play the Unlikely Interpretation game; I'm no slouch at it myself. We all see what we want to see, and if the curators want to soft-pedal Cuban art (get it? Soft-pedal it? Never mind) or see it as an ironic expression of the misery of life on the island, they're very capable of semantic manipulations themselves.
The 17 artists in the exhibit allspent time in state-financed art schools, and their works, spread through two huge galleries, are potent and electric. Unlike the ragtag mishmash of a Cuban exchange show at UC Irvine's Art Gallery last year (the exhibit comprised the worst characteristics of your typical lazy, young LA assemblage artist), the MOLAA works are expertly constructed narratives. Nor do they shy away from shrill condemnations of materialism and consumerism. I love shrill!
The second-most common theme here is that of the refugees—those who, like Elian's dead mama, chose shark-infested waters over universal education and health care. Kcho offers In Order to Forget, a kayak afloat on a sea of Coors bottles. Sandra Ramos' Migrations II is an empty suitcase, its lining pitted with painted mines. Far away, past the lethal obstacle course, is the American flag, and a woman squirts fierce tears out of her eyes while riding through the water on her lover's back. Osvaldo Yero crafted Sea of Tears, dozens of plaster casts of hands, painted blue, rising and falling in waves.
But materialism is the most constant theme for Cuba's well-educated young artists: Pedro Alvarez's High, Low, Left and Right: Homage to the French Revolution is a triptych of red, white and blue for the French, American and Cuban flags. Each panel shows a chic '50s-era, high-rent interior, straight out of a magazine spread. Plopped sadly into the middle is Lady Liberty as the French paint her: a sassy redhead. She looks very small and confused.
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Abel Barroso's plywood cutouts of the "good life" include hot mudflap babes sunning themselves by swimming pools; his icons include a piggy bank, an AmEx card, a cross, a condom and a gun.
Let's play the Unlikely Interpretation game again. Wait! I've got one: "While Barroso's reliefs might seem to mock American consumerism, the fact that they are constructed of wood slyly belies the rigidity and falseness of those who would condemn the 'American way of life.'" Isn't that fun?
Mmmm, semantic manipulation!
"Contemporary Art From Cuba" at the Museum of Latin American Art, 628 Alamitos Ave., Long Beach, (562) 437-1689; www.molaa.com. Open Tues.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-7:30 p.m.; Sun., noon-6 p.m. $7; students/seniors, $5; children under 12/members, free. Through Sept. 10.