The idea of habitation informs two very different exhibitions at the University of South Florida Contemporary Art Museum, one with expansive investigation, the other with cerebral circumscription.
The first, "Occupying, Building, Thinking: Poetic and Discursive Perspectives on Contemporary Cuban Video Art," is a long, clunky title for a show that is thoughtful and entertaining. The hour and 20 minutes needed to see all 22 videos may seem like daunting commitment but for me, the time flew.
The gallery setup is charming. Vanessa Diaz designed an environment meant to evoke a Cuban home. Filigree metal gates are suspended at the entrance to suggest a doorway and beyond is a shrine with a Madonna statue and candles. Cuba as a time capsule has been well documented. Furnishings and consumer products have mostly remained as they were beginning in the late 1950s when Fidel Castro came to power, since newer ones became unavailable with the Western embargo. So the "living room" in the gallery is dotted with seating areas with lamps, chairs and televisions from that decade. The seating is arranged around three small monitors with headphones and the videos are separated into the three sections of the title. You feel a bit like the old days when a family would cluster in front of the TV to watch Ed Sullivan. Each section lasts about 20 minutes. A large screen also projects all of the videos in a continuous loop.
What I thought of while there was Antonio Carlos Jobim's Waters of March, in which images tumble toward a source. These videos do, too, individual stories that together form a collective about life in Cuba.
Jairo Alfonso takes us on a Walk With Grandfather Juan, his grandfather represented by a traditional wood-soled sandal with a tail of dominoes attached. It's done in stop action so it has the herky-jerky rhythms of an actual stroll in which we see Juan's constrained world at ground level. It's sweet, nostalgic and poignant.
Bunker by Renier Quer shares those qualities while having a grittier sensibility. It's a slice of the life of an elderly man who lives in the basement beneath a national monument as its caretaker. It's a dank, windowless, miniscule space that he insists is perfect for him. But as he continues to talk while taking us on a tour, he alludes to a sense of disappointment in unmet revolutionary expectations, saying one must be "content with what you have, content with what they give you."
Grethell Rasúa turns her eye on the infamous facades of Old Havana, which are disintegrating from neglect. In Covers of Yearnings, some residents do the best they can to keep up appearances and the best is usually just a can of colorful paint splashed on rotting wood and crumbling plaster. But, when seen juxtaposed against those left untouched, they become metaphors for resilience and hope.
One of the funniest, angriest and most overtly political is Lázaro Saavedra's The Good-Hearted Ideologue in which a stuffed doll, lying on a bed of government-operated newspapers, is relieved of its button eyes and mouth, which is slit open and stuffed with slivers of the paper, symbolically censoring anything one might say or see. Its torso is slit open and more paper is added. Then the "brain" is removed, ending thought. The doll is put on a blue background and its cotton stuffing arranged overhead like clouds. RIP.
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"Paul Robinson: Form of Absence" is a less accessible experience but has the same potential gratification as the videos. I'm not a fan of long wall labels because I can wind up spending more time reading them than interacting with the art. However, there are none in this exhibition and after a lot of looking, I'm still not exactly sure what I saw. At some point, I ceased trying to decipher individual works and let the whole thing wash over me.
"Form of Absence" is also an imaged environment but more abstract and conceptual. Robinson, an artist and architect, pays homage to Joze Plecnik (1872-1957), a Slovene architect who created buildings, parks and plazas that have defined the capital city of Ljubljana much as Antoni Gaudí did in Barcelona. We're immersed not in a literal homage to Plecnik but instead a distilled interpretation of his aesthetic world. Almost every component was created by Graphicstudio, the USF atelier that began decades ago with printmaking collaborations and has evolved into a cutting-edge incubator for artistic experimentation.
Many of the works are radiographs — X-rays — printed on exquisite papers and sometimes embellished with paint. A striking example of the creative manipulation of materials is a large-scale radiograph embedded with oils and plaster that are compressed into the paper and look like shards of glass. Many of them are of puppets in which the wood forms dissolve and the only clarity is in the metal pins. The sculptures in the show represent talismans of home: a bed, door, table just recognizable as such. Everything seems about to dissolve before our eyes. As with the video show, this one suggested an association with another artist. I found myself mentally reciting Wallace Stevens' The Idea of Order at Key West, its "blessed rage for order . . . of ourselves and of our origins, in ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds."
Lennie Bennett can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8293.