Thursday, June 21, 2018

Review: Tampa Museum of Art exhibit lets us see Havana crumbling


Dying slowly is a messy, painful and sad process. And we see those things in "Faded Elegance: Photographs of Havana by Michael Eastman" at the Tampa Museum of Art, which shows us the Cuban capital's magnificent old buildings in horrific decline. Some will see great beauty in the photographs, too (and they are magnificent). After all, ruins can be so romantic.

Eastman does such a great job that I look at them and find I am as angry about their narrative as I am entranced by their loveliness. He photographed mostly facades and interiors during trips to Cuba between 1999 and 2010. They show us a city that, before the 1959 revolution, could boast some of the loveliest and diverse architecture in the world now close to an aesthetic death rattle. Thank you, Fidel.

These are portraits without people (mostly) and the walls seem to talk. We can almost hear the plaster falling from them, along with the chip of old paint, the crash of window panes and the dolorous moans of buckling wood.

Eastman talked his way into once-grand mansions that were still occupied. He used a wide-angle lens and natural light, and didn't arrange or modify anything for the digital prints that are hugely proportioned at 6 by 7 feet. He gives us few details about the occupants but we see from his photographs that they live in a strange netherworld reminiscent of Miss Havisham's hermetic mansion. Where else would you see a fabulous Venetian glass chandelier jury-rigged with a standard-sized bulb, probably the only kind available, instead of the little ones manufactured for such fixtures?

One group of photographs documents the home of a woman named Isabella. We don't know how or why she's there. Two of them show the same scene, two frayed chairs under a massive bronze and crystal chandelier in a decaying room (you can see flakes of the ceiling, fallen to the floor); one was taken in 1999 and the other in 2000, after Isabella had died and a relative lived there. The only change that relative made was to add a clothesline. The next time he returned, the government had taken over the home.

Each of the interiors tells a singular story in its victimization not from violence but indifference.

Eastman also shoots exteriors, which gives us an even greater sense of the city's architectural uniqueness and the buildings' imperiled conditions. There are happy exceptions: a townhome flaunting a jaunty paint job that looks new, for example. And it's true that restoration work has been going on, especially in the oldest part of Havana which has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Eastman, however, wants us to see places not yet touched by such grace, perhaps before they're lost in a pile of collapsed rubble.

• • •

"Miradas: Ancient Roots in Modern and Contemporary Mexican Art, Works from the Bank of America Collection" is a much larger show with more than 100 paintings, prints, photographs and drawings. It, too, draws on post-revolutionary times, in this case art created after the Mexican Revolution, which lasted from 1910 to 1920.

First of all, I am grateful to Bank of America both for collecting art and for making it so accessible to the public by way of free loans to museums. Second, though (and this is minor), it's such a free-ranging exhibition that trying to corral it into themes and then into an overarching idea with its reference to ancient roots seems arbitrary at times. This is a diverse group of artists. That they are Mexican or Mexican-American (except a few who aren't) is probably the thread that binds them together and in many cases, it's a relevant connection.

We have big names past and present. Diego Rivera (1886-1957) is represented by a 1932 lithograph with one of his beloved "of the people" themes, this time indigenous children in a schoolroom. Rufino Tamayo (1899-1991), a contemporary of Rivera without his political agenda, has three prints, including a beautiful undated lithograph of a bowl of apples on a table. More recent is a complex print with a dense, abstract background and delicately rendered flowers by Roberto Juarez (1952- ) and haunting photographs by Graciela Iturbide (1942- ) including her famous Angel Woman.

Many artists reference their cultural heritage. Miguel Castro Leñero's yellow snail painted on a monolithic blue mountain looks like an Aztec spiral, for example. And Alejandro Colunga's little boys at play wearing fantastical costumes and accessories summons up magical realism. I am not convinced that Anthony Hernandez's photographic prints of Rodeo Drive have earned a thematic place at the table.

But there is a richness, energy and vibrancy in this impressive survey. It's a good complement to Eastman's photographs, which make you wish you could go backward in time, and this one, which propels you forward.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8293.

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