Monday, March 5, 2018

Cuba Here We Come - Adiόs Utopia

Back when I was a kid, Cuba was the preferred repository of utopian dreams and counter-culture dissatisfaction with bourgeois American society. The idea of a bearded revolutionary lawyer in army fatigues overthrowing a ruthless tyrant and colonial puppet on America's doorstep satisfied the archetypical psychic needs of a generation of well-fed suburban youth growing up in confusing times. 
As Tacitus once put it, Omni ignatum magnificat est. (What is unknown is taken to be something great.)  

Many Cubans found the Castro regime to be less than great. Some criticized it and were locked up or executed. Others fled. Still others made adjustments, kept their mouths shut, went on with their lives, and perhaps even thrived under the new regime.

The curators of the new show at the Walker Art Center have no interest in weighing the pros and cons of the Castro era. They take it for granted that things went wrong and devote their attention to artworks by individuals who became disillusioned for one reason or another. Revolutionary fervor and post-modern irony make strange bedfellows under the best of circumstances, and as the early promise of the revolution faded and the regime became more repressive, purveyors of bourgeois social criticism found themselves distinctly out of place.    

A great variety of mediums and styles are on display, from Pop Art iconography to journalistic photography to video pieces and installation art, and many of the pieces are interesting, though more often historically or conceptually than aesthetically.

I was taken by the rowboat constructed out of Marxist theoretical tracts ... though that may be simply because I like books and boats, but do not like Marx. And how often do you come upon a lighthouse lying on its side in the middle of a room, with the light still turning slowly?

A six-foot Mexican flag hangs on one wall made largely of the hair of Cubans who fled to Southern California. A gaunt, rugged statue of a Cuban hero of an earlier age, José Martí, reminded me of both a traditional Spanish Colonial wooden statue and Donatello's "David."

Photos from the early days of the revolution, though obviously posed, have historical interest, as do Pop Art portraits of Che Guevara, Fidel, and other heroes of the revolution. One room was devoted to Cuban art from the 1950s, and, as Hilary observed, it could have come from anywhere. It looked a little tame, though its non-representational subject matter gave it a restful character in the midst of so many images of anger, longing, frustration, and disappointment.

This notion, that the art could have come from anywhere, might also be applied to the rest of the show to some degree. The themes were Cuban, certainly, but the "styles" were typically post-modern, and this gave the show a somewhat ambiguous flair. It's all well and good for an artist to set him- or herself up against bourgeois conventions, but it seems odd to make use of the same techniques to "challenge the assumptions" of revolutionary conventions, which have already set themselves up against bourgeois conventions. It puts you right back where you started from.

One playful piece consisted of a meter facetiously designed to measure the incendiary character of any work of art. The readings on the dial ranged from "san problema" to "problematica" to "counterrevolutionaria" to "diversionismo." I found it amusing that blatantly counter-revolutionary art was ranked lower on the scale than art designed to divert the viewer's attention.

My favorite works were a series of five Monty-Pythonesque collages by a woman named Sandra Ramos. They had a wistful lyricism and interiority that was lacking in many of the works.  

By the same token, I took a liking to a large multi-media icon of a sailor that was displayed with the title, "My Father." It had the most earthy and peasant-like feel of any piece in the show. And I thought it looked cool.

It was family day at the Walker and also Free First Saturday, and the building was full of lively activity. We ate lunch at the museum cafe, Esker Grove, where the food was only fair and not very hot. 

It could have used a bit of Cuban spice.

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