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Bridging the Cuban Divide

A Long Beach museum's approach to cross-culturalism pays off with an unexpectedly timely exhibition.

May 14, 2000|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

"We're going to be in the eye of the storm," said Gregorio Luke, director of the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach.

Maybe so, maybe not. But the museum's next attraction, "Contemporary Art From Cuba: Irony and Survival on the Utopian Island," is certainly arriving at a moment when all things Cuban seem newsworthy.

The exhibition of 43 works by 19 artists, which opens Saturday, has been traveling across the country for the past two years, and it was booked at the Long Beach museum long before the fate of 6-year-old Cuban refugee Elian Gonzalez became the subject of an impassioned international debate. With that controversy still going strong, the show is likely to be an attention-getter--and a mixed blessing.

Luke is delighted to have an opportunity to build the audience of the 4-year-old institution. Devoted to the work of artists who have lived and worked in Latin America since World War II, the museum is struggling to establish itself in the community, gain credibility in the art world and expand its facilities and programs. But he knows that his staff will have to fend off criticism from those who think staging any exhibition of Cuban art is tantamount to supporting Castro.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday May 28, 2000 Home Edition Calendar Page 79 Calendar Desk 2 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Museum architect--Michael Maltzan was the original architect of the Museum of Latin American Art's renovation, as stated in a May 14 article on the Long Beach institution. However, architect Manuel Rosen took over the project, revised the design and carried it to completion.

"This couldn't be farther from an official exhibition," Luke said, looking over plans for the installation in an office at the museum. "Presenting the show has nothing to do with politics; it's about our mission. I think it's very important to talk about the culture of Cuba. You can't be a Latin American art museum today that ignores some of the best art produced in the Americas. Cuban art deserves to be seen."

For all Luke's passion, the Cuba show isn't breaking completely new ground in Southern California. Several Los Angeles galleries--including Iturralde, Couturier, Track 16 and Christopher Grimes--as well as the Museum of Contemporary Art have presented the work of Cuban artists, some of whom are featured in Long Beach. But the traveling show is a landmark, billed as "the first major exhibition in the United States dedicated entirely to the work of the new generation of Cuban artists."

"Contemporary Art From Cuba" was organized by Marilyn Zeitlan, director of the Arizona State University Art Museum in Tempe, where the show opened in the fall of 1998. After Long Beach, the exhibition will appear at UC Santa Barbara's University Art Museum (Oct. 20-Dec. 16) and at the Spencer Art Museum at the University of Kansas in Lawrence (January-March 2001).

Reached by telephone in her office, Zeitlan said she first visited Cuba in 1978 and wanted to return but didn't do so until 1996. "I spent two weeks there and was knocked out by the work," she said. "I was so impressed by the artists' creativity and imagination, and the humor and the bite of their work. And they were so highly skilled. There's this combination of intelligence and skill and something great to make the work about." Although the artists have had to struggle to survive, their experience has provided a rich supply of subject matter, she said.

Zeitlan decided that there should be a major exhibition of the work she had seen and that she would organize it. She faced obstacles because of the strained relations between the United States and Cuba. But despite "the purported enmity," the U.S. has a strong presence in Cuba, which often turns up in Cuban contemporary art as "an implied love-hate for everything American," she said.

One work she selected, "Dreaming of Things American" by Osvaldo Yero, merges the two countries' flags in a fractured image strewn with bits of American Pop art. A larger, much more poignant piece by Yero, "Sea of Tears," will cover a 15-foot-wide gallery wall with 750 blue-glazed, cast porcelain hands of Cuban artists.

"The work in the show is very funny and very sad," Zeitlan said. And although Americans may not know much about Cuba, most people who see the traveling show "get it," she said.

Since rediscovering Cuba in 1996, she has traveled there about 15 times. For the exhibition, she selected a varied assortment of works that deal with the theme of survival. "For Cuba," a wood sculpture by Fernando Rodriguez, to be stationed at the entrance of the show in Long Beach, depicts a man pulling a train of miniature trailers loaded with ordinary household items and toiletries that are unavailable in Cuba. At the end of the exhibition, another large wood sculpture, "The Prophet" by Carlos Estevez, depicts a giant male nude puppet. With strings running from nails all over its body to rafters of the museum, the figure is hopelessly ensnared and controlled by unseen forces.

Between these two imposing pieces, visitors will find paintings, drawings, sculptures and installations that take a critical view of life in Cuba and portray clashes of ideals and cultures. About the only thing missing is dispassionate abstraction.

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