History and memory collide in Anthony Goicolea's elegant exhibition at Sandroni Rey. Although he's not the first (and surely won't be the last) artist to base a body of work on old family photographs, Goicolea goes beyond homage to engage larger historical forces and the slippery process of remembering.
The photos were taken in Cuba before his parents' immigration to the U.S. after the 1959 revolution. Goicolea, who was born in the U.S., makes fairly faithful drawings of these black-and-white portraits, enlarging them and adding a soft white halo, an act of ancestral beatification.
More ambitious is a diptych that expresses a longing for kinship and continuity even as it acknowledges their impossibility. The right-hand panel depicts a multi-generational family around a formal dining room table, but the image is a fake: The figures have been copied from separate photos taken at different times. Goicolea photographed this concoction and reversed it in the opposite panel to look like a photographic negative. The fabricated family reunion is a touching attempt to close gaps in time and location, but presenting it in negative renders it alien and heightens the image's artifice. Still, the relationship between positive and negative links the piece back to photography, furthering the drawing's illusion of a single moment in time and reinforcing familial bonds across temporal and geographic distances.
Similar juxtapositions occur in Goicolea's striking black-and-white photo collages. Combining drawn elements with recent photos from his first trip to Cuba, they are hallucinatory fusions of the country's past -- as a puppet state flush with U.S. money and modern development -- and its present under a struggling, embargoed communist regime. A ghostly drawing of an empty swimming pool appears in the middle of the watery ruins of an ocean-side building; in another image, rising tides threaten to obliterate a grandiose modern tunnel. The images mourn the past, but they also record the decay of a modernist vision that shaped Cuba's urban landscape in the 1940s and '50s.
As it does for many exiles, the glamour of pre-revolutionary Cuba looms large in Goicolea's imagined family history. Two graphite and acrylic drawings on Mylar (whose surfaces have the dusty gray look of chalkboards) feature renderings of 1950s luxury hotels. The more recognizable of the two, Hotel Habana Riviera, which is still in operation, is surrounded by drawings of the moon as it appeared on each day of the month preceding Goicolea's birth on Aug. 30, 1971. The last moon appears with a list of birth statistics.
Though admittedly farfetched, this linkage of the personal, the historical and the cosmic locates a reassuring continuity in forces greater than political regimes and families: the solidity of architecture, the cycles of the moon. Still, the drawings' chalkboard quality makes these connections seem provisional, as if they could suddenly be wiped away.
Transience is also implied in the show's sole sculptural piece: an outline of the floor plan of Goicolea's parents' house in Havana, bisected by a low concrete wall. Along the top of the wall are clear glass bottles filled with portraits of relatives, drawn in negative. It's a straightforward illustration of a family divided, its members cast adrift like messages in bottles. Yet, unlike the rest of the exhibition, which is allusive and even dreamy, it feels a bit airless. Likewise the obligatory family tree, which, although playfully executed, fails to hold its own among the richer, more inventive drawings and photo collages. After all, the strength of Goicolea's project is not in the particulars of his ancestry but in his use of history, photography and natural systems to construct memories he never had.
This concept of remembering as a creative act is especially poignant for a generation of Cuban exiles in the States whose romanticized memories of pre-Castro Cuba often overlook what was at the time a semi-colonial relationship with the U.S. In a way, Goicolea's images are a similar kind of idealization. Although his intent is more personal than partisan, his work can't help but suggest that, although memory is always fabricated, it is also always political.
Sandroni Rey, 2762 S. La Cienega Blvd., L.A. (310) 280-0111, through Nov. 15. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.sandronirey.com.
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