In 1996 guitarist Ry Cooder traveled to Havana, assembling a group of aging Cuban musicians to record the hit album that would be called Buena Vista Social Club, introducing many Americans to the unique sultry swing of old-school Cuban nightclub music. But judging from this exhibition, a similarly unique enchanting style of visual art has not been cultivated by the National Council of Fine Arts and the Wifredo Lam Center (which also sponsors the International Havana Art Biennial). It’s more like what you would expect a hundred miles north, in Art Miami, only a bit less outrageous, more provincial, and twenty to forty years behind the times. Rather than a contemporary Cuban style, the themes and devices of mainstream contemporary art have been applied to Cuban subjects. So much of this exhibition feels like a trip to Havana and the surrounding countryside—with photographs of quirky peasants, decaying sugar refineries and weathered doors. Even more so, the blurry, damp-but-dynamic cityscape paintings of Luis Enrique Camejo share a real affection for a time and place. A homeboy affection is emphatically proclaimed by Roberto Fabelo’s installation called “Damned Trips”—in which a collection of well-worn suitcases are impaled by a twelve-foot dagger suspended from the ceiling. Velasco and Arellano have photo-manipulated the iconic Plaza de la Revolución into a series of images where the towering Marti Memorial is subjected to some rather severe weather conditions and finally partially submerged by the sea. This is all more than just a little nostalgic and is augmented by many works on that overworked twentieth-century theme of modern man lost in the maze of his own high-tech civilization.
Meanwhile, the prominent images of Cuban soldiers spouting flowers from the mouth or wearing cute, camouflage glasses over the eyes, deflate whatever international hostility that still remains. The exhibition’s organizers proclaim that these works “illustrate the capacity of the artist to connect the local reality to global concerns and universal human issues,” but that’s just a fancy way of saying that they are offering Cuba as a charming and safe tourist destination, which will probably be that convenient tropical island’s destiny in the decades to come—which is not a bad thing, but until the local visual artists develop a strong, unique style, I’ll be flying there for the music. (Chris Miller)
Through January 2 at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 East Washington.