Armory displays boundary-pushing art by Caribbean artists


Rafael Domenech’s untitled sculpture composed of found light and cut plexiglass

A review by Jan Sjostrom for the Palm Beach Daily News.

When an exhibition is titled “Champions: Caribbean Artists Breaking Boundaries in South Florida,” you might expect to find qualities that identify the work as “Caribbean.”

Whether that’s so or not about the art produced by the 16 South Floridians in the show at the Armory Art Center in West Palm Beach, we’ll let viewers decide. We could give them a hint by telling them what Jane Hart, who curated the exhibition, has to say about the matter.

In appearance, the work ranges from the slick, scientific light hangings of Rafael Domenech to the folkloric wood “shrines” of Damian Rojo.

But “there’s a kind of organic nature to their process,” Hart said. “There’s a kind of tropical, urban sensibility to the work, whether it’s painting, sculpture or video.”

The artists are either immigrants or descendants of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Haiti, Colombia, Trinidad, Jamaica, Barbados and Puerto Rico. Most live in Miami.

The show was conceived by Liza Niles, chief of education and exhibitions. She wanted to expand the nonprofit visual arts school’s reach into the Caribbean community and introduce the Armory audience to the work of Caribbean artists in our region. In addition, she wanted to bring contemporary art to the Armory, where it hasn’t been a focus for awhile.

“I didn’t know much about their art,” she said. “I don’t think a lot of people do. We know about their food and their music, but we don’t see much of their contemporary art.”

Some are established artists, such as Adler Guerrier, whose work was exhibited in the 2008 Whitney Biennial, and the TM Sisters, who have been featured on the cover of ARTnews. Others, such as Brian Wood, who teaches the Armory’s art classes for sexual abuse victims, could be classified as emerging.

 Gonzalo Fuenmayor’s 2013 photograph Genesis XIV superimposes an elaborate chandelier, a symbol of colonialism, on a banana plant, a metaphor for photo

The show’s signature image, Genesis XIV, is a digitally manipulated photograph by Colombian-born Gonzalo Fuenmayor. It portrays a multi-tiered chandelier dangling from a cluster of bananas in a plantation.

Colombia is one of Latin America’s “banana republics,” the artist explains in the wall text. Even though he’s lived in the United States more than a decade, he feels compelled to comment on issues back home. Genesis XIV reflects on the tragic outcomes of colonialism.

The show also includes Fuenmayor’s word pieces featuring phonetically spelled Spanish words that form sentences such as “Are you a citizen of the United States?”

Cuban-born Clara Varas’ work fuses painting and sculpture. “Her work is very much about painting and interjecting aspects of everyday life,” Hart said.

That’s clear in pieces such as Stupid Tough, in which a canvas stretcher frame doubles as a window. Pieces of fabric and plastic splashed with paint are pinned strategically to the frame and a fan topped with an artificial plant rests on the “ledge.” The wall text says that her work explores “our relation to familiar objects, domesticity and displacement.”

Wood, who grew up in Barbados, creates paintings inspired by his longtime interest in skateboarding. Freedom communicates the forward motion of a skateboarder by portraying him from the back and exaggerating the size of the foot that just propelled him. The figure is set against a textured background of soft blue infused with pink.

So — is there a common thread that identifies the work as Caribbean? We’ll take refuge in Niles’ response. “They’re artists from the Caribbean. Does their art look like it’s from the Caribbean? I’m not sure.”

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