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Caribbean Eye 

We are now officially in storm season, which always reminds us of events we may not always want to remember. Of course, we've heard it all by now, the tales of woe and all the tragic things that happen when things really start to unravel " or so I thought. But what happened to New Orleans artist Roberto Ortiz after his studio and all of his worldly belongings were inundated by the floods following Katrina illustrates just how fragile are the strands from which our destinies hang suspended. After his former life washed away, Ortiz ended up in his ancestral land of Puerto Rico. There in the coastal city of Rincón, he endured life in a place where, according to the travel guides, 'emerald hills overlook golden beaches and crystal waters as the sun sets behind a mountain." If that sounds hellish, the most crushing blow must have been finding himself the overlord of a beach resort, the Villa Orleans. Such adversity can only be endured by losing oneself in one's work; the silver lining here is this series of new paintings at the Jonathan Ferrara Gallery.

It may be Ortiz's most consistent body of work to date. While his past efforts were often novel and colorful, they weren't always coherently grounded. But these new paintings seem very much in the tradition of Caribbean abstraction " or his version of it " and convey a sense of the light and texture of Caribbean or Mediterranean places where exuberant joie de vivre is mingled with blood and rust, the dark sediment of history. The Caribbean casts everything in high relief, and here there's a sense of structures etched with eroded layers of human drama, of walls that read like palimpsests. Not that Ortiz's loopy spirals and intimations of outer space are wholly absent " they're not " but they're situated in a deeper and more forgiving context.

Caribbean abstraction was influenced by its Spanish equivalent, especially artists such as Joan Miró and Antoni Tapies. In his Monument to Antonio Gaud’, Ortiz melds his longstanding interest in geometry and cosmology with the gritty textures of antique cities bathed in the luminous tones of tropical light. Deft use of a palette knife breaks space into multilayered planes that build into rhapsodic spirals and stairways to infinity, recalling Gaud’'s art nouveau cathedrals and other buildings that give Barcelona its legendary aura of surreal antiquity. Hypothetical Collaboration Between Time and Space is a simpler composition involving vertical rectangular patches topped with arcs and spheres and delineated in pale lunar tones against inky midnight. Seemingly simple in execution, it recalls the cliff dwellings of the Greek isles and their Caribbean counterparts. South by Southwest melds those earthy, sandy rectangles and cosmic spheres in a musical composition reminiscent of Wassily Kandinsky, one of the first and most ardent advocates of art as visual music. Not all are as successful, but in this show Ortiz seems to have rediscovered his visual voice.

Antonio Carreno is a longstanding practitioner of Caribbean abstraction. A native of the Dominican Republic, he employs a palette knife to slather and etch earth tones so sandy that his paintings sometimes resemble mortar on canvas, perhaps because he mixes sand with his pigments. Those umber, ocher and buff tones are enlivened by linear marks that I initially thought were inspired by Miró. Maybe they were to some extent, as he and Miró seem similarly subconscious in orientation, but look again and those mysterious marks are also reminiscent of the delineations of the area's native Taino Indians, whose symbolism found its way into the sacred diagrams of voodoo and Santer’a. That melding of high and indigenous culture is what Caribbean abstraction is all about, and Carreno's handling of it in his latest show at Stella Jones Gallery is somewhat astute if not exemplary.

click to enlarge Monument to Antonio Gaud’, by New Orleans artist Roberto Ortiz, was inspired by Ortiz's stay in Rinc—n, Puerto Rico.
  • Monument to Antonio Gaud’, by New Orleans artist Roberto Ortiz, was inspired by Ortiz's stay in Rinc—n, Puerto Rico.
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