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Drawn From Memory 

There is something about the Caribbean that breeds uniquely surreal sensibilities. Americans discovered that decades ago when Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez broke through to best-seller status with One Hundred Years of Solitude, his novel about the bizarre family intrigues surrounding a revolutionary leader on that nation's Caribbean coast. Beyond its focus on history, family and social issues, the novel was also a classic of the Magical Realism style, a long-established Latin literary idiom known for dreamlike narratives. What most of us north of the Rio Grande never took into account is that the surreal attributes of Magical Realism may seem as real for some people as reality TV is for most modern Americans. Sense of place has a lot to do with it, and when it comes to sense of place, Cuba may have more than its share, at least, if this Memory expo is any guide.

Mario Petrirena is an Atlanta-based artist who was born in Cuba a half-century ago. At the tender age of 8 he was sent to America to live at an orphanage while he waited for his parents to escape, which must have been a terribly confusing experience for a child. Despite having grown up in America, his work is profoundly Cuban in tone and outlook. This is something art buffs notice -- Cuban art has this look that is unlike anything else, regardless whether it was made by Cuban Americans or Cubans in Cuba. It has a surreal sensibility mingled with something indefinably indigenous. Petrirena may be more assimilated than Carlos Estevez, a more recent arrival with whom he shares the gallery at the CAC, yet both display related tendencies and a fondness for found objects.

In the case of Petrirena, who is no stranger to New Orleans, having previously exhibited at the CAC as well as at the Ogden Museum and the New Orleans Museum of Art, there is an almost Joseph Cornellian love of prosaic items, old glass jars, domestic items and bric-a-brac, all put to strategic use. Divided into roomlike spaces, his installations at times reminded me of my childhood visits to the homes of Cuban refugee friends, genteel domestic settings comprised of recently acquired consumer items, bric-a-brac and family photos mingled with Catholic religious icons, crucifixes, statues of saints and the BVM, all conveying a sense of routine magic -- not so different from my Hispanic grandmother's room at my parents' house, but with a more pronounced sense of exile. In Petrirena's More Imagined Than Remembered, glass jars contain the photographs and apparent relics of more anonymous persons, a mixture of Ellis Island-like documentation and more personal mementoes, all suggestive of the waves of exiles who often, literally, washed up on these shores like human flotsam. Here saints in large bell jars are often only fragments, broken shards or relics, and miscellaneous faces may be clustered in confined ceramic and concrete spaces as if still crowded on leaky vessels that may never make it to their destination -- the faces of people caught in the Kafkaesque intrigues that separated, and still separate, two nations.

Carlos Estevez was an adult, one of Cuba's officially sanctioned artists, when he arrived in this country a few years ago, but his vision has many parallels with Petrirena's, especially his Botellas al Mar -- literally, "bottles to the sea." Created to coincide with the 100-year anniversary of Havana's Malecon, or waterfront promenade, it includes bottles that were meant to be tossed into the sea along with the accompanying drawing and instructions to the finder -- a conceptual exercise in transience and chance. The drawings themselves resemble mythic beasts and fantastical inventions, like science fiction from the time of Leonardo da Vinci.

His other series of drawings suggest schematics or X-rays of magical marionettes, evocations of the art of medieval alchemists or the mandalas of central Asian sages. Economical and eloquent, their effect is philosophical yet poetic, qualities reinforced by titles such as The Spaces of Time, or Explanation of the Tides, and for the first time in ages I thought of Melchiades, the gypsy alchemist in the Marquez novel, a figure who put the exigencies of the moment into a more transcendental timeline -- the cosmic context of Magical Realism at its most expressive.

click to enlarge This detail from Mario Petrirena's installation, More - Imagined Than Remembered, suggests human experience - contained in arrangements of ordinary objects.
  • This detail from Mario Petrirena's installation, More Imagined Than Remembered, suggests human experience contained in arrangements of ordinary objects.
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