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Identifying Signs 

We live in volatile times. Borders, once very open, are now far less so in the face of stealthy threats from abroad. But such fluctuations are nothing new; immigration ebbs and flows as nations rise and fall. What can get lost in the shuffle are the individuals whose fates rise and fall with them. Whether fleeing violence, poverty or oppression, immigrants face challenges to their sense of identity, yet America has always been a land of immigrants, with a national identity as fluid as the currents that brought us, our parents or forebears, here in the first place.

For Juan Carlos Quintana, a former New Orleanian now living in Berkeley, Calif., such questions are as intriguing as they are confounding. Trained as an artist and social worker, Quintana explores the psychology of identity in his new paintings based on his familial homeland of Cuba. This Land Promises sets the tone. A very large, triple-paneled painting, it features an aging gent in a planter's hat with a Cuban flag on it. His outstretched arms hold a plot of earth with palms and fruit trees, almost like some kind of Cubano planter-god holding the world -- or a productive parcel of it -- in his hands. He is flanked by saber-rattling comandantes and figures with bloody hands in a parody of those scenes on old cigar boxes with affably leering padrinos or beaming senoritas clutching cornucopias of tobacco in gold-leaf sunsets. The old, pre-Castro cliche of Cuba as a happy plantation still lingers -- you can almost hear Ricky Ricardo in the background. Ayiii-caramba! -- but where are the maracas? The answer is not far away.

Many of these paintings are like an anarchical melange with figures -- or just disembodied arms -- seductively shaking maracas as visions of Fidel, Uncle Sam and others proceed to carve up Paradise. You Reap What You Sow is a desolate landscape in which the heads of a planter, Uncle Sam and a swarthy desperado appear like evil Christmas ornaments on an eerily twisted tree. Quintana's surreal and Goya-esque approach to cigar box cliches skewers those who have messed with Cuba in the past, while waxing ironic about the self-consciousness of artists and others who wrap themselves in the symbols of their ancestral home.

Meanwhile at the CAC, Theresa Herrera's 3-D mixed-media works blend universal symbols and feminine archetypes with her own Mexican roots. Kaleidoscopic and floral, they reflect aspects of Wakah-Chan, the Mayan World Tree, and while it's all very vibrant, pretty and mystical, for Herrera it's a way of healing and getting in touch with the deepest levels of her inner life.

For Kimberly Dummons, black female identity is a bag that is empty or full. Only this time it's on a pedestal. Literally -- her bag sculptures employ the form of her own body (cast from life) as a suitcase. A series of leather-like torsoes and body parts, all are hinged and fitted with latches and handles. Visually a cross between classical Greek and African sculpture, all are empty, reflecting Dummons view that the "baggage" people carry with them is mostly a matter of choice. A striking and effective series.

And then there is the problem of lost baggage. Edie Tsong, a Taiwanese-American Baton Rouge artist, uses words painted in waves on the floor to evoke the flow of stories between three generations of women in her family. Resembling ripples, they reflect spoken memories that time is washing away like sand on a shore. Snowstorm, a walk-through labyrinth of newspapers cut to suggest snowflakes in the blizzard of words that technology propagates, is an ethereal look at life within the media storm that both facilitates and obscures our attempts at communication.

More African-American issues arise in Clifton Faust's latest assemblages. Works like An American Quilt employ chains to connect pillows with photos of African-Americans printed on them. Chains are a tad cliched at this point, yet for many the invisible chains still exist. Even so, Faust is at his best when he personalizes underclass experience, as in his somewhat more focused work at Barrister's Gallery.

At Barrister's, the whole issue of identity is summarized by Bob Tannen's large conceptual installations of colored cloth panels on the wall -- solid-colored flags that can be arranged to re-create the flags of existing, or hypothetical, nations. Tannen has studied the color symbolism of nations and ethnic groups, and this piece suggests that while national identities are vividly and colorfully etched in consciousness, they are also arbitrary, interchangeable, open to the most subjective and whimsical interpretations.

click to enlarge In You Reap What You Sow, Juan Carlos Quintana uses a surreal and Goya-esque approach to cliches.
  • In You Reap What You Sow, Juan Carlos Quintana uses a surreal and Goya-esque approach to cliches.


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