How do you convey the depth of a radically disruptive artistic output produced under as simple of a name as Mariano?
You build a sense of enigma around said name, as Pérez Art Museum Miami has done for the first major retrospective of the work of Cuban artist Mariano Rodríguez (1912-1990) in the United States.
A darkly lit gallery tucked away on the second floor of the museum builds up the momentum with well-behaved straightforward pieces before turning to geometric abstractions that descend into a bizarre world of distortions. This is Matisse meets Picasso meets Goya meets Dante’s Inferno, all of them signed Mariano.
On view through Jan. 22, Mariano: Variations on a Theme spans almost six decades of an artistic career that never strayed far from its national identity while courting abstract expressionism, figuration, and geometric abstraction. It’s almost as if by keeping the subject matter relatively fixed had afforded the artist a layer of steady foundation on which to pour big risks. More on these risks later.
Early works such as two paintings sharing the title Mujer con Gallo (Woman with rooster) fall in line with the commonly held notion of Cuban culture and satisfy all the expected motifs: fruits, tropical vegetation, roosters, peasants (guajiros), and stained-glass window. Check. Check. Check. One features a woman resting on an armchair framed by shutters and a decorative iron balcony while she adjusts her headpiece: a multicolored rooster. The other work depicts a corpulent woman holding a red feathered rooster tightly against her chest; her right leg crossed over the left. She looks away from us and the wide-eye large bird that desperately seeks her attention. Roosters, a symbol of male virility, appear repeatedly throughout the show in different styles. The exaggerated purples and greens resembling bruises on the woman’s skin speak to the unnatural use of color favored by Fauve artists such as Henri Matisse.
The prelude section feels repetitive, but there’s a point being made. Evolution often follows mastery and mastery is the result of repetition. Having mastered a particular variation with no possible room for further improvement, Mariano began exploring other pastures – literally. He began moving away from his early allegiance to earth tones, figuration, and rigid forms. His visits to New York City beginning in 1944 had a profound impact on his career and ignited his curiosity. That same year, the Modern Museum of Art featured his work as part of the first-ever exhibition on modern Cuban painters. This is where Variations on a Theme starts getting interesting and living up to its title; stick with it.
Among the paintings, watercolors, drawings, and rare works on view is an oil piece rendered with great velocity and energy. Pájaros (Birds) embodies the artist’s recipe of a popular Cuban theme à la abstract expressionism. The birds, previously delivered in generous objective detail, are reduced to violent strokes and black, sharp lines against a background that shifts between gold and green. This is the scene of a power struggle, a meeting of two dominant beings set on gaining ground and control. Except for a few dots in red, it’s not a bloody encounter; at least not yet. The piece from 1958 also stands for Mariano’s own fight for mastery beyond familiarity of a style already owned by the likes of Robert Motherwell and Franz Kline.
No other piece captures his adaption of edgy European artistic styles to Cuban themes better than Gallo (Rooster). A collection of boomerang shapes gradually gives definition and vivacity to a rooster’s body. Let its unmistakable red crest guide your eyes as they travel around the canvas looking to make sense of a picture that is still evolving and hasn’t yet settled on what it wants to be. Today, a rooster. Tomorrow, maybe a fisherman – another of Mariano’s favorite subjects on display.
A significant member of the segunda vanguardia (the second generation of avant-garde Cuban modernists active in the 1940s and 1950s), Mariano continued to stretch his creative vision with respect to the Cuban national identity. The last section of the show places us at the beginning of the 1960s, when his body of work mutated into grotesque shapes, embraced baroque traits, and adopted darker tones.
The family members portrayed with dark, deformed heads in a 1965 piece titled La familia (The family) marks the artist’s boldest, scariest, point. It’s a family of monsters dressed in white ropes that glow against the muddy backdrop as if stage lights had fixated on them. The little ones don’t escape the horror. They are subjected to the same frightening distortions beared by the adults. This balance between darkness and light, dream and nightmare, trust, and suspicion, is a nod to European old masters such as Francisco de Goya, who had a great effect on Mariano when the latter visited Europe.
Toward the end of the exhibition, we witness a return to the blissful colorful themes of fruits and women, as is the case with La naranja (The orange). By this point, we don’t dare question the purpose of the gigantic orange suspended above a green nude female resting on her stomach, her head nesting on her arms. So what if the sky is painted bloody red and the background displays an uneven patina? We are just glad to have survived the complex depths of an artist simply known as Mariano.
Mariano: Variations on a Theme is on view through Jan. 22 at the Pérez Art Museum Miami, 1103 Biscayne Blvd., Miami. Tickets: $16, adults; $12, seniors, students, youths ages 7 to 18. Hours: 11 am to 6 pm, Monday, Friday, and Saturday; 11 am to 9 pm Thursday. Closed Tuesday and Wednesday. For more information, call 305-375-3000 or visit www.pamm.org.