By Jessica Dawson
Special to the Washington Post
Thursday, October 2, 2003; Page C05
"By Jessica Dawson, reprinted with permission from the Washington Post"
Unless you're comparing the blast-furnace heat, playing the analogies game with the Deep South and Cuba is a losing proposition. New Orleans is to Havana as apple is to . . . kumquat?
Or so I figured until I happened upon two exhibitions that jogged my mind just so, giving me new insight into both these curious places. The first show, at Kathleen Ewing, collects six photographers who shoot the American South's landscape and people; the second, at Bethesda's Fraser Gallery, highlights 15 Cubans and Cuban exiles whose works grow from their makers' island roots. The art itself reveals the commonalities: Both places emit a strong, erotic pull of the forbidden. And both are sharply shaped by oppression, either its legacy or its still-living hand.
The Southern landscape's alternating pockets of luscious wetness and Piney Woods wasteland has invited many an artist to document it. Victoria Ryan's tinted photos of flowers, ponds and leaves register, in measured doses, Gothicism and sex appeal. Maude Schuyler Clay turns out sepia-toned prints chronicling decrepit churches and shabby landscapes. Both artists make lovely work, but it seems familiar. Of these, Clay's shot of an abandoned swimming pool stands out. That's because the dried-up hole in the ground is so matter-of-factly of our time and not of some romantic past.
The Ewing show gathers momentum when its artists dig deep -- into cultural eccentricities and, further, into social ills. Both William Christenberry and Birney Imes photograph buildings that are rapidly disappearing, assembling something like a visual anthropologist's notebook as they go. Christenberry ably reflects a vital part of the Alabamian soul in a 16-photograph grid of an old red house. Shot between 1974 and 2002, the pictures don't vary much from one to the next. Until the last two frames, that is. Out of nowhere appears a small prefab house smack in front of the old red one, a "vote here" banner tacked to its white siding. Nothing precious here -- no worries about preservation or even aesthetics: pragmatism ueber alles. Christenberry's pictures are some of the most telling (and beautiful) documents of Alabama's cultural history you'll ever see.
Imes, too, has been influenced by the documentary tradition. He shot African American juke joints in the Mississippi Delta. While he captures a dying culture, Imes also reveals the economic straits the region is in. Once, the joints jumped. Today, stuffing hangs from booths and stains have browned ceiling panels. In this setting, men -- young, able, but probably jobless -- hang out, drink beer and play pool. One particularly captivating picture shows the day after what looks like a great party -- empty bottles of gin and beer swarm nearly every flat surface. But disappointment hangs as thick as the strings of plastic beads dangling from the ceiling.
Deborah Luster strikes a powerful note here with her pictures of Louisiana state prison inmates. Luster's photographs are tintypes, a cheaper cousin of the daguerreotype that produces prints with uncanny luminescence; she prints hers on black aluminum plates that have a satiny finish. Presented in series arranged horizontally in a frame, the pictures remind me of a precinct house lineup. But Luster has documented each convict in a seated, three-quarter-length pose in the manner of formal portraiture. The mix of high and low makes for strong pictures. Most fascinating among them are pictures of African American prisoners painted in pallid ghoul makeup (sitters were invited to wear whatever they liked). The face paint refers uncomfortably to blackface comics and the legacy of slavery.
The subtlety of Luster's work -- her pictures have an air of simply laying out facts, albeit uneasy ones -- is harder to find among the Cuban artists at Fraser. At times, political motives threaten to overtake artistic ones. No doubt that simply can't be helped -- if oppression is an everyday reality, art will reflect it. A number of pieces here could not be shown in Cuba. Perhaps because of that institutional censorship, several pieces function like "Send Help" notes stuffed inside bottles set adrift in the Straits of Florida.
One such piece is Roberto Acosta Wong's "They're Killing Us." He's painted knife-wielding men (some are likenesses of Cuban officials) attacking the earthbound folks below. His other picture, "Looking for a Just Man," again features folks looking down from heavens, this time extending a tape measure toward a passing pedestrian. For Wong, the powerful are either murderous or judgmental. Either way, the complaint is obvious.
Some relief from politics can be found in the show's symbol-rich offerings. The photographs of Elsa Mora and the painting of Andres Besse Montoya refer to Santeria, though those unschooled in the religion's symbols may require an interpreter to fully understand them.
The standout artist of the show, Sandra Ramos, mixes political and symbolic elements in just the right measure. Her prints star a young Alice in Wonderland type who encounters temptations and curious folk -- fat-mouthed prostitutes, the leaning tower of Pisa -- that convey the divided loyalties of the Cuban psyche.
Because Americans are discouraged from visiting Cuba, there's a particularly strong hunger here for photographic documents of its cities and people. To its credit, Fraser didn't bow to those cravings -- at least, not much. While photographer Nestor Hernandez offers some sharp-eyed views of crowded Havana, the gallery isn't pushing a tourist show. Its exhibition attempts to show, in some small way, what Cuban artists are really saying.
De Aqui y de Alla ("From Here and From There") at Fraser Gallery Bethesda, 7700 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda, Tuesday-Saturday 11:30 a.m.-6 p.m., 301-718-9651, to Oct. 8.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company