Miami Artist Maria Martinez-Canas Honored at Arteamericas Fair

"This fair has really come a long way," I remarked to an exceptionally veteran Miami dealer as I strolled the aisles of Arteamericas art fair yesterday at Miami Beach Convention Center. He smiled knowingly at me and gave an enthusiastic thumb's up.

Yesterday was a rather quick visit at the end of the afternoon. I hope to return on Sunday. (During the afternoons of this Saturday and Sunday is an excellent series of Art Talks. Don't forget that the fair lasts through Monday, March 28. Doors open at noon.)

I visited the fair with my very dear artcentric friend and current publisher, Liana Perez. We were on our way to see Miguel Gutierrez and the Powerful People in "Last Meadow," part of the Cultura Del Lobo Performance Series of Miami Dade College.

Although I certainly do not have the time to think and write about all that I saw at the fair, I was particularly impressed by these curated exhibits: "New Work Miami" for Miami Art Museum; "Centroamerica: Civismo y violencia," curated by Janet Batet and Clara Asitasaran; "West Encounters East" at Booth 5o1; and "Tracing Their Roots: The Three Marias, Works by Maria Brito, Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons and Maria Martinez-Canas," curated by Jorge Hilker Santis, curator and head of collection research for Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale.

His was an exquisitely succinct look at how these three exceptionally talented artists have portrayed their Cuban roots in their distinctively accomplished art.

It brought to mind The Miami Herald review I wrote about the solo show he curated for one of these Marias several years ago, so I thought I would post that on my blog today.

(For more insight into Maria Brito, see my 2/13/2011 blog post, "Miami Artist Maria Brito Honored by Frost Art Museum." Regrettably, I don't think I ever got to write a substantial review of art by Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons although I do recall encountering her work on one of my trips to Venice.)

Here is what I wrote for The Miami Herald in May 2002. (I see from the copy in my own personal archive that my review ran at that time on a Wednesday--I am sure that I was disappointed that it did not make the Sunday paper. How ironic, now that this review will be on the Internet!)


An eerie specter of a woman dominated one corner of "Maria Martinez-Canas: A Retrospective," now at the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale. Glimpsed in the murk of a black-and-white video, she sloshes in a tub, wearing only what appear to be dozens of plastic masks, piled one atop the other.

In a dreamy sequence, the woman pulls off one mask after another. Yet what should be a process of revelation becomes more concealing. We see her body floundering in water and hear her voice in Spanish, but the camera never focuses on her face.

The video is a remarkably prescient self-portrait of Martinez-Canas in 1984, when the Miami-based artist was 24 and a graduate student at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. Titled "Un Problema de identidad" (A Problem of Identity), it exposes a tense process of watery flux, a peculiar conundrum in which naked flesh on view within a claustrophobic, womb-like space remains a damp mystery.

In this retrospective, the video provides a striking encapsulation of the exciting work Martinez-Canas would produce over the next two decades, during which she would win numerous national and international honors. The video foretells her tightly composed photomontages, with glimpses of vulnerable bodies set amid fluid designs evocative of islands, as well as geometric enclosures inspired by maps of colonial Cuba, maps she studied in Spain in 1986 on a Fubright-Hays grant.

She has gone on from those early days to establish herself as a nationally prominent photographic artist whose work resides in the permanent collections of such museums as New York's Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the International Center of Photography, as well as the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Martinez-Canas, the student, was not unique in exploring the nebulous fate of mercurial self-portraits, and one could argue that this video is a self-conscious effort from an MFA candidate. Formally, however, it's much more than an obligatory rehash of topical, identity-conscious art by the likes of Cindy Sherman and Ana Mendieta.

And Martinez-Canas was grappling with her own feelings of being uprooted. Born the youngest of three daughters in Cuba in 1960, she was barely three months old when her family fled Fidel Castro's regime for Miami before eventually settling in Puerto Rico. It was there that the artist was raised, learning of her homeland from an art-laced pastiche of family memories.


"She likes to say that she is a Cuban-born, Puerto Rico-raised American citizen," says her father Jose Martinez-Canas, a Coral Gables art dealer. "I think she really loved hearing the old stories of Cuba. And she grew up, like all my kids, surrounded by Latin American culture. We had writers and musicians in our home. Our friends were artists."

When his daughter moved to Miami in 1986, those memories stayed vivid. In her Bakehouse studio, she kept a snapshot of herself as a chubby-cheeked 8-year-old at a San Juan restaurant
with her family and Cuban painter Cundo Bermudez.

It was also at the age of 8, her father remembers, that his youngest daughter began begging to use his Nikon or her mother's old Rolleiflex. Then her parents gave her a Polaroid Swinger, which she used to shoot things such as colonial archways and patterns in the barks of trees.

"She wanted us to go every weekend to photograph in Old San Juan or at El Dorado Beach," he says. "She had a sense of form from the very beginning."

A formalist spirit with sensuous imagery and echoes of an exile's fragmented past still mingles in her work. Nearly four years ago, while remodeling the studio in her Little Havana home, she temporarily set up shop in a former cigar factory on Calle Ocho amid boxes of dried tobacco leaves that had been left behind--the smell of which brought back memories of a cigar-smoking grandfather.


Along with sprays of bougainvillea and other plants, the tobacco leaves became subjects for a stunning new series of semi-abstract photograms, produced without a lens by shining light on plants scattered across photo-sensitive paper the color of lapis lazuli.

"There was something magical and incredible about the whole process," remembers Martinez-Canas, a petite woman with an intense gaze and tightly-curled black hair.

Such combinations in Martinez-Canas' work have long intrigued Andy Grundberg, a Washington-based independent critic and curator who chose the artist's 1991 work "Quince Sellos Cubanos" (Fifteen Cuban Stamps) for "Points of Entry," a nationally traveling 1995 show exploring art and identity.

This stamp series presents intricate collage-like photographs that arise from a singular technical process and riff on paintings by artists such as Amelia Pelaez and other scenes featured on Cuban stamps. As telling documents of travel and cultural icons, the stamps, Martinez-Canas said then, "became an essential element in coming closer to my Cubanness."

What's amazing in her art, Grundberg explains, "is that she combines this experimental attitude with the medium of photography, and at the same time the content is really personal, speaking to her cultural experience and to issues of dislocation. I'd put her in a league with Lorna Simpson and Carrie Mae Weems in the sense that she uses photography to evoke the complexities of personal experience."


Only five examples from the stamp series made it into the Fort Lauderdale retrospective, but curator Jorge Hilker Santis has included more than 100 works, chiefly photographs and a few videos. It's a dazzling overview, from 1980 to the present, that includes the photographs she used in building her largest image to date, "Anos Continuous" (Continuous Years), a 10-foot -square wall of sand-blasted glass for Concourse D at Miami International Airport.

In some ways, this 1995 public commission, with majestic layering of maps and landmarks for travelers on real and imaginary journeys, marked a glorious artistic cul-de-sac. Soon after, she realized she needed to move on.

"I felt very tired about the work," she says. "I felt it was time for me to drop anything that had to do with Cuba because, if not, I would start repeating myself. My work was about so much more than the issue of Cuba."

So she became more spontaneous, producing, for example, the unique plant-leaf photograms.

"In a way, I am allowing myself to fail and not thinking so much about what is going to happen," she says. "Chance is very much there."

That year Martinez-Canas also nursed a close friend until his death from a long illness. It was a profound experience that led her to make work memorializing life's transience, such as the eerie, exquisite "Flight (Hospital Bed)" on linen. In this photo, a ghostly, blurred figure--actually the artist--struggles to rise from a quilt-like pattern of botanical prints.


"The last few years have been some of the most exciting," she says. And the energy she felt early in her career, when she was making imagery patterned after maps of colonial Cuba, has returned.

One highlight came last September when she and other artists included in "Arte Latino: Treasures from the Smithsonian American Art Museum" were invited to meet First Lady Laura Bush and Martha Sahagun, wife of Mexican President Vicente Fox, at a reception in Chicago, where the traveling show was on view.

"For Latino artists to be there was an honor, it was a validation," she says. The prospect of chatting with Laura Bush, however, was unnerving.

"I was shaking," Martinez-Canas remembers. But their conversation in English and Spanish went smoothly.

"She understands Spanish. They made you feel very comfortable," Martinez-Canas says.

"Some of us have grown up in this country, we feel very American, but we have come from different parts. It was an experience I will never forget."

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