ART REVIEW; Beer Cans Bridge the Gap Between Global Pop Art and Cuban Kitsch

Published: April 20, 2005, Wednesday

If globalism alters the landscape of contemporary art the way some people think it will, more and more artists in far-flung places will be learning to bridge the gap between their own cultures and the international art world.

Alberto Casado, a young Cuban artist who just might be on the threshold of an international career, is an intriguing example. His beautiful imitation folk-art paintings on glass were included in the 2003 Istanbul Biennial, and now Art in General, the alternative nonprofit gallery in Lower Manahattan, is presenting ''Alberto Casado: Todo Clandestino, Todo Popular,'' his second solo exhibition and his first in New York.

Born in Havana in 1970, Mr. Casado discovered his signature medium while still in art school. Assigned to recreate a known artwork in different materials, he produced an image of Jasper Johns's cast-bronze ale cans using a popular Cuban glass-painting technique. Imagery drawn in black ink on the reverse side of a sheet of glass is placed on top of crumpled aluminum foil painted with translucent colors, creating the effect of stained glass and precious metals. Mr. Casado learned the craft while working in a shop that made cheap simulations of precious religious objects. Now he makes expensive simulations of cheap simulations.

Mr. Casado next applied his technique to a pair of Cuban beer cans, and here is where the complex conceptual potential of the craft emerged. Collecting and displaying different kinds of beer cans is a popular custom in Cuba, so Mr. Casado's Cuban beer cans make the leap between international Pop Art and Cuban kitsch, a leap that he went on to explore in more complex narrative and symbolic pictures.

In a series from the mid-1990's, Mr. Casado illustrated scenes from the artistic avant-garde activism and protests of the 1980's in Cuba. One features a man in traditional Indian costume finely drawn, like all his figures, in a slightly primitive, cartoon style. A wall label explains that Mr. Casado's picture recalls a performance by a conceptual artist who attended a lecture by Robert Rauschenberg in Cuba while wearing full Indian regalia as a statement about colonialism.

A larger picture with dozens of little figures concerns a brawl that ensued when a man dressed in a police uniform and three underdressed female dancers walked on a huge portrait of Che Guevera that was displayed on the floor of an exhibition space.

The social and political significance of those works will be lost on viewers not steeped in Cuban art history. And as it happens the stories they tell were known to Mr. Casado only through hearsay. He approached them as if they were mythic legends, retelling them the way a folk artist would retell stories of Jesus or of indigenous gods. Whether Mr. Casado meant to mock avant-garde fatuousness, celebrate its heroism or memorialize its failure remains teasingly ambiguous. But his post-conceptualist belief in the ability of art to process worldly realities imaginatively remains unmistakable.

One of the exhibition's most beautiful works is a portrait in profile of Fidel Castro in his signature green army hat and full beard. A background of radiating gold and ruby stripes gives him a divine aura, and the skin of his face is curiously divided into scores of little numbered facets. Lettered in gold on the top and bottom borders of the picture are the words ''Para'' and ''Siempre,'' or ''Forever.'' The political import of this work is veiled and the purpose of the numbers unclear, but it is easy to suspect it of satiric motives. It might be a sly parody of the kind of reverential icon that the authorities would want to find decorating the homes of dutiful citizens.

There are relatively few overtly political images in Mr. Casado's show, however -- hardly anything that would tell you what his politics are. What runs deeper than politics in Mr. Casado's work is religion. The artist belongs to an Afro-Cuban, all-male secret society called Abakuá, whose members perform occult rituals and communicate by means of hermetic signs and symbols. Many of his pictures, punctuated by puzzling symbolic devices as well as numbers, do give the hair-raising impression of being made by a member of an esoteric cult. In ''The Good Doctor,'' a surgeon tends to a man on an operating table whose hands have been cut off. In each corner of the picture a giant hand attached to an intravenous tube bears one of four words that say in Spanish, ''to work,'' ''to steal,'' ''to struggle'' and ''to escape.'' The words may have political meanings, but the man on the table is also like the Hanged Man of Tarot Cards, a figure of ambiguous mystery.

A wall label explains that the numbers have to do with an officially illegal but popular lottery game involving numbers that correspond to a Chinese system of charades or emblematic pictures. Exactly what role the numbers and their meanings play in Mr. Casado's work is not well explained by the exhibition, and it remains hard to tell whether a coherent belief system animates Mr. Casado's art. But there is a strong sense of what you might call magic social realism -- the feeling of a world in which the circulation of poetic symbols and metaphors affects the collective psychic economy as powerfully as money and commodities do the material economy.

You may wonder, would Mr. Casado's art be different -- more openly challenging, say -- were he living in a place that allowed greater freedom of speech? Or would his art lose its compressive urgency if it were uprooted from the soil that so richly feeds it? Now that he is on the global radar, it will interesting to see how he negotiates between local and international imperatives.

"Alberto Casado: Todo Clandestino, Todo Popular" will remain at Art in General, 79 Walker Street, Lower Manhattan, (212)219-0473, through June 25.

Published: 04 - 20 - 2005 , Late Edition - Final , Section E , Column 1 , Page 1


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