After my first visit to see "Rhythm and History" at the ASU Art Museum, I returned home and immediately began Googling. As its name explicitly states, the exhibition is entrenched in history. Yet I left feeling the gaps in my own historical knowledge exposed rather than filled, as I might have hoped.
In the 1990s under the direction of former museum director and curator Marilyn Zeitlin, ASU Art Museum established one of the most extensive collections of contemporary Cuban art outside of Cuba, culminating in an exhibition entitled "Contemporary Art from Cuba: Irony and Survival on the Utopian Island" in 1998. The current show marks the first time this truly impressive collection has been revisited since then. The 19 diverse pieces showcased in "Rhythm and History" barely scratch the surface of the extensive collection, which brought together 17 of the most prominent artists working in Cuba at the time.
Bold wall text at the entrance to the gallery features a quote from Mark Twain: "History doesn't repeat itself but it does rhyme." The idea is appealing, and it's a nice frame for looking at historical artwork like this. But inside the gallery, visitors are left completely to their own devices while trying to determine what, exactly, that initial history entailed.
Still, the idea that there exists a relationship between the Cuban art of the 1980s and '90s and Cuban art today is made evident in the work itself and its arrangement in the exhibition.
At one end of the gallery is Kcho's Para olvidar (In Order to Forget)(1996), a traditionally crafted kayak floating atop a sea of beer bottles. Across the room is Los Carpinteros' Vecinos (Neighbors)(2005), a modern-looking piece that is essentially a mini swimming pool containing two floating white houses. Both artworks clearly reference the island that is Cuba, but by different means (traditional versus contemporary) and to different ends.
These larger sculptural works threaten to steal the show, but the smaller, more nuanced pieces hold their own. The subtle gradations of color in José Ángel Toirac's Sin título, de la serie Gris (Untitled, from the Grey Series)(1999) demonstrates a technical prowess. Fernando Rodríguez's watercolors are equally delicate and beautiful.
But the meaning of the work often seems just out of reach. Even an expert in Cuba's political history may not be familiar with the history of the country's art movements, and the show seems to require an intimate knowledge of both.
During that first episode of frantic Googling, I came across a quotation from Cuban artist Antonio Eligio Fernández who also goes by the name Tonel (his work is included in ASU's collection). He says that "the chronology of Cuban art could be understood, not as a straight line but as a spiral: a process of accretion informed by constant transformation, influenced by what came before and after." His sentiments are eerily similar to Twain's and, by proxy, the exhibition's as well.
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But because "Rhythm and History" falls short in giving visitors that initial historical backing, we're never really able to get all the way in the door. There are moments of seeming clarity while looking at the work, but there's a sense that something remains obfuscated. Exhibitions need not hold viewers' hands too tightly, but a short interpretative wall text here or there is a good place to begin. And I dare say, such guidance is necessary for a show that relies so heavily on understanding how the work is situated in space and time.
"Rhythm and History" will be on view at the ASU Art Museum through August 9. The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and admission is free. For more information, visit the exhibition event page at www.asu.edu.