Beyond the Door at the Charleston International Arts Festival

Through April 26


Avery Research Center, College of Charleston

125 Bull St.

(843) 953-7609

If you need a Cuban fix but can’t find your favorite cigar smuggler, have a stroll down Bull Street to the College of Charleston’s Avery Center, where Beyond the Door, the debut exhibit of the Charleston International Arts Festival, opened Thursday with a robust smattering of Cuban artwork.

Running through April 26, Beyond the Door features numerous Cuban artists whose work varies in technique and subject but also forms a composite sketch of Cuba’s aesthetics, philosophies, and challenges.

The work hangs on the eggshell walls at the Avery Center and fills the room with vibrant colors that drift in and out of the open windows which look out across the rooftops of Charleston. The work feels wild, alive, and appreciated in this quiet setting — regal ceilings and natural light combine with the work’s color and primitive tendencies to form an exhibition that’s the equivalent of a confetti-stuffed envelope.

The show is free from much of the salesmanship and marketing found in galleries, and the room to wander and gaze without a gallery owner’s proximity feels liberating. Individual pieces sell themselves; collectively the art intoxicates the viewer with the same pleasure as an ice cold Cuba Libre.

Featured artist Alejandro Lazo is an autodidact whose spiritual interests gain focus in “Otanes: Stone Ritual.” The painting is a symbolic measure of man’s religious quest. It shows a large, round-shouldered man with crossed-out eyes. A sort of periscope rises from his shoulders, guiding him to a distant star that burns in the top corner of the sky. You sense he is on a journey, but the periscope is both a resource and a hindrance. Ultimately the man is weighed down by the burden of his spiritual odyssey. In contrast to Lazo’s other displayed work, which is colorfully vibrant, this painting uses dark blues and reds to underscore one man’s tormented spiritual condition.

Reinaldo Lopez’s work explains why personal or cultural struggles become fodder for art. Lopez is the elder of the featured Cuban artists; he graduated from art school in 1953, has shown work across the globe, and is acclaimed by contemporaries for his abstract depictions of animals.

His displays comprise multimedia on paper and capture a stallion in various stages of revolt. The work is reminiscent of Picasso’s Bull series but uses color and depth to mete out its transformative nature. “Stallion” is one piece within a series that features variously colored horses. As you move along with the series, the horses thrash before your eyes. Some horses have jutting jaws and crooked teeth; others, black lava eyes and spindly tails. A purgatory status engulfs each piece. Lopez’s colors range from orange to blue and evoke hopefulness and dread as we wait to hear in which direction the mighty stallion, and by turn the artist, will escape their limbo.

Religion is a strong theme here. Western and African icons merge into a distinct pedigree that highlights Cuba’s cultural experience. The Virgin Mary, astrology, and primitive symbols populate Joel Jover’s art. He layers his pieces with wood and fabric, cardboard and paint. His “La Mano Pondersa” shows an open hand with a face carved into the palm. The fingers stretch upward and are crowned by abstract tarot cards that hint toward a mysterious future. The subject matter is caustic and stark; it imposes on your religious preconceptions and challenges you to imagine a world where individual beliefs are blurred.

But not all of the work here has a religious fuse. The artist Jorge Perugorria aims his work toward Cuban narratives, politics, and folklore; his oil on canvas painting “Untitled II From the Series Chivo que Rompe Tambo” functions within the strict perimeters of a movie’s storyboard.

Twelve individual frames depict legs, abstract eyes, and a dome-shaped torso that topple over one another. The painting raises questions (I’m curious about the green paw prints that dot the surface); it enchants your senses and stirs your logic. Perugorria re-creates the same legs, eyes, and torso in all of his displayed work. As a whole they represent this show’s elegant collision: two countries at odds with each other brought together by an artistic concept.

Rebekah Jacob, a gallery owner, is curator of Beyond the Door. For the Charleston International Arts Festival, a debut event, she visited Cuba and returned with pieces of artwork that reflect the complicated circumstances that dictate life on the island just 90 miles south of the Florida Keys.

Artwork is one of the few materials to remain exempt from the U.S trade embargo on Cuba, a curiosity considering art’s ability to depict a culture’s status. Given these expressions of discontentment, one has to wonder if the U.S. allows art legal passage, because it’s nature as a lens through which the failings of Castro’s oppression, and now that of his brother, Raúl, are plain to see.

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