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Utopia/Post-Utopia: Conceptual Photography and Video Opens at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art

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NEW PALTZ -- The recent work of nine Cuban photographers and video artists including Tania Bruguera, Raul Cordero, Carlos Garaicoa, Luis Gomez, Ernesto Leal, Elsa Mora, Rene Pena, Manuel Pina and Sandra Ramos, will be presented at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art at SUNY New Paltz, from Saturday, July 12 through Sunday, August 10. The exhibition will reopen Wednesday, September 17 and will be on view through Sunday, December 14. An opening reception at the Dorsky Museum is planned for July 12 from 2 to 4 p.m.

The island of Cuba is the subject of intense and ongoing interest in the United States. Although a relatively small country, it has a disproportionately large international and ideological presence. Known beyond its borders through sporadic and concentrated media coverage of episodes of great political and economic tension, what began in the 1960s as the dream of a social utopia has progressively become frustrated by the Cuban reality.

Precipitated by the collapse of the Soviet Union and subsequent end of its thirty-year subsidy of the Cuban economy, the early 1990s were a time of economic emergency marked by severe shortages of such essential commodities as food, fuel, and electricity. Given the lack of materials and exhibition opportunities, as well as increased government censorship of the arts, many of Cuba's more established artists emigrated to Mexico, the United States, and other countries.

Having endured a major national crisis and an artistic vacuum, the "generation of the nineties" which includes the nine artists featured in this exhibition have benefited from an more open atmosphere, the growing interest in and participation in an international art world, as well as access to the dollar economy. Consequently, most of these artists have decided to remain in Cuba where they create work that offers a cultural and political commentary on the reality of life on the utopian island. Guest curator Helaine Posner elaborates. "While the personal vision of the artist is primary, Cuba is a place where personal narrative and collective experience are tightly bound, and are expressed through such subjects as private and public space; the body, race and identity; separation and longing; and the persistence of faith."

Artists Manuel Pina, Carlos Garaicoa, Ernesto Leal, and Luis Gomez address issues of public and private space. In his series of color images titled On Monuments (2000) Manuel Pina photographed the empty pedestals that once supported monuments to former Cuban presidents that were toppled after the 1959 revolution. By focusing on these empty spaces the artist calls into question the act of obliterating the past. Carlos Garaicoa's New Architecture or a Singular Insistence on Understanding the Night (1999) is a series of color transparencies depicting glowing nightscapes of the diverse cities of Havana, Bogota, and Cuito Cuanavale, Angola. The night view masks the architectural and social differences of these locales as well as Havana's decades of neglect. In Guided Tour (2000) Ernesto Leal photographed mannequins dressed in 1980s space suits belonging to two Cuban astronauts that never had the opportunity to travel. For Leal, these astronauts function as a "metaphor of frustration" of Cuba's utopian ideals. In a more poetic vein, Luis Gomez's One Thousand Days of Rain (1998-2000), color photographs taken in his hometown of Cojimar or on his travels, avoid conveying a specific sense of place, attempting instead to capture the atmosphere of his sites and the feeling they evoke.

Raul Cordero's Trying to Recover Lost Time (1998), a series of transparencies in light boxes, presents personal encounters between people both famous and unknown of varying degrees of emotional intensity. In this installation, the artist comments on the experience of separation and longing for reunion that effects all people and has specific meaning in Cuba where political and economic conditions have forced a diaspora.

Artists Rene Pena, Elsa Mora, and Tania Bruguera use their self-portrait to reflect on various aspects of identity and ideology. Pena is one of the few Cuban artists to deal directly and critically with the subject of race in a series of black-and-white photographs titled White Things (2001). Elsa Mora's Exercises in Silence (2000) explores personal pain and loneliness through a group of highly introspective photographs depicting private rituals of self-discipline. Tania Bruguera's video-installation titled La Isla en Peso or The Island Burden (2001) is an homage to a narrative poem of that name written by the renowned Cuban writer Virgilio Pinera that captures the chaos, suffering, and beauty of Cuba. In eight videotapes the artist performs painful or silencing gestures including thrusting her fist into her mouth, wiping saliva from her tongue, and pulling her head back by her hair. In this way the artist metaphorically explores a range of issues including exile, displacement, endurance, and survival in works that are strongly visceral and highly poetic.

In her video-installation titled Promises (1999), Sandra Ramos examines fanatical religious faith as an extreme response to life's difficulties. She videotaped the faithful crawling on hands and knees along the processional route to the pilgrimage site of Saint Lazarus outside Havana to be healed. For the artist, the pilgrims represent the possibility of difference within a totalitarian society.

Utopia/Post-Utopia will be accompanied by an illustrated catalogue with an essay on the exhibition by guest curator Helaine Posner and one by Cuban-based art critic Eugenio Valdes Figueroa titled "The Other Face of Cuban Photography".

Generous funding for the exhibition and the accompanying publication and educational programs has been provided by The Rockefeller Foundation, The Dorsky Foundation, Inc., and the SUNY New Paltz Student Art Alliance, a funded member of the Student Association.

The Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art is open Wednesday-Sunday, 1-5pm. For information call 845-257-3844, or online at Images are available at the following link:

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