Visual Arts - Hot and cold

Two Cuban artists, two distinct visions

Mario Petrirena's retrospective at City Gallery East is romantic, contemplative and filled with longing and angst. This is an artist clearly wrapped up in the past. Meanwhile, another Cuban-born, Atlanta-based artist, Rocío Rodríguez (on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia), creates abstract paintings whose graphic, technological forms stay firmly rooted in the here and now.

Petrirena's work has often bridged two cultures: the Cuba he left as a boy, and the America he now calls home. His work continually mines that tension between an emotionally fraught past and a present where time and imperfect memory can obfuscate what came before. Like other Southern artists, he has a near-obsession with the idea of the reliquary: the sacred, weathered object, the rusted bit of metal or the cloudy glass vitrine that function like inanimate bones, holding remnants of another time and place.

Petrirena's exhibition Conversations: Past and Present takes many forms, but the song, essentially, remains the same. In a large series of collaged images, Petrirena juxtaposes images of noble Roman statues with photos of tattooed men to suggest a clash between the ideal and the real, the high and the low, the past and the present, fame and anonymity. Many times, the statues' heads and bodies nearly obliterate the people beneath, suggesting that these classical forms are the documents that colonize our memory, while real people get lost to time.

The idea of memorializing people through a collision of photographs and weathered objects is most beautifully realized in one of the exhibition's highlights, a trio of sculptural works dominated by a tombstone-shaped memorial decorated with vintage photos of soldiers. Next to that memorial to the men and women whose sacrifices ennoble us stand two sculptures that indict us: a warhead-like form notched with black lines to indicate a body count, and a crater ornamented with tiny human faces to suggest the real-world victims that every bomb leaves behind.

Petrirena makes a canny statement about war, and how it reduces human life to a numbers game. The tombstone crops up again and again in Petrirena's exhibition, though it is only the most literal representation of mourning and remembrance in a display filled with small shrines to the past.

In Rocío Rodríguez: Parallels, the artist moves away from the curlicued, looping floral forms that have often dominated her work in the past, and opens up a new force that speaks of global power dynamics, conflict and interconnected micro- and macro-forces. Executed in blunt black lines and hazard-sign reds and oranges, Rodríguez's vigorous paintings look like an abstracted diagram of global machinations that would be displayed on the floor of the United Nations or in some secret war room.

Like the work of her countryman, Rodríguez's paintings require time and patience to unravel. Their beauty lies in how both Petrirena and Rodríguez defy expectations about their gender. Where Petrirena's work is emotion-drenched and poetic, Rodríguez's paintings are virile, bold and muscular. Petrirena's work at times threatens to topple into preciousness, while Rodríguez runs the risk of an alienating coolness. But for those willing to linger, both artists yield uncommon depth.

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