art: Review of ‘Embrace’, art by Cuban Americans
by Teresa Annas
The Virginian-Pilot 03/06/08

NORFOLK, VA – The news of Fidel Castro’s resignation came Feb. 19, just three days after a show of work by three Cuban American artists opened in Art-Gallery. Paintings on view by Agustin Rolando Rojas, Elena Garcia Wagner and Jesus Rivera offer a personal take on their homeland.

Rojas and Wagner are a couple who live in Norfolk within a few miles of the gallery. Rojas moved here in 2006 with Wagner, who received her undergraduate degree in fine arts from Old Dominion University in 1988. Rojas studied art at the University of Havana, then taught printmaking there from 1983 to 1996.

He escaped Cuba in 1997 by visiting Canada as an artist in residence. He and Wagner later met in Miami.

Rojas exhibited his prints a year ago at London Square Gallery, also in Norfolk. Those prints expressed the grief of separation from loved ones and anxiety-laced memories of the island.

The new work on view is lighter, brighter, happier. They are predominately watercolors, and he seems to have given himself the freedom to express himself with abandon.

Hugging, a recurrent theme, is still prevalent. These represent all the hellos and goodbyes with friends and family. Recently, the hugs have evolved into dancing, as if the tension was lessening.

Rojas has been internationally exhibited. This is Wagner’s first show in two decades. She came alone to America, at age 7, thinking she was on a vacation; she stayed in Florida with strangers until her parents showed up four years later. Her work has dealt with her efforts to come to terms with her history, reconnect with her Cuban heritage and become whole.

She incorporates embraces – the show’s theme – in her work, too. “The Same Blood,” painted this year, shows two people holding on to each other as if their lives depended on it. The scene conveys her dismay that so many Cubans are divided against one another over ideology.

Red blood flows from one figure’s eyes and wherever they touch. One distinctive aspect of her work is that the figures’ coloring suggests a photographic negative – white hair, blue bodies.

As a photo retoucher, Wagner spent many hours looking at negatives. She liked how the altered palette made her focus on the composition. But the symbolism really works here, suggesting a backward world that is, certainly, negative.

Rivera is part of the show because Rojas knew him when both were students in Havana. He fled to the United States in 1995 and now lives in New Jersey.

He has developed a distinctive vocabulary of images for his large-scale paintings. Houses on wheels symbolize how an immigrant takes his home with him. The sun and the sacred heart also appear, representing a kind of emotional wisdom.

Rivera’s surfaces are beautifully painted and the imagery is very affecting. And everywhere, there is binding, especially around hearts.