From Sacred Hearts to Seeds of Snow
by Betsy DiJulio
Portfolio Weekly 03/18/08

It is not difficult to understand how New Jersey-based Cuban immigrant, Jesus Rivera, arrived at the personal symbol of a skeletal house on wheels. A portable home is likely all too familiar in the immigrant experience. But it is difficult to understand how he could incorporate that form again and again in the creation of layered and scratched paintings of immense power, beauty and diversity, each one seemingly bound by irregularly spaced bands reminiscent of shipping straps.

In Embrace, after which the show is named, the skeletal dwelling is formed from a flowering vine. Inside, emerging from the top of a Sacred Heart (representative, in Roman Catholicism, of devotion to Jesus’ physical heart) is an embracing couple. From the bottom, roots grow into the ground. A young boy, peering into the house from the darkened street, pulls a toy replica of the house, which has turned upside down. It is a painting with a ray of hope, of light emerging from the dark, of the possibility of finding or creating family, real or metaphorical, and of putting down roots.

The flaming, bleeding and divine-light emitting Sacred Heart in Christian art is often surrounded by a crown of thorns. In The Conscience and Reason, a thorny vine forms the skeletal house against a backdrop of white, pink and blue floral wallpaper. Within the house, the flaming heart emits smoke that is expelled through the home’s chimney. Repeated eyes peer out from inside the heart, which appears tightly bound. Though the wallpaper forms the background of the entire painting, outside the parameters of the structure it has been stained a dark and brooding blue in the top portion and an antique brown in the lower. While the divine light appears to warm the home, this piece (as compared to Embrace) seems more guarded, more distrustful and perhaps more pessimistic in regard to what lies on the outside.

Along with Rivera in this group show of Cuban émigrés, Norfolk-based painter Elena Garcia Wagner also appears to use light symbolically. Hers is an acid-colored glow in paintings like The Same Blood, which depicts an embracing couple melding into each other, or With His Own Eyes, a portrait. In the latter, light is emitted from the figure’s eye and hands. The symbols hovering above his hands—while an interesting concept—appear visually disjointed. Wagner demonstrates her range by also including an untitled black and white abstract expressionistic painting. Full of emotion in response to her mother’s death, this vertical diptych depicts a mother and child above and a mother, father and child below.

Agustin Rolando Rojas, a master printmaker and Norfolk resident, chose the occasion to show his drawings for the first time. His embracing and dancing couples are energetically drawn with expressive marks and swathes of bold color and black. In some of the compositions, robust and disjointed, the artist shifts his attention to hands and arms. After all, what is an embrace without those?