The Getty Center, Track 16, and Kopeikin Gallery are all presenting concurrent exhibitions taking on the same subject — Cuba. Cuba in all its pre-Revolutionary vibrancy and subsequent Soviet-era austerities, it's iconic political struggles, its alluringly exotic aesthetic, and the poignant photogenic splendor of its half-ruined architecture and impoverished population. Cuba, eternal muse to photographers, musicians, poets, and the fashion-conscious. Cuba, battleground of progressive ideals and violent repressions; site of extremes of poverty, decay, defiance, beauty, bravery, faith and flair.
These three venues present hundreds of photographs taken by more than a dozen artists — plus paintings, sculpture, architecture, and a film-making — spanning eight decades.
The Getty Center's “A Revolutionary Project: Cuba from Walker Evans to Now” is up through October 2, and presents an elegant cornerstone to this timely cross-platform synchronicity. The show's sexiest draw is an exceptionally rare original surviving print of Korda's portrait of Che Guevarra, Guerillero Heroico, which many claim is the single most reproduced photograph in history. The rest of the exhibition focuses on three specific periods in the photographic record — Walker's 1933 trip, the years surrounding the 1959 Revolution, and a special look at the years following the 1991 Soviet collapse.
Exuberant urban style abounds in the richly hued ruination of legendarily spicy and bold island panache, from the landscape to the music to the automobile, and of course, the female form.
The Getty's remarkably eclectic exhibition is book-ended by Walker Evans' powerful early 20th-century images and the much more recent but no less impactful works by Alexey Titarenko, who uses the same old-school silver gelatin analog printing as Evans and achieves a curiously “retro” appearance despite his 21st-century content. Judging by infrastructure and automobile model years, the scenes have remained largely unchanged in the past several decades.
Showing not photography but the work of a handful of visual artists, the parallel exhibition at Track 16 Gallery in Bergamot Station, entitled “Out of ISA: Saidel Brito, Duvier Del Dago, Henry Eric Hernández, Douglas Pérez, Gertrudis Rivalta,” which closes July 23, covers much of the same period as the Getty show — in particular the 40 years after the day in 1960 when an idea to open an arts school was hatched on a golf course, during a game between Che and Castro on the grounds of the once-elite country club that had come to symbolize the greed of the freshly-overthrown regime.
The show includes paintings, drawings, and sculpture by several exciting contemporary Cuban artists, all of whom were students of the ISA — the ambitious arts academy that is also the subject of the documentary film called Unfinished Spaces whose trailer screens at the gallery during the run of the exhibition (and which recently made its debut at the Los Angeles Film Festival).
At one point in the film someone says, “every artist on this island has been to this school.” The ISA was the golf-course inspiration of the leaders of the Revolution, a dream to build on the site, “the world's greatest art school.”
Unfinished Spaces follows the fates of three of the architects who designed the school, before their exile in 1965 left the project half-finished for 40 years…until they returned to finish the design with the help of the World Landmark Watch and the blessings of President Castro, who seemed genuinely thrilled about it.
The ISA alumni's influences range from colonial and western art to the vernacular, and, increasingly, the overtly political. Several of them employ the art of satire, sending thinly-encoded messages while drawing on ancient symbols to project new ideas — sort of like social critics used Roman myths in 18th century France to criticize their corrupt leadership. With dark humor, the paintings, drawings and sculptures in this small but salient group show expresses to advantage the indomitable, intellectual, and incendiary creativity of the Cuban arts.
And finally, a pair of photography shows at Kopeikin Gallery in Culver City open July 16, Simone Lueck's “Cuba TV,” and Jeffrey Milstein's “Cuba on the Streets,” which represent both the hidden places in the life of the city of Havana, and archetypes of the city recognized even by those who have never visited.
In 2000, Simone Lueck began the main phase of what became a curious two-trip series of photographs of strangers living rooms in Havana. She didn't set out to document what people had on television — but it turned out that way, as home after home shared one main trait: the TV was on, and it was always an old set, creating a kind of picturesque obsolescence.
Ironically, when she returned more recently to continue work on the series for her book project (there's a release party at the gallery on August 6), she discovered that almost all those old sets had been replaced with modern, cheap, and decidedly unphotogenic made-in-China replacements. Are western art-gallery audiences allowed to be sad about that low-end sort of “progress” and admit we liked the pictures better with the broke-down consumer electronics?
Milstein's vision of Cuba is a more externalized — meaning he has a particular penchant and genius for exterior and architectural photographs, which will comprise his exhibition at Kopeikin. (Tip: ask the gallery staff to pull some interiors out of the flat files if you can, as they are no less melodramatic and expressive.)
His gift for rendering majestic street views and his eye for that certain proto-South Beach architectural optimism are not always about ruination; in fact they seem to deliberately seek out a spirit of endurance, and it's no accident that his important bodies of work comprise the same trio of iconic Cubanismo that the Getty celebrated — classic cars, bright colors and sassy ladies.
Both exhibitions at Kopeikin Gallery open on Saturday, July 16, with a book-signing and reception for Jeffrey Milstein's book Cuba, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. A reception and book-signing with Simone Lueck for her book Cuba TV will take place on Saturday, August 6 from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. The Getty Center exhibition is on view through October 2. The Track 16 show is up through July 23.
Follow @LAWeeklyArts on Twitter.