Curated by Yuneikys Villalonga
November 26, 2021
“Good education begins at home,” reads a wise, old saying. This is particularly true of art learning, a life-long process that surpasses the formal training received in school. Art historians and curators are usually very interested in those unique interactions, experiences, and influences that shape artists and their work during their lifetime; yet, it is very rare to have the opportunity of interconnecting the works of an entire family of creatives in a show. This was the initial idea behind Family Ties. The exhibition is an invitation to delve into the worlds of not one, but two successful families of artists and art professionals based in the cities of New Orleans and Miami. The idea did not come after a curatorial pursuit though. It sparked off a phone conversation between artists Aldo Menéndez and Luis Cruz Azaceta, two years ago. Even though they never met in person, Menéndez and Azaceta used to often engage in long-distance conversations that went from art, to philosophy, to politics. Upon realizing that their partners and children were also artists, they went on to imagine how great it would be to exhibit the work of the two families together. At the time, they did not have the space, and the idea remained on the back burner until the opportunity to do it at the Kendall Art Center Miami, arose. Unfortunately, Aldo is no longer with us, but the show still preserves that energy that stems from collaboration among colleagues. One family includes Luis Cruz Azaceta (Havana, Cuba, 1942) and Sharon Jacques (New Orleans, LA, 1956), along with their son, Dylan Cruz-Azaceta (Brooklyn, New York, 1991) and his partner, Vicky Roberts (Shreveport, LA, 1989). The other includes Aldo Menéndez (Cienfuegos, Cuba, 1948) and Ivonne Ferrer
(Havana, Cuba, 1968) with their son, Adrián Menéndez (Madrid, Spain, 1992).
Despite the generational gaps, their diverse backgrounds and skills, many of the artists in these two groups or “communities” with familial bonds share similar interests. One recurrent topic is the social and political unrest and its effects on the individual. Luis Cruz Azaceta’s canvases of vibrant colors reflect the socio-political turmoil of the past few years, from the Black Lives Matter protests to the tragedies of a merciless Pandemic. The titles, such as "Keeping an Eye on COVID" (2020) and "Crisis 3" (2020) serve as conceptual compasses to interpret the works within the otherwise abstract compositions. In "Discordance" (2021), the artist makes use of musical and art historical references to convey chaos. The work is composed of three panels of sober colors: a thin, long canvas runs across the top and is the depiction of a piano keyboard. Underneath, two other pieces exhibit a wealth of geometric shapes and patterns that set their own rhythm while revealing against the “perfect order” of the keyboard. Some of them resemble eyes and fingers that are scattered all over the painting as fragments of bodies. A small circle of color planes might suggest a a discordant note. The composition and palette reminds us of Pablo Picasso’s "Guernica" (1937) and conveys that historical work’s associations to violence and despair.
Luis Cruz Azaceta and Vicky Roberts utilize toys to generate new meanings and commentary that becomes political. By contrast, the new objects make us reflect on the fallacy and fragility of our children’s world and future. With his characteristic dose of humor and irony, Azaceta intervenes toy fire trucks with disproportionately big, real-life objects that somehow allude to this profession - a frying pan with matches, a black hose or a watering can. They are part of his series, "Tribute to Our Firefighters." On the other hand, Roberts’s sculpture "Rounds" is a crocheted toy AR-15. The artist employs yarn to weave colorful stripes and flower motifs onto the rifle. The pleasant visual and tactile experience of the new object contradicts its original purpose and immediate associations, closer to gun violence and war.
Other comments on childhood are brought forth by Dylan Cruz-Azaceta’s work, "Looking Out." The piece consists of two photographic takes of his toddler son looking outside glass panes. One is taken from the interior of a house and the other one from outside. While the son is performing the action, the artist assumes the perspective of the guardian with the responsibility of looking after him. He says: “Looking Out / into emptiness. / Looking out / for my son. / A world filled with / people and yet / alone. / Keeping safe / During / uncertain times.” Dylan’s series "Cutting-Ties" is composed of photo-collages of refugees that are shaped as cutting saw blades. Here, the associations with the blade can be seen not only as a metaphor for the sense of loss and separation of those who leave their nation behind, but also for its potential as a castrating tool that can be compared to the way in which the issue of migration is addressed nationally and internationally.
A senior art educator and art advisor, Sharon Jacques often resorts to art historical and literary references to make comments on her own reality. In her restless curiosity and explorations, the medium and expressive language of the works often relate to their content. This is true of "Homage to Hannah Hoch" (2020), a photo-montage and assemblage piece where Jacques portrays the German Dada artist in a fashion that reminds us of that artist’s aesthetics and technique. Hoch was a pioneer of photo montage and one of the few women that belonged to the Dada movement in the early 20th century. Jacques’ homage to this exemplar woman recalls Hoch’s series "From an Ethnographic Museum" (1924–34), where she depicted women in surrealist compositions, combined with elements from tribal art, among other references, as her own commentary on their place in the art world, and in the society of her time. In the same vein, Jacques’ installation, "Regarding the Pain of Others" (2018), establishes a creative dialogue with Susan Sontag’s thesis in her book of the same title. In her critical piece, Sontag reflects on the ways in which our society consumes and reacts to the tragedy of others. A rectangular mirror is set as a table; half of a white china plate is standing vertically on each end, its image completed by the mirror underneath. Sontag’s book, standing in the middle, serves as an axis or a dividing wall between a blue Buddha statue and a small glass bell that covers a hearing aid. These symbolic elements (the mirror that reflects our own images; the impossibility to hear; the commercial figurine which encapsulates a great deal of the Western longing for exoticism and escapism), allows the visitor to construct their individual narratives.
The human body and its infinite possibilities of reinvention are central to other works in the show. “Portraits in Chinese,” a series that Aldo Menéndez began in 2010 and continued to work on over the years, consists of more than a hundred portraits, out of which six are exhibited in Family Ties. They are creative and playful mixed media collages built off fashion magazine clips, art catalogs and other publications that would call the artist’s attention, which he would patiently classify and eventually use, in the fashion of the surrealist game of the exquisite cadaver. Along with the portraits of his wife Ivonne and his son Adrian is his self-portrait. Menéndez exaggerates his own facial features by altering their size and pro-portions. His mouth is wide open and a pair of bleeding legs are superimposed to his tongue as a sort of Kronos devouring his own children - a metaphor that might have been related to the anxiety of fighting Time.
In her series, “Antropometria” (2021) Ivonne Ferrer combines fragments of bodies - mostly heads, arms and legs - with geometric shapes in soft pastel colors against a white background. This imagery references the world of illustration while the recurrent fragments of a baby doll have become a signature element in her work. The seemingly incomplete puzzles and bodies invite us to conceive new narratives of infinite possibilities. Ferrer’s “Humanity’s Gambit” (2021), on the other hand, is an impressive ceramic sculptural installation where the artist resorts to the language of another game, chess. In this case, the pieces are built of assembled ceramic body parts - the same baby doll fragments of “Antropometria.” The possibility of rearranging the pieces (by playing the game) places the viewer in a position of power. Yet, there is no point in doing so as the artist has abolished all hierarchies by only conceiving pawns. As it mirrors the way in which Ferrer perceives reality, the piece becomes a personal statement. “Abstraction Came First” (2021), by Adrian Menéndez, is an installation of several objects that exist in the intersection between representation and abstraction. Starting off recognizable shapes -be it a cat tower, the backing structure of a drywall wall, or an electric cooker- Adrian goes on to cover all surfaces with acrylic and fluorescent paint and thus, achieves a visual unity that erases the singular nature of the individual artifacts. “Before existing as we know them, every thought and object that surrounds us was a mere abstraction,” states the artist.
Beyond the singularity of these artists’ works lays another lay-er of meaning that stems from their special relationship as family members. When approaching the exhibition with this in mind, a different set of questions - this time much more subjective - could be considered. For instance, to what extent do their recurrent interactions affect their artistic choices? Is there a breaking point from the vision and aesthetics of the different generations in the group? How are the already complex roles played in the family and at home reflected in their artistic interactions and influences? The answers are complex, and not necessarily obvious; however, they are fascinating and become metaphors for many other human relationships. Family Ties should also be regarded as a portal to those chaotic and delightful “kitchen table talks” that take place in the space where we have our first social interactions, which is home, and are usually missed in the context of the gallery.