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Fantasies of Escape 

Cuban painter Victor Huerta Batista is paired with Francisco de Goya at the UA Museum of Art

Cuban painter Victor Huerta Batista has some suggestions on how to get off the island:

One: Screw some crinkum-crankum wheels onto an old boat. Lash canvas to wood for a sail. Pray that the gods will blow strong blasts of wind your way. For a how-to illustration, see Huerta's painting "Viajar no es problema II" (Travel Is Not a Problem #2), 2005, now on view in his one-person show at the University of Arizona Museum of Art.

Two: Convert your boat into an airplane. Hammer on wings, and add propellers, an outboard motor and a couple of lifesaving rings. Enlist a cast of thousands to carry you out to sea. See how it's done in "Viajar no es problema VIII," 2006.

Three: Throw your whole damn city--in this case, Havana--into a giant ship. Include the old cathedral, some grass-thatched cottages and palm trees. String some sunshades across the deck, and set up electric fans to blow the vessel out to sea. Huerta shows how it's done in "La barca Habana" (The Havana Boat), 2005.

Four, five and six: Plunge whirlybird wings into the back of a giant fish ("Pescado helicoptero," Helicopter Fish). Sail off in a Spanish colonial ship ("Viajar no es problema VII"). Fire off in a World War I flying ace's biplane ("Viejar no es problema VI").

Seven ... well, you get the idea. In Huerta's "rampant imaginative world"--as curator Lisa Fischman calls it--the whole population of Cuba seems hell-bent on escape, flying pell-mell toward the sea, using every possible means of transportation. A Cuban painter virtually unknown to American audiences, Huerta has filled one small room of the museum with his fantastic visions.

Born in 1972, Huerta grew up in Castro's Cuba. (Fun fact: The dictator Castro deposed was named Batista, Huerta's other last name.) And while the painter's work is not overtly political in the sense that it's not filled with painted slogans and caricatures, it's hard not to see the critique in what Fischman calls his "fantasies of escape." From the makeshift rafts that ordinary Cubans devise to sail to the United States, it's a short leap to Huerta's creaky painted flotilla.

In "La barca y la gente" (The Boat and the People), 2006, a large godlike figure with a suspiciously Fidel-like beard rises up out of the sea to stop the headlong flight. He stands in the shallows of a harbor, and holds his hand up to halt the thick nautical traffic. With that one gesture, he stops countless colonial-era sailing ships, including a big one that's made off with a government building and dozens of people on deck. In the waters below, individuals are afloat in cereal bowls, a teacup and a big serving bowl.

And in "Caerse de Habana" (The Fall of Havana), 2002, three old men are struggling to hold up a figure above their bald heads. They're decrepit caryatids long past their prime, but then so is the strongman they're trying to support. He's a fake, his body made of wood, pegged together at the joints, and he's collapsing.

But Huerta's vision is too wild, too erotic--and too fun--to be reined in by a single interpretation tied to contemporary politics. Elephant-headed old folks dance on a gargantuan pink birthday cake in "Feliz Cumpleaños" (Happy Birthday), 2003, just beyond a giant snake slithering in the hay around it. Nearby, a sexy young woman watches while a bird-headed man has sex from the rear with a figure of indeterminate gender. Above, the heads of four angry gods blow the small brushfire atop the cake into a conflagration.

In other works, a tiny family sits on the precipice of a stove, just past a pot of boiling ship. A sexy woman with a cat's head writhes all naked on the shoulders of a man with a dog's head. Workmen on scaffolding lazily touch up the paint job on the face of a giant man.

Huerta practices what the Cubans call "lo real maravilloso" (the marvelous real), a counterpart to the magical realism in Latin-American literature. He counterbalances the realistic and the fantastic, placing recognizable figures, landscapes and buildings in impossible settings. He plays with imbalances of scale--see that mini-family on the stovetop--and "irrational space," juxtaposing sailing teacups with sailing ships.

Beautifully rendered in acrylics on canvas, his paintings are meant to look like oils, Fischman says, even to the point that he's faked the sheen of oil glaze on top. He paints in a limited Old World palette, in browns, golds, yellows and ambers, with jolts of pale blue or red here and there. Some passages are thinly stained with color, while others have deft layerings of thick paint. Occasionally, Huerta allows paint to drip vertically all across the canvas, like rain, or tears.

The landscape of Cuba, often a backdrop to the fantastic goings-on, emerges in soft, blurry rows of palm trees and glints of light on rooftops. The sea greens of the Straits of Florida shimmer, and sunset skies turn chalky yellow.

The Old Masters can take credit for some of Huerta's wildness. His crazy machines have their roots in Leonardo da Vinci's drawings of flying contraptions, moving dykes, pulleys and cranks. Huerta's fantastic creatures, half-human, half-animal, and his apocalyptic visions owe a debt to Hieronymus Bosch. And his imagination, Fischman says, follows the free flights of Francisco Goya.

Which is how Huerta's works came to be displayed at the UAMA. Fischman and assistant curator Susannah Maurer were looking for a contemporary artist to pair with the second installment of the museum's four-part Goya etchings series. Last spring, works by Tucson rodeo photographer Louise Serpa went up next door to Goya's La Tauromaquia suite of bullfighting prints. The second Goya show, now on view, exhibits 24 etchings from Los Disparates, which the museum translates as "mad and absurd ideas."

Filled with grotesque monsters, dreamlike phantoms and humans with bats' wings, the nightmare Disparates images are bathed in darkness. Goya worked on these pictures at the end of his life, and scholars have debated whether they represent his fears of death, or his horror at the catastrophic wars of his lifetime, or something else altogether.

In any case, the curators thought, rightly, that Huerta's unruly work was a good match. They found his work online via the MLA Gallery in Los Angeles, which handles his work and acted as intermediary. Huerta has had some success in Cuba, but this is the first time his extravagant visions have won a museum show in the United States.

"His imagination is unloosed," Fischman says. "He's an artist willing to see where that goes. That's a precedent that Goya set."

More by Margaret Regan

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