Born in Haiti in 1954, Edouard Duval Carrié is an established Miami-based artist who has lived in Puerto Rico, studied in France and Canada, and traveled to Benin, in West Africa. His ornate mixed-media works reflect both his cosmopolitan experiences and his strong connection to his Haitian roots.
Upon entering the gallery, one of the first things you notice is that the lights in half of the gallery are turned off, and that the pieces on that side shine seductively in the dark. Yet if you are like me, you'll want to start from the beginning, which in this case means the side of the gallery that has normal gallery lighting. In the works on this side, a brilliant white glaze predominates, white being the color associated with the Rada Loa (beneficent spirits of the Rada nation) in the Vodou religion of Haiti.
In an initial series of square blue-on-white pieces, Duval Carrié takes the medium of Delft ceramics, originally from the Netherlands, and uses it to depict mysterious, magical-looking eyes and faces surrounded by lush, decorative plant imagery. In the most intense of these works, Bucolic Invasion, the central image is no longer a fanciful face, but rather an apocalyptic scene reminiscent of 9/11/01: an urban skyline with multiple skyscrapers on fire and two threatening airplanes in the sky overhead. The contrast between the violent scene and the pretty decoration that frames it speaks to the inherent tension between our deepest fears and our most delicate dreams.
Next we face two enchanting sculptures that continue the blue-on-white color scheme. Aizan, the Vodou spirit of the marketplace and commerce, is portrayed with her head on a pedestal, surrounded by smaller figurines, and with a beautiful crown of stylized tree-like forms emanating from her head in the manner of certain types of African masks. Next to her is Grand Bois, the spirit of trees, plants, and herbs. His head is on a similar pedestal and he has, appropriately enough, a naturalistic network of roots or tree branches growing upward from his head in the place of hair.
Edouard Duval Carrié, Altar for Mixed Soul #3, 2012, mixed media on wood, 24" x 24"; Courtesy of Bernice Steinbaum Gallery
In a series of gleaming Altar[s] for Mixed Soul[s] Duval Carrié places a variety of golden, three-dimensional sacred symbols in alcoves behind flat, glittery, surfaces. In Altar for Mixed Soul #1 the predominant image is of two symmetrically placed palm trees. In Altar for Mixed Soul #3 the Catholic Sacred Heart of Jesus sits in the center, flanked by two snakes, representing Damballah, the Vodou sky god, creator of life, and father of all the Loa (spirits). The juxtaposition of these sacred images perfectly embodies the syncretism of Afro-Caribbean religion and culture.
After such an introduction, stepping into the darkened portion of the gallery feels like entering a sort of magical church. Inspired by traditional Haitian metal work, Duval Carrié has cut elegant compositions into aluminum squares. Then, in a contemporary twist, each of these works is backlit by its own light box, so that the curly, linear designs appear to have been drawn with pure light. The effect is captivating: plants, dogs, wings, lips, stars, the head of a goddess, and even a man's voice all feel alive with energy. The most moving of these pieces is Fall of the House of Haiti, in which the utter devastation of the 2010 earthquake is portrayed with eloquent understatement by a single, broken house sitting on shattered ground.
Like stations of the cross in a Catholic church, the monochromatic aluminum-light pieces lead to a back wall, on which is hung the largest and most impressive piece in the exhibition. Entitled Purple Lace Tree, this pièce de résistance depicts an elaborate tree, abundant with life. Its sparkling colors appear to emanate from within, evoking the power of a stained-glass window. The tree is strong and centered in its baroque frame, yet it floats untethered in the picture plane, symbolizing the uprootedness of the exile. At the same time, its roots remain vividly alive, writhing like the serpents of Damballah, the sky god. However its graceful branches bear not only green leaves, but also tiny red cherries dripping blood, a poignant reference to the pain of being away from one's homeland.
One more surprise awaits. When the gallery lights are turned on, Purple Lace Tree still dazzles, yet now with a wider spectrum of reflective colors. In other words, the piece works in both darkness and light, an apt metaphor for the syncretic power of Afro-Caribbean religion, as well as the dual cultures of the contemporary immigrant.
Reynier Leyva Novo, La última carta / The Last Card, 2009, vinyl on Canson paper, 25" x 19 ½"; Courtesy of Bernice Steinbaum Gallery
After having been immersed in Duval Carrié's mystical realm, be sure to head upstairs to see something entirely different: the work of Cuban conceptual artist Reynier Leyva Novo. In the elevator you'll encounter his video installation in which the Cuban national anthem has been rearranged and played on an acoustic guitar, transforming it from a triumphant march into an achingly-slow dirge—a clever comment on the hollowness of nationalism. On the second floor is Leyva Novo's main exhibition, Novo Aniversario / Novo Anniversary, which continues his critique of state power. The show consists of a wall of twenty-seven original poster designs that use the stark, graphic language of Modernist and Communist political posters in order to subvert the very ideologies which such posters usually espouse. Many of these works take aim at the dictatorial Castro regime under which the artist currently lives. Yet they also cast a wider net, their deliberately oblique messages questioning authority in all its oppressive forms.
(Image on top right: Edoaurd Duval Carrie, Purple Lace Tree, 2012, mixed media on Water jet cut aluminum, 96" x 96" x 3"; Courtesy of the artist and Bernice Steinbaum Gallery)