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A visit by Cuban painter Orestes Larios Zaaka and sculptor Gregorio Perez Escobar
Guest artists
Pérez's wooden objets tackle universal paradoxes.
Pérez's wooden objets tackle universal paradoxes.

Finally, here's some change we can believe in. The U.S. blockade on Cuba is alive and well, but Obama's given us wiggle room. For the first time since the start of W's second term, Cuban artists can get visas to visit the States. Thanks to impressive efforts by the Madison-Camagüey Sister City Association, with support from Edgewood College, the Dane County Cultural Affairs Commission, and the Overture and Pleasant T. Rowland Foundations, painter Orestes Larios Zaak and sculptor Gregorio Pérez Escobar will be our guests. It's part of the Madison-Camagüey association's 15th anniversary celebration.

An exhibit of their works, "Cuban Artists in Madison: Celebrating Friendship," curated by Larios' wife, María Ofelia Granela, graces Edgewood's DiRicci Gallery Nov. 4-24. The opening's on Friday, Nov. 6, at 5 p.m. Larios and Pérez also give a public lecture on contemporary Cuban art at 4 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 11, in Edgewood's Predolin Humanities Center.

If you haven't kept up with Cuba, you may be surprised by these events. Long gone are the revolutionary posters of Fidel's heyday. The island faces technological challenges largely linked to the blockade, but Internet access is growing, and person-to-person cultural exchanges like this create vital new connections. Larios and Pérez, widely known in Cuba, are represented in private collections in Europe, South America and Canada. "When our messages reach everyone, we can say we've left being local artists behind; today we're universal artists," Larios says.

Larios and Pérez share global sensibilities and a naturalist slant. Pérez' sensual wooden objets tackle what he calls universal paradoxes, ranging thematically from the environment to psychology. A brain's impaled on the shaft of a hand-crank motor. A denuded tree is stuck in a pencil sharpener.

Pérez works almost exclusively in wood - a rich array of tropical hardwoods including mahogany and guayacán. Wood's a mainstay of Cuban sculptors, he says, because it's abundantly available. For Pérez, its immediate associations with nature are part of its appeal. "All you have to do is modify it with ideas and technique to send the spectator a message," he says.

"Above all I try to be a man of my times. I want to think critically. I look for universal problems and create sculptures with the objective of getting the viewer to reflect on how to improve our human condition."

While Pérez's works are edged with biting humor, Larios' paintings - oil on canvas, or sometimes acrylics on cardboard - are meditative. Trained in photography and influenced by European and U.S. hyperrealists, he creates meticulous images of plants and insects that are almost Buddhist (though Larios is Jewish) in their elegant simplicity. "We live in an aggressive world, where nature and human beings are constantly assaulted," he says. "When I sit down to paint I feel a spiritual peace that isolates me from that violence."

Nature is Larios' personal metaphor for peace. "I've struggled to protect the environment," he says. "I enjoy greens, blues, Caribbean light. I want to immortalize them. I can't imagine a world left colorless by contamination. The message in my work is directed at the whole world."

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