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Finding the provocative in the mundane

Two shows by the artist Ray Azcuy explore ideas on multiple levels, such as our preoccupation with appearances and our concept of freedom.

By LENNIE BENNETT
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 11, 2002


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Controlled Choices, above, and Freedom Goddess, below, by Ray Azcuy.

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ST. PETERSBURG -- Not long ago, I had lunch with a friend who is an artist. I used the word "neat" to describe something and she said, "You're going to have to stop using that word now that you're a critic."

So I smiled when Marshall Rousseau, director emeritus of the Salvador Dali Museum, said of work by artist Ray Azcuy, "Isn't it neat?"

That and more can be said of the Azcuy shows opening Friday at the Dali and the Arts Center. His nuanced installations reference a number of influences, among them baroque art, surrealism, pop art and his Cuban heritage. And he continues to evolve as a conceptual artist, as these two shows demonstrate.

"New Works," at the Arts Center, is part of an ongoing series titled "Iconography of the Everyday." There is a knowingness to this work, a recognition of our appetites and vanities, our preoccupation with appearances. Family Tree is a series of metal boxes with the hard shine of auto body paint, each bearing a different car logo. It is arranged in a grid, as if it were a patchwork quilt. If this work implies that we are what we drive, others in the series make similar observations about what we eat, drink, wear and keep.

"If you really want to know someone, go through their drawers," Azcuy says, and Keepers is constructed to look like a dresser, drawers stacked and embellished with different facades, "which puts the personality on the outside rather than the inside," he says.

False Truths, rows of metal martini shakers lined up in a metallic box, is a reflection on what he calls the "Martini Culture," that both reflects and refracts the viewer's image, like the distortions of inebriation. In Controlled Choice, Azcuy sprays dozens of identical ceramic shoes a bright green and stuffs them on shelves. The effect is like looking into a closet that is both creepy and familiar.

"We think we have control over what we buy," he says. "But if Vogue says that tacky green shoes are in style, that's what we'll buy."

The show, which could be loaded with cynicism, is just the opposite. He treats these everyday objects with humor, even affection, and he takes an obvious joy in the process of creating them.

"Investigating Freedom," in the Raymond James Community Room at the Dali, is a newer group of installations, in which he moves away from the formal, gridlike arrangements of "Iconography of the Everyday."

But as the former show does, this explores an idea on multiple levels. "Cubans are always thinking about freedom," Azcuy says. "I decided to investigate it not just from a political point of view but from an everyday view."

He continues to use multiples of a single image but they are no longer lined up with a hypnotic precision. Instead, they are placed more randomly as in Melting Pot, a metal vessel that could be a fire pot or the prow of a ship containing hundreds of identical easy chairs with a bright metallic finish. They are a consumer item that represents home and hearth, a symbol of the comfort immigrants have sought in America.

Most of the work at the Dali makes strong references to the immigrant experience. Por Aqui Todo Bien, translated as Everything's Fine Here, is about the tenuous connections between those who have arrived and those who hope to. Azcuy papier-mached a group of Ken dolls ("How much more American can you get than that?" he says) in strips made from Cuban relatives' letters and a Florida map, posing them on a form that appears to be a ship or an island. They all stare at some distant landmark, a gesture of shared longing.

Free at Last is a huge circular form of flowers painted black, like a giant funeral wreath in tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But from a distance, it looks like the inner tubes onto which desperate Cubans have launched themselves.

These are potentially one-note images of melancholy, but Azcuy transforms them into repositories for multiple ideas with his wit. Sometimes, there is almost too much wit. Charmed Warrior is as loaded with double entendres as it is with an arsenal of toy weapons painted silver -- a dress form with a breastplate for a bodice and wire for a skirt, hung with a "charm bracelet" made of grenades and handguns.

One of the most successful works is Freedom Goddess. Azcuy calls it a homage to drag queens but it celebrates freedom of expression in a larger way. He repeats the breastplate as bodice, a nod to the strictures of conventions such as fashion, and layers ceramic shoes into a flirty skirt, painted a siren's red this time.

It fairly shouts the old Colonial battle cry: Don't tread on me.

Azcuy came to Miami with his parents and a sister in 1961 when he was 11. He graduated from the University of South Florida with a master's degree in art education, taught art in Pinellas County public schools and then became supervisor of the visual arts program for the county. He moved back to Miami in 1990 to become supervisor of Miami-Dade's public school arts program, the "day job" that allows him to create the kind of provocative art that rarely is commercially successful.

In the 1970s, when Azcuy was just out of school, Marshall Rousseau was vice president of marketing and public relations for Robinson's of Florida, a now-defunct department store chain. A collector of contemporary art, Rousseau wanted to showcase emerging artists in the stores.

"It was 1974, the first Father's Day we were open," Rousseau said. "Ray had been recommended to me and I asked him to do a show in the men's department. It was our first one." Rousseau, through Robinson's, promoted many other artists, and he and Azcuy worked together again during the years that Robinson's sponsored the Scholastic Arts Awards. After Azcuy moved to Miami and Rousseau began a second career as director of the Dali, they kept in touch. Rousseau went to one of Azcuy's shows, loved the new work, and arranged for the dual shows here.

Neat, indeed.

* * *

REVIEW: "New Works," Friday through Aug. 25, at the Arts Center, 719 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. Hours: Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free. Call (727) 822-7872.

"Investigating Freedom," Friday through Aug. 25 at the Salvador Dali Museum, 1000 Third St. S, St. Petersburg. Hours: 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday; until 8 p.m. Thursday; noon to 5:30 p.m. Sunday. Admission: $10 adults, with discounts for seniors and children.

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