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at the Catherine Edelman Gallery

The last time I saw Maria Martinez-Canas’s work was in 1984. I had just begun my second semester at the School of the Art Institute, and Canas was about to wrap up her MFA in photography. A visiting instructor threw a party at his apartment, and Canas presented some of her work. Each black-and-white photograph featured a chain of unidentifiable, sharp-edged shapes set on a stark white background. Canas explained to onlookers that these shapes were based on her responses to a particular piece of classical music. The works were utterly distinctive, and I remember thinking that this was the kind of photography I was really interested in. At the end of the semester Canas left town; both her name and her work faded in my memory.

So I didn’t immediately recognize Canas as the creator of the black-and-white collage prints now on view at the Catherine Edelman Gallery, though the pieces seemed vaguely familiar. After seven years of hard work, Canas has made great changes in her content and technique. Whereas the old works were restrained, almost minimalist, the new works fairly explode with detail. They combine abstract shapes with fragmented images from architectural photography. But the sharp, spiky lines and stark black-and-white patterns of her previous photographs remain–the same qualities that captured my attention years ago. Fascinating as the old works based on music were, however, ultimately they were inaccessible because the sources of the photographic images were unidentifiable. Canas’s current works focus on a personal search for her Cuban heritage; they are not only formally vigorous but emotionally expressive.

Canas’s photos combine the gestural freedom of drawing with tiny camera-made images to produce prints that from a distance look almost like pen-and-ink drawings. The white, razor-sharp outlines of tree trunks, palm fronds, and saber-tooth shapes are filled in with dots, dashes, and random scribblings, or by little pictures of Spanish-looking streets and buildings. To integrate these diverse elements without rupturing the seamless photo surface, the artist creates a sort of master negative. Using an X-acto knife, Canas cuts various shapes and designs out of Rubylith film. (Areas of photo paper covered by Rubylith will not allow light to pass. Once the paper is developed, those areas will be an unexposed white.) The Rubylith shapes are laid on a sheet of clear plastic. Canas then tapes snipped pieces of regular black-and-white film negatives to non-Rubylith areas of the plastic surface or blots these areas to create textured patterns. The master negative is then pressed against a piece of photo paper, exposed, and developed.

This energetic, active process gives Canas the painterly satisfaction of getting her hand “in” the work, while she remains strictly within the mechanical, single-surface tradition of straight photography. Often, though, the forceful Rubylith shapes overpower the camera images; and the meaning behind these touristy little snapshots of archways, churches, and statuary remains vague. Besides establishing a generalized Spanish look, they seem curiously faceless. More important is their formal function, expanding the gray shades in an otherwise severely restricted black-and-white palette.

In fact, it is through shape and design rather than content that Canas best expresses her search for personal and cultural identity. The design of Totem Negro V and Totem Negro VI does indeed repeat the totem poles of ancient races. Anchored by black backgrounds, the stacked, intertwining forms in these tall vertical pieces recall snakes, leaves, feathers, animal horns, and spears without actually representing them–Canas has successfully invented her own symbols for these items. Their exotic profusion seems to refer to tropical climes. These dipping, curving, edgy “containers” are often filled with homes and public buildings, which help flesh out the schematic shapes. Meshing form with image, private with public, handmade drawing with mechanical photo, Canas synthesizes her own totems of personal and cultural identity.

In other compositions, the artist’s overlapping, juxtaposed shapes look like transformed aerial maps. Con la Habana de Fondo (Serie Negra) presents the island of Cuba as a patchwork of austere white rectangles on a black background; it is overrun by the outlines of clashing bulls’ horns, which are filled in with street scenes or abstract patterns. Thin white lines shooting out of the island to the edges of the print could represent travel routes, puppet strings, or the threads of a spiderweb. Looking at the horn shapes, I couldn’t help but think of Ernest Hemingway, whose love of Spanish bullfighting is well-known, and of Picasso, whose paintings and drawings often employed bulls or the Minotaurs of ancient mythology. Because these shapes run roughshod over the island of anonymous rectangles, one reading of Habana (Havana) might be that well-known aspects of Spanish culture often eclipse the fact that Cuba, too, has a Spanish heritage.

Another map composition, Presencia Ajena, looks more spontaneous and lyrical, less rigid and literal than Habana. In Ajena the various-sized rectangles forming the landmass are not empty but optimistically filled with architectural detail. They seem to signal presence and identity instead of absence and anonymity. The landmass floats on a white background. Black lines lace the left and right sides of the landform to the print edges. Because of the way they’re positioned, these lines resemble a game of cat’s cradle more than puppet strings or an imprisoning spiderweb. Swooping down over this placid shape is a huge birdlike figure with a swishing whale tail. Canas allows her joy in making marks to run rampant within the confines of this avian shape. Scribbling, scratching, poking, and hatching (in the Rubylith) all seem to celebrate the bird’s exotic nature while calling attention to its power and aggressiveness. Sometimes obliterating, sometimes blending with the landmass below, the creature remains enigmatic. Does it play or attack, liberate or oppress? Is it a blessing or a curse? Perhaps it encompasses all of these possibilities.

The show also includes a few small photographs made six to ten years ago. Oddly, these extremely minimal pieces are more aesthetically challenging than the current magnificently detailed chefs d’oeuvre: they don’t look the way we expect photographs to look. A couple of untitled pieces from 1984 are especially intriguing. Reduced merely to several thin lines plus a delicate arc and only a whiff of unrecognizable photo detail, these pictures remind me of the kind of drawings Russian Suprematist painter Kazimer Malevich or Bauhaus artist Laszlo Moholy-Nagy might have made earlier in the century.

There is no denying that the art world’s current focus on multiculturalism gives Maria Martinez-Canas’s show an au courant air. Like many artists of color, she concerns herself with how cultural identity relates to the self. Born in Cuba, raised in Puerto Rico, and now living in Miami, Canas must have experienced personal and social conflicts many of us would not even be aware of. Besides informing and enlarging our perceptions of what nonwhite American art might look like, Canas’s photos remind us to question our own identities more directly. What does it mean politically, artistically, and personally to be American? What does American art look like? Asking such questions makes us realize that there are no pat answers, despite what a flag-waving George Bush or Jesse Helms would have us believe. The visual complexity of Canas’s photos seems symbolic of life’s own immense complexity. Her lively designs and metaphoric shapes convey a poetic, spirited attitude that makes her artistic search most rewarding to see.