Seas of Change

Las Americas Collection, Coral Gables, FL

Elisa Turner


For much of her career, Lydia Rubio has painted magical, luminous interiors. They often include tables draped with silken folds or lace-edged cloths, which her artistic sleights of hand transform into the shimmering beaches of Caribbean islands. With unexpected flourishes that not only fool but also thrill the eye, domestic trappings become sandy settings featuring feathery royal palms and verdant hillsides. Such Caribbean scenes harken back to her native Cuba, but Rubio’s art reaches far beyond nostalgia. She Painted Landscapes, for example, is a beautiful work that employs dramatic shifts in scale, taking viewers from tabletop to mountaintop, dazzling the eye with illusionistic detail. Its visual gamesmanship toys with our perceptions of what is real and what is painted — speaking also to the vagaries of memory, and to how memories take on a life of their own, distinct from the past.

She Painted Landscapes, oil on canvas, 44 x 72 inches, 1989

Gently balanced on the mahogany tabletop in She Painted Landscapes is a worn, creased book open to several pages of landscapes. Battered but still haunting, it is a homage to the more conventional paintings that her grandmother made in the Havana home where Rubio grew up in the 1950s. The book seems to be propped against craggy mountains emerging from the table, enticing the viewer with a surprising, surrealist juxtaposition. And Rubio has concocted still another surprise: The azure sky of one page in the book, filled with cottony clouds, seems almost to blend in with the expanses of gorgeous Caribbean sky that stretch beyond the simple mahogany table. Here the viewer is presented with the intriguing spectacle of paintings of paintings, and paintings of landscapes, washing into one another. The combinations are improbable but stunning, luring the observer into the dreamscapes of Rubio’s artistic imagination.

In this work as in many others, the artist creates a poetic interplay between the sea, sky, and land. Interiors often float in a space that somehow embraces all three elements. As one looks at her work, magical realism, a term used to describe much contemporary Latin American fiction, inevitably comes to mind. And, indeed, the fabulous worlds of writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Alejo Carpentier, where marvelous coincidences gleam throughout narratives suffusing present and past, do invite comparisons with the fantastic scenes and shifting proportions in Rubio’s paintings.

“There is a definite connection in some of my works to contemporary works of Cuban and Latin American fiction,” Rubio says. “An imaginary order, an artificial precision is juxtaposed to the disorder of everyday reality. The past is always present,” she adds, underscoring the importance of memory. One of her favorites is the late Cuban novelist Reinaldo Arenas, because he creates “drastic changes of scale and combinations of other worlds. He really deals with transformation.”

As Rubio’s art deals with change, so has her life. Leaving Cuba at age thirteen, she later graduated from the University of Florida, then went on to receive a masters degree in architecture from Harvard in 1974. She taught architectural design at Harvard and at Parsons School of Design in New York City, while also preparing architectural renderings for New York films. About fifteen years ago, Rubio decided to leave the field she had never wholly embraced and began painting full-time, relishing an artist’s creative solitude. Her art has been shown at galleries in Miami, New York, and Philadelphia, and in various museum exhibitions, including the traveling CubalUSA: The First Generation, organized by the Fondo del Sol Visual Arts Center, in Washington, D.C.

Greeting a visitor to her home in Miami, painted lemon yellow on the outside and a deep rosy-orange on the inside, a color recalling the succulent flesh of mamey, Rubio prepares a cup of espresso before talking about her new work. Her home, tilled with bright Miami light, rich colors, and lined with many art books and literature in Spanish and English, reflects the varied sources for her art. During previous visits, she has launched into lively comments on essays by Octavio Paz and handsomely illustrated books about the painters Velázquez, René Magritte and Edward Hopper. Today, however, nautical maps occupy her attention. She unrolls one, revealing Cuba, the Florida Keys, South Florida, and part of the Bahamas. Her finger traverses the multitude of sandbars and tiny islands in these perilous waters, following the Gulf Stream as it curls past Cuba and toward Florida.

“I can depict the most subtle and, at the same time, the most violent scene… The idea of fragments is present in the life of a person who doesn’t belong anywhere and is missing something from the past”

Her recent work is inspired by last year’s flimsy flotillas of Cuban balseros, or boat people, drifting through these very waters toward Miami, their harrowing stories of survival and death making daily news for months. Rubio, whose paintings explore unexpected contrasts in scale and image, finds a riveting contrast in the balseros’ plight. We have this view, she says, of the Caribbean as “pleasant, blue, idyllic,” but it is “changing into this universal grave, or this monster, swallowing people.” She is haunted by their fate— “the idea that you get picked up by these huge ships that you think are going to save you, and then you are delivered to another no-man’s land,” she says, referring to the crowded camps of Guantánamo. “Imagine,” she says, “the despair that is clinging in the air of the whole area.”

“D” of Dangerous, oil on wood, 1994
“O” of Journeys, oil on wood, 1994

The paintings she is preparing for her upcoming show have evolved from last spring’s exhibition, Dangerous Journeys, at the Bianca Lanza Gallery in Miami Beach. In a compelling installation, seventeen panels, sixteen inches square, lined the walls, each depicting a seascape and a letter, so that the installation spelled out the show’s title. Some were tranquil, Dutch-inspired scenes of graceful sailboats; others reflected a darker world of fantasy and tumult. J, for example, showed a paper boat, painted with fragments of sky, caught in a torrent of flame-red waves. Other objects in the show were painted paper boats and tiny wooden houses, inscribed with lyrical quotations from Cuban writers about the island and surrounding sea. “This is about my need to connect with that kind of vision. I like being among poets and writers, and to think about the ways they perceive the world, which makes them create poetic imagery,” Rubio says.

The sea, as a poetic image fraught with danger and change, a place that becomes an exile’s nemesis or savior, is a consuming subject. Rubio says she wants to paint “the sea in all its manifestations, what can happen in the sea, the immense range of colors and feelings that you can depict in the sea. I can depict the most subtle, soft, peaceful-looking scene and at the same time the most violent, and combine them in unusual ways.”

Her new works will make up a series of related scenes, similar to Dangerous Journeys. But this group is planned to number thirty-six panels, variously square, round, and rectangular. Rather than drawing on quotations of favorite writers, she will inscribe many of the paintings with her own text, aiming to spin stories of fictional encounters between boats and the sea, metaphors for their real-life legacy of adventure and terror. To expand her ability to evoke dramatic imagery, she has immersed herself not only in nautical charts, but also in oceanographic studies, Homer’s Odyssey, and fiction by writers in exile. In Arenas’s Otra vez el mar (Farewell to the Sea), she is moved by the way he “describes all the colors the sea can have—gray, yellow, blue.”

Stories of startling juxtapositions attract Rubio. One work depicts a towering blue-black tanker in a blue-green sea. It is, she says, “a Russian ice-breaker leaving the Caribbean… but obviously it’s a mysterious ship, with special purposes we don’t know about.” In her studio is a completed triptych, El Sueño, which arose from “a dream I had. I saw a cargo ship in the ocean, leaping and diving in the waves, like a dolphin.” In this work, a cargo ship first floats miraculously above calm waters only, in the last image, to make a fatal plunge into stormy, gray-green waves off Victory Key in the Bahamas, parallel to Miami.

El Sueño, triptych, oil on wood, 1994.

Though Rubio once made several large paintings for a show, she is now creating many small canvases, vignettes that, she says, “can be seen together or separated.” This process is another way to evoke the sense of an island and an exile’s anxious feelings of separation from that island. She remains haunted by “the idea of fragments—that you can take a piece from a totality, and this detached piece becomes your isolated, total reality.” Such an experience “is present in the life of a person who doesn’t belong anywhere and is missing something from the past.”

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