Cortada exhibit illustrates, laments state’s natural past

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February 17, 2006

By Mike Roberts Eye On Art

Famed Miami artist Xavier Cortada will show his iconic acrylic paintings of Mangrove trees at Artel gallery in Pensacola through March 24. Cortada will be at today’s opening reception from 6 to 8 p.m.

The show, titled “Mangroves,” was at the State Capitol gallery last year in Tallahassee. Cortada memorializes these native South Florida trees as symbols of preservation and community, with their exposed twisted roots that prevent erosion in waterways and give fish a place to hide from predators.

“I hope my art helps people think about what was here before, what immigrant groups came here, what kind of struggles the people had to go through to get us to where we are,” he stated.

Cortada was born in Albany, N.Y., in 1964, to Cuban immigrant parents who returned to Miami shortly after his birth. His youth was highly influenced by Miami’s subtropical and swampy environment, which was being rapidly encroached upon by population growth. Long walks with his father on the beaches of Key Biscayne spawned his appreciation of the area’s natural environment.

After studying art at the University of Miami and completing law school, Cortada became an attorney and artist.

He earned his name with public art projects such as the 12th International AIDS Conference in 1998. During Miami Art Basel 2004, he painted the underpasses along portions of Interstate 95 as a “reforesting” of the city, paying homage to Miami’s natural past. The cities of Miami, Miami Beach, South Miami, and Miami-Dade County have shown their support with their own Xavier Cortada Day.

His most recent accolade is the artist for this year’s Florida Heritage Month. This annual festival is a month of events staged across the state that highlight its history and art. Cortada’s piece for the festival is a set of mangrove seedlings that depict the five flags that have flown over the state, this year’s heritage theme.

It’s easy to understand Cortada’s fetish for the past and its disconnection with today’s threat of the loss of community. Miami is near the southern end of a swelling megapolis of more than five million people bottlenecked in a 100-mile long, 20-mile wide sprawl sandwiched between the Atlantic and the Everglades. Nevertheless, Cortada’s work never comes across as polemical or cynical. It’s at once decorative and lively, hinting at the natural aesthetics that pre-date concrete and steel.

Last year at the Institute at OmniArt in Miami, Cortada presented a gallery version of his artistic mission.

Titled “Absence of Place,” 180 photographs of various Miami area sites were contained in individual plastic bags and hung on the wall in an organized grid. They resembled evidence of before and after; the after is the photo, and the before is Cortada’s written observation of what was once there. A shot of a parking lot was once a Catholic school, for example, or a car dealer replaces a donut shop.

“When you walk by a new building today, you can’t imagine that in 1914, there was a wooden shack there. And much less, that 20 years before there was a mangrove forest,” he explained.

Cortada’s work in Pensacola is interesting in that mangroves are not common to this area. His paintings exploit their eddying roots abstracted just enough to free them from becoming mere arboreal studies. This approach may be a little out of place for these parts, but then again, Pensacola could always use a strong dose of what’s really Florida.