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work is informed by my dual heritage. It is personal, autobiographical,
often a mystery to me. Through my work I explore the complexities,
the duality, the contradictions, the humor, the beauty and the fragments
that are an ever-present part of my life. They are attempts to understand
myself and how I fit into this world.
Cuban exile Mario Petrirena delves deeply into emotions
By Catherine Fox
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 06/10/04
Artists are a courageous lot. Not in making art they do that
because they must but in sending it out of the cocoon of their
studios into a sometimes brutal world.
Mario Petrirena has proved his mettle. This Atlanta artist has made
a career of plumbing his soul, using the prism of his life to try
to get at what it is to be human. Loss, fear, pain and anger, tenderness,
hope and care these are the emotions that reverberate in his
assemblage sculptures and collages.
Petrirena relies on his intuition to make his art, and it speaks to
the viewer on the same wavelength. "One Hand Clapping,"
one of the pieces in his exhibition at Sandler Hudson Gallery, is
an ambiguous but chilling haiku. A ghostly white clay cast of his
own hand, but with a digit missing, hangs on the wall from a rusty
You'll see hands frequently in Petrirena's oeuvre. "Hands are
so important," he says. "You eat, touch, make love with
The rusty chain suggests time, imprisonment. Or maybe it's there because
the artist likes the look of rusty chains. Like the rest of the things
he finds (or seeks) in recycling bins and yard sales, the chain must
first meet his test as a visually interesting object before entering
his stash. He has a gift for combining images (in the collages) and
objects (in the sculptures) that resonate aesthetically as well as
Sometimes the significance of an object or a material hides out of
reach, even from his own consciousness. As he says, "I'm trying
to communicate, not always knowing what I'm trying to say."
For instance, Petrirena has always worked with glass, which he valued
for its contradictory character. "It's there, but it isn't,"
he explains. "It's fragile but hard."
But he didn't really understand its deep symbolic meaning until recently,
when he read a fellow Cuban exile's memoir, "Waiting for Snow
in Havana." Petrirena was stunned by the author's account of
standing alone in a glass-walled cubicle called the fish bowl, waiting
for officials to process his departure to the United States. It was
the last stop, the point of no return.
"I suddenly remembered standing there by myself, separated from
my parents by this glass," he says. "You bury things so
In 1962, when he was 8 years old, his parents sent him and two siblings
to America. The children lived in a Colorado orphanage for eight months
until his parents and two other siblings could make their escape.
His traumatic separation and dislocation, as well as the process of
negotiating a hyphenated identity, have been the defining experiences
of his life. They fuel much of his art.
Though he was very young when he left Cuba and has never visited,
at 50 he feels his Cuban heritage intensely. His father always thought
the family would return, and he wanted his children to maintain their
Cuban identity. He insisted that Spanish be spoken at home in Belle
His friendships with Atlanta's handful of exiled Cuban artists are
very important. "Mirtha [Ferrer] and Rocio [Rodriguez] are my
sisters," he says. "There's our history and the art, and
the cultural stuff you don't have to explain."
Yet Petrirena says that artist Alejandro Aguilera, who actually grew
up under Castro's regime before emigrating, tells the group that they
are not Cuban. And he agrees.
"I'm a Cuban-American," he says.
"You can interpret that to mean you don't belong anywhere or
that you belong to both. Most of the time I feel like I belong in
both. It's a good feeling."
Petrirena absorbed his parents' appreciation of America as well as
their Cubanness. In 1992, he made "Wonderfully Imperfect,"
a clay, hive-shaped sculpture whose surface is covered with a long
hand-written text about American ideals, punctuated with images of
the Statue of Liberty.
Not feeling so sanguine about those liberties last year, he altered
the piece. The mound sits on the gallery floor imprisoned in a rusty
mesh basket he found in his trove of junk. A series of wickedly funny
collages of President Bush, which plant his head on a variety of bodies,
from a leggy cowgirl to a little child, also express his feelings
about the current administration.
"Freedom is what my parents came here for," he says. "They
gave me a life so that I could do the Bush collages in the back gallery."
Petrirena's work is on view at Sandler Hudson Gallery through July
10 and at the Columbus Museum of Art in "Redefining Georgia:
Perspectivas en Arte Contemporaneo" through Aug. 22. He will
give a talk at Sandler Hudson at 2 p.m. June 19.