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My 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 chain.

You'll see hands frequently in Petrirena's oeuvre. "Hands are so important," he says. "You eat, touch, make love with your hands."

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 emotionally.

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 deep."

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 Glade, Fla.

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.