In Edouard Duval-Carrié's aluminum painting "After Bierstadt: The Landing," Christopher Columbus and Marie Antoinette are canoeing on a twinkling bay in the Caribbean, about to row ashore on an island thick with low-drooping trees and exotic plants. A modern-looking warship looms in the background. Their companions on the boat are Batman, Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse, Daffy Duck and Mr. Potato Head.
If visitors to the Perez Art Museum Miami see an "invasion of Western culture" as the dominant theme of his new solo exhibit, "Imagined Landscapes," Duval-Carrié says he wouldn't disagree with that interpretation. But the cartoon characters? They're a reminder not to take his sociopolitical commentary too seriously.
"I hope Disney doesn't come after me for this," the Miami Beach painter says of the site-specific show, opening Thursday, March 13. "I've been doing a lot of research on the history of Haiti and the Caribbean, and I found these 19th century paintings created about the tropics. It's a fantasy — the colors, sunshine, bright beaches and palm trees, the pristine green waters, ready for the grab. But it's all an advertising ploy. It's an invitation to the exotic."
The titles of his 13 new works include the names of landscape painters — Hudson River School artists Frederic Edwin Church, Martin Johnson Heade and Albert Bierstadt — who were hired to "exoticize" the Caribbean islands to lure American investors. Each painting is similar: trees on each side of the aluminum work frame the Caribbean coastlines at night, leaving the scene drained of color and filled with a brooding "mysteriousness," Duval-Carrié says.
But at each painting's center are figures that range from floating, faceless heads that resemble coral reefs ("After Church: Mystic Lagoon") to a man in silhouette ("After Heade: Moonlit Landscape").
"They're the ghosts of the past," the artist says. "Those original paintings of the tropics were devoid of people, or so minuscule as to not be seen. They just show the grandiose. But the Caribbean is a lot more complex than that. There is a serious, dramatic history of European colonies turning the Caribbean into plantation-based economies. So I wanted to create a sense of danger. Spirits, snakes that might bite you."
Duval-Carrié and chief curator Tobias Ostrander have also been working to transform the museum's Biscayne Bay-facing Focus Gallery into a makeshift ballroom, one modeled after grand galleries commissioned by Queen Elizabeth and King Louis XIV during their reigns. Suspended from the ceiling are a pair of 10-foot-tall aluminum chandeliers created by Duval-Carrié that resemble tiered, upside-down wedding cakes. In April, a companion show at the museum, "Caribbean: Crossroads of the World," will feature 180 works chronicling the Haitian Revolution to the present.
"It looks like a baroque setup with murals around the room, like a palace. I believe [Duval-Carrié] thinks of our new museum as a palace," Ostrander says. "The paintings show the new cultural invasions — Disney and Batman — but it's an observation, not a condemnation."
Edouard Duval-Carrié: Imagined Landscapes
When: Thursday, March 13, through Aug. 31 (7-9 p.m. March 13 for opening reception talk)
Where: Perez Art Museum Miami, 1103 Biscayne Blvd.
Contact: 305-375-3000 or PAMM.org