Searching for the light: Paintings by Demi

Searching for the Light: Paintings by Demi is an occasion for celebration. The book, the first devoted to Demi’s art, provides the opportunity to linger on a large selection of this important Cuban-American artist’s work created between 1989 and 2010. The majority of the paintings date from the last three years, and offer the special added pleasure of making available for the first time a substantial body of Demi’s art from this period, post-dating two important earlier publications exploring her art, Lynette M. F. Bosch’s Cuban-American Art in Miami: Exile, Identity and the Neo-Baroque (Lund Humphries, 2004), and the same author’s article “Demi’s Painting of Children” (Women’s Art Journal, winter 1999).

Searching for the Light provides a powerful entry into Demi’s visual fantasies, obsessions, and survivor’s view of the light and darkness in the heart of mankind. At the age of seven Demi was sent to Puerto Rico to live with relatives whom she barely knew, bereft of any explanation. She felt lonely and isolated and fought off these feelings by creating her own interior world filled with imaginary people and scenarios.

In 1980, she met the young emerging Cuban-American painter Arturo Rodriguez at a showing of his work at the Meeting Point Center. They married in 1984. The previous year they spent in Spain upon Rodriguez’s award of a Oscar B. Cintas Foundation Fellowship. Following exposure to Spanish art and culture, Demi returned to Miami and, without formal training, began to create paintings spurred on by the rage and loneliness of her childhood in Cuba and Puerto Rico. Looking back on her early life experiences, Demi has remarked: “I belong to a forgotten group: children of those executed in Cuba for political reasons. Sons and daughters, still too young of age to understand why, were confronted with death, separation and loneliness. My paintings blossom from the inner depth of those childhood memories.”

Demi’s first paintings of children were featured in a solo exhibition at Miami’s Cuban Museum in 1987. The exhibition sold out, and Demi quickly was on her way to establishing a career as one of the most successful and critically praised Cuban-American artists of her generation. Demi’s paintings explore the recurring themes of good and evil, destiny and the fate of children. Her hairless and earless subjects often stare resolutely out at the viewer. Robbed of innocence, they project an air of wisdom, strength and resourcefulness beyond their years. Demi places the children in fantastic, exaggerated and lavishly colored settings, and freely transforms, animates and shapes the surrounding space and pictorial elements in order to create a sense of psychological and dramatic tension. Demi’s art, as Bosch relates in Cuban-American Art in Miami, seeks “to give form to emotions felt by children who are traumatized in order to ensure that they will have a voice that will not be suppressed.” Bosch further adds that Demi’s “identity as a Cuban is intertwined with the message that is inherent in her subject,” and in her article in Womens Art Journal, astutely notes that her compositional “manipulations function as an indicator of the children’s lack of points of reference for comfort and safety.”

Demi’s paintings relate to such admitted influences as Filippo Lippi, Frieda Kahlo, Diego Rivera, William Blake, Richard Dadd, Diego Velazquez, Outsider Art and images from popular culture, such as newspaper photographs and advertisements. The images are culled from her subconscious, and also drawn from art discovered in books, photographs, and, as noted, childhood memories. Her compositions have a flowing, swirling and organic quality reminiscent of Art Nouveau. She obsessively employs patterns to create a sense or feeling of hyper-reality as well as horror and creates rich impastoed surfaces which contain raised patches of paint that occasionally culminate in sharp points. Demi has stated that her style is linked directly to her message – that even the surface of her paintings “can cause pain when touched.” She often juxtaposes areas of light and dark as representative of the positive and negative destinies faced by children, and employs a bold and symbolic palette (for example, orange and red stand for anger and blood, green is representative of restfulness and freshness, white and pale colors are indicative of innocence, blue signifies peace and quiet and yellow warmth and joy).

Searching for the Light includes an enlightening introductory essay by Pedro J. Martínez-Fraga, an international dispute attorney in the Miami law firm of DLA Piper LLP (US) who has authored over 20 peer reviewed articles on law and Art. The essay frames the images in the book and offers welcome comments on Demi’s intentions and the underlying meaning and world of her art. The author’s text, entitled “Exploring the Works of Demi Through the Latin Verses Of Lucretius,” provides a fresh perspective on Demi’s accomplishments and a philosophical and theoretical counterbalance to the more traditional art historical and iconographic approach taken by Bosch, Professor of Art History at SUNY. Genesco, in her writings on Demi’s art.

Martínez-Fraga pairs Demi’s vision with the writings of the first century B.C. Epiciurean poet Titus Lucretius Carus, believing that “Like Lucretius, who in Latin verse attempts to depict Greek tragedy or the tragedy of the Greeks, Demi armed only with oil and conviction, attempts to provide a voice for the voiceless truth that defines an age where a child dies of hunger every two seconds while forty-four thousand more infants perish every month as victims of readily curable infirmities.” He further finds Lucretius and Demi “united in the common conviction that their respective arts’ seductive natures serve an elevating purpose in awakening man from the complacency of dogmatic slumber. . . . and . . . appear to share the additional belief that true art must pierce, lacerate, and penetrate so as to give rise to a new vision of the sublime . . . .”. Finally the author’s asks provocatively, “Demi, why do so many of your children lack ears? Is it because they have fallen off? Did they ever have them? Could it be that you do not want them to hear the sound of that firing squad that has left an open wound in all of our hearts, and yours in particular, never, never, to heal again? Will you ever rid yourself of this demon from within?”

Bruce Weber
Senior Curator, National Academy Museum