What would you do if you were headed up from Cambridge across the Charles River to Boston College’s McMullen Art Gallery just outside the main campus on Commonwealth Ave — #2101 to be exact — looking for a little color to brighten up the gloom of an early fall New England morning?
I had promised our two art lovers in the back seat a short, scenic drive plus a destination with bongo drums and banana plants enriched by the bodacious senoritas and testosterone-fueled senors to be met with on every yard of Cuba’s balmy shores. And without the bother of international flight!
Ah, but, as usual we had reckoned without the artist, and what academics call, if you will, ‘inspiration!’
We arrived at Boston College’s McMullen Museum of Art to view “Mariano: Variations on a Theme | Variaciones sobre un tema,” a retrospective exhibition of 140 oil paintings, watercolors, and drawings that remains on view through December 5.
Who was Mariano, anyway? And why couldn’t he have stayed in Cuba — where he was well-liked, it seems, or, at least, not in jail.
I think he was a guy without an anchor. Everybody who was anybody of his generation, 1912-1990, was going to Mexico, palettes in hand, to expand their painterly horizons and/or bed exotic women.
So, what did Mariano do in the restless decade of his twenties but go too. Perhaps that’s where he lost his last name? In flight from an irate papa? Tellingly his bio doesn’t say.
Furthermore, my friends were nowhere to be found, so I had to conclude that they also had no anchors — and in revenge I too lost myself in the men and women of Cuba’s fertile territories.
It seems that Mariano (Rodriguez) had to go away in order to come back with fresh eyes. The fact is that Mariano, whatever other hanky-panky he indulged in — again his bio is tellingly mum — actually did come back with new eyes. And what rare, new eyes!
His men and women in the outdoors are dripping with earth — even without the accoutrements of hoes and rakes!
You just know that after their dalliance with each other, or with just themselves and that deep earth in a rare moment of solitude, they will grab their rakes and/or hoes and wield them as though born with the tools.
Besides saving paint, avoiding clutter, and saving time for more dalliance, the good eye of the artist allows your eye do the work of guessing the inessentials.
Oh, there are necessary clues, such as line and color and volume and void all leading the unwary viewer with time on her hands to make the same good guesses that your average connoisseur with make in minutes — with time for hanky-panky!
And speaking about time, where the heck (!) were my so-called friends! Ah, yes — collecting clues!
After spilling iconic clues of a people close to the earth, close even in dark interiors where lush fruits are heaped up as much for the eye as for the appetite, and barnyard animals are at home everywhere, Mariano paints intriguing portraits whose only clues to character are in the slightest attitude of the body or fleeting lights in the eye.
That’s where I found my wife, Madeleine, picking her favorite portrait of a little girl, “Lolita,” both proudly aware of her destiny, but also open to guidance.
Perhaps your guidance? As you turn and return to glean from her painted figure everything possible to know about a growing body at rest, at peace, yet conscious of being watched, while alertly watching you — and her world.
Mariano, the ideal tourist, trying on styles from his volatile era in both North and South America, Europe, and then, later in life, as Charge D’Affaires for the Cuban government in India, and back to a post-revolutionary, highly politicized Cuba, wearing these different styles into every gallery of his retrospective, but only after infinite adjustments made them a glove-tight fit for his every agile move.
Another friend was absorbing explosions of abstract expressionism; yet another parsing the delicate lines of a geometric abstraction of a boat at sea limned with a sureness that asserted this a craft worthy, with skilled hands, to return to its island port, daily, with a briny living.
These 140-plus scintillating paintings are, ostensibly, as simple as their spare titles, though with so many pathways, byways, to appreciation for the eye and mind; and the weather between their gorgeous frames is as variable as New England’s: pull on your boots for the muck of the barnyard, don your most elegantly frilled shirt, with open collar, for the hothouse of romance, buckle on your slicker and work gloves for night fishing in morning fog.
Out of breath with telling each of our own discoveries, we returned to Cambridge with a fuller awareness of what just looking around with intent can do for a painting life. Mariano might have found time to be a rascal too — but only after hours. After arriving with my usual protective flippancy I’m in awe what he did with his time and talent.
And if Mariano would like to let on about the rest of his escapades, I’m listening!
(“Mariano: Variations on a Theme | Variaciones sobre un tema” remains on view through December 5 at the McMullen Museum of Art at Boston College, 2101 Commonwealth Ave., Boston, Massachusetts. Museum hours are Monday through Friday from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from noon-5 p.m. The museum will be closed on October 11 and November 25 and 26. For more information, call (617) 552-8587 or visit https://www.bc.edu/sites/artmuseum/.)