Artist Luis Cruz Azaceta at the New Orleans Museum of Art

Notice the poor little man splashing around near the bottom of Luis Cruz Azaceta's painting "Swimming to Havana." Even if he were to somehow escape the high cement walls of the angular pool of water that contains him, he'd still be trapped in the maze of jagged abstract shapes that twine around the edges of the canvas. There's no way out. Not physically. Not psychologically.

Azaceta, 67, sees the 90 miles of shark-infested ocean between the United States and his native Cuba as a watery Berlin Wall. For 50 years, many Cubans on the island have longed to cross over to a new life in the United States, and many Cuban exiles in this country have pined to return to the home they once knew. For well-known political reasons, the trip is very difficult, in either direction.

Azaceta said that for some, the desire to flee or to return "becomes like a mental trip, like a dream."

He tries to capture that sense of unreality in his work.

On a cold morning last week, Azaceta gave a tour of his Tchoupitoulas Street studio as he prepared for a pair of exhibitions: "Swimming to Havana, " which goes on display today in the Great Hall of the New Orleans Museum of Art, and "Exile Fifty, " which opens at Arthur Roger Gallery on Jan. 9.

It was a visual feast.

Azaceta is an award-winning artist whose work is in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, The Whitney Museum of American Art and The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, plus 60 other museums across the world. He has never allowed himself to be tied to one medium or another. He can be a color-crazy abstract painter, a wildly inventive junk sculptor, or a master collage maker who specializes in grids of snapshots.

"Once the work becomes mechanical, then I stop right there, " he said of his mercurial style. "Because I like to be surprised and engaged by the process of the work."

He's also the creator of many unflattering self-portraits. The desperately swimming man in the prison-like pool; that's Azaceta. All of the tiny, mournful figures that haunt his canvases are him, too.

He says he doesn't include self-portraits "as a narcissist to display myself, but as a vehicle to convey certain political and social conditions; an actor playing different roles. I can make a self portrait as an aggressor or a victim."

Azaceta's works always have a distinct political edge. Over the years his subjects have included the plight of the poor, the AIDS epidemic, the post-Katrina social meltdown, the loss of cultural treasures during the Iraq War, and time and again, the Cuban-American experience.

But he often tempers his artistic outrage with touches of droll wit.

"That little ingredient of humor gives my work a little punch, " he said.

In one painting he used a flying saucer to wryly satirize America's fear of alien immigrants. In another he dreamily coated the surface of the map of Cuba with a continuous layer of cotton balls, as if it were a cloud -- though he points out that the cotton could imply both injury and slavery as well. In still another, he ironically depicted suffering Cuban refugees aboard a fleet of makeshift boats, bobbing around in an enormous, sinister-looking bath tub.

Azaceta left Cuba as a teenager in 1960. He moved to New York, where he eventually attended the renowned School of the Visual Arts. His fiery style made him a star among the expressionist painters that dominated the 1980s art scene, such as Francesco Clemente, Sandro Chia and Anselm Kiefer. In 1992, he and his New Orleans-born wife, artist Sharon Jacques, resettled in the Crescent City. Azaceta has been a regular in major local exhibits since, from a large-scale solo exhibit at the Contemporary Arts Center in 1993, to the New Orleans Museum of Art's New Orleans Triennial in 1997, to Prospect.1 New Orleans in 2008.

Azaceta tried to visit Cuba to attend an art exhibit in 2000, but he was denied entry. In 2010, it will be 50 years since he's seen his birthplace -- hence the title of his upcoming Arthur Roger Gallery exhibit.

Does political art make a difference?

Azaceta believes it does.

"It's to create a consciousness in the viewer, " he said. "I hope that people will understand. The Cuban refugees going across the ocean -- people don't understand the circumstances. If I create a picture of that, it creates a certain understanding. If you reach a few people, that's the point of making art."

Azaceta's exhibits are part of Si Cuba, a celebration of Cuban art, music and culture that will take place in several Crescent City museums and galleries from January to April 2010.

By Doug MacCash / The Times-Picayune