As critics search for the next elliptical movement of the moment, artists living far from the aesthetic-opinion centers of SoHo and Santa Monica continue to blaze ahead. Among the brightest: CARLOS ALFONZO, 39, a Cuban-born refugee of the '80 Mariel boatlift. Alfonzo's huge canvases have been hailed in Artforum as "roisterous and roiling...sensuously attuned to mysterious ritual as well as to art history."

For Alfonzo, such recognition has been hard-won. In Cuba, "The imagery I was using did not portray the happiness socialism brings," he says ironically. "The idea that I might get in trouble sort of traumatized me." His flight to the U.S., however, meant leaving his pro-Castro parents, his former wife and their young son, then 6. After almost two months in refugee camps, he settled in Miami and resumed painting—at first on cheap cardboard and paper.

Now his paintings sell for up to $20,000, and he works in a cavernous South Miami Beach studio, creating a mix of often-ominous images—floating body parts, crosses, tongue-piercing daggers—that suggests both the tensions in his own history and the often-symbolic art of his Hispanic heritage. Analyzing Alfonzo's arcane allusions, Arts Magazine discovered an oeuvre that spurred thought "not of the tropics, but of the known and unknown terrors of the present age." "Only one label really depicts what you do," says the painter, "and that is 'artist.' " The world eagerly accedes to Alfonzo's self-appellation. Except for his native land. "After I left," he reports sadly, "my works were retired from Cuba's National Museum."