Washington, D.C.

Luis Cruz Azaceta

Fondo del Sol Art and Media Center

Entitled “Tough Ride Around the City,” this exhibition offered a retrospective view of Luis Cruz Azaceta’s work since the mid ’70s, including installations, paintings, drawings, and multimedia work (shown last year at New York’s Museum of Contemporary Hispanic Art). Azaceta was born in Cuba in 1942 and emigrated to New York in 1960. Although the artist has been exhibiting regularly for more than a decade, his work has never been absorbed by the mainstream art world.

One of Azaceta’s recurring themes is urban blight, a subject that has also preoccupied Red Grooms; but the latter’s work is considerably more popular and palatable. However, whereas Grooms uses expressionism as a form of caricature, Azaceta takes a more deeply felt, imaginative approach. In the installation Tough Ride Around the City, 1986, for example, he depicts various inhabitants of a New York subway car, including a yowling baby dangling upside down and connected to the mother by an umbilical cord. Unlike Grooms, who usually prefers to go for the quick laugh, Azaceta responds to the dangers of living in the city and uses humor to mask a seething rage.

Between the late ’70s and early’ 80s, Azaceta’s work evolved from a flat, boldly colored, cartoony style to a brash expressionist one. Throughout his career, he has reinvestigated the subject of self-portraiture, the urban environment, and the role of the artist as someone who is both inside and outside the dominant society. In The City Painter of Hearts, 1981, he depicts a flattened, stagelike view of a city on fire, with himself as a tiny nude figure in front of a small canvas on which he is painting a heart. Some of the buildings are painted in a direct, childlike way as beheaded and mutilated figures, a personification that can be read as a sign of urban dwellers’ constant paranoia. In the foreground, a cat swallows a rat devouring a mouse. Azaceta doesn’t document his surroundings so much as speculate about them and their effect on him. He equates the marginal position of the artist in society with that of the disaffected lower classes. The work is about the ways we inhabit the city and, inversely, how the city becomes internalized as a state of mind. In the tradition of Philip Guston and, earlier, Max Beckmann and Otto Dix, Azaceta’s work raises such questions as “What are the subjects of an artist?” and “What are the links between personal life, artistic goals, and society?” Urban Beast, 1984, exemplifies a quality that is too often undervalued, and one of Azaceta’s principal strengths: he doesn’t present himself as superior to his subjects, for, like them, he is a flawed creature.

Reviewed by John Yau.