New York

Luis Cruz Azaceta

Frumkin/Adams Gallery

For the better part of two decades, Luis Cruz Azaceta has painted himself in and out of fashion: he explored the expressive possibilities of the figure in the ’70s (long before it was cool to do so) and then restlessly pursued different avenues within neo-Expressionism long after its critical moment had passed. A native of Cuba, this longtime resident of New York City recently relocated to New Orleans, a move which precipitated a major stylistic shift in his painting. His exquisite, heavily layered surfaces and somber palette have given way to flat, bright, even decorative canvases, but a closer look at both form and iconography reveals a continued engagement with the darker side of life.

Of the eight paintings featured in this show, Peripecias de un Balsero (Peripatetic boatman; all works 1993) most powerfully represents the “New Paintings: New Orleans” series in which Azaceta has reprised his mid-’80s theme of the balsero or Cuban boat refugee. A gigantic bathtub brimming with a bright-orange liquid dominates the composition, across which a lone, dwarfed boatman rows his diminutive skiff. Azaceta has rendered this darkly comic scenario even more oppressive by boxing in the refugee with overlapping patterns of lines, grids, and circles that on the one hand delineate a shallow, claustrophobic, representational space, and on the other a flat, chaotic map. If one attempts to read the latter, the effect is uncanny—the artist has warped the abstract language of cartography, twisting rivers, roads, cities, districts, and states into a disorienting nightmare. An examination of this balsero’s physiognomy reveals him to be Azaceta himself, standing beneath a Cuban flag flapping pathetically above him as he pursues his Sisyphean journey.

The tropical light and atmosphere of New Orleans as well as the dynamism of the Mississippi River are everywhere evident in these paintings which, though emblematic of the plight of the Cuban exile, can also be taken as allegories of the political refugee, of the artist in transition, or of the struggling Everyman. In S.O.S. Rescue Tanker VI, a massive commercial vessel lowers a giant hook in order to pluck a man adrift on an inner tube out of the water, while in S.O.S. Rescue Tanker II, both a raft and a boat are hoisted up with no survivors. Two other paintings stand in a similar relationship to each other. In Fisherman IV, a man resembling the artist hooks an oversized fish under an oppressive sun, and in Fisherman VII, the same fisherman, with his rib cage painfully evident, hauls in his catch. Though these grid-embedded images evoke a universal, “Old Man in the Sea” struggle for life as much as they address a specific issue, with the artist’s giant, chaotic variation on the American flag featured in A Question of Power Azaceta’s underlying political edge comes to the fore.

Jenifer P. Borum