New York

Luis Cruz Azaceta

Alternative Museum

Born in Cuba in 1942, Luis Cruz Azaceta emigrated to the U.S. in 1960, where he enrolled at New York’s School for the Visual Arts and developed a hard-edged approach to abstraction that he would abandon a decade later. After a trip to Europe, he shifted to a looser, more expressionistic figuration that characterizes the 22 brightly colored and dynamic paintings included in this exhibition. Drawn from the last 15 years of his oeuvre, some of the pictures can be read as allegories of life in New York City, indicated iconically by the presence of the Empire State Building, though it is clear that Azaceta’s metropolis is a signifier of the human condition in general—a nightmare world of violence, weaponry gone amok, severed limbs flying through the air, bulging eyes popping out of their sockets, and giant insects.

In Bloody Day, 1981, amputated limbs and severed heads with bulging eyes and lolling tongues fall in a rain of blood on midtown Manhattan. Window Display, 1979, depicts a hanged man, tongue lolling, limbs hinged like a puppet’s, who shares pictorial space with weapons, a stabbed Empire State Building, a skull, a fanged, grinning dog, and meat. The intensity of such works is offset by the sense of solitary distress in others where humans appear sadly truncated or metamorphosed. The figure in Walkman, 1985, is cut off at the waist; Toyman, 1986, shows a man with tiny wheeled appendages dragging around what is left of his body. In Homo Fly, 1984, a creature that is part man, part fly, leaps before a red brick wall whose pattern hints at Azaceta’s roots in rigorous abstraction.

Azaceta’s work presents a powerful conflation of schlocky B-movie horror and incisive black humor. Your worst dreams have come true yet somehow they’re fascinating to watch. Shit My Head Is Burning But My Heart Is Filled With Love, 1981, is an iconic depiction of the human condition, in which it is impossible to distinguish whether the figure’s head is consumed in flames or adorned with a crown. As if to emphasize this quasi-religious martyrdom, a knife pierces his cheek and blood drips down his cheek. In the most arresting part of the image, the eye of this post-Modern Christ figure pops right out of its socket as if he cannot stop himself from looking, yet can’t live with what he sees.

Thomas McEvilley