Luis Cruz Azaceta


¿Happy, deadly,¿ interjects Luis Cruz Azaceta with a burst of enthusiasm. We are standing in his spacious studio warehouse on Tchoupitoulas Street in New Orleans next to The mighty Mississippi river perusing two paintings targeted for his New York exhibition. I ask him the title of the larger painting on unstretched canvas, a vertical work with shallow luminous space that recedes behind strings of flaring orbs. The painting has mystery. ¿Lights,¿ he says pointing to the glowing orbs ¿Lights plural.¿ He pauses, ¿Luz,¿ he says emphatically, ¿yes, L-U-Z, Spanish, singular,¿ as he enunciates with conviction each letter of the painting¿s newly found title.

Azaceta is an artist who deals with big ideas in his work. He never small talks his art. It¿s the either/or issue ¿ the ongoing search for dialectical solutions ¿ that excites him. Happy and deadly are the kinds of attributes he looks for in his paintings, contradictions synthesized and balanced in a coherent stasis. ¿Luz¿ fits the bill. Mystery and grace ooze from this nearly monochromatic canvas.

The smaller painting, ¿Fall,¿ is both beaded and cellular. The stretched canvas was blocked out with patches of arbitrary color over which circles have been drawn with charcoal. Oil stick and acrylic are used to enhance the cellular arrangement of shapes. A bright orange twisting pipeline extends the length of the painting. The subject of the painting can be seen as both the façade of a highrise building in dissolution or the topography of an urban streetscape. The ambient atmosphere of the painting may also signify the confusing structure of a labyrinth. There is no one way to view Azaceta¿s work. It confounds simple interpretation an buzzes with optical associations.

In his recent work, Azaceta has annexed the circle as an archetypical symbol whose visible inside/out contour provides endless ruminations for the dialectics of thesis and antithesis, being and nothingness, surface and tension, chronic movement and continuous motion. Azaceta states it this way in a text piece entitled:

Prayers¿Beads¿Cells: In the Age of Terrorism.
A circle
A zero
A dot
A point
Elements in my current work
Add one circle, two circles, three circles
Twenty, a hundred, thousands. . .

Other paintings like ¿Orpheus¿ and ¿Zulu¿ or ¿Rex¿ and ¿Iris,¿ titles derived from the flamboyant krewes of New Orleans Mardi gras, show the impact of Azaceta¿s adopted city where he has lived for the past ten years with his wife, the painter, Sharon Jacques, and his two sons, Emile and Dylan. In these acrylic paintings, the circles are drawn over a multi-colored ground with charcoal, emblazoned with oil stick, and finished off with spray enamels. The paintings have no compositional center. The circles are packed in a claustrophobic space suggesting the pandemonium of Carnival and rituals of bead throws ¿ customs known to Azaceta since his boyhood in Cuba in the Fifties.

Unlike ¿Luz,¿ the swirling action of the beaded circles in ¿Orpheus¿ and ¿Zulu¿ throb with vivid color of alternating intensities jammed in a space whose perspectives of depth is deceptively subtle like the late constructions of Frank Stella. The paintings are euphoric, filled with the frenzied movement of repartition and chaos. In ¿Zulu,¿ a prominent brownish-black silhouette near the center of the composition is set in motion by two flaring spirals that point to another world deeper inside the body of the painting.

Distinct from earlier methods of Azaceta¿s acclaimed career ¿ paintings combined with collage and photography ¿ the current work courts the aesthetics of beauty and the dynamics of life that include intrusions, interferences, and the dissonant horrors located in a period of ¿ticking time bombs.¿

More ominous in the dialectic of Happy, Deadly are the paintings ¿Bacte¿ and ¿Plaq¿ -- spellings cropped to augment the mythic yet sinister nature of the words. ¿Bacte¿ displays a mollusk shape with a slightly bulging middle. The casing of the strange organism is studded with cells, its tentacles spreading over a field of charcoal scorched blobs. In ¿Plaq,¿ another untold shape hovers over a soft decorative ground of pale blue and ocher spots. Inside the plasmatic creature, a cryptic entrance appears whose circularity and geometry make the opening both concave and convex depending on the position of perception. Its menacing tentacles look primed as it waits for a victim. As a bizarre composition, it show Azaceta¿s unyielding probe of the collision between geometric and organic objects of vision.

The ¿Trax¿ series of small panel paintings (like ¿Bacte,¿ ¿Plaq,¿ ¿Tax¿ and ¿Nano¿) are influenced by Azaceta¿s reading of publications devoted to the speculative studies of bacteria and viruses that are both life sustaining or deadly. The elements of the circle ¿ inside/outside, light/dark, micro and macroscopic ¿ are used by Azaceta to explore the formal language of painting. They are paintings that appeal to consciousness and the abstract make-up of appearances, rather that what the eye takes for granted.

The ¿Trax¿ series refers to the recent siege of toxic terrorism that followed the events of September 11 shattering the American public¿s sense of security. The paintings are populated with big round polka dot shapes that operate like dark holes in tiny galaxies whose aggregates of stars, gases and dust have been replaced with patterns of microscopic organisms that are lifelessly alive in an imaginary universe. These paintings bring to mind the intrinsic luminosity of Ross Bleckner¿s canvases that blend representation with abstraction. Selected areas of each of the ¿Trax¿ paintings are sealed off with shellac enhancing the brooding interiors of the work ¿ affecting them with an aura of deadly elegance.

The paintings in Happy, Deadly continue the labor intensive production that has always characterized Azaceta¿s work ethic. The analogical position of the previous work, its dependency on figuration and narrative, has been displaced for now by an investigation of digital properties like the painting, ¿Kabbalah,¿ with its endless rows of black, white & gray zeros. Two rectangles float slightly askew on the computer-like grid whose code is yet undiscovered.

The stratum of meaning found in Happy, Deadly echoes the layers of painterly strategies that comprise this body of work. Azaceta paints ideas, concepts. When a series of paintings become predictable, he moves on. When the façade of the work becomes facile, he starts over. Azaceta converts chronic painting into fresh passion.

Lew Thomas
February 12, 2002
New Orleans, LA