Birmingham

Luis Cruz Azaceta: War and Other Disasters at Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts

Over the past four decades, Luis Cruz Azaceta has continued to mine the vast possibilities of expressionism—a style that often lends itself to forms of humanism, idealism, originality, and angst that feel more fitting for the 20th century than our current moment. Yet the artist is vigilant in his desire to respond to the world around him, and refuses to retreat into a formal world of mark, splatter, and structure (as so many painters of his generation did) in order to address the ever-present weight of the political. In a selection of eighteen canvases created between 2002 and 2016, Luis Cruz Azaceta: War and Other Disasters at the University of Alabama–Birmingham’s Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts mobilizes expressionism to explore the range of disasters that define contemporary human experience. From the civil war in Syria to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Cruz Azaceta points to the multifarious nature of “crisis” from a transnational perspective.

Luis Cruz Azaceta. Hell Act, 2009; acrylic, charcoal, pencil, and shellac on canvas; 72 x 160 in. Courtesy of the artist and the Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts.

Luis Cruz Azaceta. Hell Act, 2009; acrylic, charcoal, pencil, and shellac on canvas; 72 x 160 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts.

Born in Havana, Cuba, in 1942, Cruz Azaceta arrived in New York City in 1960 as an artist in exile—a political and psychological condition that has marked his work since the beginning of his career. Over the course of three decades he established himself with grotesque, existential canvases that spoke of the misery of new freedoms, urban malaise, and the diasporic experience. The central work of the exhibition, Hell Act (2009), seizes upon this subjective condition by representing the treacherous ninety-mile journey between Cuba and the United States as an enormous bathtub of refugees bobbing like toys in a pool of shark-infested neon-orange liquid. A direct attack on the inhumane choices and absurdities that define the balasero experience, which forces Cubans to leave and often never return, the painting speaks to the artist’s own struggle to define himself and his work through the liminal condition of in-between states, spaces, and memories.

Luis Cruz Azaceta. Installation view of Evacuation-Highway, 2005; toys on wood; dimensions variable. Image courtesy of the Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts.

Luis Cruz Azaceta. Evacuation-Highway, 2005; toys on wood; dimensions variable; installation view. Courtesy of Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts.

A second move, to New Orleans in 1992, took his work into more local engagements with systematic poverty and urban violence—themes only intensified by the destruction experienced in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The catastrophic process of evacuating the city in the days and hours before the storm is captured by Cruz Azaceta in a large floor construction of children’s toys on a wooden base, entitled Evacuation-Highway (2005). The incongruous dynamic between the benign nature of the assemblage and the panic of 100,000 people escaping from a city soon to be underwater undulates across the structure, the harsh breaks and cracks in the road a reminder of the large-scale impact of the storm on the city and on the collective unconscious of the nation.

Luis Cruz Azaceta. Surveillance, 2011; acrylic, pencil, shellac on canvas; 30 x 48 in. Courtesy of the artist and the Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts.

Luis Cruz Azaceta. Surveillance, 2011; acrylic, pencil, shellac on canvas; 30 x 48 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts.

While Cruz Aaceta’s focus on the conditions of exile and national tragedy are well known, this exhibition provides space for the artist’s more recent investigations into the effects of techno-social oppressions that intrude on our privacy. Surveillance and state-sanctioned human-rights violations are, of course, connected—a continuation of Cold War political practices that have forever altered the relationship between citizen and state—but it is Cruz Azaceta’s decision to ground this new work in the administration of social order and control that opens his oeuvre to novel interpretations. Surveillance (2011) presents a cleaner, more precise abstract style, with forms hanging somewhere between the organic and the hard-edged. Set in front of a brown, watery spread reminiscent of toxic smog or oil, the fantastical contraption of space-age centrifuges at the right are precariously linked to the Rorschach-like constellation of geometric patterns and bulbous shapes on the left. Thin lines sketched in pencil resemble the antennas and drone accessories that have marked the Obama administration’s unsettling response to global terror abroad. And yet, the ominous nature of this machine-like contraption, which spouts seismographic vector lines as if documenting the after-effects of tectonic movements, indicates that the shifting of planes is not just happening under our feet, but is also at work in the invisible, abstract strata of global finance, digital communication, and psychic tyranny.

Luis Cruz Azaceta: War and Other Disasters is on view at Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts in Birmingham, Alabama, through December 17, 2016.

Share