If all art is political, directly or indirectly, then our time is largely dominated by increasingly sophisticated evasions and diversions. Still, there are artists who buck the most long established trends. Among these is a peculiarly self-reliant artist who has remained steady in his commitment to confront the horrors of human history head-on.
The Chilean-American painter Jorge Tacla is that uniquely uncompromising figure. For more than three decades he has been singularly dedicated to the continuous representation of a psychic space that is run through by individual and collective trauma. Besides picturing figures, architectures and landscapes purposefully devastated by epic forces of havoc and destruction, his art challenges the most basic human assumptions about civilization: namely, the idea that people, buildings, landmarks, and cities, are safe, settled, and unshakable. A mere glance at today’s newspaper headlines reveals the obvious—few artistic oeuvres appear more fitting for our volatile times than Tacla’s.
To paraphrase Ezra Pound’s formulation about literature, Tacla has, over the years, become expert at painting “news that stays news.” *1 But his pictures, rather than offer fresh illustrations of the day’s atrocities, present deliberative depictions of the aftermath of these events. Patiently observed from the privileged aerie that is his midtown Manhattan studio—as well as extrapolated from his own personal and creative experience—Tacla can be said to have reformulated the art of witness. In his hands, the simple act of putting paint on canvas coheres into an unusually tenacious, thoroughgoing, ethically engaged and visually abstracted practice.
Born in Santiago, Chile, in 1958, to parents whose own mothers and fathers emigrated as children from some of the world’s worst trouble spots, Tacla grew up middle-class, well-adjusted and immersed within the well-guarded ordinariness of a remote provincial capital that is located literally (and in every other way) at the end of the earth. A descendant of professionals and tradesmen who originally hailed from the Middle East—his father’s family comes from Syria (Homs and Damascus) and his mother’s from Palestine (Jerusalem and Bethlehem)—Tacla was destined, like millions of other Chileans of his generational cohort, to peacefully sow the hard-earned fruits of his forebears. Instead, something far crueler happened: the young Tacla found himself the unexpected inheritor of the very legacy of destruction and devastation his progenitors thought they had escaped.
Like the collapse of the civilization that once was the Ottoman Empire, the implosion of civic life that followed Chile’s coup d’etat on September 11, 1973, had consequences that took on private and public facets in an authoritarian instant. For Tacla, there was no unexpected knock at the door, followed by imprisonment, torture, exile or worse. But if his parents weren’t especially political, his background as a third-generation grandchild immigrants was explicitly so.
The offspring of political and economic refugees, the teenage Tacla personified a particular cycle of far-flung disruptions and displacements that continues to spread and metastasize like a cancer today. In fact, it’s possible to affirm, at least in retrospect, that Tacla carried from birth the tragedy of geopolitics and exile in his bones.
During Chile’s blinkered and murderous mid-1970s, Tacla was raised in the posh neighborhood of El Golf, on Asturias Street. In time, the family moved to Manquehue Street, in the still more comfortable district of Las Condes. A child of relative privilege, Tacla attended the Colegio del Verbo Divino, a private Catholic academy. An excellent school, the institution has long been well known as a bastion of social and religious conservatism.
Because every social advantage is pregnant with its opposite, Tacla remembers feeling alienated at school for reasons that had a good deal to do with the conservative beliefs of his classmates and teachers. But there was also something else that kept him from fully fitting in. A descendant of non-Europeans, he was made to feel different—he was called a “turco,” or “Turk,” in the geographically challenged local parlance—from the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Castilian, Basque, German and Irish immigrants.
The ancestors of Tacla’s classmates’ had, of course, arrived in far-flung Chile in the same desperate straits as his own kin. But social hierarchies answer to a logic different from the exercise of conscientious reason. Consequently, even the most homogenous environments—an exclusive all-boys schools intended for an economic elite, for instance—can turn into a potential breeding grounds for a cultural rebel like Tacla given the right social conditions.
Because he was raised among musicians—his grandmother’s house was a home away from home for musicians like Chick Corea, Bill Evans and Stanley Clarke when they visited Chile—Tacla naturally drifted to music as a refuge. He learned to play percussion and the piano, among other instruments in his youth. When the time came for him to enter university, his first choice of study was to enter the National Conservatory—it had been faddishly renamed the Department of Music and Sonology of the University of Chile in 1968, the year the world enthusiastically embraced left-wing radicalism.
The decision proved ill fated, as the military junta closed down the conservatory shortly after the 1973 coup. Among other rationales, the university’s uniformed rectors alleged that the institution had become a hotbed of Communism. Tacla’s alternative course of study—his “placeholder,” as he remembers it 44 years later—was to enter the Escuela de Bellas Artes at the University of Chile.
Thankfully, the relative freedom and instruction of the university’s art school took: Tacla thrived in his newfound milieu like he had not done previously.
Once there, he came into contact with artists like the late Adolfo Couve, the conceptualist Gonzalo Díaz (later to be awarded Chile’s National Fine Arts Prize in 2003), and the painter Rodolfo Opazo. For a time, Tacla served as Díaz’s teaching assistant, while engaging in a mixture of music, performance, sculpture and painting at school and in the city’s few underground clubs. By the time Tacla left art school in 1979, he was anxious to find new creative horizons. That same year he traveled to New York for the first time.
Two years later, in 1981, Tacla would resettle in Manhattan permanently. Incredibly, he would repeat the trajectory of his émigré family going back several generations. He would start over in a brand new country, from scratch, with no guarantees for success other than his own unusual gifts and his dogged resolve. The artist we know today was born from that abrupt cultural transition—but also from his experience of more than 30 years of self-imposed exile.
“I am connected to New York by a number of feelings that mix love and contempt,” Tacla said recently about his adoptive home while considering the cumulative weight of the paintings included in this exhibition: “It is a city that is psychologically addictive, information changes hands very quickly, and the place is intellectually and physically very demanding. All of this leads to the idea that New York fosters a kind of paranoia, which it does. It’s a city that is capable of consuming great quantities of personal energy, where just getting by every day essentially becomes a matter of survival. It may sound contradictory, but I find that basic fact—those extremes—to be key among the elements that make New York such a humane place.”
About his relationship to Chile, to which the artist has traveled extensively during the last three decades of his North American residence, Tacla affirms simply: “Chile is always present in everything I do. It is the land my family emigrated to from Syria and Palestine. That is ground zero for my own identity. Conversely, it is also the cultural place from which I have always felt myself somewhat displaced from normal society.”
Somewhere between these two statements lies Tacla’s genuinely multicultural and multivalent approach to history. Far more than a merely condemnatory visual record of “the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind,”2 to quote Edward Gibbon from The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Tacla’s oeuvre amasses an archive of images inspired by natural destruction, man-made devastation and global war.
Taken together, his artworks propose an inescapably painful truth well known to every refugee throughout the ages—from the Punic Wars to the civilian Holocaust taking place today in Syria. And that is simply this: disaster is the great equalizer.
There are few crueler or more humane realizations than that bitter nugget of arsenic-like knowledge.
“Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”
–William Butler Yeats, The Second Coming
Over the past 30 years, Jorge Tacla has become one of the world’s preeminent artists. Largely a painter of monochrome canvases that depict things falling apart, Tacla’s powerful and compelling pictures consistently confirm the possibilities of the medium of painting as one of the best, most eloquent and evocative vehicles for conveying humanity’s most profound
and moving stories.
An artist who, like thousands of others creators in the 1970s and ’80s, survived the topsy-turvy politics of Latin America, Tacla moved from early depictions of abject bodies and desert landscapes to a career of painting sublime views of the world’s worst nightmares. Among his subjects are the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, various unending conflicts in the Middle East, and the 9/11 disaster (he’s one of the few contemporary artists to have depicted the aftermath of the attack on the Twin Towers). Throughout, Tacla has never focused on the violence itself, just on the damage. As a result, his paintings of crumbled buildings juggle themes of destruction, aggression, and the shifting light and shadow that shape fragmentary memory.
Tacla’s paintings possess a beauty that is haunted by history in addition to a conceptual rigor that, at once, participates in and divorces itself from the tradition of modern abstraction. The critic and scholar Donald Kuspit has written that Tacla’s work “stretches the limits of objective representation until it breaks down into subjective abstraction, allowing the expression of unconscious feelings that factual representation tends to repress.” *3 Additionally, Kuspit has allusively referred to the Chilean-American artist’s “negative vision,” his “fatalistic beauty,” and, more broadly, the artist’s penchant for “negative aesthetics.”
“All processes have been inverted; they are in the negative,” *4 Tacla wrote in 1991 by way of explaining the relationship between his finished paintings and their ubiquitous photographic source material. “The canvas has been prepared where it is not painted,” he continued: “The objects and landscapes are transparent and are the negative of their physical conditions. Only a photographic process can both give and make these places recognizable.” *5
What Tacla meant to underscore in those statements (written not long after the artist spent two months drawing and living in the Atacama Desert on a Guggenheim Fellowship) is the fundamental procedural difference between photo-based images, which serve as starting points for his artworks, and his own paintings. Where the former has historically developed a “positive” image from an actual negative, the artist’s canvases extract a “negative” monochrome image from the “positive” impression captured on paper and emulsion by photography (we will refrain from discussing the difference between digital and conventional photographic
The result is an at times ambiguous yet seductively abstracted representation of a “hot” event—a spectacular disaster of the sort that
is currently carried by multiple media across myriad print, televisual and web platforms—that is transformed by what Tacla has referred to as his oil-on-canvas-based “dyslexic process of similitude.” Few artistic misreadings prove as enigmatic or, during certain specific instances of Tacla’s career, as oracular.
“And History, with all her volumes vast
Hath but one page.”
–George Gordon Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage
“The present is only faced, in any generation, by the artist… the absolute
indispensability of the artist is that he alone, in the encounter with the
present, can give the pattern of recognition. He alone has the sensory
awareness to tell us what our world is made of. He is more important than
–Marshall McLuhan, from a conversation with Norman Mailer
The exhibition Jorge Tacla: All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, as well as its accompanying catalog, contains three different bodies of work—brought together in as many different media—and four thematic sections.
The first body of work, which is easily the most important, is made up of 31 paintings, dating from 1988 to the present. They include several important pictures Tacla painted prior to settling on what would become his major artistic themes, and two brand-new canvases the artist made specifically for this exhibition. The second body of work consists of a collection of artist’s ephemera, which includes notes, preparatory drawings, clippings, photographs and notebooks. The exhibition’s third constitutive element features the video Injury Report, which Tacla originally put together for a show of the same title at the Metropolitan University of Educational
Sciences of Chile in November of 2016.
While Tacla’s drawings and news clippings are organized around the concept of a “worktable” that approximates the artist’s associative and generative studio practice, Injury Report alludes directly to the book burning that took place at “el pedagógico,” as Chile’s principal teacher’s school was known before the military takeover of Chile’s educational institutions.
The video also pointedly invokes the German poet Heinrich Heine’s lucid admonition, as found in his 1821 play Almansor: “Where they burn books, they will also ultimately burn people.” *6
The exhibition’s four thematic sections concentrate, firstly, on certain early works that remain fundamental for the establishment of Tacla’s mature oeuvre. Among these are the canvases December (1988), the six-panel work Veil of Tears (injured images) (1989) and the landmark painting Wrathful Red (1996). If the first few canvases feature the artist working through the influence of Renaissance architecture and Francis Bacon’s tortured figures, the last picture presents arbitrary power as personified by an instantly recognizable “man in full.”
Featuring a grinning figure the artist drew from a composite of Latin American strongmen—Perón, Somoza, Pinochet, among others—Tacla’s painting portrays the history of Latin American politics in the 1970s and 80s as a Mephistophelian dictator. Uniformed, preening and flashing a bloody glove, Tacla’s figure is ghosted by the judgment of both art history and Catholic morality, as seen in the diaphanous outline of Andrea Mantegna’s Saint Sebastian.
While Tacla’s paintings of the Atacama Desert such as the dun-colored Time and Space in Negative (1990) and Miscarriage (1996) belong to the period when the artist began to interpret the idea of landscape as an injured body, later works made between the years 1995 and 2011 directly represent well-known territories and architectural structures that have become symbolic and real-world targets of modern terror.
Among these artworks, which together make up the exhibition’s second section, are three paintings from Tacla’s Rubble series, all of them depicting, in a mixture of oil and marble powder, different views of the April 19, 1995, bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building by Timothy James McVeigh, the first homegrown U.S. terrorist of the modern era. Also in this group of paintings is the granular landscape Mass of Cement 1 (2002): an encrusted, melting vision of Lower Manhattan Tacla painted in allusion to the artist’s experience of witnessing the attacks on New York’s Twin Towers on September 11, 2001 (see Jorge Tacla’s conversation with Lawrence Weschler).
Another painting in this group, The Distribution of the Primes (1995), nearly establishes an ominous argument for Tacla’s actual clairvoyance—an aerial image of the Pentagon the artist painted inside a set of crosshairs, it anticipated by six years the final destination of American Airlines Flight 77.
In the exhibition’s third and fourth sections, Tacla present three suites of canvases he confected after disasters of very different sorts. Where the series Altered Remains depicts the twisted aftermath of earthquakes in Santiago, Japan and Haiti, the paintings Tacla subsequently titled Rubble and Hidden Identities revolve around a different kind of violence that is strictly explosive and man-made. Besides picturing cities like Beirut and Aleppo—in the canvases Rubble 10 (2007) and Hidden Identity 40 (2013), respectively—the artist also turned his loaded brush to lovingly depict grisaille views of a Basque munitions plant in Hidden Identity 111 (2015)
and the city of Homs in ruins in Sign of Abandonment 20 (2017).
Key among this group of pictures is the large canvas Tacla painted of the Moneda Palace, Chile’s government house, in flames after being attacked by a squadron of U.S.-made Hawker Hunter jets that belonged to the Chilean Air Force on September 11, 1973. An instantly recognizable image Tacla has rescued from black-and-white photographic archives and rendered a gritty and lurid blue, the canvas—which the artist has titled Hidden Identity 25 (2013)—functions as a synecdoche for the idea of barbarism itself. Just as when commentators invoke the words “the White House” they mean the Office of the President of the United States, Tacla’s
flaming cobalt image of La Moneda stands in for an era of wanton, systemic violence that sought to bring about an end to reason, progress and civic order.
Which brings me, finally, to the title of the present book and exhibition. Besides making literal reference to the myriad buildings Tacla captures in the act of disappearing or, rather, being disappeared—the transitive sense of that verb is a direct legacy of South American dictatorships though it has found new usage as a result of the violence perpetrated by Al Qaeda and ISIL—the name of the current show makes direct reference to a celebrated phrase from Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto.
The complete phrase in question is the following:
“All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.” *7
Rather than a nod to outdated political allegiances or latent social fractiousness, the title intends to convey just a small part of the powerful feeling the viewer experiences when standing in front of one of Tacla’s sublime canvases. What Tacla chooses to paint—from all the possible subjects in the world—is nothing less than pictorial and metaphysical instability. The fact that he does so while invoking crises that are, alternately, internal and external, public and private, sets the stage for what amounts to this artist’s inversion of values. In Tacla’s symbolic world, it’s not just buildings that can melt into thin air and disappear tomorrow, but civilization itself.
1. Pound, E. ABC of Reading (New York; New Directions paperwork; 1960), p. 29.
2. Gibbon, Edward. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, (Frederick Warne & Co.;
New York; 1872), p. 72.
3. Kuspit, Donald & Zamudio, Raúl. Jorge Tacla: Pinturas / Paintings, (Celfin Capital /
Centro Cultural Estación Mapocho / Ley de Donaciones Culturales; Santiago, Chile;
2008), p. 98.
4. Ibid., p. 104.
6. The line is from Heinrich Heine’s play, Almansor (1820): ‘Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt,
verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen.’
7. Karl Marx and Friederick Engels, Communist Manifesto: A Modern Edition (London and
New York; Verso, 1998), p. 38.