Internal Biology

While many historically-grounded painting styles have suffered at the hands of the 20th century’s insatiable need to create new styles and then toss them aside, perhaps none has eroded with quite the same rapidity as landscape. Perhaps this can be blamed on the 19th century’s placement of landscape at the center of artistic discourse, which in turn inspired the avant-garde of the 20th to search even more tirelessly for new models from which to attain their images and ideas. Indeed, for a modernist paradigm that tended to favor linguistic typologies over visual ones, there is something so insistently pictorial about landscape, and about the naturalness with which it settles into almost any compositional mode, that we can understand its having been brushed aside in favor of internalized struggle for formal values which has tended to dominate the art of the past ninety years. Of course there have been many important exceptions to this tendency, but they form the thread that runs through a completely distinct history, one which has only begun to show itself now that the hypnotic spell of the modern era has finally started to ebb.

With roots in a sociocultural discourse that is characterized by its attempt to describe a world in which the act of constanly breaking and re-forming one’s ties to historically-determined styles is no longer a privilege that belongs solely to artists, Jorge Tacla’s paintings are, quite literally, depictions of the system of pictorial representation being torn asunder by its own historical conflicts. That is to say, even though he works at a certain level with recognizable imagery, Tacla’s technique of combining elements from different stylistic vocabularies has nothing to do with putting pictures together in a recognizable or coherent manner. However, it does have a great deal to do with the notion of constructing a landscape –albeit an entirely metaphorical one– out of multiple, unassimilated fragments of a contemporary world-view. Unlike its more naturalistic predecessors, Tacla’s synthesized landscape does not pretend to offer an idea of nature that is somehow more accurate or faithful, but rather one which begins and ends with the conviction that nature itself is nothing more than a social convention whose objective reality is far too diffuse to be pinned down by something as abstruse as pictorial art –or, for the matter, the human imagination itself. His idea seems to be that if we are able to momentarily suspend our need to be convinced that the image of the landscape is something which can be contrasted with the convulsed, hyper-mediated social environment in which we live, the process of interrelating images from completely different sources practically requires that the discontinuity between these elements should become the core of experience around which the building takes place. It is the experience that, for better or worse, has become our “real” (that is, entirely conditional) reality.

A search for the origins to Tacla’s project leads us to a number of intriguing connections. Perhaps the most logical place to start is with the most consistent element in the work: the highly changeable, yet unmistakable, calligraphic vocabulary that recalls aspects of the paintings of Matta, Lam, Ernst or even Michaux, depending on the context in which it is being used. In some of the smaller recent paintings, such as Arsenal, Coagulation and Illness, the forms and dotted lines are quite sinuous, but also more allusive in the sense of appearing to bury themselves in the rough weave of the jute on which they are painted. In others, like Acoustic or Workshop, Tacla uses more architectonic mode if working, just as in Bleeding he layers in a dim field of Pollock-like drips across a single horizontal line of pictographic figures in darker red. The more figurative smaller canvases, such as Workshop or Center of Gravity, incorporate the recent effort to blend anatomical line-drawings into the ground, so that the calligraphy almost merges at the points into the angular bodies surrounding it.

Because this calligraphic field can be read as a fully self-conscious reference to the surrealist tradition of automatic writing, it functions both as a sign of nature and as a way of indicating the artist’s awareness that this same sign is a culturally determined vehicle that does not have nearly the same pioneering meaning that it did sixty years ago. At the same time, it is identifiable as a mark that occurs with complete spontaneity on the artist’s part, and which does not require to be measured or compared with a pre-existing prototype in the same way that an image does. In an important sense, then, Tacla aligns himself with an artistic spirit which recalls the transition from a surrealist-dominated discourse of the late 1940s to the action painting aesthetic of the early 1950s. By the time Jackson Pollock had made his famous “I am nature” pronouncement, it was clear that certain of the surrealists’ innovations, which were supposed to pave the way to a new spontaneity in art, had themselves become conventions which needed to be overthrown. But rather than looking inside himself or towards history for his ideas, Pollock reached out towards landscape principles to forge a mural-scaled style that literally engulfed the viewer’s vision with a display of force turned visible through a measurable exertion of the artist’s energy. Breaking with painting’s sacrosanct history of illusion, he drove a wedge between the need to see painting as the projection of an idea about itself and, conversely, as a primally-felt activity, thus ushering us into an anxious era of indeterminate meanings that would soon lead to a formalist takeover of critical debate as the only obstruction to permitting such ambiguities to run rampant.

The next serious manifestation of radical thinking about landscape in American art took place in the late 1960s, as a generation of young artists began to react against the rigid formats and stylized excesses of Pop and Minimal art, turning instead towards open-air sites as a way of exploring some of the possibilities that the white gallery cube no longer seemed capable of providing. Robert Smithson’s Asphalt Rundown a classic example of the Earthworks movement, embodies a Pollock-like sense of primordial energy that shook the rationalist tendencies out of the American vanguard at the same time as it helped spawn the complete break with materialism which in turn led to the first tentative manifestations of the postmodern era. What remained distinct in Smithson’s case, as opposed to that of the other artists of his generation, was the artist’s insistence on a dialectical structure that continued to link gallery and landscape as an opposed but actively engaged pair. The other Earthworks artist whose historical position has had the greatest repercussions in the years since his premature death, and whose work seems unusually pertinent to that of Tacla, is Gordon Matta-Clark. The primary gesture in Matta Clark’s art consisted of the act of cutting through or removing sections of dilapidated buildings about to be torn down, an urban intervention which underscored with a certain urgency the precariousness of the human lives that had been played out within. Although at the time it was frequently interpreted as a gesture of protest, today Matta Clark’s work is more suggestive of the themes of reconciliation and recycling that have emerged as a key feature in the art of the ‘90s.

This tendency found a completely different form of expression in Chile, the birthplace of Matta (although not of his son, Matta-Clark) as well as the country where Tacla was born, raised and completed his studies in 1981. Due to the military dictatorship which began 1973, those artists who continued working in an experimental manner in Santiago and elsewhere in Chile needed, if only for the sake of survival to articulate a stylistic structure that was portable, temporary and discreet. Although most of these works took place in the city, Eugenio Dittborn created an oil spill in the Atacama desert in 1976 that seems to prefigure some of Tacla’s more pressing concerns, in the sense that it works literally as a transfiguration of the artist’s gesture across a vast anonymous “canvas” that does not resist the gesture, but literally absorbs it into its own body. This should not, however, be mistaken for an act of desperation: on the contrary, Dittborn’s act serves to lend the human dilemma a new dimension, characterized by an immense difference in scale, which in turn affirms the individual’s place in the natural order, at the precise moment when very powerful social forces were being brought to bear against it.

Arriving in New York just as the first effects of the Reagan Revolution had begun to take hold, Tacla quickly found himself identifying –as increasing numbers of artists would come to do in the 1980s- with those social sub-groups who were gradually but inexorably being marginalized by deep cuts into the budgets of the American education, health, welfare and culture infrastructure: single parents, African-Americans, Hispanics, recent immigrants, gays and lesbian activists, and those fellow artists whose work had a social or political bent. Settling in the polyglot working-class district which soon became known as the East Village, Tacla’s sensibility was formed in large part by his fairly rapid introduction to the burgeoning artist’s community that was just beginning to change the face of the neighborhood. Having been trained initially as a musician with a particular bent towards popular American music with African roots, Tacla threw himself into the social orbit of groups and spaces specializing in African-American, Brazilian and West Indian cultural activities. But his firsthand exposure to a culture he had admired from afar also included a crash-course in the uncertain racial atmosphere that so often clouds the multi-ethnic experience in the U.S., especially in a city as overwhelmingly diverse as New York.

It is during this phase that Tacla first began to seriously make paintings, albeit from the point of view of one who is still in the ambivalent position of studying a host culture from the outside. Racism was merely one of the social diseases on Tacla’s mind when he began to paint seriously, but it was one which today remembers approaching with a certain vehemence: “Because racism seems to be a fixation on the idea of pigmentation, and pigmentation is literally a color issue, I felt strongly that a painter had both the advantage of understanding it and a duty to try and correct it.” Although his first canvases seem to reply on an unreconstituted neoexpressionist vocabulary, multiplicity quickly becomes a dominant issue after he creates his most ambitious early work, Puesta de Sol con Ácido (1984), in which some twenty masklike faces that appear as racial variations on the same face accumulate around the central motif of a large white man’s head being offered up by two mythic beast-figures as part of a sacrifice. Both the images and the title conjure up a rite of passage, perhaps celebrated in the stark Atacama desert to which Tacla began to return in this period, in which the celebrant has shed his specific identity and moved on to a concept of self that includes all possible permutations on the parallel models from which a sense of “I” can be derived. By the next year he had begun creating even more explicit variations on the same theme, as in the work Descansando Antes de Saltar, which depicts a nude black man shackled with a ball and chain, gazing somberly up at a sea of ancestor’s faces as he sits before a chasm that seems both impossible and irresistible. Although the narrative theme is quite direct, what starts to emerge with this particular painting is Tacla’s drive to begin stacking his figures in a kind of multi-layered translucent field, as a way of expressing a double vision in which the reality taking place is challenged by alternate readings that weave in and out of the visual field. Over the next few years he tries several variations on this principle -in an untitled 1985 work, two warrior figures of African ancestry flank a central panel in medieval altar formation, while in Tríptico I (1986) the equal division of the individual panels suggests a more modular approach-, but by 1989 the fragmented, rearranged metaphysical landscape emerges as the format that has dominated Tacla’s work to this day.

The transition out of expressionist-derived compositions to his present mode of work invites a somewhat closer examination. If we speak of contemporaneous influences, it is nearly impossible to avoid citing the dense, layered compositions in David Salle’s paintings, which certainly constituted one of the most frequently exposed bodies of work during the mid-1980s. But whereas Salle seems wedded to the principle of pictorially reinforcing the discontinuity of his subjects, Tacla arranges his forms and fields with the care of one who feels that they belong together by affinity, and have only been separated through the limits imposed on human perception by social conditioning. Of more direct interest in relation to Tacla’s paintings is the principle of the deconstructed male gaze, as it was proposed in the work of Barbara Kruger, among others. Through the merging of text and image in a kind of anti-propagandistic hijacking of advertising formats, Kruger’s work returns incessantly to the principle that what we are being shown as the “truth” regarding the world around us is nothing less than a form of participatory brainwashing. Hence, the layering in Kruger’s work is dramatically different from that in Salle’s paintings, because the marriage of image and text acts to affirm that even multiple, open meanings are preferable to having the shape of communication dictated, or otherwise sealing it off from the viewer’s active engagement.

It is perhaps most through Kruger’s work that the idea of a picto-linguistic landscape opens up in the art of the early and mid-80s, giving younger artists such as Tacla a kind of permission to take the formal innovations in David Salle’s paintings and turn them into multiple intersecting picture-planes that are literally saturated, or stuffed, with meaning, so that a rift in one area invariable leads to a passage of extreme clarity in another. Although Tacla does not make direct use of photos in his work, and only occasionally of language in a literal sense, his unique perspective is arrived at by juggling several categories of images at once, many of which use conventions familiar from photography, to articulate views and images that are, if not always strinkingly personal, at least have some kind of direct tie in to his life. Foremost among these are his myriad treatments of the Atacama desert in northern Chile, which is one of the driest sites in the world. For Tacla, the desert signifies unification, transcendence, and the quest for meaning. Usually represented in his paintings in the form of chunks of rock (Toxic or any of the Historical Compositions, 1994), expressive horizons (Residues, 1994), or the occasional sweeping passages of nighttime desert sky (Projective Correspondence, 1993), it is almost impossible to make the Atacama look as extreme as it does in real life. Instead, Tacla portrays it as benevolent, inviting, in part to emphasize that the importance of the image lies in what it signifies to him, not in how it might be encountered outside the realm of art.

For the artist, this difference is crucial in terms of explaining the series of multiple juxtapositions that run throughout his paintings. In the last year or so, architecture has been one of the vehicles for describing an idealized perspective that Tacla plays off against the appeal of unpredictability embedded in the landscape. Sometimes it appears in as sketchy a form as the loose rows of doodles that in some paintings become the equivalent of the surrealist calligraphy. In recent years, however, Tacla has replaced the strangely proportioned Chilean neo-classical façade with the highly idealized Palladian model from which it devolved over the course of time. In fact, his entire series of Historical Compositions is based on the projection of many views of the same Palladio structure into full compositions, throughout which a number of other pictorial devices come into play. Newest among these latter is a technique that Tacla has developed of staining or smudging the raw ground, either with patches of unmediated color, or –as in Historical Composition No. 3-, with the occasional, accidental-looking area of raised paint. Because the architecture in these paintings is rendered as an abstract framework, and the ubiquitous desert as reassuringly solid, it is left to the dizzying fields of calligraphy that cover these paintings to tie the work together into a loose but unified whole.

What seems to preoccupy Tacla most in these newest works is the classical notion of the human form as a kind of standard, a measure used for determining the correct blend of elements in order to create a hybrid space in which both social and solitary behavior seem equally appropriate. Having returned for the first time in some years to painting the human form –as well as his own countenance– in an explicit manner, Tacla seems to be searching for a way to integrate the organic reality of bodies and gestures within an interconnected web where it can be experienced as equivalent with other visible phenomena, at the same time that it is also recognized as the central point at which all the other classes of perceptual experience come together. Even without the human form as an explicit motif, it is clear that these paintings are directed towards the articulation of a synthetic landscape that is culturally defined and linguistically mediated, but which nevertheless remains true to the spectator’s need to perceive pictorial values in terms of their cultural equivalents. As Tacla’s vision continues to grow, there is every reason to expect that the stratified space which took so long to perfect in his paintings will soon evolve into the fluid, integrated space that the current work describes in so many variations. It is not that Tacla is searching for a way to make all the pieces fit together, but that he wishes to maintain the unique properties of each stage of perception, in order to remind the viewer that even the most overwhelming proportions of exterior space pale when placed alongside the infinite capacity for wonderment contained in just one small corner of the human imagination.

June 1994




Dan Cameron. 1994