Jorge Tacla: Self Feeder. Thought in the Wilderness


In the recent paintings of Jorge Tacla, the elemental and the cultural are held in troubled equipoise. This tense standoff—between rational systems and visceral needs, between crude materials and ethereal longings, between collective expectations and personal fears—bespeaks the modern individual’s sense of abandonment in a world ill-suited to his authentic self. There is no connectedness here, no common intimacy. With Salle-like insouciance, images are juxtaposed on the canvas, but their combination suggests no reassuring master schema. The works are anguish made visible.

Tacla conveys this anomie through a private but by no means indecipherable pictorial vocabulary. Buildings, usually grandiose and in partial ruin, embody the emptiness of public life and “official” culture in an era of mass consumerism. Barren rocks and stretches of wasteland (often based on memories of the Atacama Desert) signal the earth’s endurance, and its blank indifference to human endeavors. Odd forms reminiscent of organs and bones suggest the danger—and futility—of operating too far from our natural processes and animal origins. Scenes photo-transferred from newspapers remind us that contemporary struggles take place in historical (and metaphysical) contexts that transcend their present urgency. Snatches of language obsessively hand-lettered on the painting surface evoke the magic, but also the imperfections and limits, of complex verbalization—a skill often considered the defining endowment of humankind. Rectangular insets, framing scenes that constitute a visual and associational counterpoint to the painting’s dominant images, serve as windows into other areas of awareness and memory, other modes of (sub) consciousness.

Tacla’s principal technique consists of layering these components on his canvas in a way that echoes the multiplicity of references and experiences within an active intelligence. Indeed, his response to the mind-body problem seems to be an insistence that the two fundamental elements of being—flesh and psyche—are simultaneous and mutually inextricable, as perfectly melded as Yeat’s dancer and the dance.

In “Parallel Shadows,” for example, Tacla’s typical backdrop—a cosmic blank slate, here manifest as a stony no-man’s-land rendered in tones of dirty brown and gray—is overlaid with a shadowy image of La Moneda, the governmental building bombed during the 1973 overthrow of Salvador Allende. The canvas itself, punctuated by rough seams, is a much-used tarp from the back of a vegetable truck. Several rectangular insets reveal colorful rock piles or similarly volumetric organlike forms. And here and there among the images floats a repeated Spanish phrase meaning “imaginary horizon,” a navigational term used by pilots.

Like many of his Chilean countrymen, Tacla, who emigrated to the United States in 1981, despised the Pinochet regime that replaced Allende. Despite the specificity of the political allusion in this painting, however, the artist’s larger purpose is clearly to depict a more fundamental betrayal. The “parallel shadows” generated by desert boulders and a bombed-out urban structure indicate an affinity between natural desolation and a civilization’s—or an individual’s—active destruction. Only the sturdiness of the tarp and the beauty of certain passages of brightly colored rock, both elements transformed by art, give hope for a phoenix-like resurrection.

That stern hope is echoed in “Land Claim,” which uses many similar devices—a blue semi-transparent edifice on a murky limbo background, a central pile of colorful stones, five white inset boxes bearing outline drawings of biomorphic forms. The very title—like so much else in Tacla’s repertoire—seems double-edged, evoking both our wishful claim on the land and the land’s more primordial claim on us.

An admonition is therefore evident in “Gravity Fault,” where the visceral “feeling” for landscape is literalized through the superimposition of an organic system (its boxy upper and lower tracts conjoined by long parallel tubes) over several abutting rectangles containing rocky vistas notable both for their lack of depth and for their disturbing blood-and-feces coloration. The land is sick, with no Fisher King in sight—afflicted to the degree that a scattering of painted pustules has broken out on the “skin” of the canvas. Again the phrase “imaginary horizon” weaves through foreground. Tacla speaks of this work as a metaphoric translation of a social pathology (the racism he encountered during his early days in New York) to a more universalized level. We orient ourselves by gravity, but if something so basic as this elemental force (analogous to the natural coherence among peoples) suffers a disabling “fault,” only pestilence awaits us.

Pestilence or perhaps “Miscarriage,” the disaster that Tacla examines by splitting open his picture plane to reveal intestinal protuberances in a vertical channel between scalloped bone-like forms. The internal sausage-shaped swellings are akin both to rounded rock formations and to the humanoid form that huddles in an inset at the upper left, completed by more ambiguous, perhaps eponymous, figures in two insets below. Elsewhere on the skin-colored canvas, forms and figures—emblems of potential beings—have been painted on and the rubbed away ghostly outlines. Marble, once the noblest of buildings materials, is here reduces to a grainy powder that veils these sketches of the earth’s lost, or never realized, inhabitants.

The isolation in which we begin and end, the solitude we can temporarily transcend only by living in harmony with nature and other mortals, is powerfully evoked in two canvases that suspend lone human figures amid monochromatic fields broken by abstract marks.

“Self-Service”—with its hints of onanism both literal and metaphoric, its grim play on the banality of “getting in touch with one’s self”—is a study in the futility (and even perversion) of radical self-sufficiency. The stoic ideal of autarkeia (utter autonomy, complete indifference to anything outside the self) is here treated as a dead end worthy of Beckett’s stagecraft. A sepia-toned human figure of indeterminant sex, its head bald and its nakedly squatting body hunched in upon itself, engages in an orgy of vigorous self-touching. Rendered like a photographic “multiple exposure” (another Tacla pun?), the figure, adrift against a flat backdrop of grayish-blue crosshatching, fractures into a plurality of closed-eyed duplicates. The composition thus emphasizes the melancholy of a subject trying vainly to be all-in-one, driven to a fragmented proliferation of the self that never yields the satisfaction of genuine intercourse.

The triptych “Self Feeder” amplifies this theme by separating two solitary crouching figures (or figure composites) with a visual block: an entire central canvas of nonrepresentational brushstrokes subsumed in a brownish-gold expanse. The involuted figure on the left looks inward and downward, in a classic attitude of dejection. The figure on the right throws its head back to peer beseechingly upward, as though craving a heavenly deliverance that will never come.

Such vignettes confirm that Tacla’s greatest concern is with the contemporary loss of face-to-face relationships—whether between person and person, city dwellers and nature, or humankind and divinity. A spiritual heir of Giacometti and Bacon, he repeatedly portrays one harsh truth: that when the social covenant is broken, or never adequately formed, only desolation and deformity can follow.

The delight that nevertheless communicate itself through his work is that of a man saved by his own esthetic integrity. He is alive to the moral dangers of his profession, as images like “Self Service” testify when they warn that solipsism is the most common—and ultimately most disastrous—of all artistic temptations. Tacla therefore permits himself no exploitation of acid color or juiciness of texture. Surfaces remain relatively chaste, as if a seductive threat lurked in the gooey voluptuousness of paint itself. His austere works imply that art, t be redemptive, must be not a mild indulgence but a discipline.

Richard Vine. 1996