Jorge Tacla: The Third Space of Painting

Painting’s discourse is one that is fraught with dichotomies. Possibly the oldest, well known account that manifests this dialectic is the ancient Greek debate about mimesis and painting’s (in) ability to capture truth. One narrative revolves around the ancient artists Zeuxis and Parrhasius who, according to Pliny the Elder, were painters of astonishing realism. So masterful were these artists at mimesis, that when the former created a painting of grapes in his studio, birds that happened to descend through his window pecked at them mistaking them for actual fruit. But, as the story goes, it was Parrhasius who was considered the superior artist by painting a curtain that Zeuxis presumed as real. Whether this anecdote is factual or not is beside the point, for it does signal at such an early date in painting’s past where the ideal rubs against representation and the symbolic.

Another paradigmatic moment in painting’s mimetic development occurs in artistic criteria articulated by the eleventh-century Chinese scholar and aesthetician Lieou Tao-Chou En: “In a flat painting look for space." The space that Tao-Chou En searched for is, however, antithetical to that of Zeuxis, Parrhasius and the heirs to a correspondence theory of art. Tao-Chou En was a Taoist and follower of the philosopher Lao-tzu, consequently space within Taoist cosmology is not, in contrast to the West, the absence of something or a void, but an invisible presence that is tangible as matter and an ontologically necessity in the formation of any epistemology. The Taoist notion of being/nonbeing as indivisible couplet, which is curiously akin to Martin Heiddegger’s “hermeneutic circle” germane to his Origin of the Work of Art(1950), is also integral to the radical slashing and puncturing of Lucio Fontana’s concetto spaziale. Fontana’s elegant and refined aesthetic, paradoxically imbued with formalist aggression and violence, sought to obliterate the space between a painting and its support wall in order to erradicate the difference between them. In the wake of this artistic destruction materialized a potentially different modality of painting that was metaphysical in orientation. What Fontana attempted to reveal was what lays beyond a painting’s surface; an amorphous, transcendent register that negated the either/or ontological conundrum of figure/ground, planarity/depth, within/without; in short, being and nothingness. It is this liminal space where the paintings of New York-based, Chilean artist Jorge Tacla reside as well. That is to say, there is an interfacing in Tacla’s paintings between form/content, figure/ground, and figuration/abstraction that cultivates a different lexicon of mark-making. Tacla’s modus operandi is tertiary in that like Tao-Chou En and Fontana, he undermines dichotomies that have been endemic to mimesis in the West underscored in the ancient Greek anecdote on up through Leon Battista Alberti’s On Painting (1434), and culminating with Eduoard Manet’s flattening of pictorial space which, according to the formalist critic Clement Greenberg, signaled the emergence of Modernist painting. As such, Tacla is a painter’s painter who deftly explores the medium for its formal advancement and philosophical disquisition as well as way to investigate the self and the world, albeit that he pursues this with a poetic and unflinching, brutal honesty.  

 Jorge Tacla’s aesthetic is conceptual in nature and consists of a painterly métier on the one hand, and a critical praxis on the other that drive his work into interesting terrain subsuming a variety of genres including landscape, architecture, figuration, abstraction, still-life, and history painting. At the sake of eliding the cultural and contextual specificity of Tao-Chou En and Fontana, then, there is a myriad of formal and conceptual currents in Tacla’s artistic strategies that converge, among other things, form/content, surface/depth, and figure/ground that create a unique ontology of painting. This, however, is not articulated as Taoist mysticism or metaphysical polemics, but more as a kind of critical phenomenology that locates mark-making and materiality as a kind of sign that produces an aesthetic that is visual yet often operates like language. When Tacla uses marble powder, for example, it is not only incorporated as an aesthetic device or formal element of his picture’s narrative totality, or as compositional component combined with other parts that congeal into an iconographic whole, but they are independently embodied with meaning subsequently layering his work with multiple narratives.

This manner of working is analogous to concrete poetry where words that constitute a sentence not only evoke emotion or stimulate the imaginary, but the way words are placed for their visual presence either sequentially, vertically, diagonally, or even in circular fashion amount to using language physically rather than just grammatically. Or one could parallel Tacla’s formal operations with the sound poet who uses words and their vocalization for nuance and emotive texture: consonants, vowels, words and sentences are conflated with gurgitations, yelps, screams, and moans, and collectively amount to language morphing corporeally. Language, in this instance, acquires tactility; inversely, Tacla’s use of pigment, staining, impasto, marble powder, and so forth are about making the materiality of painting more than a mean to an end or subservient to the image. Thus Camouflage 25, Camouflage 40, and Camouflage 32, all painted in 2002, for instance, title, subject matter and form all triangulate into a conceptual approach to the brush and easel that differentiates Tacla from his contemporaries.

Camouflage 25 and Camouflage 40 exemplify this very well: they are vertical paintings whose iconography is discernable as interiors of churches. Both works have a similar palette of blue, yet the paint is also mixed with marble powder. Here, the powder is not only used as a way to build up texture, for Tacla can certainly do this with pigment alone, but the marble powder creates a kind of semiotic link between it and the marble used in the actual church that is depicted. There is a mirroring effect via the image of the church within the picture that uses marble, and the painting's deployment of it in powdered form across the surface that, in turn, is instrumental in constructing the image while partially concealing it, and hence the titles. Using matter as a sign is usually the province of sculpture, and the parallel to Tacla’s incorporation of marble is underscored in the Brazilian Conceptualist Cildo Meireles’ Money Tree (1969). The sculpture consists of 100 Brazilian cruzieros wrapped in rubber bands and placed on a sculptural pedestal. The relevance of this work within the context of Tacla’s camouflage paintings resides in its form: money metaphorically grows on trees if it happens to be trees that produce rubber, which Brazil did extract and export at one time. So the sculpture’s material, the money and the title triangulate into a conceptual work where the semiotics of form play a germane role to the work’s narrative; thus, form and content are indistinguishable. Likewise, Tacla uses marble not only for its aesthetic properties, but also because it acts as a sign within the context of the camouflage paintings. Configuring materiality along this kind of signifying mode is not formal sleight-of-hand, but a conceptual strategy that expands the practice of painting beyond ether pure abstraction or mimesis, into another register altogether. In the same way that Fontana had liberated the area behind the painting and used the void to, among other things, formally transform painting into an idiom of sculpture creating neither painting nor sculpture; and Tao-Chou En’s insistence on space through a Taoist framework was an ontological and epistemological puzzle that revealed the limits of materialism, Tacla’s use of marble powder in these works opens up form as content. It collapses the academic dichotomy of form/content and folds figure into ground and vice versa. The camouflage paintings, moreover, are further complicated with Camouflage 32; a work that is purely abstract in contrast to those from the same series that are representational.

It is important to see this work and the camouflage paintings in general as parallel, but in a conceptual vein, to what Monet painted in series. Whereas Monet’s Rouen Cathedral (1892-94) works depicted the quotidian moment as eternal now as well as exploring the effects of seasonal light on the surface of the Gothic Cathedral, he could only convey his ideas in serial form. It would be impossible to articulate the complexity of his artistic vision in the singularity of one painting. Similarly is Camouflage 32, which is awash with a painterly deluge that offers insight into the other works of the same series. Camouflage 32 pushes pure abstraction into the register of representation, while the other representational paintings curiously move in the other direction. What Camouflage 32 reveals is that pure abstraction is more than sensorial, intellectual and emotional experience; and this holds true with other artists who explored this as well: Gerhard Richter and his monochromatic Eight Gray (2002) that blurs painting, sculpture, and architecture; and David Reed and the insertions of biomorphic, swirling abstractions into the films of Alfred Hitchcock. The representational works from the camouflage series convey something else in their oscillation between palpitating interiors that--in a Postmodern twist on Hans Hoffman's push/pull optical vibration—push the background into the foreground as well as the other way around. This particular technique, which is a given in pure abstraction, becomes a visual device that produces a force field within and over pictorial space in which Tacla de-sublimates representation and sublimates its other. This is also the case in other works were there is a radical tension between pure abstraction and the image that gives birth to something in between; they are akin to the ripped canvas of Fontana; the Taoist space of being/non-being, and in Poststructuralist terms, the absent presence of language. There are many works, both early and recent, that underscore this unique quality that has become an element of Tacla’s signature style that can be discerned in Crossing the Nile (1985), Time and Space in the Negative (1990), The Doctor Wilhelm “Orgon” (1999), the works from the series titled Mass of Vapor, and Mass of Cement, and the more recent Rubble paintings.    


In the purely abstract Time and Space in the Negative, for example, Tacla uses unprimed canvas as a trope for space in the negative, for space in the positive certainly refers to the amorphous forms that undulate across the surface of the painting. They, of course, can also allude to time; but Tacla has also used the mark as a way to articulate temporality in the manner of a stroke that is not dense -as in his other works- but via their faintness there is a poetic allusion to the passing of time. The use of form as meaning is also intrinsic to The Doctor Wilhelm “Orgon”. In this work orgone energy, which was Wilhelm Reich’s theory of animated, invisible substance that in the mind/body Freud characterized as the libido, Tacla has configured as an orange mass that makes its way across a bridge and urban setting. Pushing this kind of antimatter even more is Mass of Vapor, which is paradoxically the embodiment of nebulousness where the olfactory ostensibly comes into play. The image is almost spectral as the mass is barley distinguishable from the background in which it is set. Form, in this instance, begins to dematerialize, and the gestation of this painterly formlessness resides in earlier work that more recently has taken a more political valence.  


In Crossing the Nile II (1985) and Rubble # 12 (2007), for example, the paintings are radically apart both formally and in subject matter, but have a compositional affinity that underscores how Tacla’s métier has been consistent and aesthetically recognizable throughout his career. The two paintings, which can be seen as bracketing the corpus he has created so far, seem to be the inverse of each other and serve to underscore Tacla’s insertions of the socio-political into his purely abstract work, whereas in the Mass of Vapor his explorations were more philosophical in nature. Crossing the Nile II is first and foremost a figurative work that has painterly passages that dissolve into a kind of liquefied abstraction. The swath of white in the bottom foreground is not only viscous and reminiscent of bodily fluids such as breast milk or even semen, but it is in formal counterpoint to the earthy tones of the figure itself that, in turn, is sandwiched by the lapis lazuli type blue in the background. The chromatic triad of blue, white and an earthy red, is nuanced by the centrality of the figure that is in a taut pose vis-à-vis the head that turns one way and is in profile. This, in turn, is rhythmically offset by the contorted body in frontal repose. Indeed, there is something concomitantly ancient and modern via this posture that is peripherally recognizable as it is archetypal. It may be that the pose itself has a faint allusion to classical statuary as well as Neoclassical painting reminiscent of Jaques-Louis David or Jean-Baptiste Greuze.  While the figure is delineated within an environment articulated with a limited palette, there is a haunting quality to the work that nonetheless bespeaks of Tacla’s later existentially inclined investigations of the social world that touch on catastrophe and the human condition.

The works from the Rubble series, made 2007-2008, are images of landscapes violated by war, terrorism, and military conflict with their resulting apocalyptic wasteland. Although Tacla used source material from conflicts in Beirut and other areas of the world to make these paintings, locality is secondary; for the catastrophes he depicts are more like unconscious recollections and thus have universal affectation rather than being pinpointed as authored by a specific ideology. As such, they do not commemorate this war or that invasion, but are archetypal; and subsume not only the ruin in the guise of societal rubble littered throughout history, but also landscape and the sublime are part of Rubble’s narrative purview. In one sense, the works are the progeny of a tradition that includes Casper David Friedrich and Joseph Mallord William Turner, but philosophically the Rubble series are evocative of the sublime and psychoanalytic notions of death. Whereas Friedrich depicted landscapes as having a mystical sway over humans, and Turner rendered civilization and its flawed institutions at the mercy of nature’s destructive powers, Tacla presents the ruin as horrific sublime and as evidence of a collective death drive. The sublime, as originally explicated by Edmund Burke, was the antithesis of beauty; and the horror was only equivalent to the latter in it capacity to install awe, which is what Tacla renders in paintings as the confluence of the beautiful and its other. The paintings are exquisitely rendered; yet, once the subject matter is detected they become even more compelling by way of a tension of attraction and repulsion. The strength of the paintings resides in their distinguished use of impasto, heavy lineal demarcation producing a rich, albeit sinister tonality. As such, the works are situated in the continuum of historical images that have imprinted themselves in collective cultural memory, though their power is more abject. Exemplary of this are Matthew Brady’s albumen prints of the devastated landscapes and carnage of the American Civil War. Dark, shadowy phantasmagoric buildings that are broken and leveled are set against a soft, luminous sky. The Rubble series also embody this dichotomy of beauty and horror, but Tacla exagerates the contrast between figure and ground to theatrical levels that push them into a more abstract register as is the case with Rubble #5 (2007); a work made with acrylic, oil and marble powder. Like the camouflage series, Rubble #5 has pronounced vertical format that is made more unsettling by its limited palette of black, brown, subtle pink and white. In order to understand the power of these paintings configured upright, simply imagine them horizontally. The sparse colors have a peripheral affinity to the albumen print, but it is closer to a kind of grisaille technique, which was a drawing method often used in illuminated manuscripts that would evince the prowess of an artist who worked mostly in the monochrome. It is testament to Tacla’s artist intelligence how he can cull so many formal sources, both historical and contemporaneous, into fresh configurations.

In his sense, history will situate him as an artist who mines complex subject matter all the while advancing painting in altogether new ways; for his practice is visually intoxicating, intellectually stimulating, mutable, anomalous, and protean; in short, it is a third space.


Raul Zamudio Taylor. 2008