Les intermittences du coeur. Drawing as memory.

“Drawing may be the most haunting obsession the mind can experience…But is it quite, after all, a question of mind?”

Paul Valéry, Degas Manet Morisot


Drawing is central to Jorge Tacla’s artistic practice. Rather than functioning as studies for his paintings, his works on paper form a body of work in and of itself, in close dialogue with the rest of his oeuvre and simultaneously autonomous. A daily activity, drawing holds the promise of a discovery for Tacla, renewed each time he puts a pencil or brush to paper. Infused with a sense of both discipline and urgency, the act of mark making is to him one of anticipated pleasure. In his luminous studio in midtown New York, in a room next to the space where he paints he has arranged a long table where he draws, tools of the trade readily at hand: brushes, pencils, and tubes of gouache colors. Born in Chile in 1958, he has lived in New York since 1981, and regularly returns, for extended periods of time, to his native Santiago where he also maintains a studio.


For Tacla drawing appears to be an existential necessity. An accumulation of gestures that makes it possible for him to give visible form to an inner space of both mental and emotional resonance, thus suggesting infinite depths beyond the bidimensional flatness of the sheet of paper. While best known as a painter, he has always manifested a particular predilection for the medium of drawing as a vehicle for the exploration of the self and of the world around him, for a potential synthesis of the highly personal and the universal. Furthermore through drawing he delves into the history of art. In his sketchbooks one may find a variety of renderings made from direct observation as well as from memory. Images captured in their unfiltered immediacy, these pure pencil drawings encompass a range of subjects: they include portraits, landscapes, and musings on the art of old masters such as Masaccio, Leonardo, Rembrandt and Goya with whom he feels a telling kinship.


In 2003-2004 the Chilean artist created a suite of works on paper, all realized in gouache, a medium long favored in his drawing practice. A selection of them is presented in this book for the first time, on the occasion of an exhibition devoted to them at Galeria Animal in Santiago. Taken into account as a whole, these gouaches -all medium-sized- elicit the metaphor of an inner cartography, where each sheet is a distilled illumination of an interval of utmost emotional intensity. As such, together, they seem to compose a visual embodiment of what Marcel Proust once called les intermittences du coeur. Suspended between figuration and abstraction, in a space in-between, they depict fragments of landscapes or seascapes and figures caught in all their unmediated bodily presence. Such recognizable elements are combined with slightly irregular geometric or organic shapes and with flying lines that contribute to give architectonic structure to space, variously playing with and against the white blankness of the sheet of paper. These abstract components serve as composition devices, their careful placement and multiple interrelationships giving life to a calibrated, essential poetry of space. Handwritten texts populate these images here and there, traces of pensées plume, fragments of thoughts spoken to oneself in one’s mind and retaining an ultimately opaque mystery for the viewer. There is no linear narrative suggested through the unfolding of these pictures, and yet they cling together, hold one another, akin to the musical notes of an impressionistic score. (Incidentally, music has always been important to Tacla: he was a music student before choosing to study art at the School of Fine Arts of the University of Chile, and after moving to New York he worked as a percussionist for some time.) Rather than evoking storytelling, these gouaches suggest an unfiltered and marvelously incongruous unfolding of feelings and thoughts thus celebrating their restless flux and their open-endedness.


Art and life often intertwine in Tacla’s drawings where cryptic allusions to everyday experiences are transmuted into meditations of universal resonance on themes such as transformation, love, loss, vulnerability and violence. In this regard the 2003-2004 suite of works on paper presented in this exhibition is no exception. Realized in the artist’s apartment in New York, in a room temporarily devoted to this enterprise, these gouaches were produced over a year time at a transitional moment of personal vulnerability and inner searching following the dissolution of the artist’s marriage from which he has an only daughter. The act of drawing, which takes place in a private space, gives visibility to an otherwise invisible, intimate landscape of the mind and the senses. It appears animated by an experience of loss and sorrow, and at the same time by a quest for self-reflection and regeneration. A highly personal blend of reminiscences and fantasies is attained. In Tacla’s hands, drawing is memory retrouvé. Rather than depicting fully recognizable characters, specific places or events, drawing exists in the space of a rêverie where past, present, and hopes or fears for the future meet.


One of these works depicts a couple intertwined in an all-consuming embrace, a symbol of togetherness and at the same time a poignant reminder of the fragility of love and human relationships at large. These figures are fragmentary and rendered in distorted forms of disquieting effect. To a certain extent we are reminded of Marlene Dumas’s intensely expressive renditions of the body. Francesco Clemente’s synthesis of the mythical, the fantastical and the real also comes to mind. But while the fluidity of Clemente’s images –achieved through the use of watercolor- points at the power of continuous metamorphosis, Tacla’s accent seems to be rather on the presence of the body hic et nunc, in all its psychological and emotional density evoked through color. Here color has a distinctive sense of gravity to it, a pondus or an inclination to ‘touch ground’, so to speak. The emphasis on the body in its unfiltered physicality is a long-standing concern for the artist. Reaching back to one of his early drawings, we may find this impulse encapsulated in the following inscription in an “Untitled” gouache from 1988: “c-u-e-r-p-o  y  a-l-m-a”.

A seismograph of sensations, Tacla’s drawing employs color as its primary means of expression. The texture of the water-based gouache recalls the effect of painting with its inclination towards the density of the pigment. Unlike watercolor, gouache is opaque and dense. Deriving its name from the Italian guazzo, gouache is a term first used in France in the eighteenth century to describe a type of paint made from pigments bound in water-soluble gum like watercolor but with the addition of a white pigment in order to enhance the opacity. This makes gouache heavier and with greater reflective qualities than watercolor. Gouache forms a thicker layer of paint on the paper surface and does not allow the paper to show through. All in all, it may be loosely described as a drawing made through body color. The bodily presence of color attained through gouache –an effect often heightened by the use of multiple layers on top of each other- is an essential element in Tacla’s vocabulary. While in the past he has often combined pencil with gouache, in this particular suite he focuses on gouache to achieve a language based on the elements of stain and line. It is drawing as painting. (In this light, it is interesting to note that the artist’s concern for the expressive resonances of the stain as a symbol for the body appears very early on in his work, as demonstrated, for instance, by a 1988 “Untitled” drawing on the subject made in colored pencils and gauze.)


Attaining an idiosyncratic conflation of abstraction and figuration, in one of his 2003-2004 gouaches on paper Tacla takes what appears as a severed body, with no arms and legs, and turns it into a quasi-abstract organic form rendered in a palette of pinks and light browns referencing the flesh. Tied up, this vulnerable bodily presence suggests the idea of suffering and being held captive. While suggesting psychic discomfort in the form of pure sensation, this drawing also points at a concern for the inequities of the human condition at large. In Tacla’s work biomorphic shapes of this type also allude to the natural elements of barren or rocky landscapes. Both human and not human, these forms may punctuate suspenseful deserts and seascapes. In their blend of the fantastical and the real, these drawings convey inner and outer worldscapes of surrealist overtones. As such, they call to mind Yves Tanguy’s strangely desolate, disquieting landscapes and their otherworldly inhabitants. But, infused with a distinctive expressionistic tension, Tacla’s bodily forms also carry oblique allusions for the beholder to the tragic history of violence associated in Chile with the military dictatorship and by extension they stand for us as a reminder of the potential brutality of any authoritarian system as such. (It is worth noting that around the time when these gouaches were being made, Tacla had begun contemplating a possible project about the life and death of Chilean musician and activist Victor Jara, a victim of Pinochet’s regime, which has recently taken the form of a permanent installation at the Museum of Memory in Santiago.)


Notably, the Chilean Atacama Desert is a recurring motif in Tacla’s drawings. To indirectly illuminate its power as source of inspiration for the artist, it seems fitting to recur to the verses of the Chilean writer and poet Roberto Bolano, musing about the desert:


“Dice el saltimbanqui: éste es el Desierto.

El lugar donde se hacen los poemas.

Mi país.”[1]


In 1988, as part of his project as a Guggenheim Fellow, Tacla made an important trip to the Chilean desert and in particular “to a place called the valley of the moon, where the moon shines illuminating these weird salt rocks in organic shapes”, as he has recently described it[2]. If references to Leonardo abound in Tacla’s renderings of swirling waters and winds, his depictions of the natural world more often employ the desert as a space of memory and also as a metaphor for the aridity of contemporary life.


In its highly personal combination of image and word, Tacla’s drawing reveals itself as akin to the process of writing a journal. With a nod to the long-standing tradition of drawing as a medium of utmost intimacy, these works on paper are both notational and expressionistic, inhabiting a world in-between. Almost undecipherable, the texts point at the difficulty to communicate and thereby convey a sense of both mystery and frustration. Tacla’s handwritten words often become a means to suggest novel spatial directions within the field of the bidimensional paper sheet. Often tracing delicate lines, they ‘take flight’ turning into subtle indicators of multiple dimensions. They function as compositional elements, whispers of space, of possible, temporary architectures.


In some of the drawings comprising this suite the body gives way to organic linear forms beautifully rendered as essential, minimal gestures on paper. By way of repetition, these singular ‘characters’ turn it into the generative element of gracefully dynamic spatial compositions, designing flowing arabesques. Suggesting body fluids, these lines cross and mingle giving life to a dance in space. Shades of tender blues, greens, reds, pinks and yellows invade each other’s sphere, layer upon layer. Their agile forms touch, extend, engender and enmesh each other, overlap and intertwine. They are unstable signs of an elusive language. Line as color serves here as a means to create a highly personal form of calligraphy. It is an open system of symbolic elements, achieved through a balancing act between decision making and chance effect integral to the very medium of gouache. For Tacla drawing is simultaneously an act of disclosure and veiling. In the process, it opens up infinite horizons eliciting multiple interpretive possibilities. And in doing so, it quickens the imagination.


To use art historian Henri Focillon’s famous characterization of drawing, we may say that Tacla’s “brain in the hand” pulses through the fragile intensity of colored stains and lines, unfettering intimations of the transformative intertwinings of thoughts and feelings. Elusiveness, the desire to make contact, perplexity, tenderness, frustration and anxiety. All these elements resonate in Tacla’s drawings, in a marvelous synthesis of life’s contradictory complexity. These gouaches, then, take us firmly by the hand into the realm of distilled sensation and emotion, tethered as they are by the delicate filament of les intermittence du coeur. A journey, indeed, at the heart of drawing as memory.

[1] From the poem “Para Edna Lieberman.” In Roberto Bolano. La Universidad Desconocida. Barcelona: Editorial Anagrama, 2007, p. 93.

[2] In conversation with the author, February 2010.

Francesca Pietropaolo. 2010