Ten Things I Want to Say About Jorge Tacla’s Paintings

One    Often, when I am in Berlin, I am reminded of Jorge Tacla’s paintings. Initially this might strike the reader as odd, since Tacla was born in Santiago, Chile, in 1958, attended art school there, and moved to New York in 1981. However, without ever having been in Berlin, Tacla’s paintings of ruined façades and collapsed buildings convey the inevitability of cataclysmic change, of history being written and rewritten. Among other things, his paintings register the upheavals big and small that all cities and cultures are both enduring and sliding towards, unable to halt the passage of time and history.

Berlin is a city at the crossroads. Right now, a dome is being added to the Reichstag. Soon, the government will move its entire operations from Bonn to Berlin. And yet, driving down certain streets in the middle of the city, its relatively low skyline dominated by tall yellow construction cranes, one is struck by the different kinds of Cold war architecture that repeatedly face each other, reminders of the Wall that once divided this city. On one side of a street, there are the somber housing projects built by the East Germans during the 1960’s and 70’s, after they hastily erected the Wall during the night. On the other side, there are modest apartment buildings built by West Germans during the same period.

Once, the inhabitants of these buildings were simultaneously neighbors and enemies. One wonders, what are they now? Meanwhile, a narrow dirt plot runs adjacent to the street, the last sign of where the Wall used to stand. While it was easy to tear down the Wall, it is proving far more difficult for a united Germany to remove housing projects that stretch across city blocks, outmoded factory buildings, and huge complexes of high rises. Taken as a city trying to enter the next century, to be the first one to welcome its arrival, Berlin seems in many ways typical; it is trying to transform itself into something that is ultra-modern. Its impossible task is to keep up with time. But time has a way of eroding every structure and surface, and history has a way of interrupting the most calm moments. This sense that calamity is always about to burst through the fabric is what preoccupies Tacla. He knows you can’t be prepared for what might happen, that somehow you must be cognizant of the world, sensitive to its barely noticeable seismic shiftings.

Two  Jorge Tacla recognizes that all cities, and perhaps all countries, are divided along architectural lines, and that construction and destruction are interwined. One of the recurring images in his atmospheric paintings is either the exterior or interior of a building, ranging from cathedrals to office buildings and other more anonymous, institutional buildings. At one symbolic and functional, these buildings are often depicted schematically, as if they were nothing more that a skeletal form floating before our eyes. Either as surface or space, and sometimes the two are collapsed together, these buildings evoke a past, as well as a history that may no longer be viable. Another recurring image is of the shacks and other flimsy structures that their inhabitants have managed to construct in the gaps between institutions, under bridges, and near highways. These are structures predicated on function: the help protect its inhabitants from the elements. And yet, in Tacla’s paintings, these structures are roofless, and one wall is often missing.

Thus, ruined façades, abandoned interiors, and piles of detritus are among the images tacla repeatedly returns to. The world, his paintings suggest, is in a state of permanent decay. And yet, despite the recurrence of these images, the artist’s intent is not didactic. Rather, the viewer senses that the artist’s interest in buildings, ruins, heaps, exteriors and interiors is metaphysical. He is preoccupied with the imaginative space these decaying structures create in our mind, the way they both illuminate our past and our future. In his depictions of collapsed structures, which initially strike the viewer as being an abstract, topographical pattern, but which slowly crytalize into disquieting focus, Tacla has convincingly transformed two disparate currents of Modernist painting into a Postmodern idiom all his own.

One of these currents begins in Surrealism, particularly as it was advanced by Giorgio de Chirico. The other current is postwar American abstraction, and the atmosphere fields of Mark Rothko. Surely, I am not farfetched in thinking that disorienting spaces, the floating and titling skeletal structures one encounters in Tacla’s paintings, the feeling that one is both very close and very far away from what one is looking at, has something in common with the metaphysical paintings of Giorgio de Chirico, his empty plazas suffused with a harsh, unsettling light.

In Tacla’s case, the ground on which the viewer is standing seems to be absent, causing one to be gripped by a form of vertigo. The reason for this is that Tacla deliberately places the viewer in a physically impossible relationship to the view. Are we in it, surveying the ruins? Or are we floating above it, as if somehow we will remain unaffected by what we are looking at? At one open and flat, volumetric and two-dimensional, Tacla’s spaces are visual conundrums, places we cannot quite enter, even as we might feel we are falling toward, or floating above or beside them.

The questions the paintings provoke in us are disturbing because they challenge us to articulate our relationship to either a building which has collapsed or a structure, which, for no apparent reason, has been abandoned and is in a state of seemingly irreversible decay. We feel as if we have come upon some nameless disaster. In a number of cases, the building Tacla has depicted is the mangled, twisted heap of the Oklahoma City Federal Building, something most of us have seen only on television or in the newspapers. Thus, we are not witnesses to the event which caused the building’s collapse. We are not even innocent bystanders. Instead, we are people who read the newspaper, watch television, and in the differing degrees feel both isolated and connected from these events. They are incidents on the periphery of our consciousness. And we, in turn, are remote voyeurs. One might say that this sense of isolation and to some degree impotence is our common bond. We feel as if we are living the aftermath, that history has affected our lives in myriad ways, most of which we can’t quite name.

The bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building did what it was supposed to do: it sent a shudder through all of us. We couldn’t help but feel vulnerable. We woke up to the coldly sobering realization that being at the wrong place at the wrong time is no longer predictable in any way, that one is always running the risk of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. No matter where one lives, a gated community or a highrise, one feels like a victim of a crime, but we don’t exactly know what the crime is or how we are its victims. Is this what history has become? A ghostly presence? A feeling we can’t quite shake?

Three Tacla’s colors are shadowy, dusky, gritty, and molten. Predisposed to staining the ground with thin washes of monochromatic color, he subverts Rothko’s abstract purity by reminding us that the pink and red sunsets flooding our urban skylines might be the result of chemicals released into the atmosphere. He knows that even color is tainted by civilization. His use of red and oranges evoke in the viewer associations with rust, with bricks, and with the permanence of blood stains, while his dark blues seem at once chemical and crepuscular. Tacla seems to have derived his palete from colors found in industry and industrial waste, rather than in nature. In Tacla’s paintings, the clear light of day seems as distant as Saturn or Jupiter.

By applying thin washes of color, Tacla is not only able to develop a wide range of grounds, but he is also able to control the field, make it into an abstract topography of shifting tonalities. The open structures and twisted façades seem to be both emerging and sinking back into the saturated grounds. Thinking again of De Chirico and Rothko, I am struck by the degree to which Tacla has transformed this well-known, historical idioms into a potent contemporary one. That he does so without irony is all the more remarkable, because it compels the viewer to recognize that his paintings are not parodic, that they offer neither sanctuary nor escape. His deserted houses, empty rooms, and collapsed buildings convey a vision of a world crumbling under its own weight. Certainly, this dilemma strikes a familiar chord. For aren’t we all overwhelmed by how much we seem to have to know, just to get by?  

Four  Tacla’s aerial view of the Pentagon, which is an architectural anomaly and the nerve center of America’s military, reminds us that no building is finally neutral, that each building speaks to us about both the culture and historical moment in which it was built. Seen from the air, the viewer becomes a character in an unspecified, open-ended narrative? Are we terrorists? Passengers in a plane flying above Washington D.C.? Is this a dream or something glimpsed? Is terror finally a daily occurrence, something that has infiltrated every aspect of our lives and dreams?

Five   In a number of paintings, Tacla isolates a series of irregularly shaped rectangles within the overall composition. These rectangles or insets, each embodying their own fragment of an image, suggest that all of our seeing is geared towards the screen. Whereas painting might once have been analogous to a window, and in this century to a faceted or gridded surface, Tacla’s paintings of disembodied structures, at once ghostly and physical, seem to suggest that we are looking at a screen. The world we inhabit exists somewhere between materiality and insubstantiality. It has become a kind of ghost haunting us dogging our footsteps. At the same time, the insets remind us that seeing is an act fraught with interruptions.

Six     I think the realization that we are living in the aftermath of innumerable disasters is central to Tacla’s paintings. It’s as if, no matter where we turn, where we go, and what we see, we are continually encountering the remains of a building or structure. Given that we are members of a society, and should to some extent be aware of the plight of others, we might ask ourselves what, if anything, links us together.

Seven Tacla’s views are simultaneously complete and partial. Initially, the viewer deduces that the partial views are clear indications that the artist believes there is no vantage point from which to see and comprehend the world. Later, it occurs to us that Tacla is getting at something larger, and more disturbing. We are living in a state of relentless disintegration, and that there is no way to alter this fact.

Eight In his collapsing together of abstraction and representation, the atmospheric with the linear, and finally, the documentary with the fictive, Tacla achieves something unexpected. He transcends both the regional and the national, and becomes an artist whose concerns extend far beyond the domain of the art world. At the same time, by equating his paintings with destroyed buildings and open, three-sided roofless structures, Tacla subverts the notion that a painting must hold a sanctified place on the wall. Placed on a wall in a gallery or a museum, for example, Tacla depictions of twisted ribar, sagging floors, and collapsed roofs evoke the future toward which both building and painting are hurtling.

Nine  While the paintings convey a disaster, a past which has spilled into the present, Tacla leaves it up to the viewers to decide what the future will bring. In this sense, Tacla is a narrative painter who wants to collapse the barriers between art and life. Thus, the narrative the viewer provides must unfold both within the painting’s terrain and outside it, in the world. And it is this possibility, that the narrative we will tell both individually and collectively must extend beyond the painting’s territory, that makes Tacla’s paintings so powerful. They implicate us.

Ten    The glimpses of the aftermath of destruction we see in our lives, the events from which we often feel remote, powerless to change or alter. This is the state of consciousness Tacla’s paintings brings us to. We feel hemmed in, alone. For all around us are the twisted girders, the eroded bricks, the broken planks—the bones—of our entropic world.


 John Yau





John Yau. 1999