THE SPRAWL: Recent Paintings

Jorge Tacla continues to distinguish himself from this generation of postmodern painters. For while he knowingly embraces the innovate modernism of Jackson Pollok and Mark Rothko, he is also deeply aware that what he has inherited from these precursors is extreme states of decay and disintegration, a world fallen to pieces. It is this world of destroyed structures, and their decomposing fragments, that he investigates in his trenchant views of vacant towns, collapsing buildings and destroyed rooms.


Tacla’s synthesis of sinuous lines and stained, atmospheric fields enabled him to push deeper into a territory which is understood as being synonymous with postmodern civilization’s erasure of the self. Largely of concern to site-specific artists, such as Gordon Matta-Clark, and filmmakers, such as Won Kar-wai, this zone of anonymity has seldom been explored by postmodern painters. This is what connects as well as separates him from Rothko and Pollock. In Tacla’s paintings, the vibrant, color saturated field and gravity defying space in which we encounter the deteriorating emptiness inhabiting the core of our psyche. It is the space of anonymity and disintegration, where exterior façades and interior spaces have collapsed in a heap. Thus, it is both the dimly lit, clandestine spaces inhabited by the contemporary soul and a crumbing urban lanscape where heroes and myths no longer exist.


In Won Kar-wai’s film Happy together (1997), the two characters Ho Po-wing and Lai Yin-fai have left Hong and gone to Argentina, its antipodal opposite, ostensibly to see the Iguaza Waterfall (South America’s equivalent of Niagara Falls). Iguaza is both a tourist site and a symbol of the disintegration around which Ho and Lai are always drifting. Throughout the film, which shifts effortlessly between various kinds of black-and-white to seductively irritating color, the camera never opens up a breathing space between the audience and the characters; it neither seduces nor reassures the audience with a long panning shot of Buenos Aires, where much of the film’s action takes place. By refusing to use the camera to give the viewer a visual and thus emotional distance from the film’s urban setting, Wong subverts any association we might have with the alluring silhouette of the Emerald City. Think of Manhattan, either as crowded, gritty island or as a popular film by Woody Allen, and one thinks of its skyline at certain times of the day or night, as well as its familiar topography of skyscrapers and dazzling allure of neon lights. Within this context, Manhattan (like Oz’s Emerald City) becomes a destination rather than a place, an ideal rather than a fact. It is the place that lies somewhere over the rainbow and thus for both Wong and Tacla is an illusion.


Tacla is a painter of incontrovertible facts. And yet, he recognizes that such facts have both an emotional and fictive power over us. He may base compositions on the aftermath of the bombing of Oklahoma City Federal Building, as he did in a number of paintings from around 1996, but he doesn’t make his paintings into anecdotal narratives about heroes or human suffering. Rather, he brings the viewer into claustrophobic proximity with the image’s disquieting power, its eery, ghostly presence in our lives. In these paintings, Tacla addresses the troubling emotional distance that is an inherent aspect of media’s presentation, as well as its incessant recycling, of particular images such as the Federal Building’s bomb blasted interior. By both transposing and transforming familiar, close-up images of the blast into an all-over composition of sharply contrasting colors reminiscent of bleached-out photographs, Tacla registers the different kinds of distance that separates us from each other and from ourselves. We are belated witnesses, and our belatedness ensures us of having a privileged view. Instead of reinforcing this privileged vantage point, Tacla’s compositions shift between recognizable image and elusive abstraction; and this tautly articulated visual disturbance pulls us closer to the painting’s surface, making us aware of the distance, which, with the intervention of the media, enables us to stay apart from what is unfolding in the world. Our existence, Tacla’s paintings make clear, has become of vicarious experiences.


Thus, by integrating a partial view of the building, largely the interior of a collapsing structure (or disintegrating grid) with an all-over composition, Tacla is able to reveal the distance afforded us by the mass media’s interventions. For whereas the mass media turned a real event into a symbolic one, Tacla used abstraction to direct our attention back to which was real and unknowable, the event itself. At the same time, the disturbing seductiveness of these paintings not only serve to remind us of our own voyeuristic interest in events that occur far from our daily life, but they also suggest that beneath our calm exterior there may exist a month-like interest in contemporary manifestations of an all consuming flame.


Tacla focuses on the complex emotional power imbedded within an irreducible fragment. Like Wong, his emotionally cool, yet visually seductive views of exposed buildings, deserted towns, and uninhabited (and perhaps uninhabitable) rooms are discrete fragments; they suggest but they do not show the larger, more expansive mileu. We can neither determine where Tacla’s empty towns or ruined interiors end, nor deduce where they might actually be. Their anonymity is disturbing because Tacla doesn’t provide us with an emotional distance; he doesn’t enable us to step back and see the painting’s view as if it existed anywhere but here in front of us. This proximity reminds us that no matter how peripheral one might believe one’s existence is to disaster, that distance is no longer guaranteed. In this sense, Tacla can be said to have re-envisioned Warhol’s “Death and Disaster” paintings by making it evident that that possibility has moved much closer to the viewer, even if he or she feels more disconnected from reality than ever before. In contemporary society, its overloading of media images and statistics, suffering is no longer endured by individuals, but by largely anonymous figures.


For Both Wong and Tacla, the boundaries between one habitat and another are no longer evident. The walls and doors separating us from each other have been literally and figuratively destroyed. This has not helped us overcome our isolation, but immersed us deeper in it. In refusing to provide the audience the privilege of experiencing this decaying world from a safe emotional distance, both Wong and Tacla resist reassuring the public. Rather, Wong’s camera caresses the characters, while Tacla’s seductive compositions pull the viewer closer to the site of decay and decomposition. At the same time, their views are partial and, like the lives of its absent or vanished inhabitants, seemingly detached from a centering whole.


Both Wong and Tacla have replaced postmodern contingency with something more harrowing, a state of free-floating disconnectedness. And because the places they explore are seemingly detached from the world we inhabit, and are almost completely anonymous in their architectural details, they become contemporary civilization’s equivalents of the abyss, the black hole into which anyone of us could disappear, our existence on the roll call of daily life quickly and efficiently erased.


Tacla’s paintings disturb us precisely because they compel us to realize that the abyss isn’t an abstraction, but something very real and present in our daily life. In this regard, he shares something within the wave of speculative fiction writers that began gaining in the late 1970s. In his celebrated cyberpunk novel Necromancer, William Gibson has his characters use the term “The Sprawl” to refer to the dense, overlapping, urban clusters spreading along the entire length of the East Coast, and from Atlanta to New York and Boston. Gibson envisions a not-so-distant future in which the open spaces between one urban center and another have been filled in with peripheral communities whose connection to the center, if there actually is one, is tenuous. In Gibson’s vision of the world, all of us siding towards complete anonymity.


While Gibson designates a specific geographical area as “The Sprawl,” there are echoes of it throughout the world. How far does one have to go to see moldering buildings, shabby towns, and ramshackle constructions, whose inhabitants will never be reached by the census takers? It is this world that Tacla’s recent paintings articulate, a place where a state of anonymity is the closest one comes to achieving an identity. Hong Kong, Baltimore, Istanbul, Tokyo, Berlin, Madrid, Caracas, Moscow, or Santiago (where Tacla was born and first attended art school during the murderous Pinochet dictatorship): all of these places are in the process of upheaval, decay and renewal. But urban renewal, as anyone living in an American city knows all too well, is most often a dismal failure, because the city planners disregard human life in favor of cosmetic makeovers.


City planners like an area to look good, not necessarily be either inhabitable or even useful for more than a few hours a day. Berlin’s Postdamer Platz may be an architect’s dream, but what about the neighborhoods of Pankow and Wedding? What will the city planners do with the rows of tall, cold, demoralizing housing projects in what was once East Berlin, and what will they do be that much better? How about the closed-down factories and half-deserted neighborhoods far from Pastdamer Platz and Alexanderplatz? What about the outskirts and forgotten pockets of that huge, spreading city?


Tacla doesn’t try to answer these questions: he isn’t a didactic painter who offers the viewer evidence of his wisdom and insights. He has more respect for, and more faith in, the viewer than the contemporary artist for whom either a chic didacticism between those who are on the census roles and those who aren’t, the viewer and the unviewed. To his credit, the unviewed remain so in his paintings, as the public sees only empty rooms and open-faced buildings. There may be signs of life everywhere, but there are never any figures. It is a world devoid of human life, a place that has been abandoned out of a necessity which is seldom if ever spelled out. Thus, we find ourselves examining a ghost town, poring over the remains of what might have once been a busy intersection full of life. Civilization may believe it has conquered the wilderness, but Tacla knows that within every city there are zones of anarchy few of us would enter, as well as largely uncharted states of decay and entropy we try and ignore.


In this recent paintings of self-sufficient fragments and clusters of detritus, Tacla continues to extend out of, as well as revise, the infinitely spreading, centerless space Jackson Pollock achieved in his breakthrough paintings. In his use of spare, matter-of-fact lines combined with a shallow, vertiginous space to evoke a downward view of piles of planks scattered in disarray (For Rent, 1989), and in his merging of lines with an atmospheric space (Downtown, 1998), Tacla transforms both Pollock’s dense, overlapping weave of poured skeins of paint and Rothko’s contradictory abstract space into their decomposing opposites. In Tacla’s paintings, Rothkos’s rich somber light has become a noxious, chemically infested landscape, at once shadowy and vacant, while Pollock’s swirling skeins have become a falling, fallen structure. The promise of transcendence that lays at the heart of both Rothko’s and Pollock’s project is no longer possible. In Room 605 (1998), a disturbingly seductive painting of mangled ruins, Tacla has effectively replaced Pollock’s fluid all-overness with the claustrophobic aftermath of willful destruction, a no man’s land in which both further disintegration and destruction are inherent to the very existence of what are looking at.


Tacla’s paintings embody views of exposed interiors and empty, disheveled towns, torn roofs and piles of detritus. The drawing is both complete and open-ended, descriptive yet ambiguous. The rooms are simultaneously open views and schematic silhouettes, and thus embody a contradictory space. We see into them, but we cannot enter them. As viewers, and as one who is a witness to this landscape, we are confounded. We want to know what is it that we are looking at. In The town (1998), for example, the streaked, atmospheric, largely red ground shifts between soft, muddy landscape and misty sky. It’s as if one is looking at a Classical Chinese painting, and compelled to ask: Are the buildings resting on the ground or floating in the air? The open, exposed rooms evoke both early Renaissance paintings and Persian miniatures. At the same time, Tacla’s method of staining the canvas in tandem with his use of red evokes toxic spills and chemical poisoning. Was the disaster that befell this town natural or manmade? What happened to its inhabitants? Does this place exist in our past, future, or present? Or perhaps al three?


Such questions lead us back to our own lives, to what we choose to see and not to see. By motivating us to locate, as well as analyze, our experience within his provocative transformation of classical modernist means, Tacla compels us to keep returning our attention to the painting itself. In doing so, he impels us to consider that both we and painting occupy a similarity exposed and vulnerable state. Destruction and disintegration, his work suggests, are simultaneously unpredictable and inevitable processes. Thus, we cannot escape the consequences of the world we and our ancestors have set in motion; we can only attempt to alter its course, however slightly.


Tacla knows that in making a painting, he is presuming that there will be a place in which it will be safe, a secure wall on which it can be displayed. He also realizes that to embrace that aesthetic security is to ignore the larger, more disturbing truths confronting contemporary society. In Tacla’s insightful vision of the postmodern world, there are only three walls to any structure and the roof has long since caved in. Not only do wind and rain continually penetrate our sanctuary, but we are always at their mercy. Tacla’s paintings remind us that museums are not permanent structures, and that upheaval and deterioration are the only constants. Instead of offering us either a pleasing soporific and fashionable cynicism, he has chosen to look at daily life’s bitter truth in the eye. It is his determination to see the world for what it is, and to bring it to bear in his paintings, that singles him out from his contemporaries. Knowing there is no other world but this one, Tacla’s paintings invite, as well as help, us to dwell among the decaying ruins of our time.

John Yau. 1998