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luis cruz azaceta:

An exile in New Orleans

right: Museum Plan for New Orleans, 2006 below: Swimming to Havana, 2009

Urban decay and violence, visual tension, barriers and barricades, metaphors and graffiti, refugees and exiles, Arcadia and Utopia spin wildly through the art of Luis Cruz Azaceta like mosquitoes around a porch light on a summer night.

The Cuban-born New Orleans artist often explores a darker side of America. His monumental assemblages of barricades and photo constructions of urban blight, representing both hope and decay within American culture, reflect his continuing ambiguity toward his adopted homeland.

Azaceta’s journey to New Orleans began in 1960 when his family fled Castro’s Cuba and settled in New York, where he eventually became a critically acclaimed figure in the city’s contemporary art scene. Then in the early 1980s, he served a brief stint as a visiting artist at LSU in Baton Rouge. There he met Sharon Jacques, a young graduate art student with a studio right across from his. They married and moved back to New York. But, as the old saying goes, you can’t take a New Orleans girl too far from New Orleans and her family. The Azacetas and their two young sons moved to New Orleans in 1992. “I wanted to raise my sons in the South, and her family was here in New Orleans,” Azaceta says. “I’ve always loved New Orleans.” 

Perhaps he felt a special genetic and cultural connection between his native Havana and what many call the Caribbean’s northernmost city. (The New York writer A.J. Liebling once described New Orleans as a cross between Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and Patterson, N.J.)

Once in New Orleans, Azaceta began to experiment with his art and for the first time used photography and photo collages to explore the city. Even his paintings changed in New Orleans. “I began to incorporate images of New Orleans in my paintings,” he says. “They are not as expressionistic as they were in New York.” Traveling about the city with his camera helped him “to get into the culture of the city.”

As in New York, Azaceta has become critically successful in New Orleans, with major shows in galleries and museums from New Orleans and Miami to New York; Sacramento, Calif.; and Mexico. Earlier this year, the New Orleans Museum of Art, or NOMA, also featured his paintings in a one-artist show.

While Azaceta’s work in New York, especially earlier work that dealt with urban violence and AIDS, tended to demand gut reactions from viewers, his earliest New Orleans work seemed almost passive and reflective, like stanzas from unrelated poems. Two large constructions started in New York but completed in New Orleans, Barricade and Borderline, had more to do with promise than denial. Barricade is a dark and somber reminder of the Berlin Wall. A black wooden ladder leans against the canvas, and a small window cut through the wall reveals blue skies and sunshine on the other side. For those who live on the fringes of America’s dominant culture, the ladder is hope, a means of transcendence, and the window promises a better life on the other side.

In Borderline, Azaceta constructed another “barrier” with plastic netting on which is hung found flotsam of daily life — video tapes, toys, shoes, photographs and other found objects. They hang like reliquaries at a religious shrine. Yet even here the downtrodden are given hope by the knotted cloth lifeline that hangs from the webbed barrier.

In an unrelated 1999 series he called Back Streets, Azaceta shot photographs of street scenes in shabby and blighted New Orleans neighborhoods and mounted them on wood panels to create sobering urban art. In his 1997 assemblage Poydras 1, the artist captured an almost Mondrian-esque symmetry of boarded-up windows in an ordinary 19th-century New Orleans town house about to be demolished. In other images, he found art on  paint-chipped walls of dilapidated riverfront warehouses reminiscent of the action paintings of the 1950s.

These photo assemblages reveal a curiosity about his new home, especially the effect the city’s long semitropical summers have had on its aging architecture and neighborhoods: There’s no sentimentality here, but the artist does seem to be saying that art is all around us, even in decay. They give order and aesthetic redemption to
a disorderly world.

Like most artists living in New Orleans before and after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Azaceta responded to the tragedy in his 2007 series Local Anesthesia. The title seemed odd, considering the power of his images. There was nothing anesthetic about them. Rather than easing pain, they graphically reminded viewers of the great suffering. In his mixed-media paintings N.O. Pool and New Orleans Flood, for example, Azaceta drowned the city in pools of black water. And in his drawing Head Watch, a crazed and frantic face emerges from the side of a television set broadcasting scenes of houses and trees being washed away. His compelling photo collages True Value: 9th Ward and Katrina Debris spoke to the hundreds of lives lost and thousands of homes destroyed. Here, he pieced together photographs of lifeless neighborhoods; wrecked houses; churches; and mountains of felled trees, building materials and the remnants of people’s everyday lives.

Perhaps the most poignant work in this effort was At the Bottom of the Pot, a series of color photographs of storm destruction and survivors wading through floodwaters to safety. Mounted to the bottoms of metal pots and pans (a nod to the city’s culinary significance in American cuisine), the photographs show the faces of the “bottom-of-the-pot” poor, elderly or infirm people who could not or did not evacuate the city before the storm struck. He captured their struggles to survive. The large installation piece Cascade, with ordinary household goods strung out on wires “cascading” from a bicycle wheel, created the illusion of flood debris that covered the city like an 80-square-mile garbage dump after the waters receded. Azaceta’s Local Anesthesia was a reminder of how tragedy can inspire passionate art.

Azaceta’s most recent work, however, reflects an artist still living in an emotional labyrinth between life in exile in an adopted land and fading memories of Havana. That suspension between memories and reality becomes clear in his most recent autobiographical series, Swimming to Havana and Exile 50, shown earlier this year at NOMA
and Arthur Roger Gallery in New Orleans. 

With a bold polychromatic palette belying his Caribbean sensitivities, Azaceta explores real and metaphysical questions of exile, displacement, alienation and longing for a pre-Castro Cuba that exists only in his memories. In both shows, he creates deceptively whimsical, almost playful labyrinths painted in tension-creating counterpoints of color and form as devices to portray this dichotomy between his life in exile and the past. Bayview and Green Fugue, for instance, are purely intuitive, unplanned and spontaneous brushstrokes that gradually take form as he paints and adds color.

In Evacuees and Hell Act II, Azaceta includes figurative narratives within abstract labyrinths that act out personal and yet universal feelings of dislocation and displacement. In the painting Swimming to Havana I, for example, the artist is seen in an endless tragicomic struggle, swimming –– and at times drowning –– in a stream of water that rushes endlessly through a labyrinth with no way in and no way out.

Visually and substantively, Azaceta’s strongest criticism of Cuba’s dictatorship was found not in abstract labyrinths of despair but in the figurative imagery of Industrial Complex. Here, the artist isolates the image of Jesus seated alone at the Last Supper. A single bright and menacing light bulb hangs above his head, much like interrogation lights in old B-movies. A crucifix lies on the floor in front of the table. A hooded figure, perhaps his interrogator or executioner, stands behind him. 

In a way, Azaceta’s personal journey in Swimming to Havana and Exile 50 represents the ambiguities in all our lives. At one time or another, we all thrash about in our own labyrinths.

To see Azaceta’s work, visit Arthur Roger Gallery at   www.arthurrogergallery.com.

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