Ars Longa: Still Life And Figurative Works By Humberto Aquino
There are certain works which define the essence of the “soul” of Humberto Aquino’s art. One of these is the exquisite painting done in the early 1980s known as VITA BREVIS, ARS LONGA. We might consider his image in a rather detailed way, as it communicates to us so much of the quintessential intimacy and innate comprehension on the part of the artist of the silent Messages transmitted by objects and spaces which we perceive in our everyday realities. While each of the objects displayed in this work are drawn from the banal vocabulary of our existence, each one is raised to a level far beyond the initial rationality of their creation. At the center of this canvas, standing as an archetypal metaphor for Aquino’s reality as a painter, is a canvas. On one hand, we might view the presence of this canvas as an element that has been employed and Manipulated by artists in still life compositions for generations (Baroque examples, those drawn from the American realist tradition of William Harnett and Peto as well as more avant-garde prototypes in the work of Antoni Tapies may be cited). Yet in this painting, the canvas is seen from the back; it serves a function here not as a picture within a picture. The artist has subverted its meaning and he employs this canvas as a shelf or niche in which to present the image of a small pre-hispanic Peruvian idol. In the hands of some artists this might be cited as a “folkloric” or “typical” element. Aquino, who was born in Peru and who lived there until l972 when he won a scholarship to study in Britain, could easily have fallen into such a trap were he a painter less assured of the messages he wishes to convey. Old stereotypes fall apart when we consider the work of Aquino.
Here the idol is simply another component in the enigmatic vocabulary of the painter. It establishes its position as the centrifugal force around which the other objects are placed. It is inward turning and silent, a mute fetish anchoring the scene.
Other factors in this painting are equally paradoxical. The individual elements of the hanging key, paint tube, spindle, post card with a woman’s likeness as well as the jars and the tankard which supports a plant growing toward the light of the upper regions, all add to the mystery and, at the same time, serve as testimonies to the fact that Aquino’s art is based in the strict reality of observed phenomena. In this as well as other still-lifes by this master there is an equally strong reminiscence of Aquino's interest in geometric proportion and harmonic balance. The equilibrium established by the relative stability of shapes and weights is especially evident in Vita Brevis… but can be observed in many other paintings as well.
Aquino is an artist in whose work a late twentieth century post-modernist sensibility (which often accounts for some of the more unexpected, even quirky juxtapositions of objects in his paintings), shares equal pride of place with an intense study of and awareness of past art historical traditions. In virtually every piece in the current exhibition, the viewer senses a thorough assimilation of Renaissance–Baroque traditions and a re-invention of hallowed forms of classical visual expression to create his distinctive artistic personality. Aquino evidently would feel equally at home in the Prado, the Louvre or the National Gallery as he could in the studios and galleries of Chelsea and SOHO.
As an artist of Latin American background, it is little wonder that the revered Spanish Golden Age traditions of still life would have made a powerful mark on his work. Such a painting as the VITA BREVIS and many others evidences a profound knowledge of the still-lifes of seventeenth century painters Juan Sanchez Cotan, Juan van der Hamen or even the great Francisco de Zurbaran himself. All of these artists were masters at subtle composition and balanced forms.
Many other art historical sources are at work in these paintings (each of which is created with a complete mastery of technique and many of them are endowed with a sfumato effect which is so characteristic of Aquino’s art). Aquino has obviously spent long hours studying the works of early Renaissance masters of both the north and the south of Europe. A quotation from as Early Italian Renaissance painting of an angel contains an enigmatic banderole which floats free from the painting’s surface in one of Aquino’s most arresting portraits. Or a detail of a Flemish master’s portrait of a veiled woman is included in another arresting still life of a cup of water with flowers growing from it - a painting which is also provided with an archaizing frame, an aspect of the work that brings us even closer to Aquino’s historical references.
Humberto Aquino is palpably interested in the clashes and convergences of time and space. References to epochs past as well as to the exigencies of modernity coexist in his work in a way that makes us intimately conscious of the elasticity of reality. On the other hand, we must not make the mistake to classify Aquino as an antiquarian or as a mere scrutinizer or archeologist of other moments in history in order to derive the forms of his art. Aquino is, if nothing else, an artist in whose paintings a keen sense of irony underlies the meanings of the images. This can be intuited in virtually all of his works in both subtle and obvious ways. A portrait of a Conquistador, for instance, will display an individual incongruously dressed in the garb of a Spanish grandee of the seventeenth century. At his side, however, appears an industrialized landscape seen through a window. Futuristic buildings share the space with a river scene and a further reference to the urban realities of Paris by way of a gothic cathedral within the same composition, a cupid balances himself on one leg atop a statue of a Venus-like figure, aiming his bow with its arrow directly at the subject of the portrait. Irony, humor and a sometimes difficult to penetrate vocabulary of symbols are among the hallmarks of Aquino’s art.
Ironic incongruities abound within the repertory of themes dealt with by Aquino. confrontations of persons who would, under normal real-life circumstances never meet are a common occurrence in his paintings. In an Aquino canvas, it is just as likely to find Marilyn Monroe, Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud (complete with parrot on his shoulder) engaged in a sacra conversazione as it is to observe a top hatted nineteenth century dandy (reminiscent of J.P. Morgan) keeping company with a bearded Renaissance saint and a modern man in a business suit.
The act of creation itself is one of Aquino’s principal preoccupations and many of these paintings depict an artist at work within his studio or in the open air. Several of these works in which an artist is observed wielding his brushes, immersed in the act of making a painting, remind us that we must identify Aquino with another tradition that reaches far back into the past. The theme of the “artist in his studio” is one that has provoked many critical and analytical studies among art historians. The act of the creation of a Work of art as a sacred ritual is certainly at the heart of these depictions. The sentimentalizing of the manufacture of art has been an intimate concern of painters from Valazquez to Vermeer, Courbet, Manet and Van Gogh to innumerable twentieth century painters who have taken up the symbolically charged challenge of depicting the moment of inspiration and the instant of its actualization.
The relationships between the art of Humberto Aquino and certain modern and contemporary painters who have entered into lively dialogue With Surrealism are compelling to suggest. George Tooker and Paul Cadmus have both created images in which social-criticism and commentary share center stage with both sensuality and a sensitivity to strange combinations of forms and unexpected coupling of objects. Both of these artists, along with other Americans such as William Bailey share with Aquino an acute interest in intense observation. All of them are masters of technique and employ their renderings of materiality to suggest concepts and psychological elements which are just out of reach of most of us. Aquino, like certain other artists of realist tendencies, journeys into realms which are nebulous and murky He is able to make clear for us many of those same dream images which We have ourselves experienced but, because they are evanescent and transitory they have dwindled into nothingness in our minds. Aquino’s art is an art of memory, an art of description and an art of suggestion.
Despite the concrete appearances, What he describes is usually more of an inner reality a reality of the soul rather than that of crass material existence. The poetic imagination of Humberto Aquino resides in a sphere Where most of us cannot enter. It is the product of an intensity and a heightening of visible awareness and a concretizing of ineffable spiritual values in order to comment on those situations in which We all inevitably find ourselves. In creating these images,Aquino also creates a World in which an acute sense of the aestheticized memory creates a macrocosm of the poetic.
Edward J. Sullivan
Helen Gould Sheppard Professor of The History of Art
The Institute of Fine Arts
New York University