THE LIQUID STAGE: AN APPROACH TO HUMBERTO AQUINO
Despite the recurring authoritative proclamations to the contrary, painting cannot die because it is one of the few structures by which mankind’s instinct to civilize has been thought and expressed.
Only structures of this kind can create traditions (for themselves and for the culture as a whole) and in turn, draw ideas and points of reference from these traditions in order to change the course of creativity and values that guide the life of a society.
The wondrous art of Humberto Aquino proves conclusively that painting as an agent of innovation and reflection is alive and well.
All true art is wondrous, but redundancy is ineluctable in an age in which many lauded works of art are little more than socio-political riddles abandoned the instant they are solved. Certain redundancies help us recover essential truths that were once premises of civilized life. At any given time very little art is produced in the world, and, as Aquino reminds us, the wondrous nature of this rarity called art rests on its ability to generate myriad interpretations and never be exhausted by any one of them. or by all of them together. Few artists in the world today are as committed as Aquino to work from and within the conviction that painting is lucid theater whose enigmatic core permits a unique state of consciousness to occur between an image that is a world onto itself — its referential or “abstract” language being a peripheral aspect in the domain of style — and the never passive viewer. Put more simply, the paintings of Humberto Aquino make us think in aesthetic terms about art, the world, tradition, history, time, identity, and they embrace these terms as the essential grounding of all pictorial thought.
Like all great artists who have emerged from Latin America over the last century, Aquino accepts as self-evident the power of art and representation. This is true even of the region’s “abstractionists,” including artists who use geometric, constructivist, or kinetic images to represent ideas about energy, movement, time, and the laws that govern the physical world. It is also true of artists who work with referential schemes. Aquino has mastered a tradition in Latin American painting which is perhaps the least understood but most commented on. To epidermal commentators, “fantastic” and “magical realist” images are emblems of the region’s painting, especially as a consequence of the art market’s canonization of Frida Kahlo. These packagers of Latin American civilization have placed reference in the region’s visual arts under house arrest, guarded by the rhetoric of anguish, catharsis, protest, and tribal-mania. The packaging obeys the desire to reduce Latin America to the category of a semi-civilized region whose art is enchantingly thoughtless, intuitive, and telluric.
The artistic current which finds one of its masters in Aquino can best be approached through some of the basic tenets of Edmund Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology. Husserl maintained that consciousness, though it embraces the old dualistic “poles” of mind and world, is capable of reflecting upon itself “eidetically” (i.e., free of presuppositions, vividly). If transcendental phenomenological awareness is indeed possible, it might best (or perhaps only) be achieved through painting. This art is less dependent on matter and more oriented toward image than is sculpture. Unlike literature, painting is free from language, and it is free to represent the shared world of experience unlike music. Unlike architecture, painting is unchecked by shelter and function. Given that we are preeminently visual beings, painting is the ideal mode through which mind can reflect upon itself, and since the mind transforms phenomena into images and thought through representation, image need not be conceived as “pure” matter to be raised onto the altar of abstraction, nor representation be made to cower on the side chapels of irony and appropriation. Contrary to fashionable belief, painting will always be capable of using images grounded in common experience to produce a theatrical scheme that impels us to reflect on consciousness and its mechanics.
Aquino’s painting is grounded in this premise, and it turns unabashedly into an operative philosophical vehicle through the handling of complex tropes, the study of which alone can lead us to an understanding of the depth and originality of any artist or any work. Aquino’s paintings are windows onto an infinite domain, not that of the dream state but that of poetic consciousness reflecting upon itself and its discourse. What makes it poetic is it's surrender to the rebuilding of the self ‘s relationship to the world through tropes, i.e., through discursive constructs which escape denotation yet communicate ideas. The rebuilding begins with the stripping away of presuppositions we attach to everyday objects and events. This generates a vivid or “eidetic” awareness of these objects and events. Finally, we reconstitute these objects and events and experience them in a new and, by implication, world-expanding context.
Tropes, usually conceived as operating in language, drive all major visual thinking in Latin America; it is the primacy of tropes in visual thinking that distinguishes the region's art from that of North America and Western Europe in the twentieth century. Aquino's work simultaneously dramatizes reflections on the world and on the act of consciousness, and this simultaneity is controlled by metonymy. the trope of contiguity which enacts a transference of the values and significations associated with one element onto another proximate element. In this manner, Aquino is able to use the more familiar language of reflection on experience to also image forth the act of reflecting on the act of reflection.
We should recall that metonymy is the trope which, according to Jakobson, governs syntax in language. What is more important. metonymy generates our sense of closure or unity of thought. At a precise point. intuitively. we know that a sentence is complete, that a scene or musical piece is complete. that a painted image whole. At a specific point we know that a message has passed from one mind (the artists), through discourse or image. to ours; the idea has at that moment come into being for us. Not only does metonymy rule transference as well as closure, it cannot generate the first without effecting the latter. It is the primary trope in the poetics and visual thought of Aquino.
Not only do these wondrous paintings activate diverse metonymies. they also evoke this trope’s power through specific images which function as its symbols. In Aquino’s works we behold paintings within paintings. mirrors. internal frames. all of which fulfill a double duty. They generate an internal infinite space reverberating in the pictorial stage Aquino has laid out before us, but they are also icons of the metonymic power this pictorial stage has to unify the images represented in it. In Aquino’s work. metaphor. the trope of resemblance. codifies the transcendental or self-reflective power of consciousness that is enabled by metonymy. The agency of consciousness which turns awareness into an “object” (noema) without bracketing (temporarily suspending) its nature as an act (noesis). is itself represented through images (noemata) that frame or embrace space. These symbolic representations of metonymically controlled transcendental consciousness have their own reverberations. Their essential function as enclosures is echoed by pedestals, bases, chairs, compasses, instruments, and windows. Also, the images of other’ objects are so delicately and deliberately positioned in these scenes that they too take on the function of parameters.
Beyond this range of tangible images there is in Aquino’s art another wave of reverberation which envelopes traditional genres like the still-life, the portrait, and the self-portrait. These genres function as conceptual “frames” or as internalized languages within the broader theater of the painting. It is not enough to simply point to the various “levels” of reference operating in Aquino’s work. There is a subtle and fluid syntax which binds these levels. Otherwise, no sense could be made of the juxtapositions and seemingly oneiric arrangement of images, nor could we make any sense of the multiplicity of genres which are engaged in any single painting. The transference–the– syntax which binds these references, juxtapositions, and genres, is effected by the deep, focused, and abiding purpose of Aquino’s art, which is to dramatize the poetic entry of consciousness into the world while it reflects upon itself in this very act.
Since Las Meninas, the integration of a self-portrait into a scene has become one of the most powerful ways of paying homage to the creative process within a painting. This integration can easily become a clever mannerism, but Aquino avoids this pitfall by making the self-portrait part of the dialogue that his works establish within the elements dramatized or represented within them. The dialogue is not merely played out in terms of form and composition, or in terms of symbols and images. One does not “read” paintings (or any other work of art; neither do we “read” poetry), one “has” them, much as one has a dream. The Aquino dialogue, revealed in its complexity by the presence of self-portraits in scene, captures the complexity of characters engaging each other on the stage and transfers this complexity to the interaction of images in a painting. This is not done by evoking action, but by subtly emphasizing the temporality of the images. That is, Aquino portrays “still” images which seem haunted by the impact of time, and thereby he generates a feeling of overall action, hence of dialogue and interaction. The self-portrait announces that this dramatization and its temporal overtones are entirely a reflection of a unique sensibility engaged in a singular act of consciousness, the one that is also presented before us as existing simultaneously in the mind of the artist (who, in conceiving and executing the work, projects aspects of his identity through it) as well as in the minds of all the viewers of the painting.
Transcendental awareness generates its own simultaneity of consciousness among all subjectivities who have come into contact with the painting — that complete pictorial world that is before us — and with all those who have yet to do so. It is a simultaneity that violates the everyday sequentiality of time, just as tropes violate everyday literalness as well as ordinary practical or cursory awareness of the world. This simultaneity of subjectivities is also codified in Aquino’s painting by juxtapositions of images which are distinctly linked to epochs and places. Greco-Roman sculpture, pre-Columbian images, Renaissance perspectives, convex mirrors and other distortions of space we associate with Baroque painting, and many other cultural references do more than coexist in Aquino’s theatrical cosmos. Where other artists are content to intersect or juggle references with molecular randomness, Aquino gives a sense of forged communion among these otherwise disassociated cultural and historical allusions. We are witnesses to the formation of a visual syntax that precedes those of language and dream and which makes their capacity to mean possible.
Through Aquino’s theatrics of temporal fluidity we come to understand that bracketing our everyday notion of the “present” leads us to model our sense of the immanent on the confluence or the forum. The present becomes for us a stage upon which structures of consciousness linked to identifiable periods and times, disown their trivial anchoring in historical narrative and become the free agents of the temporal. In this agency, the narrow confines of individuated tropes is abandoned with the same fury of vision with which the abacus of historicity was shed. An implosion of transference, substitution, synecdoche, and irony produces in Aquino’s paintings a kind of energy which not even actual theater or movies can produce, freighted as they are with “real” movement and language and gesture. In the stillness of the Aquino memory theater, a purity of consciousness as action reveals itself solely to consciousness reflecting upon itself.
As the Aquino scenario requires a radical entry into the cosmos the painting presents, it demands, again paradoxically, the preservation of a solvent distance between the subjectivity that is “having” the painting and the painting. This is the distance of freedom, absent in dream and hallucination. But it is more compromising than the psychical distance of ordinary theater because it does not prioritize our levels of identification as drama does. As a spectator in theater, we are drawn to a character perhaps, or to a conflict or setting, with which we identify primordially. We arrange the other elements of the event into orbits around this fundamental link that enables us to suspend disbelief. In Aquino’s theatrical cosmos, there is no one solar point around which the other dimensions of our commitment can turn. The event, the having of it, is total and fluid. We are committed only to reflect, along with the artist, on a magical interaction of images which simultaneously elicits our pondering the act of reflection itself. The misty distance and fluid, non-hierarchical focus trigger subsequent musings on the nature of image, identity, and freedom. We are always free to pay the price of not reflecting.
This paradox—the stillness which allows a sense of action to come into profound being—also finds a surface expression in the wondrous paintings of Aquino. That expression emerges in Aquino’s handling of light. He creates with extreme delicacy a grainy atmosphere which conjures the precision of photography and the inexactitude of old photographs or prints even though there is nothing photo-realist about his style or execution. This textural atmosphere evokes intimacy and distance, immediacy and eternity. Aquino has captured the luminous language of the recalled dream, the distance — fractured poetics of memory. But what is recalled is the nascent adventure of an imagining, the poetry of future —not a fantasy but a theatrical context, lit precisely as it must be, in which a new syntax that binds and articulates diverse pasts generates the possibility that future can be conceived in the present. At the center of this scenario is a new sense of identity as prism, self-reflecting and capable of embracing temporality as a poetic act of the mind. A new theatrical being, conscious of consciousness as theater, is being heralded.
Cuban-American Poet and Author of Short Fiction
Art Critic of Latin American Art in the US and Europe