One constellation and several worlds: in the cosmos of Carlos José

/ 8 December, 2013

In his prodigious, too-short career, Carlos José Alfonzo (1950-1991) completed a body of work that was fluid, in constant movement, and stretched like a bridge or path between different areas. Those areas were mapped by the artist himself based on his personal cartography, something that will always distinguish him from his contemporaries as a brilliant and somewhat solitary person in Havana and Miami, the centers where he spent almost his entire career. A man closely connected to the sea—the beach, fish, and waves appear repeatedly in his iconography—Alfonzo made art that we would expect from a wise navigator and rambler: watching for the astral signs—the moon, sun, stars—and alert to anything that would allow him to be guided on land: trees, mountains, rivers, birds and flowers.

It is also peculiar that in his work he insists on depicting generic men and women, a very significant fact when taking into account that during that period a real explosion of portraiture was taking place. In painting, drawing, and engraving—as in photography previously—portraits were the essential vehicle for immortalizing the Cuban and international revolutionary pantheon, and of putting a face on the working class and the peasantry, soldiers, and students who were filling the mass media and gallery walls with their central role in society. However, the individualization supposedly favored by portraits hid an incessant search for archetypes, in an attempt to satisfy the realist idea of “model” characters.

While the immense majority of his work could be described as figurative, in his production in the United States—where he settled down in 1980, part of the massive wave of immigration from the Port of Mariel to Florida—Carlos José came to favor resources from abstraction, such as excessive gestural painting, drip, and background/figure ambiguity, frequently define the dramatic tone of his compositions, usually on large-format canvasses. The subjects depicted include an abundance of the references to the grotesque body, the anatomy of what has been torn to pieces, made from fragments that his line, very loose, takes it upon itself to define—because his drawings shape persons and objects, in this harsh and seething universe. The display of mouths, teeth, eyes, hands, tongues, and hearts is often crossed with daggers, knives, and other sharp pointy forms. The expressionism of the work that he made in the United States is in harmony with the esthetics that dominated Western art during those years, with the excess propagated by the market and institutions (…). At the same time, those works by Alfonzo express a sense of instability, of a violent reality in which everything seems upside down. It is a dramatic quality that I would venture to interpret as informed, at least around the late 1989s, by the anguish and contradictions of the social climate that surrounded the early years of the AIDS epidemic in that country. During those years, the virus hit the gay community hard, and some of its fatal victims in the following decade included very distinguished artists and intellectuals, such as Keith Haring, David Wojnarowicz, and Cubans Félix González-Torres and Reinaldo Arenas. That same disease soon cut short, very prematurely, the life and work of Alfonzo.

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