Ghosts and guardians. Arturo Rodriguez’s Figures by Donald Kuspit

Arturo Rodriguez is a Cuban, and a Cuban haunted by the past, indeed, preoccupied with a Cuba he left at the age of 14, causing, as he has said, “an irremediable rupture in my identity.” Rupture, and with it the “deep feeling of alienation, of not belonging anywhere” that accompanies it – the sense of being between here and there, between the United States in which Rodriguez lives, and the Cuba of his youth, in which he can never live again – is the clue to Rodriguez’s paintings. It is at once their theme and method.

Writing about Rodriguez’s “Ghost Archipelago” Series, Alejandro Anreus observes:: “For a Cuban, the title immediately evokes the dead – those who have died in the island, never to be seen by the exiled. The title also evokes the island itself, the largest within the archipelago, ever present in the soul, ever absent physically.” All this is true, but what is striking about Ghost Archipelago 1 and 2 ,both 1999, is the sense of upheaval in them – the lack of stability of a firm ground on which the figures can stand. There is, in fact, no ground, only a swirling void, in which naked bodies and sketchy objects appear, as though in limbo. They are strewn through oceanic space like islands in an archipelago, carried along by its changing currents. Like such islands, they were once connected, and remain connected under the surface of the sea, but their connection has been broken by some cataclysmic event. It is this catastrophe that Rodriguez depicts, and the rupture in life that results from it, especially the broken connection between those who have survived the disaster and those who have perished in it.

According to the ancient traditions of many cultures, the dead left unburied are doomed to wander the earth until they are buried. It is these wanderers, wraithlike but also grossly physical – half mirage but also visceral, as befits their in-between position – that Rodriguez depicts. He shows them in the process of being consumed by Big Brother – the giant head with its sadistic teeth. As the black interior of the coffin in Ghost Archipelago 1 suggests, these victims of the State will disappear in the abyss of death. Like a medieval painter – the world he depicts resembles a medieval vision of the underworld, even of the Last Judgment – Rodriguez presents a sequence of allegorical events. They are emotionally charged fantasies rooted in real experience of suffering. They are allegorical dreams of human unhappiness. The sacred and the profane intermingle in them, as in life.

All of Rodriguez’s figures are alienated from one another, particularly his lovers, however hard they try to be intimate – however many bouquets, tokens of affection and life, they give to each other. His paintings are not only about social alienation, but personal alienation – alienation off affection, as it has been called. This seems to me brilliantly explicit in Impossible Rites, 1996, showing a naked upside down reclining woman, with a large unhappy face, and a rightside up clothed man carrying a chair on his back, presumably for the woman of his dreams. They are separated by a female tree of life – Daphne in the process of becoming a laurel tree after rejecting Apollo? (there are many mythological motifs or nuances in Rodriguez’s pictures, however subliminally) – and go their separate ways. Each of the three figures exists in a space of its own – a statement of the separateness that results from the catastrophic relationship between the sexes. The twistednes of their relationship is explicit in the marvelously entangled figures in an untitled 1998 painting. They are tied together in a Gordian knot that only a sword can cut, killing them both.

The couple on the right side of Anima, 1996, are physically and emotionally united – both swing on the rope – but on the left side the couple are at odds, the woman having fallen from the rope. Rodriguez shows us Adam and Eve before the Fall, and Adam and Eve after the Fall, their harmony ruptured. The fabulous allegorical figure of Anima in the center conveys both the intensity and melancholy of desire. In Sub Rosa, 1994, Rodriguez’s most ambitious allegory of life and death – more personal than social, and more emotional than physical, although the body is clearly the space in which emotions exist for Rodriguez – he offers a truly medieval vision of the psyche. It is medieval in scope, grandeur, and vividness, for both figures and execution have the primitive energy evident in early medieval art. And the grotesqueness. Rodriguez is drawn to the grotesque expressionistic figures of Beckmann, Orozco and Bacon, as well he should be, for his works have the same emotional violence and visionary fullness, climactically in House, 1989-90, which has affinities with some of the horrors in Beckmann’s triptychs and Orozco’s murals.

What has all this to do with Cuba? I think Cuba set the emotional tone for Rodriguez, both by reason of the conflict, destruction, and alienation inseparable from the revolution and by reason of its brilliant light, especially evident, it seems to me, in Rodriguez’s Illumination 4 and 5. I think childhood memories of the violence of those times informs Rodriguez’s work, fused with the child’s version of the primal scene as a violent conflict. Such visionary memories are invariably distorted and intense, especially when they are supplemented by adult misery. Rodriguez’s art is an attempt to work them through, and make peace with his past and Cuba, and with his emotions, which seem as monstrous to him as the world.

The couple in an untitled painting of 1998 are part of the same circle and cycle of life – the turbulent gold ground of the work is clearly medieval in import – but they reach for different skies. They are rooted in the same homeland – symbolized by the house – but they go their separate ways. The figures in this work, like many in other works, have a Blakean dimension – they even seem to show the lineaments of satisfied desire, to refer to Blake’s famous endorsement of sexuality and nakedness – but they lack the emotional innocence that Blake’s figures retain, for all their experience in life. Even the embracing couple in a 1999 painting is about to have its happiness disturbed, by an allegorical figure who represents a world in upheaval.

Perhaps Rodriguez needs social catastrophe to make personal rupture – the sense that one’s identity is incomplete and disturbed without the intimate other, without the tenderness of love, which can alone overcome the horrors of life and society – transparent. Milton remarked that the mind can turn heaven into hell and hell into heave, and Rodriguez shows how the luminous heaven of Cuba became his personal hell, and how personal hell can look like aborted heaven.


Donald Kuspit
Art critic and Professor of Art History and Philosophy at the State University of New York.