As many readers may remember, the richly talented, Cuban-born and Miami-based artistÂ Carlos AlfonzoÂ tragically died just as his career was moving forward into a much-deserved national, and surely international, realm. I think it is terrific that a very well-established and respected gallery here is selling his work because I trust this means he is continuing to find the audience and respect he deserves. I feel honored to have a “news peg” to blog about Carlos today.
As I type this blog today, I am looking at a postcard Carlos sent me in Feb. 1990. On the back it has a note explaining that he is sending me slides (does anyone remember those??!!) of his recent work. On the front is a black and white photograph of Carlos standing in front of an iconic Cuban landmark in Tampa. It is a 1989 photograph, copyrighted by Carlos and taken by his late partner Carlos Artigas. This is the title of the photograph: “Pilgrimage to Jose Marti Memorial, Ybor City, Tampa.”
I recall going to see the exquisite exhibit of Carlos’ work at theÂ Freedom Tower, an exhibit coinciding with Art Basel Miami Beach in 2007. I was actually relieved that I would not be covering that show for The Miami Herald because the video of Carlos talking about his work was more than I could bear. When I walked into the room with his video I immediately burst into tears and had to leave. Just hearing his voice brought back so many sad memories. He was such a passionately vivid, memorable artist and person.
First things first: More visual arts news in MiamiÂ “Young Blood: So Fresh” opens Aug. 13, 7-10, and is up through Sept. 3 atÂ Flagler Arts Space, 172 W. Flagler St., very nearÂ Miami Art Museum. How apt that this show, celebrating the 25th anniversary ofÂ New World School of the Arts, is presented at a new downtown exhibition space founded by a group of NWSA alumni in Miami. (I justÂ adoreÂ that kind of self-starter initiative!!) For more info seeÂ http://www.youngbloodnwsa.wordpress.com/Â or firstname.lastname@example.orgÂ In this exhibit, curated by artist and NWSA gradÂ Danae Tarragona, you will find work by 21 artists, all NWSA grads. I am especially excited thatÂ Asser Saint-ValÂ is included because I was extremely impressed with his work when I made a studio visit to his home and studio in Miami about a year ago. Plus he was a terrific member of a panel I organized this past spring for Arts & Letters Day at Miami Dade College, Kendall campus. For more info about Asser, seehttp://www.assersaintval.com/
Here’s info about another show I hope to catch: AtÂ WDNA Jazz Gallery, 2921 Coral Way through Aug. 27, you can see paintings byÂ BuyungaKialeuka, who was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo and moved to Miami when he was 6. Many thanks to my friendÂ Maggie Pelleya, general manager of WDNA, the radio station known for serious jazz, for letting me know about this intriguing exhibit. SeeÂ http://www.wdna.org/or call 305-662-8889.
Congrats toÂ Claire Jeanine Satin, who took part in a terrific program on artists’ books last spring atÂ Books & BooksÂ (my totally fave bookstore in Miami!!). She tells me she has been invited to create an installation for the “Accidental Book” exhibition at theÂ Center for the BookÂ ArtsÂ in San Francisco in January.
This just in from artistÂ Sheila Elias, who has posted comments on my blog in the past (thanks, Sheila!!): She tells me about her new series “Myths and Legends,” about drawing and layering complex ideas by using current digital technology. SeeÂ http://www.sheilaelias.com/
Attention emerging and mid-career artists (actually, I have never been quite sure what “emerging”Â reallyÂ means in this context. . .um, didVincent van GoghÂ emergeÂ from the grave??):Â Bakehouse Art Complex, 561 NW 32nd St in Wynwood, annouces that the deadline to apply for the BAC Juried Artist Studio Program is Sept. 1, 2011. There are indeed many benefits to working there–the BAC has improved A LOT since I was writing for the Herald. For more info call 305-576-2828 or email@example.comÂ . Also seeÂ http://www.bacfl.org/Â , then click on tab that says Opportunities.
Congrats toÂ Joshua Levine, an alum of the Miami art scene now working in California, who always keeps me posted on the creative and innovative things he’s doing. (Thanks a bunch, Josh!!) He tells me he’s part of a group show, “Chain Letter,” atÂ Shoshona Wayne Gallery, located at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica, CA. For more info about the always interesting Josh Levine (also you will get to see hisÂ adorableÂ hairstyle!!) seeÂ http://www.copyright1972.com/
And kudos again to the indefatigableÂ Charo Oquet, leader ofÂ Edge Zones Art CenterÂ in Wynwood (see my previous blog post about her). She tells me about “High Voltage,” a student-created multi-media site-specific installation at theÂ Working Working ClassroomÂ in Albuquerque, New Mexico!! SeeÂ http://www.workingclassroom.org/Â as well ashttp://www.edgezones.org/Â ; for this site click on tab that says HIGH VOLTAGE. Charo, you are so totally high voltage!!
Here is myÂ Carlos AlfonzoÂ review from The Miami Herald in December 1997.
ALFONZO EXHIBIT A MOVING TRIBUTE TO TALENT CUT SHORT by Elisa Turner
The last time I spoke to South Florida artist Carlos Alfonzo, bombs were exploding.
It was the evening of Jan. 16, 1991, the start of the Gulf War, and my television screen was consumed with scenes of horrific conflagration.
Alfonzo telephoned to tell me that his paintings would be included in the 1991 Biennial Exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, which would open in April. It was a great coup, especially for an artist who has been working seriously in this country only since 1982. I remember trying to balance that moment of intensely conflicting emotions–joy for an artist whose talent I believed deserved such recognition, and shock at the destruction I’d been witnessing.
That explosive experience of death and joy seems like an epiphany now, prophetic of the arc Alfonzo’s career was was already taking. Although I traveled to see his accomplished, brooding paintings in the biennial, Alfonzo did not. He died that Feb. 19 at South Miami Hospital. At age 40, he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage, brought on by AIDS.
With far greater impact than I ever imagined, the Miami Art Museum presents Alfonzo’s work in a superbly installed exhibit. “Triumph of the Spirit: Carlos Alfonzo, A Survey 1975-1991” opened Thursday and runs through March 8. It is guest-curated by Olga Viso, assistant curator at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., where the show will travel in June.
This show has been long awaited by many in South Florida who knew Alfonzo, watched his art flourish and grieved at his early death. As a tribute to Alfonzo’s remarkable art and his swift rise to national notice, it’s the culmination of more than two years of exhaustive research conducted by Viso and the MAM staff, including curatorial assistant Amy Rosenblum. “Triumph of the Spirit” brings together 71 works, chiefly paintings with a handful of drawings and sculpture.
POWER OF PAINTINGS
The exhibit is also an immensely moving witness to the power of the painted image. It shows how Alfonzo, who was born in Cuba in 1950 and arrived in Miami in 1980 as a Mariel refugee, shaped a unique vocabulary. His best paintings gleam and clash with emblems of desire, sacrifice, death and spiritual change.
The tumult of his imagery is fabulously hectic, in which symbols continually overlap and fuse.
There are tongues and telephones oppressively pierced with daggers, and flashing eyes that become transformed into swollen tears and phalluses. There are jittery coffee cups in which cartoonish signs for a delectable aroma blossom, with amused irony, into more fat, juicy teardrops.
Alfonzo once wrote that in his art, “tears are a symbol of exile,” but his work surely leaps beyond personal experience into a universal arena of shocking passion and loss.
“I think he was incredibly brave in his devotion to painting,” Viso says. “He could deal with emotional and passionate themes and the work never became over-sentimentalized.”
And, like the artist whom she never met, she bristles against stamping his art too hard with the label “Latin American.” “He matured as an artist in the U.S. looking at work by artists from all over the world,” she says. “Jackson Pollock is equally important as any of the Cuban masters in his development.”
MENTAL ENERGY CITED
Michael Auping, chief curator of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas, who met Alfonzo in Miami and included his work in a 1988 group show of emerging artists in New York, also recalls the painter’s impressive gift for international style and synthesis.
“What sets Carlos apart is the incredible mental energy that he put into his paintings,” he says.
“They were physically layered with images and they were layered in terms of content.
Now cultural diversity has become a cliched term, but in the 1980s Carlos was making a fusion of Cuban and American culture that was not cliched. It made his work sometimes beautiful, sometimes potent, sometimes very angry. It all melted together into a kind of erotic violence.”
That dynamism seeped into his studio visits with the artist, Auping says. A visit with Alfonzo was like drinking “six cups of coffee. . .I’ve always thought of him as a shooting star. He started to shine really bright and he just burned up.”
In the paintings at MAM, geometric cubes burst with radiant lines of light. They evoke both searing moments of intense pleasure and insight, as well as the artist’s formal skills for weaving an intricate composition together with dashing lines.
Crosses are also a constant, sometimes flowing into knives, melding into imagery associated with Roman Catholicism and with the Afro-Cuban cult of Santeria. Both contain rituals, symbols and beliefs that fascinated Alfonzo during his years growing up in Cuba.
Especially as his talent matured in the United States, he proceeded to mine the dramatic, seductive potential of these loaded images by thrusting them into ever more flashing and whirling compositions.
In the mid to late 1980s, his taste for rich, alluring metaphor led him to study the Tarot cards of Rosicrucianism, a mystic philosophy dating to 17th Century Europe. It’s a belief system, as Viso explains in her catalogue essay, that’s designed to lead devotees to a transcendent state of consciousness, spurred by contemplating ancient Tarot symbols and imagining them animated in space.
In one of his last works, the 1990 “Told,” a scythe-like shape, similar to the Tarot card of death, appears sucked into the spiraling, overlapped shapes of a skull and kneeling figure.
This exhibit is the first traveling museum show that MAM has organized under director Suzanne Delehanty, who joined MAM in January 1995, and is also the first career survey of Alfonzo. Certainly in recent years this is the most ambitious effort MAM has initiated.
Delehanty finds real significance in Alfonzo’s art and the community he worked in. “I think [Carlos’] presence here parallels Miami’s development as a creative community and acted as a catalyst in that development,” Delehanty says. “Alfonzo really gives Miami a mirror of itself: energy, a respect for solid training and a sense of adventure.”
Says Cesar Trasobares, a close friend of Alfonzo and a fellow artist, “I think the show is a testament to the strength of the work and is a major coup for MAM.”
The show charts the development of his imagery, beginning with examples of his tightly compressed, calligraphic ink drawings from the 1970s, made in Cuba. It shows the aggressive, colorful pace of his evolving style in Miami, in which Viso and critic Dan Cameron, in his catalogue essay, find links to the flamboyant, free-wheeling approach of 1980s Neo-Expressionism. Yet this was a style that became so packed with “fireworks,” as Alfonzo himself once called his bravura way with paint, that it risked falling into self-parody. Instead, his art evolved in a new direction in his last year of life.
The show concludes with Alfonzo’s moving “black paintings” of the late 1990s.
They are marked by the presence of a figure that seems both supplicant and fetus, radiant and mournful, one transformed by the premonition of death and the promise of yet more changes.
Coursing through all the changes are Alfonzo’s fluid, fluctuating brushstrokes. They switch back and forth from our fondest dreams to our most fearsome nightmares. This is art you can’t forget.