Jorge Tacla: from Songs to Ashes
Sabrina Amrani is delighted to present the online viewing room “Jorge Tacla: from Songs to Ashes”, a complement to the artist's IRL exhibition "Señal de Abandono", currently on show at the gallery space.
“Jorge Tacla: from Songs to Ashes” proposes a journey from the artist's early work to his most recent productions, drawing parallels with the artist's personal experience and the global context in each key moment of his career. For more than forty years, the Chilean-American painter Jorge Tacla has dedicated his practice to capture the representation of psychic spaces which exist in the individual and collective trauma. In addition to depicting figures, landscapes and buildings intentionally devastated by natural and human forces, his works challenge one of the most basic assumptions of our civilization: the idea that people, buildings, monuments and cities, are safe and sempiternal.
Music: the first love
Tacla’s first contact with art was through music as he was raised among musicians who were constantly visiting the artist’s grandmother house. In his youth, he spent several years attending to the National Conservatory, where he learned to play the piano and percussion, among others instruments. When Tacla was 15 years old, the military closed the conservatory allegating that the institution had become a hotbed of Communism. In 1976 studying Music was not an option, so Tacla changed the tablatures for brushes as he entered the Escuela de Bellas Artes at the University of Chile.
Between 1976 and 1979, young Tacla was a very enthusiastic art student. For a time, Tacla occupied the position of Teaching Assistant of conceptualist artist Gonzalo Díaz, while engaging in a mixture of music, performance, sculpture and painting at the University, as well as in a few underground clubs in Santiago de Chile.
Music, the body and its experience, will be the main themes in several early works. As music was part of Tacla’s youth, it will be a recurrent subject in several paintings from his first years as well. Even though his artistic exploration lead his paintings in other directions and to other concepts, music would always be his first love and has since then been present in some way in his work.
Jorge played the percussion. He enjoyed the percussion instruments the most. He even went to Salvador de Bahia, in Brazil, to learn how to play. Percussion instruments are played by being struck or scraped to and they are considered the oldest musical instruments. There’s a subtle ancient violence in the way they are played. These types of instruments have their origins connected to the African music, which later contributed in building South America’s cultural identity.
You want to disconcert, as it were—is that a word in Spanish? Does it have the same connotation: to dis-concert. To upend the easy harmonies. [...] Which brings up another aspect of your method, going back to your days as a music student perhaps. For these wrecked buildings, at least on the surface, at the level of paint on canvas, look like crumpled, mashed-up musical scores: the horizontal slashes, the collapsing verticals, the scattershot of pointed details.
Space for One Space, 1989.
Oil on jute. 203 x 152 cm.
Pan y Agua, 1988.
Oil, graphite, chlorine and oleopasto on linen. 132 x 138 cm.
Sonnet For Piano and Cello in G Minor, 1989.
Oil on canvas. 152 x 152 cm.
Across the Atlantic: the influence of Africa in NY
But percussion was not the only obsession Tacla had. Africa, its culture and society had also a huge influence in the artist’s work and life, especially in the beginning of the 80’s, his first years in New York. The painter’s approximation to the African roots comes from a place of admiration and interest for knowing more about this society, an antithesis of what he knew in Chile, a mostly predominant white country.
Arriving in New York at the age of 23, he first stepped away from the homogeneous society he was used to be part of. This allowed him to have a real introduction to a culture he was hoping to find in the United States, where getting closer to the Black America looked like a realistic dream.
The urban culture he was to find, and which he consumed and educated himself about during his first years in the US, was very different from the idea of Africa he initially had.
Soon after arriving to New York, Tacla found himself spinning between the white upper-middle-class art world he needed for economic survival and the black urban culture that he needed for his own emotional nurturing. His brief friendship with Jean Michel Basquiat and his marriage to an Afro-American woman led him into a world only a few white Americans got to know about at that time.
Maybe because his life was difficult in these first years in New York, Tacla’s paintings reflected the struggle and violence lived by others. In many different ways, during this decade, Tacla was drawn to the violence inflected on the body in several of his paintings. The viewer can identify in those shrunken, distorted and broken bodies, conditioned by trauma, one of the most successful tactics of control implemented by Power.
Tacla remembers his firs years in the New York as difficult and complex, but the biggest challenge was to trace a path for his practice, in a multicultural city in a decade when art was thriving. For a young artist, these waves of stimulations could be very deceptive. Luckily, after almost a year living in this foreign city, doing many different things to survive, Tacla signed his first representation with a very well-known gallery.
The arrival in New York was very hard, without knowledge of the language, without money and any type of support. But the biggest challenge was building my career in this multicultural city, where culture has a very specific weight. Here, in the big metropolis, my conditions would be naturally marginal, I sought to conquer a central space despite the cost, as an emigrant, of never belonging to this place.
The violence becomes imbued with a sense of abandonment and loss, which is what the natural and architectural deserts signify. In a sense, these pessimistic symbols embody a lost cause: they suggest that all socio-political causes dead-end in human disaster, the more revolutionary and fanatical the cause the more disastrous the result. Tacla continues to identify with native victims and outcasts, as several works suggest. Their figures sometimes appear, mangled and twisted, as though broken on the rack of history, more precisely, by the Spanish Conquest of Chile (and most of Latin America). […] In other works they are presented in all their primordial nakedness, as though inhabiting a prelapsarian nature, but they remain substanceless sketches—mythical outlines.
Crossing the Nile IV, 1985.
Oil and tempera on canvas. 132 x 119 cm.
Changes coming from the desert: Atacama
The New York art community, increasingly reacted to those paintings made in the 1980s that consisted of “furious antropoids involved in cruel pantomimes of primitive human behavior”, and gave the artist some recognition.
This soon led the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation to award their prize to Jorge Tacla in 1988, making the artist one of the youngest to receive it. Thanks to this award, Tacla was able to go on a new three month journey in the Atacama Desert. During these months in the desert, Tacla didn’t produce any works: he went every day to the middle of nowhere in the Atacama desert with a briefcase and sat on a rock, doing apparently nothing. Little he knew at that time that this trip would later become a hinge moment in the artist’s practice.
In Atacama, Tacla became aware of space and its connection with pictorial space (the space of painting), by turning everything into a negative. He developed two main concerns: the inner biology behind the façade, which can be translated as the “architectural skeleton”, and the aesthetics of the negative.
The aesthetic behind the negative, as art historian and critic Donald Kuspit detected, is a representational dialectic wherein the implicit allusion of infinity given by the desert contradicts and comes into conflict with the visual splendor of architecture.
“The desert is clearly architecture’s negative”, as it is the original absence of social presence, while architecture is the one filling spaces through constructions. This “positive” filling is done by Power and social authorities, Kuspit said, noting this within the “negative vision of history” proposed by Jorge Tacla. The spatial conventions present in both desert and architecture exist in more of a “hallucination” over “proximity with its material premise”.
As Tacla says, he shows us ‘not a landscape…not the depiction of one place’ but ‘the place of painting.’ It is the space of the negative—the space where the landscape is negated. It sinks into the quicksand of negative space, as though repressed into the oblivion of the unconscious—into the negative sublime of the vast empty desert and the dematerialized architecture—even as it leaves an emotional trace in memory, making it unforgettable and timeless, and ‘fantastic.’
Fundamental References, 1991.
Oil on jute. 178 x 150 cm.
Elemental Notes, 1991.
Oil on jute. 178 x 150 cm.
Dematerializing material reality—metaphysicalizing the physical, as it were—by means of the negative, Tacla creates a multidimensional interior space whose coordinates are no longer the height, width, and length of exterior space, but, as he says, “the history of art, the history of social struggles, and mental structure,” including his own, one might add
Squaring the Circle, 1993.
Oil on jute. 264 x 264 cm.
Bodies of concrete: the architecture as protagonist.
In the last years of the 20th century, Tacla’s paintings turned from natural landscapes to the representation of well-known buildings, some of them sites that hold a lot of power over our society. With those paintings, Tacla was interested in portraying the topology of power: cathedrals, Wall Street headquarters, prisons, the FBI Headquarters and the Pentagon were some of his subjects.
The artist studied the relations between the outside and the inside of a building: a building can represent something from the outside but its interior can be very different, serving all sorts of demands. For Tacla, the main example would be the Pentagon, which is represented in several of his works from this period. The Pentagon has this monumental architecture with big dimensions, built to project the idea of a fortress of democracy, but its interior and the decisions taken in it, make average citizen feel small and powerless.
Gradually, these untouched buildings gave space to the consequences of earthquakes in places like Santiago de Chile, Japan and Haiti, creating the series known as Altered Remains. The protagonist of these pieces is a force coming from the Earth, with such violence that makes the whole world reel, shake and come undone; while becoming a deep part of the collective memory. Jorge Tacla noted that the mausoleums in cemeteries were knocked over: not even the dead were spared of Nature’s will. But what grabbed the painter’s attention the most were the facades of the buildings, the wires and pipes all tangled and exposed. They looked like the sinews of a body, a constant reference in the artist practice: the anatomy of buildings standing for the anatomy of the body. “For that matter, I feel like I keep an entire Earth within myself”, Tacla would say.
With the beginning of the 21st century we find in Tacla’s paintings images of landscapes violated by war, terrorism and military conflicts that generate an apocalyptic wasteland. In these works, the painter uses as source the conflicts in the Middle East: Hafez al-Assad’s devastation of the city of Homs, in Syria in 1982; the Lebanese Civil War during the eighties; the Israeli occupation of Beirut and the Palestinian massacre in Sabra and Shatila are some examples of human violence that caught Tacla’s attention. In these works, the represented place is secondary, since the catastrophes the artist presents closely resemble an unconscious memory, and therefore are of universal aspiration. This violence can happen anywhere, any time. Rubble 10 (2007) is a view of a devasted Beirut during the eighties, but in August 4 2020 it became so contemporary again after the massive blast that destroyed part of the city.
La Distribución de los Primarios, 1995.
Acrylic and oil on canvas. 356x 407 cm.
I became aware of space and connected it with pictorial space by turning everything into a negative […] I began to focus on the spaces that embody different social attitudes [such as] landmark buildings, which bothered me simply because they were landmarks: their powerful representation, their presence, how a building could imply respect. It was then that I looked into buildings that project this image of protection, like the Pentagon, constructions that appear to protect a society but destroy it at the same time.
Jorge Tacla, 1999
Problema Aéreo, 1995.
Oil on jute. 152 x 152 cm.
Solución Geométrica, 1995.
Oil on jute. 160 x 145 cm.
I develop the image on oil over canvas primed with rabbit skin glue. While the fabric is still soaking I cover it with a thick layer of cold wax and pigment, almost concealing the image entirely. Then I start to cut the layers and reconnect the spaces, as a surgeon or psychopath would, until a very thin and vulnerable skin remains. The whole process happens very quickly because the surface needs to remain damp. I think of my process not unlike an autopsy, where layers need to be peeled and removed in order to access what’s inside
Configuration in Space, 1995.
Acrylic and oil on canvas. 122 x 142 cm.
Aparato de Gás, 1996.
Sikscreen and oil on canvas. 272 x 285 cm.
While Tacla’s paintings of the Atacama Desert […] belong to the period when the artist began to interpret the idea of landscape as an injured body, later works made between the years 1995 and 2011 directly represent well-known territories and architectural structures that have become symbolic and real-world targets of modern terror.
Disaster paintings: a recurring September 11th
Living in New York during the time, the World Trade Center attacks in September 11 2001 also impacted the artist’s body of work, as in Mass of Cement 1 (2002) that shows a melting vision of Lower Manhattan. Waste, rubble and dissecation are among Tacla’s most enduring themes, expressed in paintings haunted by his memories of the Atacama Desert. Now the rubble was there, in his own city, outside of his paintings. Tacla’s rubbles are not signs of total despair: the results of September 11 in New York are, in Tacla’s practice, impressive and poetic.
Other breathtaking view of a wounded New York is presented in Total Eclipse (2002), a distorted aerial view of downtown Manhattan with what can only be described as an anamorphic blur ghosting the left hand side of the canvas, where the lost buildings were supposed to rise.
However, the tragic events of September 11 in 2001 were not the first ones experienced by Tacla in that date. Before that, September 11 had already gone down in history in 1973 as the date of the beginning of the Chilean Coup and the rise of dictator Augusto Pinochet. The live broadcasting on television of the events related to the attack on the governmental palace of La Moneda and the killing of President Salvador Allende, were immensely impactful in the young Tacla, and never forgotten: Medium Rare, Burnt Skin, Invariance Angles and Parallel Shadows -all works made in 1995- present images of the attack to La Moneda.
Throughout, Tacla has never focused on the violence itself, just on the damage. As a result, his paintings of crumbled buildings juggle themes of destruction, aggression, and the shifting light and shadow that shape fragmentary memory.
Eclipse Total, 2002.
Acrylic and oil on canvas. 183 x 265 cm.
Masa de Cemento 2, 2002.
Oil on canvas. 152 x 152 cm.
Masa de Cemento 1, 2002.
Oil on canvas. 178 x 183 cm.
Oil on canvas. 203 x 254 cm.
Tacla presents the ruin as horrific sublime and as evidence of a collective death drive
Raúl Zamudio Taylor
Burnt to ashes: preserving the memory of what has been destroyed
Shortly after the burning of La Moneda, there were other burns that had a great impact on Tacla: the work Informe de lesiones (2016) refers directly to the burning of books that occurred in El Pedagógico, the main teaching school in Chile before the military takeover of the country's educational institutions. The video also invokes poet Heinrich Heine’s warning, found in his 1821 play Almansor: "Wherever books are burned, people end up burning."
Injury Report is a type of document, usually delivered in a police headquarters when someone has been arrested or in hospitals, after an accident. This piece’s title also reffers to several injuries that have been part of the piece itself, both personal injuries and injuries that occurred with the burning of books and the burning of documents by the military. In Informe de lesiones (2016), Tacla burned personal documents, personal notebooks, and personal books about his life to make a metaphor about the pain in Chile’s political life.
Apart from those documents burnt in Informe de Lesiones (2016), the artist has kept for 40 years photographs, drawings, correspondence, notebooks, press clippings and other personal documents. In 2019, Jorge Tacla has become the first South American artist to enter the Smithsonian Institute's Collection, which houses archives of some of the most important artists in American art, such as Willem de Kooning, Marcel Duchamp , Jasper Jones and Mark Rothko.
The Smithsonian acquisition of the Chilean artist’s forty year old archives, consolidates the value and importance of his work, not only as one of the most important artists of Chilean Contemporary Art, but also as a must-know artist to understand the American contemporary cultural and political scene.
Sign of abandonment
Señal de Abandono is Jorge Tacla's first solo show in the gallery. The exhibition gathers works from the latests series of works developed by the artist: Identidad Oculta and Señal de abandono. Señal de Abandono seems to replicate an x-ray in which time has been suspended in a devastated reality that hints at a past, but not the future. And if there is a future to be seen, it is not very optimistic: when the Oklahoma City Federal building was attacked in 1995, images came all together to the artist's mind: the earthquakes in Chile, the bombing of La Moneda in Santiago, the wars in the Middle East, the Lebanese civil war, the occupation of Beirut, the massacres of Palestine in 1982.
Faced with this selection of Tacla's work, the viewer could experience the same fascination that overwhelms when in front of an abandoned building, a forgotten civilization, the image of what was inhabited, full of life and is now just History. But it is a naked History, already devoid of the humanity that created it. And if there is something human, it represents the brutal desolation that follows the conflict. Nor has the beauty of nature returned to take possession of the ruin and recover the conquered territory. In all of them, Tacla uses cold wax. This is due to the artist's interest in the plasticity of this material, and its similarity to the materiality of human skin. As if trying to reach the bones of the painting, Tacla applies a dense layer of cold wax with pigments to the canvas, and little by little he removes it with the help of the brush.
Regardless of whether the scenario presented relates to events of a socio-political nature that are key in the development of the History, geographically strategic places in international conflicts or spaces reserved for the privacy of a few, Tacla invites us to reflect on how all public experiences affect the individual body in a private way, just as all private experiences have a social consequence and perhaps he tries to establish a dialogue about the instability of the world: "everything is constantly moving and destroying itself," he clarifies. But it is also a criticism and it is that the world "feels as if we were always at war," he confesses. The artist is interested in representing the exterior, but also the interior, as we can see in Señal de Abandono. And for this, nothing like the gutted buildings in which the interior itself goes out.
Art is one of the few remaining spaces where one can speak freely and from that place I speak of injustice, violence and the power struggle, generating with my work a place of questioning.
My usual fixation has had to do with the historical moments that produce an absolute change in the structure of thought, in politics and its powers, in the social fabric and in the urban landscape. When in these breaking points there is architectural destruction, I occupy it to present the new representative landscape of that historical moment.
My interests from the beginning have had to do with the injustice, the madness, the aggression that exists in the world, as well as the manipulation of it through the media. It is ironic, since even though I am consciously political, I try to do the complete opposite of a terrorist: in the face of his monomanic outburst of violence (and the almost always immediate and one-dimensional response of the media), I try to slow everything down to open a space for reflection.
JORGE TACLA (b. Chile, 1959)
Like much of Tacla’s work, his paintings represent a space of social rupture. These works situate themselves in the joints of a new architecture that arises in the wake of catastrophe—natural or man-made. Tacla perceives the devastation that results from such events as an opportunity to investigate structural systems that would otherwise remain unseen. To signify such unsettled worlds, he uses pictorial languages that are obsessive: sometimes repeating the images, sometimes repeating the same gesture in the same space many times until the visual register is analogous to the trauma that prompts it.
Tacla Illuminates the variability of identity for victim and aggressor -an agent who is disassociated from his or her own identity- and the complexity of the assessment of guilt. These critical issues, and their situation in the larger, collective human experience, are the defining theoretical inquiries of Tacla's work.
Tacla studied at the Escuela de Bellas Artes, Universidad de Chile in Santiago and moved to New York in 1981. Since then, Tacla’s paintings have been exhibited internationally in museums, biennials and galleries. Recent notable exhibitions include "THE VISIBLE TURN: Contemporary Artists Confront Political Invisibility", USF Contemporary Art Museum, Tampa, January 11th - March 2nd, 2019; "Jorge Tacla: Todo lo sólido se desvanece“ at CorpArtes, Santiago Chile, 2017-2018; "Jorge Tacla: Sign of Abandonment" at Cristin Tierney Gallery, New York, NY, 2017; “Let there be light”, High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA; "Identidad Oculta" curated by Adam Glick at New York City Center, New York, NY, 2016; "Upheaval" at Tufts University Art Gallery, Medford, MA, 2016; "Hidden Identities: Paintings and Drawings by Jorge Tacla" at the Art Museum of the Americas, Washington, DC, 2015 - 2016; “Jorge Tacla: Hidden Identities” at Cristin Tierney Gallery, New York, NY, 2015; Identidades Ocultas at El Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos, Santiago, Chile, 2014; Tales of Two Cities: New York & Beijing at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, CT, 2014; the Emergency Pavilion at the 55th Biennale di Venezia, Venice, Italy, 2013; Doble Vida at Galeria Lucia de la Puente, Lima, Peru, 2013; Dublin Contemporary, Dublin, Ireland, 2011; Sharjah Biennial 10, Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, 2011; Altered Remains at Cristin Tierney Gallery, New York, 2011; and the 798 Biennale, Beijing, China, 2009. He has also completed several permanent installations including a mixed-media mural at the Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos in Santiago, Chile.
In 2019 the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art has acquired the papers of Jorge Tacla, including his drawings, correspondence, photographs, notebooks, and clippings. His holdings span nearly forty years and provide a look into the fluctuating histories of the New York and Santiago art worlds.
The Smithsonian's Archives of American Art is the world's most comprehensive resource for the study of art in America. It serves scholars, students, journalists, biographers, and the interested public from its headquarters in Washington, DC, its research center in New York City, and through its vast online resources available worldwide.
Throughout his career, Tacla has been awarded numerous grants and fellowships. Most recently, Tacla completed a residency at the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center in Bellagio, Italy (2013). Notable awards include New York Foundation for the Arts (1987, 1991); the Eco Art Award, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (1992); and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation (1988), among others.
Tacla lives and works in New York City and Santiago, Chile.
My work is mutant and materializes according to my conceptual obsessions, this requires me to research different materialities and mixtures to build the images. In my work there is always a rejection between the materials, which creates a difficulty in the process and at the same time an instability in the image. This represents, in some way, the instability and fragility in which we live. The materiality in my work is similar to our own skin, vulnerable and full of trauma.