“Azaceta: Unkillable Desperation”, The New Orleans Art Review

Azaceta: Unkillable Desperation


FOR MANY NEW ORLEANS artists, an aesthetic response to Hurricane Katrina was a spiritual necessity, even it then-customary styles were oddly fitted to the project. And, in most instances, the work born of this situation fully registered with us. Such is the force oftrue emotional engagement. In this unique case, it was a question of engagement for both artist and audience. Cuban-born Luis Cruz, Azaceta had a further advantage. The subject was made-to-order for him. In recent years, he has perfected a photo-collage technique that seems, in effect, to survey various aspects of the city’s topography – most notably the raw but undeniable beauty of local 19th century industrial architecture. By means of fragmenting and elegant restructuring, he managed to reveal our town to us. His cropped and neatly patterned photographs disclosed the unnoticed emblems that characterize our environment. He cast a dignified, orderly light on a city too often perceived as hopelessly chaotic. It was like proving, symbolically, the method in our madness.

Luiz Crus Azacata: Shoot to Kill, 2005-06

Now, in “Local Anesthesia” (at Arthur Roger Gallery), he/Azaceta adapts his approach to the storm’s aftermath – already lexicon of splintered images of splintered lives. The result, unsurprisingly, is another feat of fine-tuned restructuring. But on this occasion, there is something else. The pitch is elevated. The formal elegance is equaled by a new feeling-saturated arena/terrain. The overall tone suggests an artist gripped by his somber content. We see Azaceta/him in the midst of his most plangent work since the 1980s.

The new collages, configured mostly in grids, are heavy with the flotsam we might expect, and indeed have seen, after flood waters subside. In several works – Shoot to Kill is a good example – Azaceta juxtaposes actual debris with photographs of the people and places transformed by the storm. There are people on foot wandering the interstate highways, inundated shops and houses, endless automobiles winding like streams. We see all of this montaged with pictures of those audacious hand-painted signs that went up in Katrina’s wake – those frequently violent signs. The reality we grasp here is numbing. It’s a double reality that bespeaks widespread human indignity and. even more disturbing, the emanation of deep, unkillable desperation. Other pieces with similar impact: Mumbo Jumbo and True Value: 9th Ward.

Luis Cruz Azaceta: At the bottom of the Pot, detail, 2007

A related work, At the Bottom of the Pot, is an installation of forty saucepans and skillets affixed to the gallery wall. Collaged to their bases are photographic portraits and figure scenes – individuals, couples, groups – in varying moments of the Katrina phenomenon. Some of the portraits are heart-grabbing. Unlike many we have seen in the past two years, Azaceta”s subjects are allowed their personalities, not merely their condition of hardship. He had no need for specific stories. The singular faces and gestures wield enough power on their own. In one instance, an embracing couple fills the disc-like format. That one image tells countless stories.

Without question, the portraits here are among the most poignant we have seen since the storm. Cascade, the exhibition’s centerpiece, is installed in the back showroom of the gallery. It’s an assemblage comprised of debris “pouring” from a wall-mounted bicycle wheel. The piece has the general look of Daumier’s famous satire of King Louis Philippe as Gargantua devouring his people’s bounty. Azaceta’s effect is markedly different, though just as striking. Using grotesque humor, the Daumier work ridicules an avaricious sovereign, and it hit its mark. The artist was imprisoned.

Cascade – rough and improvisatory – takes the motif, reverses the movement, and plops the entire thing into our space, at our feet. With every sort of cast-off article – from mousetraps to toy guns and helicopters and old shoes and crutches and carnival beads – it says, about as plainly as can be said: At a certain dire moment, human life in this remarkable city was tantamount to tangled and strewn rubbish.

A hallmark of the modern artist – from Courbet and Manet to Kiefer and Rauch – is the unrelenting pluck to stand on the nerve of her/his moment. We usually think of this in terms of historical or social circumstance. But natural disaster, when exacerbated by government incompetence, falls heavily into this field. Katrina and the unforgettable months that followed fit the bill. Azaceta palpably asserts this.

He also remains in control – in a particularly modern way – a way that suggests a preoccupation with technique. In his case, that means a conspicuous structuring and systematizing of everything he does. Cascade is probably the tidiest junk-pile you’re ever likely to see. The consequence is something both absorbing and bleak at the same time. This is true of “Local Anesthesia” as a whole. In spite of the troubling subject, we are drawn to it all – all the perfect compositions, all the lined-up homey pots. And it mitigates the process of dissolving the memories. Joyce spoke of history as “the nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” Azaceta’s new work aids us in this.