PDF CABINET OF WONDERS: ORNAMENT AND OBSESSION
Carlos Betancourt: The Art as an offering; the body as an altar.
By J. Batet
Carlos Betancourt’s oeuvre is an explosion of sensations: lush, radiant, eccentric, uninhibited. His entire artistic proposal is the happy consequence of a meticulous accumulation that the artist manages admirably as a master of ceremonies. And that’s Carlos Betancourt: a clever artificer who, picking up here and there little apparent non-sense elements, builds up a new vibrant cosmogony brimming with significance and poetry.
His entire artistic proposal is based on an insatiable quest for identity. A complex and mutant identity hard to comprehend: the Caribbean identity. Often associated with the Caribbean Basin, it’s difficult to establish clear boundaries for the region. Sometimes limited to the islands; sometimes spread out to the continental coasts washed by the Caribbean Sea.
Always heterogeneous and diverse; multi-racial, multi-lingual, trans-cultural, the Caribbean culture is a vast kaleidoscope of subtle complexity and incredible variety. If migration was the foundation of the region and the whole Caribbean culture, it now becomes the cornerstone of a relative new phenomenon: the Caribbean Diaspora, and associated with it, the apparition of what is known as the Trans-Caribbean identity.The trans-Caribbean identity occurs outside the Caribbean in all those places where peoples of Caribbean origin reside. It is constructed from memories of assigned Caribbean values, ecology, and history
Imbued with his own diversified personal background, -born and raised in Puerto Rico, from Cuban parents- this Miami based artist is himself an exponent of this Trans-Caribbean identity and so is his work. Betancourt explores the history of Caribbean culture through its roots. Such are the cases of the Taíno and the African heritage. However, it is not a folkloric or a naïve vocation which attracts Betancourt’s attention but the desire of finding these pristine influences in its connection with contemporary urban culture.
Betancourt stops on Taíno culture as the original culture of the area, rich in legends and traditions deep-rooted in the Caribbean but, in most cases, neglected. Taíno Indians, a subgroup of the Arawakan Indians inhabited the Greater Antilles and were dominant throughout the Caribbean when Christopher Columbus arrived in the New World. The Taínos lived in theocratic kingdoms and had hierarchically arranged chiefs or caciques. They believed they evolved from caves and were animists.The second theoretic body integrating Carlos Betancourt’s oeuvre is the Afro-Caribbean culture, a long acting cultural tradition in the area distinguished by its character of resistance culture. Africans in the Caribbean fought to maintain their cultural tradition by forming clubs called Nations in all the islands. Each nation had to pledge to preserve African language, culture, religion, and music. Different religious bodies appeared associated to this resistance process. Thus, Santería en Cuba, Voodoo en Haiti, and Cambomblé en Brazil became active part of the Caribbean culture today.
All these diverse cultural elements are integrated with each other into a new personal cosmogony that discusses identity and diversity through Carlos Betancourt’s artistic proposal. The idea of offering, so deeply ingrained in the Taíno and Afro-Caribbean cultures, emerges as the central pivot of Betancourt’s oeuvre. His characters, always loaded with meaningful attributes, seem to be carrying votive elements: the gift facilitator and peacemaker. The Taíno culture distinguishes for its animist notion where every single element is loaded with life and consequently, revered and respected. Any negligence or forgetfulness can alter the balance of the cosmos and turn against each other.This essential notion is a cornerstone in Carlos Betancourt’s proposal. Even when his oeuvre is inhabited by the most controversial characters -impressive for their richness and diversity-, all of them are located at the same level: always positioned in the human condition.
The cut-out Army (2006) is an obvious exponent of this concept. First of all, and from a nominal point of view, the title imposes different semantic levels. On the one hand, there is a reference to the technical production process of the work, in which the artist cut out the characters in order to fully integrate them to a new, different composition non-existent outside the oeuvre. On the other hand, the title refers to a sort of surreptitious communication. In the espionage language, a cutout is a mutually trusted intermediary or channel of communication that facilitates the exchange of information between agents. An ideal cutout agent doesn’t know whom the message comes from or goes to, thus if captured will be unable to reveal other colleagues. In Carlos Betancourt’s oeuvre, this idea is emphasized by the characters that, forced to share the same space, seem to ignore each other.The cut-out Army compiles an amazing collection of characters, arranged symmetrically on a black background, as a very organized sequence. Each of the characters engaged in such a capricious procession, looks straight to the camera, challenging the viewer, confronting him openly. Paradoxically, none of them seems aware of the other people surrounding them. So outgoing and uninhibited, these archetypes reveal to us their real selves, their most intimate fantasies and desires, integrating the most outstanding eccentric collection.
The (Last) Supper (2008) is a kind of compendium and at the same time is a paradigmatic creation within the production of this artist. The magnificent glicee print is a clin d’oeil to Leonardo da Vinci’s famous mural. It is not the first time that Betancourt makes fair use of the common cultural legacy that the Renaissance conveys. Obsessed with the exploration into the human being -through the identity-, the artist uses this common repertoire to introduce to us new topics.
The main idea featuring in The (Last) Supper remains the offering. But now the characters themselves seem to embody the idea of gift, exposing them as the best offering. All of them carry elements –stereotypes- generally associated with the Caribbean culture. We can barely separate them from each other, because they all appear to be juxtaposed in an overwhelming cross-symbiosis.
Knowing Betancourt’s interest for the Caribbean identity, the work immediately brings to our minds the passage narrated by Columbus on his trip diary where the Admiral described how the Taínos –which in Arawak language means good people- approached the conquerors with their hands full of offerings. Both sides exchanged presents as a symbol of friendship. This alleged peace pact sealed by the offering, however, lasted a very short time which in the work of Betancourt is reaffirmed by the title of the artwork that refers to the moment when Jesus tells his Apostles that one of them will betray him.
The Re-collections series (2008) is closely related to the above-mentioned works. The series shares the idea of cut-out. The elements conforming the series are extracted from its original context and extrapolated, being re-inserted in a new cosmogony. We attend to the stereotypical idea about The Caribbean: colorful flowers, exotic shells, exuberant nature, sensual bodies.
From a formal language point of view, prevails a sort of horror vacui. No space is neglected. However dominating, the composition’s global harmony returns a quiet state of mind to the spectator. The preference for the accumulation, the bright colors, the glossy surface, the exaggeration, and sometimes the grotesque, ties Betancourt’s production with the tradition of the American pop culture and kitsch. These influences become one of the main pumps feeding Carlos Betancourt’s artwork, which is always in a close relationship with the urban culture.
Carlos Betancourt’s characters bring to mind the oeuvre of American artists such as Duane Hanson and Jeff Koon. At the conceptual level, however, the names of artists such as Ana Mendieta, Jose Bedia and Arnaldo Roche Rabel prevail.
The Re-collections series is a plethora of quotations and juxtapositions discoursing about personal and regional identities. Two essential socio-cultural reasons are associated with it the Transculturation phenomenon and the Trans-Caribbean identity.
… the term ‘Transculturation’ best expresses the different phases of the transitive process from one culture to another, because this entails not only the acquisition of a different culture, which is strictly speaking what the Anglo-American term ‘acculturation’ means, but the process also necessarily implies the loss or uprooting of a preceding culture (…) The union of cultures occurs similarly to the genetic coupling of individuals: the child always has something of each progenitor, but is also always different from each of them.
The Transculturation appears then as the survival instinct that defines the most authentic Caribbean culture. Associated to this complex process, is the Cultural Cimarronaje, where anything is re-built and re-adapted to our own beliefs and identity. Hard to translate into English, the Spanish word cimarrón refers to the escaped slave who refused to submit either physically or culturally to the slavery institution. Hidden away in the mountains, they kept alive the African roots and, for the others still in captivity, the illusion of freedom. The Cultural Cimarronaje refers subsequently to the active spirit that looks forward to resist any cultural domination, struggling to maintain even in the most adverse circumstances the roots of the culture-of-origin.
This is the spirit that animates Carlos Betancourt’s artistic proposal which deals with antipodes such as identity and otherness, acculturation and transculturation, colonization and cultural survival. The human body becomes the appropriated territory for this speech: original altar and final refuge. It would seem that the body in the work of Carlos Betancourt turns into island: islands populated with all the influences that the sea brings to them. And that is the Caribbean.
From time to time the artist engages in a sort of re-writing process. Appropriating body surfaces -sometimes his body-, Betancourt gives back to us testimonies of our inner being. The body is offered as a receptacle of traditions, memories, fears and desires now revealed to us. Curiously, in this new palimpsest, the writing is often inverted, which is somehow evidence of a surreptitious but essential nuance behind the whole production of this artist. I’m referring to the interpretation process in which the communication is mediated always by the otherness and the tension of a repertoire most of the time not understood. This process generates new meanings and is also valid.
After all, the Trans-Caribbean identity is also that: a hypertrophied form of identity. Tempered by distance, memory, and fantasy, this legacy often comes to us by second or third hand. Extrapolated from their original context, and now exposed to a new environment, new elements are added into that chameleonic spirit, this capricious creature that is the Trans-Caribbean identity in the midst of contemporary urban culture.
(on the recent exhibit of Carlos Betancourt artwork in New Orleans)
D. Eric Bookhardt, for GAMBIT, best of New Orleans, 2/2011
Looking at Carlos Betancourt’s work can be like stepping through the looking glass: It all seems familiar yet skewed in unlikely ways. In art as in life, context is everything, but here we are strangers in a strange land of exotic flora and preposterous kitsch where everything makes a bold statement — even if that statement has been digitally encrypted as decorously exotic babble. Cynics might say that sounds a bit like Miami, and they would be right. Betancourt was born in Puerto Rico of Cuban parentage but has lived in Miami since 1981, so it should come as no surprise that his work suggests a nexus where Carmen Miranda and Tito Puente meet Jeff Koons and Lady Gaga. Miami is where New York meets the tropics, and Betancourt evokes a loopy new strand of aesthetic DNA. Large, kaleidoscopic photomontages like Re-Collections (pictured) mingle flowers, butterflies, starfish and fruit with candy, beads and action figures in explosive cornucopias of pop-cultural delirium. His sculptures are neoclassical columns that might evoke the gravitas of ancient Rome were they not festooned with bananas, pineapples, grapes and bunches of other stuff that look like leftovers from Miranda’s crazy carioca hats. In these works, Betancourt takes the typically tart conceptual art memes of appropriation and deconstruction to giddy new levels of tropical extravagance.
D. Eric Bookhardt
Anthropology Atomic: Carlos Betancourt
by Wesley Grissom, 2012
from arbus magazine
For Carlos Betancourt, examining & experiencing culture is essential to stimulating creativity. Throughout his career, the artist’s flamboyant oeuvre has explored issues of personal identity, heritage, and transculturation.
The artist grew up in Puerto Rico and moved to Miami over thirty years ago- falling immediately for the energy and élan of South Beach, a mid-century modern milieu.
“South Beach is a place of living culture… people live life as art,” Betancourt explains.
He finds stimulation in the idyllic surroundings of his neighborhood as well as travels abroad. While his early work focused on interpreting ancient rituals and primitive traditions, travel and material objects define his latest creations.
Recent trips, including Africa and the Greek Isles, have allowed the wandering artist to immerse himself in new customs and ways of life. “I want to understand the mysteries of each place—to erase my background and possess those cultures,” he explains with his normal esprit.
The influence of these journeys manifest in imagery and titles (such as “Of Kenya and Candies,” a 45-foot long mural-cum-zebras for a gallery in Texas) while a more subtle connection with travel can be drawn from his new “X-ray” series—black and white photographs which depict quintessential Betancourt imagery in reverse (like his signature.)
The electromagnetic waves of X-rays reveal artistic mysteries shrouded for centuries under oils and soot. They also serve as a way for Transportation Security Administration officials to screen baggage and passengers prior to flights.
As a frequent traveler and perpetual creative, Betancourt’s familiar experiences before the boarding gate prove as influential as the thrill of the destination in uncovering the cultural conundrums he mentions.
After undergoing an elaborate, self-created layering process on the computer, his photographic memories dissolve into contemporary black and white “radiographs,” combining nostalgia with technology.
Betancourt has been a driving force behind the contemporary art scene in south Florida since immigrating. His studio in the eighties and nineties was a hub for influential creatives who helped define the city’s artistic pulse.
His individuality is woven through the cultural fabric of Miami, a metropolis hosting a creative contagion since Art Basel’s inception 10 years ago. Each year Betancourt is a visible fixture during the festivities at the Switzerland contemporary art fair’s warm winter twin.
When an invitation from the official Art Basel Miami Beach 2011 Studio Visit Program arrived, Betancourt opened his doors to share his newest work, inviting conversations with patrons, art critics, and curators alike.
Imposing photographs from the “El Portal” series (named for the neighborhood where his lushly landscaped, sunny studio resides) defined the space. The digital compositions depict the artist floating in a dreamy version of his work-space amongst tropical foliage, occasional fauna, modern furniture, mid-century ephemera, and general joie de vivre.
Like Betancourt’s bungalow, the photographs seamlessly integrate indoors and out, highlighting his organic blend of life and work. For studio goers during Art Basel, walking amongst the parallel worlds created a multi-sensory viewing experience.
Even when removed from the studio, the monumental size of the works maintains a similar surreal dynamic. Reaching over 9 feet wide, these photographs intrinsically welcome the viewer into Betancourt’s personal meditations.
BETANCOURT IN JACKSONVILLE Three large-scale works from the “El Portal” series (on view at J. Johnson Gallery through April 6) envelop the viewer in the artist’s mesmerizing world. Gallery director Bruce Dempsey was excited when he first saw these new photographs in Betancourt’s studio last December.
“Jennifer [Johnson, gallery owner] and I were impressed immediately by how fresh this body of work is,” Dempsey recalls. He knew it would be a strong addition to Betancourt’s spring exhibition at the Jacksonville Beach gallery.
“We’ve been showing Carlos’s work for over 10 years and we’re proud of how he continues to progress,” the director explains. “Carlos has broadened and reinvented his vocabulary of images in an impressive way.”
Also included in the exhibition of the artist’s recent work are refined kaleidoscope-like photographs, the latest incarnation from his “Re-Collections” series. Ranging from four to six feet square, these monochromatic creations examine Betancourt’s eclectic object collections with a focus on symmetry and pattern (rather than the flamboyant colors and freeform compositions of their predecessors.)
INVENTIVE MATERIALS Carlos Betancourt has developed a name for himself as a photographer and his works on paper can be found in collection such as The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. His self-portraits are even installed on the exterior of Miami Beach’s Sagamore Hotel, a South Beach icon celebrated for its impressive art collection.
Betancourt’s creativity is not limited to photography, however. In addition to over-the-top photo performances (which offered him additional roles of choreographer, set director and prop master) the artist has explored mixed media works in many capacities over past decades.
“The art always tells me the medium—it is a natural process for me,” the artist explains. He explores non-traditional materials a la Vik Muniz and was snapping glitter, glamour, and extravagance before Marilyn Minter.
Betancourt has a history of creating site-specific commissions, both public and private, out of a variety of materials—wood, stone, glass, bronze, even Swarovski crystals. Robert Farris Thompson, Dean of Art History at Yale University, discussed the artist’s monumental 2000 “Sound Symbols” beach sculpture and how “Miami art enthusiasts celebrated this work as the first major project since Christo’s Surrounded Islands.”
The artist’s mixed media work can be found in the Miami International Airport and periodically pops up elsewhere in the public eye. However, his three dimensional works have only recently become available to private collectors.
BETANCOURT IN JACKSONVILLE The exhibition at J. Johnson Gallery showcases Betancourt’s three-dimensional work alongside his newest photographs. A quartet of vibrant blue sculptures, perched precariously on cake stands, reveal knick knacks, fruit, toys and kitsch yard art. Combined, cast and coated in paint, these create nostalgia for nuclear domesticity and the atomic age.
The “Of Cakes and Scrapbooks,” series debuted at the Miami Art Museum’s annual ball, one of the hottest tickets during Art Basel 2011. M.A.M.’s fabulous 10th anniversary fete took place inside the Fontainebleau Miami Beach- a mid-century modern gem designed by Betancourt’s architectural and artistic icon, Morris Lapidus.
As a featured artist that evening, Betancourt was commissioned to create ten artworks to crown the tables of the elite fundraiser and his kitsch kitchen confections were born. The neo-baroque building offered a perfect backdrop for his mod-inspired masterpieces, which were later auctioned off to support the museum.
A similarly blue bronze totem balances objects common and rare as if they are climbing from Betancourt’s subconscious. “Every work of mine dwells on memories, going back to my childhood,” he says. His work offers sentimentality for simpler times and fond memories as well as a neo mid-century aesthetic.
Betancourt continues the theme with “Shopping Cart Atomic,” comprising a buggy and an eclectic selection of objects, all swathed in blue. He explains how his one-of-a-kind sculpture “commemorates the freedom to acquire ” and is “more a celebration of consumerism than a critique.”
The azure sculptures in the show can only be described as “Betancourt blue”—a hue that defies characterization (like the artist’s broad style and diverse influences.) This color is a cocktail of sea, sky, Yves Klein and Bill Viola, zested with the artist’s own panache.
Like his photographs, the three-dimensional lapis creations at Johnson Gallery read electric, offering Carlos Betancourt’s exuberant vitality to the viewer.
### Carlos Betancourt’s recent works are on view at J. Johnson Gallery through April 6. 177 4th Ave. N., Jacksonville Beach 32250 Gallery hours are Tuesday through Friday from 10 -5 and Saturdays from 1-5. www.jjohnsongallery.com
Exhibition Catalog Essay
Marco Berengo, Curator, Venice Projects
As soon as I saw Shopping Cart Atomic by Carlos Betancourt, a supermarket carriage overflowing with incongruous objects covered with a uniform turquoise-colored patina, a bizarre memory or aberrant recollection came to mind. It was as, if in looking at the piece, I remembered something familiar, and I promised myself at that time that I would invite him to work with glass. It was only later, after having viewed other works of his that I understood perfectly this sudden decision of mine.
On Carlos’ blue cakes we are presented with flamingoes, bananas, coffee pots and votive statues, which have all converged, presenting us with unlikely decorations on sweets no one would ever eat. Likewise, on the panels of the Re-Collections or Reading Objects series we are faced with an endless heap of objects, natural and artificial, where upon everything has been reduced to the same color and size and later used to create marvelously harmonic ornamental compositions. Our gaze is captivated by the unfolding of forms and textures, where the represented object’s real nature no longer serves any purpose. Carlos Betancourt uses the most disparate objects, as if they were letters of a mysterious alphabet, and joins them like plastic Scrabble tiles, only he’s not really interested if the words actually make sense. The only have to ‘sound’ right.
Thus, in the end, I understood the reason for this initial impression or sensation of mine. Betancourt’s works remind me of the metal cases where, in the kiln, you deposit the glass sculptures that have been broken, chipped or are imperfect. There, similarly to what is seen in Carlos’ work, you can find horses along with chandelier arms, owl heads, female profiles and shell-shaped oddities.
Any object Carlos desires for his compositions can be made with glass. This is but one of the reasons I wanted to place an infinite glass alphabet at his disposal, therefore allowing him the freedom to write in that symbolic language that only he knows.
The result is Cabinet of Wonders: Ornament and Obsession. I am certain that this exhibition marks only the beginning of Carlos Betancourt’s relationship with glass as well as with Italy.
Marco Berengo, Curator (Venice Projects)
Ornament and Obsession: The Fascinating World of Carlos Betancourt
by Mariangela Capuzzo
Many contemporary artists use their own experiences as a platform to develop their artistic language. Intimate accounts of their lives find their way onto canvases, photographs, installations and performances. Carlos Betancourt seduces us into his ‘magical world’ by creating a body of work that is expressionistic, theatrical, and lush.
For his exhibition at Venice Projects, Cabinet of Wonders: Ornament and Obsession, Betancourt presents us with a recent group of sculptures and two-dimensional works that are both tantalizing and visually sophisticated. Although continuing with his self-referential narrative, the symbols now presented are encoded in a more subtle and refined stance. The title of the show is a clear indication of this new direction and the three series of works assembled, El Portal, Re-collections and the ready made sculptural assemblages, explore a newly discovered aesthetic language. Objects and snapshots of the artist’s life and people close to him are carefully selected and arranged becoming the key to his allegorical world and ultimately, his life.
The El Portal series, is connected to his earlier works in which the artist or partner are in ‘tropical’ paraphernalia, intentionally kitsch. In these new images the subjects continue to be presented in Betancourt’s characteristically baroque manner, while the intimate environment is presented in fragments. The registered surroundings are now at the forefront; and the figures become amalgamated within the compositions, emerging from the ornate sea of souvenirs and flora that invade the rooms of his home.
In these works, where he documents the history of his relationships, he reminds us of Peter Beard’s photo collages. Both artists develop the image associations that integrate their diaries in a similar fashion by compiling bits and pieces of daily life. A good example of this series is Portal I, a snapshot of the artist’s studio and its surroundings. In this idyllic image, the artist is portrayed at ease in the intimacy of his space with a book at hand, in what seems to be a regular day. However, fragments of wild tropical landscapes are mixed with his ‘objects du desir’. These unexpected elements reveal a glimpse of the artist’s “persona” and ultimately the work becomes a modern day Renaissance-like portrait of the sitter. Following the historical longstanding tradition of portraiture, that extents from Greek and Roman painting, to the bold contemporary photographs of artists such as Cindy Sherman or Rineke Dijkstra, Betancourt, like some of his contemporary peers, assumes a conventional position in a present-day setting.
In contrast, appropriated from the High Renaissance, these ‘life maps’ incorporate the three-quarter view pose, as well as the traditional inclusion of symbols that exposed the interests and personality of the sitter, creating what has been referenced as ‘dynamic unity’- the artist’s ability to relate the person being depicted to what is happening in the background. In an apparently incongruous symphony with seemingly distracting splashes of vivid colors and a flamboyant style, the main elements have been cleverly ‘disguised’. Nevertheless, if we dissect the many layers of the work, a perfect chart of the artist’s life condition, up to incredible levels of intimacy, are revealed. There is a voyeuristic element in his work, and these pieces become his virtual memoirs revealed for the audience.
At first glance, his photographs seem chaotic and randomly created; but when analyzed in detail, we sense that they are cleverly constructed allegorical ‘paintings’. Upon entering his world we completely get the sense of the harmony behind the agglutinating factors. Betancourt is a product of his time and context, a fusion of cultures, which include his birthplace, Puerto Rico, as well as where he lives now. By making Miami his hometown, he has been exposed to all sorts of influences. In a multicultural and linguistically rich city, the artist interacts with many traditions that eventually become part of his cultural heritage. His Caribbean roots add to the aesthetic and experiential lushness and the melting pot of his inspiring sources. The multi-references in his work are the result of his interactions with all these cultures, and are the key to understanding his oeuvre.
Re-collections, the second series of works presented, are kaleidoscopic renderings created of collected images and classified according to the artist’s view. Like an anthropologist’s inventory list, these captivating and digitally manipulated works present us with a glimpse of the artist’s set of ‘pictograms’. Floral elements, historical references, or simply personal objects associated with significant moments, are selected and re-organized in dazzling mandala-like compositions. Memories are re-created and presented in a most clever way. At first glance these beautiful flowers hypnotize us with their elegance and beauty, but upon closer inspection, a whirlwind of images seduce us.
His notion of beauty is sophisticated, extravagant and timeless, perhaps a reflection of his personality. In a world where technology is at the center of our lives, where we are potentially observed at all times and where our privacy is constantly exposed though images in social media, Betancourt’s work has a vintage feel, a sense of being frozen in time. He is concerned with the past, with the effects of the passage of time, and with the ephemeral character of existence. His collages thus become his vehicle to capturing a moment or a feeling.
The ready-made sculptural ‘cakes’ presented, display a fetishist approach to sculpture. Constructed from carefully selected ordinary objects, these assemblages remind us of Jeff Koons’ works of the 80’s. They are eye-catching, fun, familiar and ‘sacred’. In Cake Atomic the sculpture seems to have been bestowed with a divine function. The inclusion of a dinosaurs, a classical bust, fruits, flowers, and butterflies, all bathed in blue, correspond with Betancourt’s longing for the decorative, the ornamental, and the nonfunctional. The process of selection conforms to a very intimate system of categorization dictating how these objects come together, similarly to what he does in the Re-collections series, but now in a three-dimensional composition.
Inspired by the flamboyant virtue in Latin culture, these objects become totems representative of joy, celebration, and beauty while at the same time, symbols of a particular aesthetic taste. As a vehicle to communicating his vision of the world, these sculptures, which seem accumulations of apparently loose ends and incongruous objects, present us with an intimate storyline based on his ethos, becoming the epitome of his lifetime experiences.
In a sense, these sculptures are the contemporary equivalent to the Renaissance curio cabinets. The myriad of objects treasured in those, are now the collected mementos, the artifacts and treasures that are dear and meaningful to him. With these ‘assemblages’ and ‘constructed’ works Betancourt becomes the collector, the anthropologist, and the diarist. He gathers together all his memories and leaves behind a visual recollection.
Venice, a city that by definition is a living and breathing urban ‘curio cabinet’, a place where art, architecture, and history flourished and coexisted with centuries of aesthetic adornment and richness, is perhaps the ideal place to exhibit Betancourt’s work. For this show, a new piece incorporating glass objects will be created in Murano, a shopping cart sculpture. Inspired by the opulence of the medium, colorful objects in glass will be collected and fused together in perfect unison. The city is once again the ‘mise en scene’, the stage for creation.
Betancourt is a collector, a treasure keeper of memories who, in his work, ‘edits’ and re-organizes fractions and moments of his life. His recent images and sculptures offer us an insight into the labyrinths of his mind and intimately present us with the essence of the eternal Renaissance man. We discover a constant search for identity and a spontaneous re-defining of self. While his older works reflect the primal need for self-discovery and identity, the works in this show seemingly display a mature sense of existence. Cabinet of Wonders: Ornament and Obsession, is precisely that, a ‘cabinet of curiosities’, where all the artist’s passions and memories are collected and exhibited.
CARLOS BETANCOURT: ESCRITO SOBE SU PROPIA PIEL
Por Antonio Zaya
Si el cuerpo se identifica (1) cada vez mas como el ultimo lugar posible a partir del cual el individuo de nuestro tiempo puede fijar una identidad significante, y ello a pesar de la aparente perdida de autonomia corporal que la posmodernidad implica, la escritura corporal, permanente o efimera, es un acto que -aparte de ser condenado por la Biblia-, supone una declaracion de un derecho al pasado y al futuro del cuerpo propio, al tiempo y la muerte propia. En este sentido, la escritura de Carlos Betancourt, porque de eso se trata en primer termino, es un sintoma del regreso de lo reprimido, del deseo de abrirse a la vinculacion perdida con la naturaleza, mas alla de la sociedad del espectaculo donde disminuye hasta perderse elcontrol tanto de nuestra propia imagen como de nuestra identidad a merced de intereses “superiores” al individuo y su propio cuerpo.
Carlos Betancourt parece sugerir que escribir sobre su propia piel, aun mas con el grafismo invertido, es una accion a partir de la que puede construirse una identidad que desafie la identidad normativa hegemonica, legal, posibilitando la visualizacion de su multiplicidad, como en el carnaval, declarando su compromiso con un mundo de fragmentos sin rostro fijo o prefigurado. La de Carlos Betancourt es una escritura impersonal a partir de la cual se define una memoria multiple desenmascarada relacionada con distintas visiones del mundo, con distintas maquinaciones culturales y tiempos que el hace simultaneos, vecinos. Pero esta escritura sobre la naturaleza, sobre la propia piel de la tierra y la suya propia o la de otros, sobre la arena y las rocas, es un compromiso con su tiempo efimero, perdido, como el hombre y la naturaleza que en el tratan de reencontrarse.
No se trata de elaborar una mascara o maqauillaje permanente que la naturaleza no tiene, ni antes ni ahora, una intrincada red donde limitarse y constrenir su propia imagen. Al contrario, su escritura, por invertida en el espejo y zurda, es tambien secreta, ignota, poetica y ancestral. No solo porque recupera otras antiguas palabras y signos amerindios, precolombinosy africanos, etc, sino tambien porque nos sustrae la posibilidad de su lectura encriptandose, como a menudo hace el grafiti callejero, en sus arabescos y deliberada complicacion como neolengua de la que somos privilegiados observadores neofitos, sin contrasena, ajenos.
Una escritura que no anade, que sepamos cieretamente, nada al desnudo propio sino acaso lo pone en evidencia, como grafismo en sintonia con el universo, excediendo la mirada de narciso en el lago y, desde su espejismo asumido, proyectando su embrujo, es ante todo una escritura de trangresion, como el tatuaje y el ya mencionado grafiti, con quienes comparte la puesta en cuestion del soporte prohibido . En este sentido, como las pinturas corporales de algunos grupos culturales aborigenes, indios o africanos, no solo anuncian acciones de guerra, antes presuponen una accion ritual, igualmente finalista, de naturaleza medica o terapeutica, fetichista o de transferencia pero trascendental. En este sentido, la conexion con artistas contemporaneos como Ana Mendieta con ser evidente se advierte mas aparente y endeble, lo mismo que con los grafismos corporales de Keith Haring. La profundidad de estas poeticas mencionadas se altera sustancialmente, tanto desde la sintaxis como desde el sentido de la mirada propia donde el otro es el mismo o no hay otro, no hay miron ajeno a la accion, mas alla del instante anadido posteriormente en la fotografia, que fiscalice su relacion salvaje. Este dialogo con la naturaleza, con el tiempo del cuerpo y el espejo embrujado de Ochosi y Ochun, ( del panteon yoruba africano) tiene su origen en la propia accion donde encuentra sus signos pero quedan congelados en la fotografia, anadida a los signos pictoricos y la misma accion, al espejo y al tiempo, la fotografia tan denostada en el animismo precisamente porque roba como las unas y el cabello el poder espiritual del sujeto pasivo.
Y este espejo en el que se mira el artista puertorriqueno residente en Miami, este espacio ajeno, es aquel en el que el artista nos refleja a los observadores al invertir los signos, el de un pasado arcaico que es igualmente nuestro, preadanico, ancestral, en la naturaleza pero a prueba dxed intrusos que desconozcan el verbo que fue primero. Ya no es un tiempo de representacion como en las Meninas, sino un tiempo mitico, variable, multiple, indefinido, acomodado a nuestros propios relojes planos.
No se trata en consecuencia de una imagen nostalgica del paraiso perdido donde el ser humano se confundia con la naturaleza, sino mejor, la presentacion de sus signos en accion, mas alla de nuestra cultura pero, sin duda, como sintoma de su naufragio en la superficie del espejo.
A este espejismo borgiano no es tampoco ajena la escritura de Carlos Betancourt quien ha construido, con los ojos cerrados como en el sueno y la cabeza invertida con la lengua fuera, su naturaleza al otro lado del espejo, activado este desde la memoria igualmente invertida de los signos y el sentido.
De este modo Carlos Betancourt no documenta un instante, lo construye. Se trata entonces de una poetica, de una intencion. En este sentido, comparte con Charo Oquet, ademas de su taller de trabajo, y de su vinculacion explicita con la naturaleza, la misma aficion ritual y su ascendencia religiosa panteista o animista, ademas de una ofrenda semejante a sus difuntas abuelas. Una dimension trascendental antes mencionada que impregna toda la obra del artista puertorriqueno realizada en Miami, donde queda al descubierto no solo su insularidad y la presencia de la arena de la orilla y del acantilado y de las olas sino, tambien en sus propios signos, la lengua proscrita de comunicacion con la naturaleza, la lengua ancestral de comunion con los dioses que ella representa y de la que esta exposicion que les presento en el Palacio de Espinola en Teguise(Lanzarote) quiere ser solo un ejemplo lo mismo que este atalogo. No se trata, sin embargo, como alguien podria pensar, de una obra meramente naturista, o que niega la contemporaneidad promiscua y conflictiva de la que nace. Al contrario, con la incorporacion documental, anadiendo fotos, paginas de revistas, etc al maquillaje, se situa al borde de su propia caducidad, en el espacio efimero de su propio tiempo secular que precisamente le lleva en su inversion a la eternidad de la jungla primordial que crece en las orillas del sentido.
Parafraseando el analisis que hace Deleuze de la obra de Lewis Carroll (2), si al principio la obra de Carlos Betancourt nos parecia que trataba de mantener en secreto su accion sustrayendola de nuestra mirada intrusa, a medida que se avanza en su analisis, los movimientos de profundidad y altura a uno y otro lado del espejo parecen mas inconsistentes y ceden al deslizamiento en su superficie, plana, sin espesor. “Profundo ha dejado de ser un cumplido” senala Deleuze, y tambien :” Los acontecimientos son como los cristales, no ocurren ni crecen sino por los bordes, sobre los bordes.
Ahi reside el primer secreto del zurdo y el tartamudo; dejar de hundirse, deslizarse a lo largo, de modo que la antigua profundidad no sea ya nada, reducida al sentido inverso de la superficie. Es a fuerza de deslizarse que se pasara al otro lado, ya que el otro lado no es sino el sentido inverso”.
Y anade mas adelante:”No hay pues… sino una aventura: su subida a la superficie, su repudio de la falsa profundidad, su descubrimiento de que todo ocurre en las frontera”.
Como no podia ser menos tambien aqui Deleuze nos recuerda la frase profunda de Paul Valery tantas veces repetida:” lo mas profundo, es la piel” y el odio de Lewis Carroll hacia los chicos, aunque en “Silvia y Bruno, es el nino quien tiene el papel inventivo, aprendiendo sus lecciones de cualquier modo, del reves, del derecho, por encima, por debajo, pero nunca a fondo”.
Sobre esta superficie, sobre su propia piel, se desliza el sentido de su escritura sobre la orilla, el sentido de este maquillaje real en la frontera del espejo.
(1) Candice Breitz.Imagenes Grabadas,Imagenes de tumba.Atlantica # 12.
1995-96. Centro Atlantico de Arte Moderno. Las Palmas de Gran Canaria.
(2) Gilles Deleuze. Logica del sentido. Ediciones Paidos. 1989. Barcelona.
CARLOS BETANCOURT: of a wandering spirit
By Antonio Zaya
When I set out to make a selection of the most recent photographs of Carlos Betancourt to be exhibited in the Spinola Palace at Teguise (Lanzarote), which unexpectedly coincided with his one-man show at the Lowe Art Museum in Coral Gables, I was not only motivated by the relationship his work has with the surroundings, nature, the surface and the body, so relevant to life and to the development of the island of Lanzarote but, more precisely by the relationship that the artist has with his ancestry, with his historical and biological origins. It was already evident in his work that writing on the skin, other lost signs and rituals are the axis through which his core narrative is maintained, but this was not the only reason to cross the Atlantic with his work. At that time I intuitively knew that there was an intense relationship between Carlos Betancourt and the island of Lanzarote. The key laid in his last name, but I had no idea that precisely in the old island capital of Teguise, right outside where I had proposed to show his photos, was the place where he would find his own genealogy and a link to a direct descendent. But why am I now interested in his roots when past texts I have been calling attention to the surface of his spectacular photographic work?
In the essay for the catalogue that I recently published for the Insular County of Lanzarote on the work of Carlos Betancourt, I made references to the skin, to the surface, to the limits of a photographic expression ” locked” in the mirror and in its own narcissist investment; leaving, however, the door opened to other deep and replicating readings that at the same time glanced at his late grandmother, who’s photograph, in the last image of the publication, was hidden in the hand of the artist, at the end of the book where hidden in the hand of the artist,pointing to more hidden and enigmatic directions of the hereafter, pointing towards a spiritual and religious place.
I mentioned his recent exhibition in the Lowe Art Museum and also the exhibition at the Spinola Palace because in both places , somehow, we sense what was to come to fruition: the logical progression towards the live-performance space, a frozen ritual differed and transferred, that Carlos Betancourt had been offering through his still photos, surface documents loaded with desirable intentions, always gliding.
If in the Palace of Spinola Carlos Betancourt reoccupied a space previously meaningful to his ancestors: an old, colonial and now public space in Lanzarote (Canary Islands), – located a few hundred kilometers off the coasts of the Sahara, in “the other Atlantic shoreline” -, where his photos engaged in a dialog with the furniture, domestic scenes, the kitchen, the dining room, the halls and the chapel of his direct ancestors, reinventing the entire space, dynamicaly reactivating it: in the Lowe Art Museum with his grandmother’s objects , Carlos Betancourt definitively lay the ground work that would fuel his new live performance dimension, beyond the mirror where the artist and his work had been looking into: the objects of his grandmother.
Since then, and I mean the exact moment that these objects appeared (dressing table objects, shoes, mirrors, glasses, gloves, etc), I assume that there was a change of direction in the meaning of his work, (not in his actual material works), which he would substantiate soon in Loiza (Puerto Rico), for PR’02 (On Route), and where the performing artist would hand over the camera to the spectators, returning the glance to them, so they would be the ones defining the framework of the direct action being witnesed, so as to be the onlookers the ones returning his abducted image. Loiza a town in Puerto Rico, populated mostly by people of African origins, is close to where Betancourt spent his childhood with his family. The ritual that took place there occurred entirely in a corner of a room in a popular eatery. An old man, hired by the artist, sat doing nothing in front of Carlos Betancourt, who half-naked and stained in front of a mirror, wrote on himself. Although the old man did not intervene in any way, he appeared as relevant as the artist and the personal belongigns of his grandmother that were in the space, covered in blue glitter marking the protection and defense barriers of his backwards writing actions in the mirror in front of the only man who he had invited to penetrate the scene. The transient action which every offering opens: the milk of innocence falling on the head and shoulders of the artist from outside and in accordance with his directions, the soil and the blue glitter in his hair, the fruit placed in a corner at the entrance of the space and the soil that covered the floor, completes the animist referential transient framework opening the doors to other invisible dimensions that all offerings brings.
I say transient, because we still had the opportunity to see two of his interventions, immediately following this piece under the perimeters of “Context”, in Santo Domingo, where once again the shiny travelling objects that belonged to his grandmother came out of the artist’s suitcase in a street procession at a pedestrian mall in colonial Santo Domingo, mixing with pedestrian and finishing at nightfall in a memorable architectural ruins, in the same colonial sector, forming in the ground of the ruins other spontaneous figures until their next showing in ARCO. If in the Afro-Puerto Rican village of Loiza the scene of the performance was deliberately vulnerable to the elements: in a semi-open space adjacent to a popular bar (I can still remember the sound of water drops falling from the ceiling made as they hit the pots, buckets and containers), with his illusive walls opened to the glances of the passersby and guests; in Santo Domingo, the arches of an old palace hardly offered any protection from the sun rays that reflected themselves at will over the objects in the colonial city. The pedestrians volunteered to arrange the objects on the walkway making them adopt different forms and activating a very surreal and curious narrative between the volunteers and the objects that was finally opening the scene to randomness and initiating a festive and warm dance in the sun with the world beyond.
We have stopped referring to his photography since the exhibition in the Lowe Art Museum in Miami and the Palace of Spinola in the Canary Island of Lanzarote and, yet, without photography we would not have been able to begin this story, specially without the photographs in which the artist appears with the photo of his grandmother in his left hand, which appears at the end of the book, nor without the photograph which documents the beginning of this sequence, of this ritual, in the lordly and insular palace of Teguise, where his photos engaged in a dialog with the antique furniture and the architecture, placing in contact his”reversed” mirrored ritualistic photos, with the time and place of its ancestors.
His works are deliberately loaded with that spiritual dimension, beyond the live-performance invisible to it and the camera. For this reason the artist draws a slow developing process in stages, distant and different: first, in the corner of the room in Loiza, respectfully, almost hidden, cleansing himself with milk, dirt and shiny blue glitter, protected by his grandmother’s objects and the light of her old candle and the reversed script of the mirror, and ( delete “the “) fruits, like offering to the Gods and, later, in the morning, making contact with the people on the street and even, at night, in the historical ruin, with another (delete “also”) naked body with his back to the audience. Although also naked and cornered, the artist maintains an almost secure fetal position ,yet equally vulnerable and protected by the objects.
They are not exclusively aesthetics ceremonies. The artist directly connects the spirit of his grandmother with his own body and,with both, he loads the objects and images with significance. His photographs are also loaded by his previous civic, non-orthodox and conventional ceremonies , by his intention and faith. In any case, spirituality plays an essential very corporal, very skin deep, pantheonic, promiscuous role, that embraces his antagonistic pair: the artist’s body and spirit, with his grandmother’ s spirit and objects.
Carlos Betancourt’s objects and images have that personal implication, that open and eloquent nakedness with nature and the hereafter, with creation and sexuality, because they are fruits of his spontaneous experience with life, of his offerings as much as of his calculated capacity of ritual transference, placing other attractive dimensions into play.
In any case, the work of Carlos Betancourt which we will see in ARCO is not the final journey in this spiritual story, more like the temporary rest in the art market of an unfinished sequence with the objects of his grandmother, as well as his photo-performance, by which he is deservedly known.
The Slick Territorial Pissings of Carlos Betancourt
By Pedro Velez
Brazen bodies with black charcoal, ink, leaf, poetry, and otherwise ordinary earthly materials are a few of the tools Carlos Betancourt uses in the process of metaphorically tattooing restless models. These markings are presented in monumental banners in which the artist documents his fixation with the symbols of the Pre-Colonial Taino culture from the Caribbean and the contemporary world of advertising. At first glance both worlds mingle and flirt in the surface of the glossy banners but closer inspection reveals a clash of opposites, a forceful union of the irreverence associated with advertising and the humble grace of ancestral symbols.
Betancourt’s existential tantrums are channeled through a hybrid text he writes and draws obsessively on the human body. Although it has the form, feel and rhythm of poetry; the organic text functions as the documentation of an action- a sadist gesture or intimate argument that the viewer will never be able to fully read or understand but only experience. Such is the case in “Wynwood Series 1,” where a crestfallen brunette stands unclothed, completely covered in black scribbles but for her left hand which has been rubbed with blue dust. In company of the model are 3 sarcastic looking and odd Christmas adornments, illuminated from their hollow insides, whose attire and posture resemble choirboys.
Another photo in the series has the woman, looking tired and lonesome, sitting still on a wooden bench and staring at the infinite while listening to the muted singing statues. As part of the scribbles that cover her pale leg one can read: “Comandante Guevara.” Not much of El Che is meant as a political reference but as a conscious, melancholic effort to trace his genealogical tree that spans from Puerto Rico to Cuba and Miami. By tracing his roots and his history Betancourt makes a mark, or pees his territory as dogs do, leaving the scent of his cultural background, his experience, taste and self.
Violence in product placement and the assault of the senses by excess in visuals are tactics that Betancourt uses to perfection, not only in the epic scope of his work and quality in the image but in the subordination of his models, as seen in the series “HOMBRE FRENTE A MUELLE.” Here, a male model lays face down on a dirty sidewalk, in a pose reminiscent of Ana Mendieta’s rape incident?, the male model seems to have been submitted to irreverent, almost sadomachoist scribbling and styling of Betancourt.
While the artist dresses his models, willing or not, in his signature style, other photo series have him as the subject. Example is ” El Yunque” where the artist lays bare on top of a waterfall, naked but for dirty tennis shoes to which the gaze is drawn. The rapture of the gaze by such ordinary object amidst the pure environment sends signals to the viewer that point to a campy and eerie reading of the piece. Here the artist performs the role of afflicted contemporary cult leader, shaman, leper messiah or new age exorcist in waiting. Just like the members of the “New Millennium Cult,” that so in famously awaited the Second Coming of the Christ in black uniforms and Nike shoes.
Dirty and obsessive, Betancourt’s colonization of his identity and that of others, sets Betancourt apart from the cliched Latino aesthetic based on the glorification of the body and its relationship to the nature and self.
Instead, and more like Cindy Sherman, Vito Acconci and Vanessa Beecroft, Betancourt glorifies himself as a product and as a signature.
ARTE CONTEMPORANEO PRIVADO
Por Federico Utrera
Cada día que pasa queda más en evidencia que las múltiples y variadas maneras de exponer arte se reducen en esencia a dos: museos, centros e institutos públicos, al abrigo del presupuesto oficial, y galerías y foros privados, donde las iniciativas asumen mayor riesgo y quizás por ello gozan de mayor credibilidad. La última gran feria de arte contemporáneo celebrada en España (Arco 2003) dejó patente estas dos formas de entender la exhibición artística, que contrastan en su concepto de forma diáfana. Existe pues una cobertura pública que los foros estatales, como también lo es el Gobierno de Canarias, realizan a través de diversos programas, como el de “Canarias Crea ”, y conviven igualmente galerías, sobre todo galeristas, que han hecho de su vida una apuesta por el arte de manera independiente y más pegada a la inquietud y curiosidad ciudadana. Las comparaciones, en este caso, no sólo no son odiosas sino que arrojan cierta claridad.
Una de mis más raras obsesiones, por la que suelo pedir disculpas, es la de ponerle el termómetro a esa cobertura privada y pública del arte puesta en paralelo, pero no en competencia, al hilo de las fiestas, presentaciones y cócteles que se organizan con abundante generosidad para saciar una sed y un hambre no precisamente estética. Entre las megalomanías y lo escueto y austero prefiero ésto último por una cuestión de mínimo rubor ante el consumo de lo ajeno. Por eso siempre opto preferentemente por darle voz a los artistas y galerías que exponen así, al márgen de zánganos y lepidópteros que, sin ser un experto en zoología humana, podría definir como aquellos seres vivos de cabeza pequeña, grandes antenas y una especie de trompa por donde lo succionan todo. De momento los conocemos, o lo que puede ser peor, los vamos conociendo.
En la última edición de esa feria internacional de arte contemporáneo contacté por ello con las galerías Línea (Lanzarote), Vegueta y Ojeda (Gran Canaria), Leyendecker (Tenerife), Elba Benítez (Madrid), J. Johnson Galery (Florida), Galerie 1900 * 2000 (París), Guillermo de Osma y Leandro Navarro (Madrid), Jan Krugier (Ginebra), Oriol (Barcelona) y Stefan Röpke (Colonia). Todas expusieron artistas que viven o son de Canarias. A su lado, me preocupé también por observar la puesta en escena de centros de arte públicos como el Instituto Oscar Domínguez (que no exhibió, al menos en los primeros días de la feria, obras del autor que lleva su nombre), el Centro Atlántico de Arte Moderno y el Ayuntamiento de Santa Cruz de Tenerife, foros que se pueden completar con el citado de “Canarias Crea ”, que ha utilizado de nuevo el voluptuoso marco del Jardín Botánico de Madrid para ofrecer la excelente exposición “Constelación”, esta vez con la presencia de Cristino de Vera. Afortunadamente, con ello se constata que en la edición anterior esa ausencia no fue intencionada sino un despiste corregido ahora, algo vamos avanzando. La mirada neutral hacia todos estos artistas y galeristas, que representan una muestra suficiente, puede arrojar algunas conclusiones sobre la salud actual de nuestro panorama artístico más cercano.
La primera gran sorpresa con la que tropiezas al abordar lo moderno en Canarias se refiere al mundo de la crítica y se llama Antonio Zaya. Incrustado en la organización de Arco, sector revistas y galerías americanas, la edición felizmente bilingüe del último número de la revista Atlántica de Arte y Pensamiento es sencillamente magistral. En las antípodas de lo que suele ser un burócrata artístico, Antonio Zaya es el heredero de toda una tradición cosmopolita y vanguardista en las Islas y sólo la publicación de la interesantísima entrevista que Hans Ulrich Obrist le hace a ese genial y original pintor que es Roberto Matta, hablando de urbanismo y de la urgente necesidad de una Sociedad de Religiones como ya se creó una Sociedad de Naciones, justifica por sí sólo ese ejemplar. Y de propina, se ve complementado con las experiencias de Michelangelo Pistoletto, de profesión utopista e inventor de Cittadellarte, laboratorio de transformación social que aborda la economía, la política, la educación, la producción, el mercado y pone en movimiento un arte vinculado a la textura social. Algunas de estas ideas que rondan por la cabeza de Antonio Zaya le acreditan tanto como descubridor de talentos como programador solvente, editor y comisario independiente y es un regalo para la vista y la inteligencia verle dinamizar espacios culturales aquí y acuyá, olfateando la calidad por todo el planeta.
Fue él precisamente quién me presentó a alguien que yo ya buscaba: Carlos Betancourt, fotógrafo procedente de Puerto Rico y afincado en Miami, que venía a España de la mano de la J. Johnson Galery (Florida). De ancestros canarios y posiblemente franceses, pinta cuerpos e ideogramas, se divierte trabajando y se aplica una disciplina que ya está dando sus frutos, pues su ciudad le ha pedido una de sus obras más playeras. Mientras él viajaba hacia Jacksonville tras un mes en España y elogiando la calidad de la muestra madrileña en comparación con la de Basilea, hasta ahora la primera del mundo, recordé la recreación que hizo de una de las más célebres imágenes del 11-S: una joven ejecutiva vestida de Chanel que, sentada a los pies de un edificio semiderruido, sangraba de la cabeza a los pies. Los chorros manando de arriba a abajo fueron transformados por Betancourt en una modelo cubierta de arena pintada de granate, pero con la misma vacía y hueca mirada de desolación.
Otros aventureros del Arte, editores europeos de prestigio en la estampación del grabado, son Jorge Marsá y Dora Castillo, que llevan admirablemente bien la Galería Línea, y que este año trabajan a fondo con Barceló, Chillida y Sicilia, como antes lo han hecho con Broto, Cristina Iglesias o Susana Solano. Que sus “Cuadernos del Sureste” estén pasando por lo que están pasando clama al cielo del Astrofísico, que es inmensamente grande, y dice mucho en contra de la tolerancia y libertad de expresión en Lanzarote. En lugar de ser saludados como un soplo de viento crítico e independiente, aire fresco que descontamina el enrarecido, se les persigue judicialmente por quebrar con letra impresa los cacicatos de toda la vida. La inteligencia es un arma de pensamiento masivo y como tal, un elemento a batir extremadamente peligroso. Cuando algún día reparen en que la Galería Línea está asociando el nombre de la isla al arte de calidad a nivel internacional, gracias a la habilidad con la que César Manrique los embaucó y embarcó a miles de kilómetros de su domicilio habitual, algunos políticos y funcionarios se llevarán las manos a la cabeza por lo que está pasando. Puede que algunos votantes también, pues con unas elecciones a la vuelta, estas inquinas se hacen aún más incomprensibles.
Y si hablamos de dimensión internacional no podemos dejar al margen a la más potente, la Galería Marlborough (Nueva York-Londres-Tokio-Zurich-Madrid, aunque ahora se ha extendido a Buenos Aires, Santiago de Chile, Florida y Mónaco). Veteranos como Martín Chirino ya están en ella junto a Luis Gordillo y Fernando Botero pero también nuevos valores como Juan Genovés o Abraham La Calle. El espacio se acaba, por lo que será la próxima semana cuando haya que ponerle nombre propio y también apellidos al resto de todo lo extraordinario, y su inseparable envés, el desvarío, que acontece muy cerca nuestro y que quizás ignoramos.
R. Farris Thompson
On the Recent Art of Carlos Betancourt
By Robert Farris Thompson, dean of History of Art Department, Yale University.
Start with his body. A recent self-presentation involves painting his face blue and his body warm red in “Apito y Cenizas with Letter to Alberto” [plate 1]. Blue glitter and raw earth rest on his body. He considers the fingers of his left hand. The ashes of his grandmother are caught there.
Deepening a private ritual of remembrance, a painted-on ideograph with two spiral pattern emblazons his chest. The artist attributes the inspiration of this sign to the Hopi. In the iconography of Native American New Mexico and Arizona, spirals can symbolize breath, wind, and smoke. In addition, farther south, in Mexican antiquity, spiral-like scrolls, when drawn by the mouth, equal speech: a wind made of words. Signing his body with this powerful sign, the artist seems to invoke his grandmother’s protection in a way very special and secret: give us breath, give us life.
Blue glitter on his chest the artist relates to star dust or meteor debris. He is thinking of Kongo-Cuban mystic receptacles -prendas- opened in the night to absorb falling stars. He is mixing the ashes of his grandmother with glitter tinted blue, the color of heaven the color that evil can’t cross.
In another photograph, “Aracoel’s Ashes or Watching the Maize in the Altiplano” [plate 2] the camera pulls back, revealing the artist’s naked body. His grandmother’s ashes now rest in his right hand. His nakedness emphasizes the seriousness of his ritual. Betancourt arranges his hands in two gestures, one to support traces of his ancestor, the other to display his body. The tension between ritual and narcissism adds intensity to the pose.
Betancourt knows that the body is the beginning of everything. The dawn of the image very likely emerged on the frame of a woman or man. What Betancourt writes on the chest and arms are letters and messages in mirror-writing. Why would a Puerto Rican-Cuban-American be interested in writing this way? For one thing he’s aware of the role mirrors play among followers of palo, the creolized religion of Kongo in the Caribbean and Miami. Embedding mirrors in horns, as an eye to infinity, is one of the ways paleros seek vision. Horns with a mirror (vititi menso), gives eyes to their altars.
Betanocurt, however, does not copy this tradition directly. He works with a mirror in his own private way. In “Self Portrait with Letter to Aracoel” [plate 3] he covers his body with a script to be read in a mirror. Death is a negative. So, in Kongo belief, all things reverse as they pass into glory. Betancourt writes to the other world backwards, in the terms of their optic. As he does so, he brings back his grandmother’s image. In a hand richly coated with the color of passion he holds a small photograph-showing her face when she was very young and unmarried.
The body-script unfolds very handsomely. Like a rock artist in South Africa, using a curved wall to add motion and dimension to a frieze of wild elands, Betancourt takes cues from the shapes of the human figure. Words fill in pectorals like paragraphs. The curve of shoulders cause curved lines of writing to march down the back.
Script on his face takes on strange power. Somehow the letter flatten the features. We associate writing with a base that is level, with the plane of a page. So letters overmaster the nose, eyes, and eyebrows, as if a pane of pure glass, overwritten with writing, were masking or obliterating his identity. Derrida was referring to more than he knew when he talked about the ‘violence of the letter’.
The mask of letters returns in “Lily, Obatala’ y Chichecastenango” [plate 4] where the eyes of a man, ( Alberto LaTorre, Miami ), emerge in dense script. An elegant ideograph, which the artist relates to the rain, cuts down from the subject’s neck to his shoulders, truncating the lines of his body. Mirror writing here is intended as a communication to Obatala’, the Yoruba god of creativity and justice, ‘he who turns blood into children’.
We come now to an ultimate mirror: the Atlantic Ocean, a mass liquid glass that extends to the edge of our continent. Betancourt plays with this splendor. Engagement with surf leads to various works. In “Untilted (Intersection)” [plate 5] a photograph reveals the artist on his back on a beach. A wave crashes over his body. Note the slight wince, as salt and cold water slap his face. The edge of the water becomes a garment of foam.
“Daca Bagua” [plate 6] mounts a frieze of seven photographs, seven takes of his face being hit by the sea. Foam crowns his head and water pulls his hair into filaments. Theartist is passive. He lets water work him.
In “Message to Caguana” [Plate 7] a man, (Richard Blanco, Connecticut ), rests on dry sand, at the top of a beach, facing down. Small tortoise claws rest on his back. The tortoise is an attribute of Caguana, Taino goddess who created mankind. The poet’s broad back becomes a page for a prayer. Black lines of writing match the lines of his hair. The letters are mysterious. Backwards numerals – 4, 5, 6, 7 – appear. They’re mysterious too. A hard, breathing body provides, one more time, a ground for a coded communication to a spirit. Deft cropping emphasizes the arms of the poet. It’s as if he were embracing the earth. Finally wave-like strong lines of prominent writing encircle his biceps and emphasize the ridge of his shoulders.
Working with body-script, viewed on the sand of a beach, leads to an exciting development. On the night of the equinox, March 19, 2000, Betancourt signed an entire beach with an ideograph [Plate 8, 9]. Like Serpent Mound in Ohio, or Nazca lines of Peru, his earthwork is meant to be read from above.
The construction entailed some two thousand five hundred African and Taino-like patterns carved out of wood, painted gleaming black, and set on two, three and four inch stilts in the sand, creating different planes. Three hundred feet long, the earthwork ran parallel to the beach opposite 21st Street in Miami Beach. Miami art enthusiasts celebrated this work as the first major project since Christo’s “Surrounded Islands”.
The ideograph has a circular head, three bars as a chest, and legs that curl out like a tail. This was Betancourt’s “Sounds Symbols Project”. The figure, however enigmatic, is clearly celebratory. A jovial team, wearing T-shirts with the very same sign [plate 10], followed Betancourt’s specifications. They set up hundreds of miniatures sculptures in the sand within clearly marked-out areas and when they were done the ideograph was complete. Sound Symbols Project was popular. Betancourt, by request, will reward Miami with another strong beachwork, this one a figuration in color. It will have two arm-like extensions, round head, and anchor-like legs.
Malraux wrote in The Voices of Silence that art leaves us nothing but irreconcilable fragments. this is a council of defeat, postmodernist before its time. Betancourt with hard work, and openness to experience, will give us an antidote. He will reconcile the irreconcilable. How, please? Because he is willing to listen to all sides of an argument. In the many-languaged nature of his work he is arguing, like Bedia and Mendieta before him, equal potency for the Caribbean and the West.
Essay about the artworks of Edouard Duval Carrie and Carlos Betancourt
By Debora Ruth
In an age where visual media has a direct, and stressful correlation with our world, I am convinced of witnessing two extraordinary artists determined to energize your mind. A narrative [voice] exists in all the works of Edouard Duval Carrié and Carlos Betancourt, each creating a perceptive dialogue of symbolism to unravel; a terminology that thrives daily in too many places to number, one that I have only partially used, whose pursuits to define have proven noble and richly exciting. But with eyes fixed to the seas, the Tainos who saw the first arrival could never anticipate the events that would follow. Soon the Spaniard’s shouts would last through the night, assaulting even the gentlest breeze. In not so subtle ways, both artists revisit this rape and destruction with eyes wide open. They target zealously the historical record of their respective countries, choosing direct methods to visually interact with the spiritual world, and especially their viewers. And while Betancourt enacts events, how they may have occurred in graphic, cinematic scale, Carrié invokes voudon and it’s dialectic, baroque guises, to tell their stories of death and survival on two distinct but neighboring regions; these men who convey injustice with loaded messages.
As a result, both artists work intimately with symbolism, however, Betancourt opens the door of his studio, and seeks the coastal refuge of windswept trees, earth and ocean, site specific to where the Spaniards arrived. His work is pensive, employing photography with hyper-real colors in their raw essence, compared to Carrié’s exotically creole palette and his many inferences to hardcore irony. Each artist, in the process of shedding light on two cultures from long ago, deal with loss at a heightened sensitivity. Their images radiate with electric sorrow for a heritage that evolved out of unbridled corruption, exile, massacre and fear.
In the work of Betancourt, there are no ships, or sails to be seen, and you want to believe it is the time, eras before, the arrival of the barbarians. But the Spanish sword did silence tongues, as captivated in his works The Vague Year and Royal Palm Trees for the Horizon, forever affecting the evolution of indigenous cultures. With different levels of irony, these photographs represent the life, death and resurrection of language – which is really the fundamental bond that sustains a society. The backward inscription he imbues on the figures is appropriated from the letters of Bartolome de las Casas; rich, black, fluid penmanship almost identical to the sixteenth century author. It is especially here that Betancourt’s images are a still frame in the life of the Taino during the chaos.
His image entitled Guanaboina (La Cueva Pintada) is by far the closest I have ever been to feeling the Taino woman/mother. At first an innocent glimpse to a pre-columbian time, and then you notice the red markings on her arm in the shadows, and see the brief glimpse of her brown eyes, rapt with fear. This juxtaposition of life bearing life and eminent death lingers in the mind long after the viewing, allowing for a tidal wave of psychological content to confront you in this ‘virtual’ look back into space and time. Guanaboina is the deity that summons the power of Itiba Cahubaba – Earth Mother and symbol of what is ‘interior’, the mythic cave where the Taino originated, in this case, the figures’ living womb and the forest mercifully surrounding her.
Earth and water are key elements in Betancourt’s images, and like Carrié, they involve celestial forces and Afro-Caribbean symbolism. A blending of religions that beckon our existence, the essence of which is colored by many layers of socio-historical knowledge. A larger-than-life scale of his photographs, permit you to enter the environment and feel a closer affinity to the figures and brilliant details. The incorporation of powder pigments mirror nature’s purest colors, summoning the gods of the Taino cosmos such as Boinayel and Guabancex onto living skin. This action is comparable to Greek tragedy because it prompts us to recognize that as a thriving civilization, pain and torture were not the daily nourishment. A striking duality surfaces, in that, with all the beauty and color of the image, it underscores and magnifies the grievous announcement of the near death of a beautiful culture. Luckily we are blessed with several surviving tribes of original descendents who have formed an Inter-Tribal Council headed by Cacique Pedro Guanikeyu in the province of Caguana, Puerto Rico. While Tainos are currently fighting for the rights to worship on their sacred lands, my prayer to this council is that they prosper, and keep their beliefs alive.
Through symbolism derived from Afro-Caribbean slaves, Betancourt offers a performative record that exacts, for me, a permanent connection to my consciousness, which not only requires, but begs further examination. It was a unique privilege to visit his studio, seeing his images in their original home where fundamental aspects of his craft are laid out. In place of aromatic turpentine is the aura of creative magic that explores concepts with diverse media such as textile, plaster, wood, and the invocation of gods, who were palpable. A significant message written on his studio wall reads:“…odot ed etadreucA” (remember everything…), is very indicative of his art.
On the subject of in-depth examination, in a similar way, to experience Carrié’s work is to traverse the narrow terrain of Haiti and to walk above the paths of buried bones that have never left, since the beginning of time. The artist emphasizes a baroque approach to express the compassion he feels with his country, which reflects its politically complex modes of existence. In fact, his many skeletal figures invoke Baron Samedie (the voudon god of Death), whose typical appearance of top hat and black dress coat, was adopted by the tyrant leader Papa Doc Duvalier as intimidation. It’s a clever combination of metaphor and ritual, which Carrié succeeds to invent.
With shrewd ambiguity, he draws narratives of a thousand symbols, and his painterly journey to where the dead live is downright bohemian. Entering the ‘opening night’ exhibit, the first room glowing in the red-orange lights of Ayizan Velekete and Agowe Taroyo, immediately transported me to New Orleans, thinking all the while that the cold, rainy, moonlit night was suspiciously appropriate. One of the first paintings to visit your gaze is part of a series of six works of equal dimensions, “La Porte du Jardin”, which clearly represents the mother of all Haitian spirits Erzulie Dahomey and a beau, arriving near the port of Miami, just like the “rafters” before them. In sixteenth century French wardrobe, the lovers mirror the legacies of Jean Jacques Dessalines and Toussaint Louverture who personified in dress, the commanders of the French insurgents. Preferring to use strong political irony, Carrié suggests that even the gods are taking the rough ride to freedom; that one never knows where these gods will truly show up.
Walking through sirène mystères to an adjacent room, a different mixed media image called “Papa Legba” has its own unique translation. As the gatekeeper of the Grand Chemin (arc of the sun’s course and of the human life span), he is commonly depicted as an old man with a walking cane and a shoulder bag (macoute). This loa is the first summoned to open the gate of communication between the worlds through the medium of the Poteau mitan (a ceremonial pole or tree). Carrié depicts the traditional symbol that coincides with this spirit, a veve drawing colored in white lines that include a walking cane. Elaborate signs of nkisi offerings, chains, metal tridents and veve drawings are just a few objects that can be identified in his work. Furthermore, each symbol is faintly altered to create new meanings, and the vocabulary is vast, highly spiritual and complex.
The term Voudon is defined in French as réglé, which means structure, order and form. Ceremonies involve a houngan (priest) or mambo (priestess), and devotees of the local sect, who participate in dance and song, which are the strongest vehicles for trance and spiritual interchange. Like the Kabbalah, only mature, ‘orthodox’ members are privy to Eskots – the secret language of Voudon. Regarding Carrie’s use of this genre, art historian Charles Merewether insightfully reveals, “Duval brings back into the halls of the “civilized” contemporary art world a violence and enchantment which reverberates through the history of Haiti. It reproduces the fetish-like spectacle of the sign as a magical emblem of liberation…and like ghede or the “Chaloskas” of carnivale, he brings a fearful laughter to this scene.”
CARLOS BETANCOURT: RECENT PHOTOGRAPHIC WORK
by Denise M. Gerson
Associate Director of Curaturial Affairs, Lowe Art Museum
University of Miami
“A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.” Diane Arbus
Carlos Betancourt’s monumental C-Prints on vinyl resonate mysteriously across the soaring white expanses of the Lowe’s gallery. Exquisite in color and clarity, none has been digitally manipulated and all were photographed in natural light. Betancourt likes to make use of what he calls the “traditional ways of photographing, while using advanced technology in printing material.” Fourteen works from 2001, selected by the artist at my invitation for his Florida Artist Series 2002 exhibition, record his continuing photographic exploration of the potent relationship between signs and symbols derived from Afro-Caribbean cultures, arcane and contemporary texts, and the human body they adorn and animate. Each image captures a metamorphic moment that simultaneously transforms and binds words, symbols, flesh, gesture, color, matter, and nature. Betancourt credits his subconscious with informing his art. On a conscious level, however, it is his fascination with markings related to the sources of his Afro-Cuban roots that has long lain at its heart, and his oeuvre, is closely associated with what he terms “a sort of contemporized graffiti.” Some decipherable, some not, some plumbed from tribal sources, some of his own invention, some written frontward, most written in reverse, their significance has been the focal point of several critiques, perhaps none better than that by art historian, Robert Ferris Thompson, who deftly identified the rich panoply of Betancourt’s anthropological references and influences for an article written in 1999.
The prints at the Lowe are anticipated in Betancourt’s earlier work. They progress from the artist’s original placement of African, pre-Columbian, and Native American symbols upon the traditional mediums of paper and canvas, to elaborations upon landscape, and later still, to symbols and calligraphic fragments upon the human body. Given the gradual development of human form in Betancourt’s iconography since 1998, the year he expanded his repertoire to include the figure, one might say that the work has, quite literally, evolved. Indeed, at the Lowe, the body is more fully realized/revealed then ever before, challenging for primacy of attention the symbolic drawings and inscriptions, which were formerly/formally the central focus of Betancourt’s work. The transposing of flesh into the artistic terra firma/tabula rasa upon which to imprint messages, transcends facile interpretation. The physical manifestation of markings upon human anatomy suggests ritualistic scarification and tattooing related to tribal concepts of beautification and protection; their intimations of indelibility evoke/trigger memory; while textually, they weave contemporary literary fragments with ancient translations drawn from specific mythologies. As others have pointed out, Betancourt’s carefully constructed compositions, are vehicles for communication. But they are communiqués that can never be fully comprehended by anyone but the artist, so heavily imbedded are they with private meaning. Many are homages to family and friends present and ancestors past; others are metaphorical musings about personal identity. In their confrontational size and intrinsic beauty, all are accessible, if not decipherable. Betancourt crosses an artistic threshold into full-blown painterly expression in the work at the Lowe. The artist moved into color photography slowly, but once he embraced the medium, his images became increasingly color-saturated. Through the device of chromatic intensity he continues to blur distinctions between manipulating camera and manipulating paintbrush, pursuing an artistic course that carries him to the realm between representation and abstraction. Here, he primarily wields a Fauvist palette of brilliant primaries and complimentaries — lush blues and greens, fiery oranges and yellows, stunning fuscias — that dazzles the eye and enriches the viewing experience. It also confuses perception, for color, like graphic elements in Betancourt’s art, serves to abstract the representational forms it defines. Consider Apito Y Cenzias with Letter of Alberto and The Worshipping of My Ancestors, in which the planes of Betancourt’s head and upper torso are simultaneously flattened and enlivened by vivid pigment, or Ojos Nuevos, whose three-dimensional compositional elements are essentially reduced to planar color shapes. In Two Sides or Guabancex with Jagua, the flat, dark umber shadow that obliterates forms, creates an abstractly commanding presence that dominates the image. In Betancourt’s hands, color can also play a transformational role, conveying organic and inorganic unity, rather than distinction. Thus hand, frond, dirt, and glitter in Untitled (For Bob and Tibet), bloom and figure in Yellow Blossom by Mendieta’s Ceiba, and flesh, leaf, pigment, and glitter in Ojos Nuevos transcend their individual identities in a fusion of man and matter. The artist reiterates his message in Oubao-Moin (Isla de Sangre), washing figure and landscape alike with cool blues and greens, so that the young man languishing on a tree, dissolves, chameleon-like, before our very eyes.
Betancourt reserves subtler handling of color for his female subjects, but he achieves the same end — transcendental oneness. Employing muted, earth-toned palettes he connects women, literally and mythically, to the source of growing things, whereby they lose their mortality and merge organically with their terrestrial environment. In Two Sides or Guabancex with Jagua, a monochromatic palette does not distinguish flesh from bark, and the young woman in Iguanaboina (La Cueva Pintada) is almost invisible within her surrounds. Protected and absorbed by the neutral camouflage of her natural habitat, the curving symmetry and pale pink hues of her breast and abdomen blend seamlessly into the columnar shapes of a pallid, primordial forest. Potent in fecundity, if not palette, she is of particular iconographic significance to Betancourt as a living manifestation of Itiba Cahubaba, the mother of the four twins of Taino creation mythology, who are responsible for the birth of the oceans and fish, as well as man on earth.
Gesture, either compositionally isolated or integral to the figure is another element of Betancourt’s work that is fraught with import, particularly as a conveyance of gender and sexuality. In Betancout’s art, as in nature, not just bravura color, but bravura gesture is reserved for males of the species. Witness the artist’s baroque grasp in Intervention in a Delightful Setting- Guada, or his dramatic preening, like a cobalt peacock, as he exultantly scatters the ashes of his grandmother, in The Worshipping of My Ancestors. Compare this vitality to the serenity of Ana, transformed into a swollen archaic fertility goddess for The Executors… and Iguanaboina. Arms demurely at her sides, adorned in the delicate backwards script of a letter to her expected twins, her femininity is passively informed, just as Betancourt’s masculinity is dynamically informed. Comparison between Untitled (Intersection) and Castro in Triumphant Advance in to Havana further reveals undercurrents dealing with issues of masculine vigor and feminine placidity.In the former, a man lies on his back along a foaming shoreline, tormented by assaulting waves, while in the latter, a woman with a staring Surrealist eye emblazoned across her shoulder and chest lies sprawled, without resistance, on a peaceful beach.
Such tropical utopias, alluding to realms imagined rather than known, dreamed rather than experienced, form the seductive backdrops against which Betancourt pursues his full range of artistic interests. This senseof reality and myth, of location and dislocation, is reinforced through theuse of tactile substances, both organic and inorganic with which he dusts, sprinkles, scatters, smudges, and paints his subjects and the spaces they occupy. For Betancourt, each common element is loaded with conceptual significance: glitter substitutes for falling stars of Afro-Cuban myths (Oubao-Moin; Apito Y Censias with Letter to Alberto); soil speaks to burial (My Grandmother’s Ashes; Two Sides of Guabancex, with Jagua); funerary ashes are ancestral (My Grandmother’s Ashes; The Worshipping of My Ancestors); pigment served as a vehicle of transmutation. This is the stuff of tribal fetishes, of potent accretions wielded by shamans and medicine men. It is a world Betancourt celebrates, intuitively knows and appropriates, so as to imbue and infuse his art with the magical power and spiritual essence of the Afro-Cuban traditions to which he belongs.
Finally, there is the ambiguous relationship between the fourteen images. Betancourt first introduced his large-format color photographs with a group of self-portraits at Miami’s Bernice Steinbaum Gallery. Soon after, he interrupted his compositional narcissism to include lovers and friends. Viewing the actions and gestures of the figures, one after the other at the Lowe, offers an almost filmic experience, a psychologically-charged drama-of-sorts, that unfolds from frame to frame. Suggesting a flow of interdependent experiences they hinting tantalizingly at a sympathetic dialogue between characters, despite the fact that none engages the other directly. Floating in gallery space, the heroic-sized prints suggest a seamless whole, artistic intention notwithstanding.