Carlos Betancourt Recent Photographic Work (2002): Denise M. Gerson


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.