Beauty is truth, truth beauty that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know. Those are the closing lines from Ode on a Grecian Urn, one of the most acclaimed poems of the nineteenth century, by one of its most cherished poets, John Keats. The poem is also a fine example of an ekphrastic poem which responds to another type of artwork such as a sculpture, painting, or dance performance. Extending this definition, I would qualify my friendship with Carlos as a kind of ekphrastic relationship: he (the visual artist) and I (the poet) engaged in conversation over the past two decades (and to this day), discussing the nature of one another’s craft and the practice of art—the compass through which we’ve gotten a fix on the nature of our existence, our place in this world, and the meaning of the influences, obsessions, and memories that have surfaced in in our lives and in our respective disciplines throughout the various stages of discovery and personal growth.
But I must confess: I am not an art critic or art historian, nor a visual artist for that matter. I can count on the fingers of one hand the few times I’ve dared to tackle a canvas with a paint brush or take a photo with any artistic intention other than to capture smiles above the glowing candles of a birthday cake. As such, perhaps
I am one of the least likely persons to write about such an accomplished artist as Carlos Betancourt; yet, on the other hand, I may be one the best persons to do so because I know Carlos Betancourt like few others know him: as a confidant, collaborator, mentor, cohort, and most importantly, a friend. We have trusted and learned from each other since the day we met almost twenty years ago.
If you believe, as I do, that art is a miracle, a mystery, a kind of transubstantiation in which the musician becomes the very music, the singer becomes the song, the dancer becomes the dance, and the artist becomes his work, then I hope these words I share here—this portrait of Carlos through the lens of my life with him— will parallel an understanding of his work, and that these snippets of personal narrative will compliment other more academic analysis of his art. To
speak of my friendship with Carlos is to speak of his work, and vice versa—they are inseparable to me. He and his art are not objectified, rarified subjects, but rather, real influences that have shaped the understanding of my own life and poetry.
As if scripted by Shakespeare himself, the first time I met Carlos he paused in the middle of our conversation to point up at a falling star. “Magical...” he said without taking his gaze off the sky, as if he were speaking to the stars as well as me, as if they could answer back. Indeed, there was an aura of wonderment about him, and yet, a certain melancholy, a sense of displacement under that vast starry night. I knew at that moment that I would never look at the stars the same way, and that I’d never meet another person like Carlos. We became instant friends and spent the rest of the night talking about practically everything under the stars: Celia Cruz and Andy Warhol, fractals and poetry, Iris Chacon and Octavio Paz, Morris Lapidus and memory—many of the obsessions that I would I eventually see layered onto his canvases.
Carlos was a well established artist by the time we met—one of the main pioneers of the art scene that precipitated the renaissance of South Beach during the late eighties and into the early nineties, working enthusiastically from his old studio, the celebrated Imperfect Utopia.
“Fracturism Happy B-Day form Me to Me,”
which juxtaposes silkscreens of Audrey Hepburn with the dissident Cuban poet, María Elena Cruz Valera. My first book of poetry echoed many of the thematic concerns and obsessions that I shared with Carlos and his concept of Fracturism. But at present, I’ve also come to believe that Fracturism has extended and lent itself to our contemporary lives. Given the many choices we are faced with daily, the explosion of information and mobility, and the exposure
speaking about our Cuban abuelitas, or the historical narratives of the Conquistadors; the whimsical beauty of the Art Deco hotels of Miami Beach or his passion for Borinquen and its the primordial waterfalls of Puerto Rico; sometimes speaking telepathically to each other across the room: Carlos working quietly on a painting in one corner of his studio, and I drafting a new poem in another corner, glimpsing over at his brushstrokes. I believe we had gotten a pretty good grip on our personal narratives by then, but as it happens during one’s late twenties and early thirties—and after watching many more falling stars—we both began to question if that personal narrative in our work
was enough: Was that the only way we could speak? Wasn’t there more?
Of course there was—and Carlos’s work, as well as my poems, took a turn in a new direction as the new millennium approached. We sought to express the specifics of our “fractured” experiences though a less private, more universal language, and began exploring the perennial themes that were fundamental to our personal stories. In my case, after having travelled to Europe for the first time I started
I, on the other hand, was merely a budding poet entertaining the idea of abandoning my career as an engineer in order to pursue writing. But despite the different stages of our lives as artists, we were both beautifully fractured beings—or so I came to understand after Carlos explained Fracturism, a term he had coined to describe the thematic principals of his work at the time. People like us, Carlos taught me, are made up of multiple cultural identities, languages, and histories; we are driven to assemble those fractured pieces of the whole. Indeed, as children of exiled Cuban parents (he born in Puerto Rico and I born in Madrid), we were both proudly struggling with, as well as delighting in, our multi-dimensionality and transnational identities.
And that was exactly what Carlos’s canvases reflected then, each one layered with bits and pieces of images and iconography he was claiming, reclaiming, and collecting in order to create a mosaic of the self. A self that included American donuts and Cuban coffee, La Lupe and La Virgen de La Caridad, African deities and fashion models, the streets of Miami and the rainforest of el Yunque in Puerto Rico. There was no limit to Carlos’s vortex of inclusion, as in evident in one of my favorite of pieces, to cultural diversity that are all trademarks of our time, we have all become fractured, splintered in some way. As Carlos predicted through his early work, the essential dilemma of the twenty- fist century person is to try and assemble ourselves into an integral, genuine whole from all that is given and available to us.
Nevertheless, over the next few years, our painter-poet friendship continued to evolve around the proverbial campfire of Fracturism, which was central to our art, our being, and our conversations: sometimes while sitting on his rooftop, cradling glasses of Merlot and listening to the distant breathing of waves drifting in from the beach two blocks away; sometimes writing poems with a more cosmopolitan sensibility, while Carlos, an endless traveler himself, immersed himself in the language of exploration, mathematics, cosmology, and science. Always a voracious reader, I watched him pore through books by Carl
Sagan, Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks, anatomy diagrams, star charts, and even my old calculus an physics textbooks from engineering that he would borrow from me. In the exhibit, “Images from Heaven,” Carlos developed a new vocabulary of imagery and iconography: gyroscopes and nautiluses; sculls and pendulums; globes and planets orbiting around text, including excerpts from my poems that he incorporated in the piece, “Eternity” (1997).
“I’m going to the circle. I want to can get in. If I can’t, I’ll sneak in,” Carlos called to tell me one day. He was referring to the Miami Circle, an archaeological site discovered in downtown Miami, containing the remains of a structure believed to be built by the Tequesta Indians between 1700 and 2000 years ago. The development company that happened upon the site was forging ahead with plans to build a high- rise; great controversy ensued between the developer’s interests and preservationist efforts. Carlos indeed managed to get into the site and spent weeks alongside archeologists and other volunteers sifting through artifacts. Every night he’d share with me highlights from his day, his eyes filled with marvel and glee like a seven year old boy who’d been playing all day, returning with caked dirt underneath his fingernails.
I believe the Miami Circle prompted yet another turning point for Carlos and his work: it spawned an utter fascination with artifact and object. More importantly, it triggered a lasting obsession with the signs, symbols and arcane text of the ancient Taíno culture of his native Caribbean basin. These became another language with which to tell his story and struggle with identity. In a dramatic shift, he practically abandoned painting, preferring three-dimensional wall assemblages and photography; nature became his blank canvas which he colored with powered pigments and projected light that he photo- documented in the series “Projections and Pigments” from the 1999 to 2000. During this period, works like “Guanajatabeyes” and “Jatibonicu Borinquen” deal almost exclusively with ancient, abstracted symbols, providing an even more elemental language than the laws of physics and science that he had been exploring, as well as a more malleable diction than the face-value images of Fracturism. His new-found obsession culminated with the Sounds Symbols Project, a site specific installation (in collaboration with Alberto Latorre) spanning an eighth of a mile across the sands of Miami Beach, resembling a crop circle, or an unearthed archeological site, much like the Miami Circle.
References to his personal narrative became oblique at best, and, surprisingly, human figures were practically absent from his works.
Then Carlos’s grandmother—his abuelita—died. She was a sustaining force in his life—and he missed her terribly. One late afternoon while we were walking along the boardwalk in Miami Beach, he broke down and asked me: “And how is it that one is supposed to go on?
“No puedo...” Of course, there was nothing I could really say to comfort such a loss; as a good friend, all I could do was stand in solidarity with him, as we questioned our own mortality, in silence, our shadows slanted across the sand dunes as we both stared off into the horizon. In the Afro-Caribbean tradition of faith and ancestral worship, it is believed that the spirits of our ancestors never abandon us. Carlos took comfort in that belief, and indeed he continued to feel her presence and intercession, perhaps even more powerfully. He would constantly tell anecdotes about her, quote her wise sayings, as well as her jokes, as he remembered her and all her being. His grandmother and the spirit of their relationship is memorialized in “Self Portrait with Letter to Aracoel” (2001), one of Carlos’s most personal and evocative pieces.
But the physical absence of his grandmother replaced by her spiritual presence, stirred a certain consciousness in Carlos, an awakening to what his work was fundamentally always about—memory. He turned to conceptualized photographs as the medium through which to capture all he had worked with before: the frenzy of Fracturism, the primordiality of symbols, the spell of narrative, the immensity of nature, and the arrest of the human form. These all converge as composite images in artworks like “Portrait of a Dream” (2005) and the “The Hedge” (2007) which trigger a archetypal sense of remembering rooted in Jung’s concept of the collective unconscious. When I encounter constructed photographs such as these, I get a distinct sense of remembering “something” intimate, yet distant; real, yet imagined; tangible and intangible—like something I forgot to remember, or a dream I suddenly recall in the middle of the day. And I rush to fill his photographs with my own memories, with a narrative— real or imagined.
Carlos’s work incites us to remember, and as such, he reminds us that memory is fundamental to human existence and the human psyche. As a twist to René Descartes’ famous proposition (I think, therefore I am), Carlos’s work says to us: I remember, therefore I am. He at last found a way to discuss memory—a complete language for memory that is both universal and individual, conscious and unconscious, sacred and profane, cultural and commonplace, religious and pagan, ancient and pop. Historically, archetypal images have been
appropriated and preserved by myths, religion, and empire. But as these have lost their hold on society, the archetypes that connect us to Jung’s collective unconscious have also withered. I believe that one of Carlos’s lasting contributions to the world of art and the understanding of our humanity is the way he unifies the present while reprocessing the past, offering a contemporary substitute for those archetypes through his work.
Carlos’s more recent work in series, beginning with “Re-Collections X- XII, 2010” through Disposable Memories, 2013-14,” explore the power of objects: machetes, beauty crowns, Christmas tree ornaments, birthday cakes, flamingos, trophies—to evoke memory in a more pure and simplified manner. Unlike the sporadic sensibility of Fracturism, he is now consciously assembling, arranging, and juxtaposing and re- interpreting objects as a medium for memory. He is re-collecting. Once, over a drink at the Cardozo Hotel in Miami Beach, Carlos told me: “To be an artist is to be part of something that doesn’t quite exist yet.” His sea-green eyes as piecing as those words have stayed with me to this day. Like Carlos, I live my life and my art by them. And so, I wonder what’s next for Carlos (and me). But for now I will close where I began with my own take on ekphrastic poem: If Keats believed, as he wrote, that Beauty is truth, truth beauty, then I will say that Carlos has convinced me that Memory is truth, truth memory. And that is all ye need to know.