3 May 2015
I trace two tendencies in the recent artworks of Carlos Betancourt, overall coloration making a composition completely white or completely purple, and a tendency towards starburst compositions in blue and red and other colors. Both lead to developmental climaxes, a hall of powers all painted indigo set against red walls and an ultimate explosion with strongly marked axes all rendered in the color of iron, black.
Start with a composition rendered entirely in white, Let Them Feel White, 2012, in which we can discern, among many objects, a moose with antlers, a person mounted on a horse, and a swan elegantly unfurling her wings. There is power and purity in all these objects, spiritual command which black Cubans call ache. The artist is thinking of the white garments, indicative of the transparent honesty of the Yoruba deity of creativity, Obatala.
In another composition, Interventions with Aracoel’s Objects, 2012-2015, Betancourt takes objects that belonged to his late mother, a chair and a table with lamp and by painting them all purple removes them from this world. He reinstates them in the world of the ancestors. Purple is the color of the redoubtable Yoruba deity, Babalu Aiye. Evil cannot cross the color of this god. Honoring the ancestors with a chair once sat in reminds me of a 1949 mambo by the Puerto Rican musician and composer Tito Rodriguez where he sings …en un sillon de bejuco solito me acomode… [in an armchair of rattan I made myself comfortable] This brought back to latino New York an aspect of Caribbean living, cozy and creole, the world that Betancourt grew up.
Close attention to the powers of overall coloration lead to a masterpiece, Portrait of a Garden, 2009, --a long hall painted fire-engine red in which we see personifications of the artist's memories, mounted on pedestals for emphasis and all painted indigo/purple. Set in perspective at the vanishing point we see an apparent leader because he is spot lit. The play of the indigo spirits, rescued from the past, against the red of the walls sums up one of the more telling of the strategies of the artist.
Doll As Memoire
Part of the imagination of Betancourt is revealed where he honors his ancestors
with careful rendering of the actual objects that they used. The artist inherited a doll from his grandmother and gives us here its portrait, Aracoel’s Doll, 2011. A simple object has been treated in most concentrated form. The artist reads clearly the essential floppiness of a doll. There is a hint of royalty or proximity to the divine in the placement of a crown on the head of the doll. Figuration meets abstraction in strange notations that surround the image. Vibrating lines and a field of dots give back to the doll a trace of motion..
From Starburst to Ultimate Explosion
One particular sequence, starburst to explosion-like formations, involves dramatic bursts of light and axiality.
Start with two examples of the starburst motif. One pits a flower-like design in accents black and grey against a blue background in Recollections VIII (gris) 2009. But like a firecracker beginning to sizzle, escaping lines show that this motif could possibly explode. The same reading defines another work, Recollections VIII (rojo con azul), 2009, a scarlet burst set against blue. Intrigued with the possibility of releasing beautiful energy from all this.
Betancourt begins to reduce the motif to fighting weight, burning off the fat and leaving lean strong lines radiating from a central point. Finally he achieved what he sensed was always there: a statement in iron and radiating lines where all the accents, to use African-American aesthetic phrasing, is exactly right. These accents refer to objects which the artist himself had collected.
Betancourt is shown standing by the work (Appropriations From El Rio, 2013). He strikes the Kongo pose, hand on hip, other hand extended commandingly. This pose means let her rip, begin (or end) the proceedings, which is exactly what has happened, and we are confronted with an abiding masterpiece of 21st century sculpture.