Over the past four decades, Luis Cruz Azaceta has continued to mine the vast possibilities of expressionism—a style that often lends itself to forms of humanism, idealism, originality, and angst that feel more fitting for the 20th century than our current moment. Yet the artist is vigilant in his desire to respond to the world around him, and refuses to retreat into a formal world of mark, splatter, and structure (as so many painters of his generation did) in order to address the ever-present weight of the political. In a selection of eighteen canvases created between 2002 and 2016, Luis Cruz Azaceta: War and Other Disasters at the University of Alabama–Birmingham’s Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts mobilizes expressionism to explore the range of disasters that define contemporary human experience. From the civil war in Syria to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Cruz Azaceta points to the multifarious nature of “crisis” from a transnational perspective.
Born in Havana, Cuba, in 1942, Cruz Azaceta arrived in New York City in 1960 as an artist in exile—a political and psychological condition that has marked his work since the beginning of his career. Over the course of three decades he established himself with grotesque, existential canvases that spoke of the misery of new freedoms, urban malaise, and the diasporic experience. The central work of the exhibition, Hell Act (2009), seizes upon this subjective condition by representing the treacherous ninety-mile journey between Cuba and the United States as an enormous bathtub of refugees bobbing like toys in a pool of shark-infested neon-orange liquid. A direct attack on the inhumane choices and absurdities that define the balasero experience, which forces Cubans to leave and often never return, the painting speaks to the artist’s own struggle to define himself and his work through the liminal condition of in-between states, spaces, and memories.