Cheerless Cities: Gustavo Acosta's Paintings


Gustavo Acosta is a painter of cities—Havana (his hometown), Miami (his home away from home), New York (the art capital of America), and, unexpectedly, Aleppo, a somewhat more foreign, ancient city, said to be the heart of the Syrian civil war. Under siege since 2012, much of it has been reduced to rubble. I think that Acosta’s paintings mean to suggest that the other cities—the North American cities, New York and Miami, with their ultra-modern buildings, and Havana, with its more old-fashioned buildings, are also disaster areas—environments unfit to live in, dangerous to one’s physical and mental health, if not as self-evidently as Aleppo. Indeed, there is something unhealthy—certainly ominous, as though a portent of trouble—about the shadow that repeatedly falls on sections of his cities, blocking them out, relegating them to oblivion, certainly putting them under erasure, to use the fancy deconstructionist term for repression. For Freud to repress something is to put it out of consciousness, relegate it to the unconscious, where it becomes charged with emotion, and with that becomes inescapably haunting: Acosta is haunted by his cities, unable to escape them, and the shadow that he casts on them suggests that they are cheerless, depressing places. It is in effect the shadow of death, falling on their buildings, stalking their streets, sometimes without people, suggesting that the city is uninhabitable. Acosta’s buildings are empty shells, his city is a sort of Potemkin’s village, all façade, all anonymous surface with nothing substantial behind it, that is, no depth let alone expressive resonance—except that afforded by the fatal shadow. His paintings are pessimistic takes on the modern city, perhaps on the urban environment as such. De-realizing the city by way of the darkness that infiltrates and infects it, he is fatalistically resigned to its reality. 


A rectangular shadow obscures the buildings on the right side of The Replacement, 2017, a square painting. The horizontal Sixteen Flags and a Tropical Landscape, 2017 is divided into dark and light halves, each a square. A dark square obscures the center of the rectangular Eclipse, 2017, perhaps the most telling of Acosta’s titles. The square is flanked by two rectangles, each the same size, suggesting that the painting is a kind of altarpiece. Almost all of The Shortcut, 2017, a vertical painting, is blocked out by a vertical shadow. The Collection, 2017, a horizontal painting, is a patchwork—a sort of checkerboard—of dark and luminous squares, eight dark and four luminous, indicating the dominance of shadow over light. The Golden Book, 2016, a slightly off-square painting, is two thirds shadow, one third light. A vertical black band shrouds the center of Catalog of Missing Parts I, 2017, a square painting. Catalog of Missing Parts II, 2017, also a square painting, has a black square in the lower left corner, and a black frame, implicitly a square, contains a small luminous square in the upper right corner. The horizontal Auto de Fe, 2017 is divided in half, the lower half black, the upper half white, the fiery auto de fe occurring in the lower black half. A hazy yellowish square, containing a cross, dominates the space of Introduction, 2017, and an atmospheric square, containing a high rise building, dominates the space in Pending Plan II, also 2017. In both works darkness is relegated to a rectangular band, connected at one corner to a red band, the red looking ashen, as though it were the embers of a fire. In all the paintings one sees the city as though through a glass darkly, to use the biblical phrase. The point is made conspicuously clear in A Sound in the Distance, 2017, a grand horizontal work in which almost all the city is consumed by darkness, becomes a sort of ashen wasteland, apart from a narrow band, in what seems like fading grayish light, at the top of the painting, perhaps suggesting that there is still something heavenly about the city, or at least in one’s fading memory of it.


The atmosphere of gloom and doom, if that is not an overstatement, that informs the paintings, or of entropy, to use Acosta’s word, is alleviated and transcended by their conspicuous geometrical construction. One can in fact regard the paintings as geometrical abstractions with pictorial insertions—a sort of incidental content to their geometrical form. They are flat paintings with a nominal depth afforded by the pictorial content. There is a peculiar haziness to all of them, suggesting that the city is a sort of mirage in an abstract desert. It seems to be seen from an unbridgeable distance, however much one can pick out the details of its buildings. Mediated by geometry and shadow, they lose immediacy—presence. I think that for Acosta the geometry of the buildings is the saving grace of the city. In Plato’s scheme of the divided line, geometrical forms are in the higher realm of intelligibles, informed by and stepping stones to pure ideas, while the world as experienced by the senses—seen through the body’s eyes rather than in the mind’s eye—is the realm of unintelligible illusion. The shadow that haunts Acosta’s worldly cities suggests they are illusions—theatrical illusions which people mistake for reality, to allude to Plato’s myth of the dark cave, where people are chained to their ignorance. But the geometrical character of his paintings tells us that they are higher things—that art is more intelligible than reality, and as such more peculiarly real than reality. Acosta’s idealistic geometry is his way of escaping from—rising above—the grim reality of the city.


The Golden Book makes the geometrical point of Acosta’s paintings explicit. It alludes to the so-called “Golden Canon” of page construction or the “topographical divine proportion” used to lay out the pages of medieval manuscripts, suggesting that Acosta thinks of his paintings as pages in a book—a sacred manuscript—or, more to the contemporary point, stills in a (blurry) color film, as his acknowledgement of the influence of early color television on his sensibility strongly suggests.  The purpose of the Golden Canon is to divide the page into pleasant proportions, which turns out to be the proportions of the Golden Section. I am not sure if the proportions of Acosta’s geometrical compositions conform to the Golden Section, but they are a kind of aesthetic gold, as their uncanny beauty suggests. WM



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