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Body Tenses: The Art of Humberto Castro
by Ricardo Pau-Llosa

Verbs were invented by the body to serve as its representatives in language and thought. As such, they carry the mind’s anxieties about the body into every utterance, tale, belief and outcry. Verbs are flesh made language. Exist, run, be, eat, fight, live, die, love—and all the innumerable host of them exist because the body is capable of them and the mind acknowledges itself through such capabilities. Every verb has a home in the body. One of the fundamental tasks of a visual thinker is conjure images in which this link between verbs, world and body can be presented to the realm of ideas, for it is through ideas that we elucidate human life and its conditions as well as feelings, emotions, aspirations, passions and dreads. Humberto Castro has turned the articulation of the link between verbs and the body into the principle, sustaining and profound theme of his paintings, drawings and installations. In conjuring images he conjugates the possibilities of the body as image in the pictorial imagination.

The view of verbs as the body’s presence in language and thought is an inexhaustible theme, and one that calls out to be grasped with particular urgency at this time when the even the memory of the old myths that held western civilization together have frayed and when, as a result, immediate gratification is asked to fulfill the old mythic task of providing lasting worth to fleeting experiences. The body has been called forth by our culture—in the turgid rhetorics of its advertising, politics and value systems—to become the devourer of life, hence the giver of meaning. It is particularly startling, then, to see what Humberto Castro has done with this theme in the very midst of these times and their nervously hedonistic demands, for usually profound reflections come after an age’s urgent vortex has passed, or is in the process of passing, and not in the very thick of it.
In part, Castro’s capacity to dissect his age from a distance may well be the only positive effect on his art of having been born and raised in a communist totalitarian state. From its beginnings in 1959, Cuba’s bizarre, prudish, autocratic regime declared war on sexual freedom and modernity and did so in the name of progress. Consequently Cuba, once the most modern and sexually liberated of Latin American nations, has continued to spiral down through a four-decade long process of medievalization. When Humberto Castro began his career while a young man in Havana, his first paradoxical drawings were of austere Bacon-inspired figures, bound by wires, and caught between a desire to appear natural and poised and an equally desperate need to cry out and struggle to break free. The year was 1981-82, and Cuba was still reeling from the mass exodus of Mariel and the subsequent regime-supported mob attacks against citizens desirous of leaving the country which came to be known as “actos de repudio” (acts of repudiation). These mobs, organized and directed by the state, have continued to attack peaceful and defenseless dissidents. When the communist censors asked Castro to explain the images in his drawings, he said that the trapped figures dramatized the horrors of colonial era genocide against Cuba’s indigenous peoples.

Identifying an officially sanctioned villain is a subterfuge which all artists and writers who live in police states become adept at using, yet practically any Cuban seeing these drawings would have understood their political invective in the terms the artist intended despite the absence of any incriminating direct references to the regime’s atrocities. Coming of creative age in a totalitarian state automatically trains the artist in the subtle, ambiguous poetics of survival, and Castro continued to refine these poetics long after he moved to Paris in 1989 and began to live and work in freedom.

Indeed, the figures in Castro’s early drawings and graphics do approach the theme of enslaved humanity, a condition by no means exclusive to Cuba or this period in its history. Aside from Bacon, the influence of the punk subculture on Castro, along with that of the German Expressionists, the drawings of Mexican Jose Luis Cuevas, the paintings of Cuban Antonia Eiriz, the films of Spain’s Carlos Saura and the writings of American William Burroughs all formed a macabre, oneiric backdrop to the nascent imagination of the young Castro. These influences along with the archetypal theme of enslaved humanity, heightened by the conditions of everyday life in Cuba, focused Castro’s sensibilities on suffering, violence and how these are expressed on and through the body. Indeed, this particular approach to the body would open, in Castro’s work, onto the full panoply of the figure’s expressive powers and ambiguities. The focus from the onset was not on rendering portraits of the suffering or the violent, but on studying how the body unconsciously evokes both the desire for power and the effects of violence. Castro understood from his earliest drawings that the body is the clock from which we all try to liberate ourselves in vain. Whatever it suffers is linked to everything it suffers. The torturer’s lash, the bite of starvation, the agony of disease, the ravages of old age, the undenninings of stress and inadequacy, the assassin’s blade, the gunshot of battle, our nakedness before the elements, the pain of childbirth .. are all reflections of the fundamental frailty of the body. Unarmored and devoid of claws, unattended by poisons or camouflage, comparatively slow, the human creature’s sole weapon of defense is our brain. The images of bondage in the figures of these first drawings, then, express more than the slaver or the ruler’s chains. The body is bound to itself by itself, by its condition. The wires also define the lines of a corporeal constellation of causalities, for in all pain is the body’s potential for agony reflected. If the body is, in part, an astronomical chart of what can and does assail it, the sky against which these vulnerabilities shine is consciousness of self. Ultimately and ironically it is the mind’s ability to imagine and hope for transcendence which makes the body’s bondage to itself, time and mortality all the more painful. It is highly significant that the early black and white drawings of Humberto Castro, with their deft balance between agony and composure, would be accompanied by a period of technical and imagistic exploration in the graphic arts. Even before he entered the Taller Experimental de la Plaza de la Catedral in 1981, Castro was searching for a heightening of sensual elements in his drawings. He worked in larger formats and sought an increase in compositional architectures which softened the blunt impact of the tortured figures. In the Taller he began working on lithographs that purposely looked as if they had been realized in other media—especially serigraph. Castro’s most important innovations in graphics would involve multiple plates in the creation of etchings. By 1984 the first of Castro’s paintings on canvas showed how much he had absorbed, in terms of technique and the handling of color, from making these etchings and lithographs. The theme of urban violence was now front and center and so was the study of the poses the body strikes at any random moment in everyday life. The violence of the punk against the city and its citizens parallels the violence the city perpetrates against the authenticity of the individual. The bodies of figures donning sunglasses and frozen sneers become cells in which personalities serve out life sentences. Not lost on Castro was the irony that urban life, where individualism and freedom from the contrivances of morality and taboo once flourished, had now become the setting of the ultimate hypocritical mime of survival.

The theatrical expressivity of the body delighted Castro, a fact emphasized by the scenario-like “boxes” into which some of these paintings are assembled. A square base and two perpendicular rectangular sides give Castro the ability to exploit a powerful duality in all enclosures: entrapment and shelter. They also permit the artist to make the first forays into the images of shadows as forms that extend, dilute, distort or broaden the expressivity of the body that casts them. But within these intimate, three-sided theaters and their stridently colored figures, as well as within the graphics and flat paintings on canvas, a new sensibility was awakening. A growing apocalyptic sense coincided with a satirical almost jocular imagination. The three-sided setting, after all, evokes the shape of a standing coffin.

In 1984 the first of Castro’s “Icarus” installations received First Prize at the Salon conducted by Cuba’s Union of Writers and Artists, better known by its Spanish acronym, UNEAC. The “Icarus” combined a plaster human figure diving into the floor, shown from the chest “up” to the nearly flaccid legs, with paintings on the wall and the jagged images of “lightning” shooting on the floor out from the figure. The paintings evoke the stridency and vulgarity of modern life centered around a theme by now recurrent in Castro’s work—the telephone conversation, that most awkward manifestation of ineffable subjectivity which, if anything, will become more delirious with the advent of cellular phones. Icarus’ subjective world is also truncated by the sea on one hand and by myth on the other. What does the singular subjectivity think, desire and believe in the privacy of that most dangerous sky, the mind? Paint of different colors drips down Icarus’ plaster body, a carnival for blood. The emblem of the sky god—lightning—catches bits of lurid Icarus’s demise and makes it seem the earth itself, with its older female deities, is cracking apart, announcing it too will abandon the lone rebel youth with the painful wings. What traps the figure at this point in Castro’s evolving speculation about the body is fate itself, perhaps, or the implacable promise of failure inherent in all dreams.

In 1986 four lithographs on the subject of the telephone conversation and exploring its aggressiveness, eroticism and awkwardness won for Castro a First Prize in the San Juan Biennial of Latin American Prints in Puerto Rico. This period also marks a major shift in Castro’s imagery. The body will always be present, but now Castro casts it in light of representations of various kinds of materials—metal, cement, stone, wood. The scenario of the pictorial surface is itself divided by trompe l’oeil depictions of forms and spaces in these materials. Sneering or contorting figures become part of the formal play of spaces wherein represented media become painted images. The figures, in effect, must confront the elements of reality, perception and representation. The contained, repressed violence makes the prop-like figures break down into layers and crack, representing an elaboration of this action first manifested in the “Icarus” mirrors. There is also a greater presence of singular body parts—legs, eyes—emphasizing the alienation and disintegration of subjectivity under totalitarian circumstances.

But beyond the theme of rage and repression, these works embody an active search for a link between the body and its inherent struggle against time and death and the elements by which we perceive the world or imagine its essential nature. This search will provide Castro with a more acute sensibility toward the poetry of textures and the imagistic possibilities of surface. In other words, it deepened his awareness of the power of paint and painting so that their resources, and not only those of his themes and subjects, would
help generate the life of the painting in the mind of the viewer.

The period that follows, 1987-89, is the final phase of Castro’s work in Cuba. It is signaled by his 1986 “Fall of Icarus” installation at the Havana Biennial where three plaster Icarus figures fall into the sea of the floor surrounded by mural-sized paintings of fauna and flora. In these paradoxical edenic scenes everything is upside down, including the framing male and female figures—the elements, as it were, of the human psyche. The three Icarus figures and the surrounding paintings are caught in refractions of countless shards of mirrors scattered across the floor. This allusion to the sea that has drowned countless Cuban dreams of freedom is also a reminder of the cutting limitations of all reflection—aesthetic, philosophical or otherwise. The world that seems upside down to the viewer is right-side up to the plunging Icarus, himself multiplying now into three, which is to say countless, martyrdoms. From the standpoint of this upside down world, Icarus is soaring.

This period culminates with a startling series of black, white and grey paintings whose approach to the machinery of violence—which in Cuba is utterly controlled by the state—and its impact on the individual would be provocative enough to alert the censors. The series would be titled “Power and Existence” and would be characterized by a highly expressional, even agitated, brushwork and represented by images of robotic limbs, bodies, hands, fists. Castro was approaching the taboo subject of how the sinister machinery of the totalitarian state manipulates individuals to fight among themselves and see each other, rather than the state, as the enemy.

In the middle of most pieces from the “Power and Existence” series there is a bronze plaque etched with statements in Spanish which read: “Imbeciles fold their hands and eat their own flesh,” “We are the machinery,” “We can direct your thoughts,” “Your division is my energy” and “Intimacy is a laconic game.” In some works, there is no plaque and the writing is applied with paint directly on the surface with statements such as “The word dog doesn’t bite” and “Armed Dreams.” The borders of these works—some of the largest formats Castro had worked on to date—were lined with equidistant nuts screwed half-way into the stretchers and rising like miniature prison bars around the painting’s edges.

The ethical and political implications of the statements could not be clearer to a Cuban viewer, though at times they are lost on foreigners who, living in democratic societies, cannot fathom how such oblique philosophical statements, seemingly framed entirely within the realms of morality or psychology, could possibly have political repercussions. Perhaps to make the point clearer to foreigners, Castro’s last “Icarus” installation, shown in three sites in Ontario, Canada in 1988 had the plaster torso in front of a wall with the statement (in English) “You could fall too” written myriad times on it as well as on a shadow in bronze, reminiscent of the old mirror lightning, that appeared to seep like a pool of blood from the torso’s base on the floor. It was a statement which startled the Canadian viewers who were used to thinking of artists visiting from Cuba as ecstatic Utopians on tour. The repeated warning and rebuke “You could fall too” emanates from a photograph on the wall behind the Icarus. In the photo a marble angel from a tomb in Havana’s legendary necropolis, Cementerio Colon, is listening to the wingless Icarus crashing. The statue’s dated elegance, and the fact that it marks a grave, is a biting attack on those who calmly observe the destruction of Cuba as if from another world, as if they were not human beings but stone angels in a heaven hewn from political convenience and ideological pose. This angel’s decorative wings, untouched by the temperatures and challenges of this world, can never fail.

By 1990 Humberto Castro has moved permanently to Paris. The completion of the series “Power and Existence” and the beginning of exile would generate a period of reflection, the outcome of which was new series which linked the body to deeper structures and images, or archetypes, which also express man’s existential yearnings. The transition was first and foremost heralded by a dramatic change in palette, already evident in the series “Gestes” which approaches the body as one complete sign. The figure is struck in red and crimson, the surrounding spaces in white and ochre, and a contrast is established between the turbulent rich presence of the protagonist and the sketchy drawing of other figures and forms in the background. Internal spaces are delineated from the paler backgrounds, usually rendered in greens and set off by a dark shell. Be these wombs or auras, the internal architecture they provide are linked to previous demarcations of space within paintings or the use of interconnected panels. At times forms appear in the deeper chromatic registries of the prevalent figure. They recall chalices of letters of forgotten alphabets. Clearly they and other cryptic images in these works are indications that Castro has entered another environment which frames the way we “read” the body as testament to the impact of time, power and history. This environment is no longer totalitarianism or post-industrial urbanity. It is the wider and more profound society of human symbols we carry in our psyches and whose rhythmed eternity is indistinguishable from the actions of the imagination.

Icarus is no longer crashing, he is diving to find himself in his proper depth. Castro takes his new palette and spatial syntax into a series that approaches the theme of the Zodiac and its signs. Obviously, what is in play is something far more complex than an illustration of personality characteristics as conceived by astrology. The paintings, in fact, have nothing to do with the Zodiac per se except to draw on it as an ancient and, amazingly, still engaged way of intersecting the dire impersonal march of the calendar with personality and its diverse manifestations. Astrology also embodies anaive attempt to bind the infinite cosmos with the infinite psyche, to humanize the stars by making them participants in our lives and, inversely, to give minute beings and their experiences a place in the heavens. The secret to its poetics of relief lies in imagining a causal narrative between the laws that govern stars and whatever forces (perhaps not exactly laws) influence human life. Narrative is architecture imposed on time. In this sense the Zodiac affords Castro an opportunity to open the book of hope and close it with sensual affirmations about immediacy as it is codified through the body, its gestures, actions and experience. The Zodiac also enables Castro to quarry ancestral beliefs and myths for a new kind of imaginary architecture in which to house and thereby comprehend his own birth out of tyranny and his new life as an exile.

In the “Signs of the Zodiac” series the presence of ineffable yet clear forms is stepped up. Triangular halos, flattened forms of bells, the barest branches, spirals, tails, horns among other almost pictographic forms gather in the placental imagined hoverings of these canvases. The figures themselves transcend gender, even when they exhibit the characteristics of one or both sexes. “Signs of the Zodiac” and other early exile series dramatize a voyage to a pre-natal pictorial imagination where the artist actively seeks, even urgently, a new syntax in which to remember and express the journey of identity as chronicled in the figure. Castro will establish ineluctable links with exilic archetypes such as Odysseus, much as he had done with Icarus as the embodiment of the admirably hopeless hero who places the eros of flight (in both senses of the word) above even its attainment.

As these series progress, the figures acquire richer textures and the surrounding spaces become simpler, flatter. Yellows, dark crimsons and reds are used to focus entirely on the figure itself, by now devoid of surrounding forms and other liturgies of symbol-drenched space. The palette also evolves towards creamy whites, black and earthy reds. The figure becomes itself and its shadow in one, concept and being, form and life in one. Arcs spring from its sides at times like poetic extensions of a skeleton or indications that the figure is being dreamt as a musical instrument. These forms pay homage to Lam who derived similar patterns from the art of New Guinea, but in Castro there is no passion for the tribal in itself. The body itself, in all its stasis, sensuality and capability for action registers in the radical present the history of man. The figure in Castro’s painting is approaching the ineffable yet clear stance of a symbol in the mind.

When Castro returns to the Icarus theme in 1993, now that he is acclimated to Parisian exile and beginning to see his work accepted by an ever wider Western public, it is to emphasize the success of Icarus, not his torrential and tragic failure. “Flight of Icarus” evidences another shift in palette and texture. The dramatic, almost coital expressionism of the previous series has now cooled into a tense elegance that recalls, as none of his other series have, the poise of Castro’s first drawings. At most a rippling texture, like the soft rhythms of the ocean lapping on bright sand, governs the surface. The figure is rendered in similar tones to what surrounds it. We are in an internalized space, the agora of reflection and wish, where Icarus rides bizarre contraptions equipped with bright parachute-like wings and which resemble the playful aerial bicycles of trapeze clowns.

During the nineties, the expressional tone of the figure in Castro’s work is bifurcating into two more or less simultaneous currents. In one, the figure is becoming increasingly devoid of the ability to exteriorize emotions, like characters caught in an implosive transformation into signs or symbols, the figures seem pregnant with the emotions born of reflection on their condition. Beneath the calmness the figures express outwardly there is an intuited, separate and inaccessible matrix of turbulence. In the other current, the figures have gained a surreal elasticity, coiling like eels at times to fit perfectly within the doomed halo of an exile’s inner tube lost at sea, or entwining with other identical figures—reflections, doubles. These are images of faceless primal entities, the anatomical alphas and omegas, which house subjectivity.

The myths, too, intertwine. Icarus, the Minotaur, Odysseus, Pasiphae, the whole Aegean bedrock of the Western imagination reverberates in paintings whose references to Cuba and its exilic tragedies are also becoming increasingly more explicit in Castro’s paintings of the nineties. Cuba the island appears as a hallucinated reflection in a bathroom sink, as an echoing shape, as egg and as primal utterance. The hon-or of having to abandon one’s homeland through a maritime Berlin Wall haunts the work of Castro as of many other contemporary Cuban exile artists. The figure must become the instrument of escape, much as a life is molded by passion, belief or aspiration. The individual finds his resolute orphanness in his flight toward freedom across the sea of almost certain death.

At the heart of these mature works is a new central drama that has dawned within the artist’s approach to the figure, and that drama is the confrontation with the beast within. In essence, it has always been about this, for the beast is both the force, which makes human violence not only possible, but also pleasurable and ineluctable; it also represents the radical presence of the earth within us, hence the beast is our executioner. The beast is what ties us to the world hence to mortality. It is the guardian of the clock, the force that demands the flesh be nurtured by food, pleasure, power, and vanity right to the very last instant of our lives. The beast rides whatever fantasy of art and concept seeks to ride it. Without the beast there would be no tragedy, pity, love, or any of the other bowstrings from which the arrows of our transcendental wishes are shot.

Castro’s figures of the last decade of work capture the moment in which man becomes a sign of his confrontation with, survival and witnessing of the beast. The labyrinth is also the sea, is also the swirl of gesture or the rippling shade of textures across a canvas. The labyrinth is the sea and the raft and the poor soul who finds himself lost in both, alone with his creatureliness. If the beast is the cry of urgent natural man, filled with hunger and stalked by instinct and rage, it is also the recoiling into the knot of fear. The spiral continues its simple tenacity, the sign of a progressive infinite filled with the actions of journey but devoid of beginning and end. The spiral is the infinite’s attempt to reconcile time and timelessness. It is man’s sign for a wish that the infinite be a narrative, a voyage, and not a vortex or an expanse.

The refinement of these ideas place the heaviest pressure yet on the expressive power of the figure in Castro’s work. No wonder the image of it has become both simpler and more enigmatic. No wonder, also, that there are new ways of engaging the theatrical dimension and which, in effect, reconfigure many of the previous signs and symbols in his work. The bound slaves of the agonized early drawings are now dangling like brilliant insects from a single thread of a spider’s web. Divided pictorial spaces have become exquisite internal habitats for ideas, like words themselves, like pages of poems. The raft and the labyrinth become stages where a radical assertion of freedom is played out, usually in tragedy. The violence is no longer that of particular societies but of power against the individual. The sunglasses and the sneers are now replaced with featureless faces of the essential man caught in a dramatization of his essential nature. The mirror is no longer in shards on the floor, no longer tangible, yet it cuts to the heart of the man who must see himself as both cause and effect of his condition. This is the dimension where verb has finally become man in the simplest, most freeing and most terrifying of terms.

Such is the stuff that fuels the visual poetry of exile. It is the strongest fuel the machine of the imagination can run on. Not just it because it is the originating archetype of our first parents expelled onto their own humanity, because the man who does not see himself as an exile—bitterly, nakedly so—cannot know himself. He is already happily seated in his busy death. He is in love with the trivia of shock and beauty, possession and status. He is merely dead, “merely” because he does not know he is living this. This is not the man Humberto Castro is chronicling in his art. The man he is painting and whose body and condition he is articulating is the man we dread being and must become if we are to mean anything to ourselves and to others.