Alejandro Aguilera’s current solo show at Saltworks takes us back to a series of works he made in 1998, called the “Black Drawings.” It’s a rewarding journey: the drawings are rich and raw, pulsating with alternating rhythms that give them a lyrical quality.
The Cuban-born artist made them when he first immigrated to the United States and was living in Miami. At the time, his day job was designing and creating hand-painted fabrics for commercial use in wall coverings and upholstery. At night, Aguilera would take large sheets of the thin kraft paper that bound the rolls of fabric back to the studio with him. He applied the same wet-on-wet process as employed on the fabric, using large arm gestures to paint washes of tempera and brewed coffee one over the other. When they dried, he would then come back and add a final layer of white or rich black crayon that rests firmly on the surface.
The smaller works, black conté crayon drawings on sheets of 11-by-14-inch sketch paper, contain the same energy and reliance on patterns, but because they are monochromatic, the density and direction of the mark-making becomes much more important. Occasionally the patterns overlap, but in most cases the artist is able to create the illusion of three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional surface merely by manipulating shade and gesture. (Below: “Black Drawing #11.”)
Aguilera compares the large pieces — made with tempera, coffee and charcoal on 60-by-48-inch sheets of kraft paper — to a novel. The way he sees it, each layer represents a different character involved in a conversation, and hearing them together provides a clearer understanding of the story.
The conversation in these works could be one that Aguilera was having with himself at the time. While making this series, he was studying “Primitivism in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern.” That two-volume catalog accompanied the seminal 1984 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, which looked at the influence of tribal art from Africa, Oceania and North America on modern art.
In the larger pieces, Aguilera juxtaposes his abstracted patterning, which feels like an extension of his Afro-Cuban heritage, and recognizable elements of the modern masters he studied during his academic art training. Vladimir Tatlin’s “Monument” appears in one work (at top), Constantin Brancusi’s “Endless Column” in another. A recognizable Wilfredo Lam shape appears in a third, and the compositions of Joaquín Torres García’s wooden constructions are referenced in a fourth.
What is fascinating is that, despite these overt references, the work feels unique. It melds the primitive and exotic with the recognizable and known. The larger works, which clearly steal the show, are lush and warm, like walking into canopied tropical forest. Definitely worth a visit.