Clutching the Light of the Moon
hroughout the history of art, there are certain artists who retain the power to project special insight into the very essence of human life. Lita Cabellut is one of them. Her art is a kind of performance, a way of seeing and interpreting realities not always made visible. Her special role is to discover those mysteries and contradictions that reside beneath the surface of the human face, to raise them to another level of consciousness, to reveal the person whose soul is submerged and imprisoned by the veneer of routine life. Thus, Cabellut’s paintings offer a means to liberate the soul, to free it from the chains of conformity that rigid societies may impose upon it.
In studying the expressive dark and light contours within her intensely imaginative portraits, we may pause to consider our relationship to these extreme physiognomies. What do they represent – art-as-art or art-as -life? Is there ultimately any difference between the two? Given that her approach to painting constitutes a kind of action-process, we may conclude that Cabellut’s art offers the viewer a signifier of feeling. Her paintings may appear to be art-as-art, but they are also representations of life, the inner-life that lingers beneath our everyday affairs and conversations. We may speak one way and act in opposition to the words we say. Cabellut’s portraits do not disguise these hypocrisies. They are embodied in her portraits. They represent both the heroic and inexcusable aspects of human behavior. Yet we see in these portraits the collision between tragedy and comedy, and the battered consequences of how human beings learn to contain their suffering. I am thinking of Cabellut’s recent portraits of Edith Piaf —the chanteuse behind “La vie en Rose” whose life tread a fine line between existence and exaltation, between reclusion and recovery, and between generosity and elegant self-containment. Much can be said about Piaf, but the words escape the heroic presence of these portraits. The words are enshrouded within the pigments, the whiteness of the face, the redness of the lipstick, the harrowing eyes that tell everything and make her face universal.
Allan Kaprow, the artist and inventor of Happenings in New York during the late fifties and sixties, used to separate art-like art from life-like art. Of course he had a particular idea that related to his observations of everyday life. Kaprow understood that mundane behavior and banal actions might be interpreted as forms of contemporary ritual, what he once called “non-theatrical performance.” His early Happenings opened a discussion on art and life from the perspective of the mundane. What interests me is how mundane expressions are given another kind of performance in the portraits of Cabellut. Instead of re-interpreting everyday life as a social ritual, she has chosen to transform the mundane into a conflicted, agonizing, yet often ecstatic adventure of seeing. She achieves this in her penetration of human beings who live on the fringes of the spirit and who go beyond the techno-lifestyles of magazine images and glamour. Her portraits are less distilled in their representation, less given to the task of theory, and less constrained in their outlook on the human condition. In contrast to the Zen pragmatism of Kaprow, Cabellut indulges in the metaphysical energies of everyday people. Her ability to aesthetically transform the human appearance through pigment is exemplary. While her style of painting borrows from expressionism, her medium is the phantasmagorical portrait. As a unique genre, Cabellut’s paintings stand in oblique relation to the figurations of Frances Bacon and Marlene Dumas. While intentionally different from these artists – whose existential concerns move in a different direction — Cabellut retains a sense of the intimate, a manner of painting that gives emphasis to the performative gesture. Collectively, she reveals the archetypal visage of our time. Each expression emanates from the trace of divergent cultures. At the same time, one can look at Cabellut’s faces as being outside of time. Her expressions range between poetic delicacy and an inscrutable ruggedness, particularly in the series called “Country Life” where the faces are clearly removed from the urban complex. Here the men and women carry their burdens in relation to the soil on which they trod. In the work of Cabellut, the presence of the human condition is really its absence. Her portraits constitute all that is missing on the surface; namely, the desire to go within the visage of the human temperament and to extract what is hidden. If you want the truth, go to the dark side. The dark side is the lost vestige of the soul, the secret soul, the soul that has forgotten how to speak, because it has temporally been displaced, somewhere in the ether.
In Cabellut’s paintings, we envision fragments of human souls, torn from their bodies, seeking consolation and forgiveness, seeking to know their worth and their place on the earth. There is a kind of historical memory in these paintings, the axis between the Netherlands and Spain, the axis between social, political, and economic strata, the affluent middle class and the souls of the street, bent on poverty, often beyond humiliation. Which ones are lost? Look at these faces (A La Mesa). They are lost together, wandering over the sea, all in the same boat, in the same galaxy, hovering around the stars, clutching the light of the moon, hoping for survival, for ecstasy, searching for redemption from the past, from history, hoping for the return of their souls from the dungeons to which they were once willfully condemned. Painting for Cabellut is a matter of allowing her gestures to move throughout the space of the canvas. She indulges in a kind of “action painting”– as in making a performance, as in casting a spell upon her subjects who live the country life – Lalo, Rufino, Yesenia, Santos, Virgilio, Encarnita, Hendrick. In another mode, her “Broken Glass Heroes” distill the essence of wandering through inner-time and space, the lucky ones who understand the dark side, who have traveled into the light – Hernando, Pali, Ventura, Quique, Callegi, the white-faced Hylario, the grim-faced Modesto, and finally, Hipolite, the genius of the impenetrable who speaks incessantly. There are the prostitutes from an earlier period who live the hard life, and there are men who portray the solitude of the mind with blue-veined foreheads and ultra-pink, piercing eyes. There are Negros from Cuba, bold-faced and itinerant, yet stable within themselves, and mistresses of Goya, the subjects of the courageous painter who suffered the evil of lasting days over two centuries ago, and who uttered hope for the future of humankind. Cabellut’s ensemble of faces is destined to clutch the light of the moon. They are perennial faces that belong to the recalcitrant landscape, to the cities on fire, to the ghosts of the past. These are the souls that echo through the meadows and prairies, through the dark hills and solitary caves along the coastline of Andalusia. Some are separated from themselves, divided in their identity, and in search of better times or lost times. Others are given to desire as the human strain rebels against oppression, to engage the tempest, to succumb to bold adventures only to confess some glorious retribution, finally at peace with themselves.
As an International art critic, Robert C. Morgan has written hundreds of catalogs, essays, and reviews for artists worldwide. His writings have been translated in to seventeen languages. He is the author of Art into Ideas: Essays on Conceptual Art (Cambridge, 1996) and The End of the Art World (Allworth, 1998). He serves as an Editorial Consultant for The Brooklyn Rail and a Contributing Editor to Sculpture Magazine. He has an M.F.A. in Sculpture and a Ph.D. in Contemporary Art History. Parallel to his role as an art critic, Morgan is an artist, art historian, curator and poet. In 1999,he was given the first Arcale award for international criticism in Salamanca.