The View from Here

Architecture, painting, and imagination

For years Gustavo Acosta has untiringly pursued an imaginary space of architecture between the future and the past, nostalgia and satire, nineteenth-century Friedrich Schinkel and twentieth-century Charles Jencks. Check out his show "Historias Recurrentes" at Praxis International Art.

First we must understand the influence of architectural representation, starting with the seventeenth-century contributions in geometric perspective by architects Andrea Pozzo and the two-vanishing-point studies of Giuseppe Galli Bibiena. In fact Bibiena's so-called imperial designs were used as a model for the theater. He was able to blend painting, scenography, and architecture into an art form. Scenography can astound the viewer and stimulate fantasies. That's why we feel such attraction to Canaletto's topographical paintings, Italian artist Piranesi's ruins prints, or the surreal moods in De Chirico's city landscapes.

Acosta's grand images act like a stage on which we see ourselves "supplying the missing details," as Austrian historian E.H. Gombrich comments of eighteenth-century Venetian landscape painter Francesco Guardi. What's the allure? First, power. In his Psychological Structure of Fascism, French philosopher Georges Bataille advances the idea that power can be represented as larger-than-life architecture. In the twentieth-century secular world, dictatorships promoted a kind of political mass idolatry, which demanded these grandiose constructive emblems. Stalin, Hitler, and Mussolini all liked exaggerated versions of Neoclassicism.

Acosta's world without people (from top): Sombra y 
las Fieras, La Sensación, 
Adult's Playground
Acosta's world without people (from top): Sombra y las Fieras, La Sensación, Adult's Playground

Details

By Gustavo Acosta. Through April 30. Call 305-443-9700.
Praxis International Art, 2960 Ponce de Leon Blvd, Coral Gables

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In Acosta's case, the viewer sees a monumental landscape with no human presence. It must be weird to stand on a wide avenue filled with great buildings where people have disappeared under the brick and marble. Where is the rest of humanity? Right where you are, at the point of the observer, the sovereign power.

Acosta puts us outside the painting, on the king's throne, and the experience is sumptuous. Speaking about the psychological effect of perspective, German psychologist Rudolf Arnheim implied that the distance separating the observer from the vanishing point is equivalent to linear time. In The Order of Things, French historian Michel Foucault suggests (using Velazquez's famous painting Las Meninas as a backdrop) how modernity, by changing our perspective of things, makes us more aware of our situation in time and space. Conclusion: In looking at Acosta's vanishing point, one conceives scenarios in which power ambivalently wrestles with nostalgia.

There is always a past. Acosta's painting Foundations shows a tree next to a small Greek temple -- manmade versus nature-made. The artist harks back to the allegorical origins of construction as outlined by Italian architect Filarete and French theorist and architect Philibert Delorme, for whom the first column was a tree trunk.

But why the past? Because for all we know, the future disappears when our life ends. The future makes no sense to me if my life has no outcome in it. Think of the words of the German poet and critic Goethe: "The past can leave us nothing but mortality." Acosta's paintings summon a meaningful future.

La Sensación shows a blimp hovering over (what I take to be) an upscale Havana avenue. At the end of it we see a whitish, carcasslike park ride whose tall structure is in ruins. There was indeed a ride, in prerevolutionary Havana's amusement park, known as the Russian Mountain.

The blimp plays in the Cuban consciousness as a metaphor for something flying back and forth over the Florida Straits, or (like the infamous Hindenburg dirigible that exploded in Lakehurst, New Jersey, on May 6, 1937) an unfulfilled promise, something that can disappear at any minute. Coming from Acosta, you get the dialectic prank: heaven and earth, superstructure and base, Karl Marx and Groucho Marx.

In Adult's Playground the artist explores the contradiction of political ambition and futility. The Brandenburg Gate, that symbol of Prussian militarism, becomes a huge marble net for an imaginary game of political Ping-Pong with fixed roles: The supreme ruler owns the rackets while the citizen turns out to be the ball. This is Acosta at his best -- impertinent, working within a serious tradition of symbolism filled with great masters.

There is only one painting that takes us to an actual Cuban site, Sombra y las Fieras (Shadows and Beasts). Under a heavy sky (and Acosta's skies are important) we see the famous Paseo del Prado, a quintessential Cuban boulevard and symbol for the idle stroll of the Havana bourgeoisie.

I like that Acosta takes Miami and Havana as limits, a yin-yang. In Invasión a cruise ship approaches the waterfront from behind a symmetrical row of trees. But there's no landmark to inform us if it is arriving at Miami or Havana. Acosta is not, at least overtly, a political painter, but even beyond his intentions, the issue of the stalemate between Cuba and the U.S. -- and its solution -- lingers here.

Acosta's personal history may figure in his choice of Neoclassicism and to a lesser extent Palladian architecture as subject matter for his paintings. Neoclassicism was the architecture of the Cuban Republic until 1959 (the capitol building and the presidential palace are examples).

But unlike other twentieth-century dictators, Castro was never interested in architecture and has not created, during his long tenure, any particular building style to embody his ideals. The greatest irony is that he's happy to dwell within his predecessor's vision of the city. The truest symbol of Castro's reign is the Plaza of the Revolution, which features a modern building built under Batista.

By the way, not all of Acosta's paintings follow a clean axial plan. There are more labyrinthine explorations, as in Traspatio(Behind the Patio), which shows a street portico hidden behind a row of cypress. Here Acosta perhaps exploits hide-and-seek as a metaphor for the pervasive behavior under totalitarian rule.

Smaller paintings are also included in the show, but they don't convey the richness and detail of the bigger ones. Acosta needs at least one-third of his canvases to produce his dramatic washed-gray skies. They don't look like southern skies but more like a northern, imagined place seen through the patina of black-and-white newsreels.


"Miami 60 Days" is a spontaneous exhibit by N.B. Dash and Kol Solthon in a provisional space at 90 NE 39th St. in the Design District. It contains Solthon's flat, bluish textile studies, Dash's charcoal drawings, and objects, photos, and video from both artists.

Dash's drawings on paper develop from a wiggle motif, which she repeats in all possible contours to achieve waves, paths, and other figurations. They're elegant, and have a Japanese flavor to them.

In addition to Solthon's fabrics (which may need a different setting), the artist presented photos of a sort of ritual dance in the nude, done on-site prior to the opening. On the floor we observe a print of Solthon's legs in lotus position, like a mandala.

Also included is a collection of personal objects from both artists, organized on two platforms. The arrangement is Zen-like in its clarity and distinctness; the mood is spiritual. I had problems with the cold, ashen lighting, but this likely was not the artists' choice.

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