In December of 2007, the works of Carlos Alfonzo inaugurated the Freedom Tower in Miami with the exhibition Carlos Alfonzo: Extreme Expression, 1980-1991. This was the most recent survey of the work of this widely-known Cuban artist and featured some works never seen previously. Just ten years earlier, he was subject of a retrospective at the Miami Art Museum. That exhibition also traveled to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
Among his most popular subjects were those inspired in some measure by spirituality and its role in everyday life. His large and energetic canvases are typically charged with existential questions about the relationship between life and death. He also explored more personal elements such as sexuality and how religion might influence one's decisions. He was particularly interested in the influence of Roman Catholicism and its relationship to Santería. As his career progressed, his paintings became increasingly dense and layered. While his early canvases project lighter colors, the works painted closer to the end of his life became increasingly dark and moribund. Indeed, according to art historian Julia Herzberg, they are among the most expressive works in the history of art dealing with the subject of death.
Throughout his career, the artist made works that considered the ordinary moments of everyday life, focusing on details of experience overlaid with powerful, emotional responses. These images were created through a complex personal inventory of signs and symbols that the artist developed throughout his oeuvre. Among the most typical symbols seen in his works are eyes, mouths, hands, heads, phalluses, testes, and skulls. Genitalia are often represented in the form of a figure eight, denoting infinity. In addition, a variety of bodily fluids were often present, representing the physicality of life. These included blood, semen and tears. The artist sometimes included spirals, an important symbol used by the pre-Hispanic Taíno population of the Caribbean in many of their ceremonial works. These were an overt reference to the unending cycles of life, death, and regeneration. Symbols such as crowns, knives and crosses are references to religious figures and the notion of martyrdom. Accompanying such serious imagery might be a cup of coffee and a grinning mouth, adding a dream-like quality to his narratives.
Painted just two short years before his death, this Untitled work features some of the most common visual tropes used by the artist. Among them are the frenetic energy that is typical of his works. A much darker canvas than his works from even just three years earlier, such as Where Tears Can't Stop, 1986, this work features strong blues and dark reds that are reflect a growing preoccupation with death. The central figure is reminiscent of a fetish that has been partially obscured by sharp objects such as knives or scissors. A large teardrop occupies the lower right corner, balanced on the other side by a disembodied tongue and a horn that blows loudly into the edge of the picture space. The painting is energetic nearly to exhaustion, as though barely able to be contained by the edges of its canvas.
Carlos Alfonzo left Cuba in May of 1980 as part of the Mariel boatlift. He gained much success in the 1980s, as part of a generation of artists that brought attention to the growing significance of Miami as an urban and artistic center. His work was included in a number of significant exhibition that featured a variety of works by Latino artists, including Hispanic Art in the United States: Thirty Contemporary Painters and Sculptors, 1987; The Decade Show: Frameworks of Identity in the 1980s, 1990; and the 1991 Whitney Biennial exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Rocío Aranda-Alvarado, Ph.D.