Artist Julio Larraz
Words by Juliet Austin
Cuban-born artist, Julio Larraz's oeuvre is often described as 'epic' or 'monumental'. Hard to pinpoint or define, he is what author, Edward Lucie-Smith calls, “an experimentalist disguised as a traditionalist.” Inhabiting the realm of the subconscious, his compositions invariably elicit more questions than answers. Elusive and multi-layered, deeply satirical themes and potent imagery frame meaning and address the emotional mind of the viewer.
Recognised as one of the greatest living contemporary Latin-American painters, Larraz grew up the son of a newspaper publisher in Havana. Escaping with his family into political exile in 1961, Larraz’s mastery of caricature first earned him kudos as a political cartoonist in New York, with his depictions of key international players such as Richard Nixon appearing in Rolling Stone, Esquire, The Washington Post and on the cover of Time Magazine. By 1977, Larraz discovered what he considers a lifelong ‘vice,’ signalling a new epoch of artistic expression; using weapons more subtle and dangerous than cartoons, yet still focusing on concepts of social engagement veiled, as Edward J. Sullivan, Professor of Fine Arts at New York University notes, “in his often-enigmatic pictures in which dictators from unnamed countries consort with nefarious denizens of unknown origins.”
Compelled by “a polymorphously perverse” desire to paint, Larraz attributes, “elements of egocentrism, individualism, vanity and exhibitionism,” to his about-turn. Announcing his presence on the global arts’ scene as a man of metaphors, Larraz’s powerful recurring motifs and provocative ‘thought images’ – referencing ancient mythology to contemporary history – emancipated him from the normal vision of things in favour of the risky business of the figurative. Taking on a new Alice-in- Wonderlandesque surrealism (or ‘evocative realism’), he explains, “The artist sees what others do not... revealing that which reality conceals.” Rejecting reality’s “despotic power” in favour of possibility, Larraz’s art implies multiplicity and simultaneity. “There is always another possibility. We have to learn to see it, and this requires effort and discipline.”
Deeply cerebral, Larraz’s art is a game of sorts in which he plays the role of magi, uncovering the fragility of content by means of transformation and camouflage. Christopher Finch describes Larraz’s virtuoso’s ability to conjure up the physical world: “He takes a poet’s delight in evoking imaginary universes... as if [each image] has been plucked from some epic that has yet to be written.”
Despite his place in the great Cuban Diaspora, Larraz credits Burt Silverman and other New York artists with teaching him the techniques that sparked his career. Drawing on American realists like Sloan, Sargent and Hopper as well as Velázquez and the Spanish still life painters, his allegorical style conveyed something unique: the mystery that he saw contained in even the most routine and ordinary. Exploring seemingly simple images – still life tableaux of fruit and fish, ships or bull fighting – Larraz obsessively imbued each image with new meaning, manipulating scale, perspective and light to elicit new interpretations. “Everything changes, is renewed or ends. As Ecclesiastes says, ‘Nothing is new under the sun.’ On the one hand I feel an attraction to things, on the other, I like to reinvent them...” Yet critics like Sullivan are quick to highlight the “uncertainty and unease” – the intriguingly sinister, larger-than-life psychological element – evident in Larraz’s visual symbolism. Paintings and sculptures contain anonymous figures, featureless faces, body parts or partial views. Approaching his characters with an entomologist’s spirit of observation, Larraz’s magnifying glass seeks to measure and quantify; to uncover secrets of underlying ‘intelligent design’ (or not, as the case may be). Exploring what is seen and unseen, knowable and unknown, his works transcend the canvas, painting the viewer into the role of unwitting spectator.
“There is always another possibility. We have to learn to see it...”
Despite the suggestion of place, Larraz rarely depicts exact locations – symptomatic, perhaps, of his earlier exile. Yet Sullivan points out, “It was his move to Miami that marked his symbolic re-connection with the light and atmosphere of his native Cuba and his ‘rediscovery’ of the Caribbean basin as a whole. His work is infused with the humid air of the Caribbean, its cloud formations... and the contested history of [its] nations. At times, he simply revels in the sensual landscapes of the places he most loves, evoking their tormented or placid ambience with his masterful use of colour and diaphanous paint.”
Sold in numerous US galleries and housed in public and private collections and museums across the globe, Julio Larraz’s images have travelled far beyond the confines of their frames on allegorical journeys of their own making. Challenging of the senses, demanding of the intellect, his work speaks what author James Hillman calls, “life’s first unlearned language,” finding associations that initially seem alien, only to reveal in the energy charge that leaps between images a far deeper connection – undoubted proof of Aristotle’s assertion that, “The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor... it is the mark of a genius.”
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