Artist Luis Hernández Cruz
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Words by Juliet Austin.
For painter, printmaker, engraver and sculptor, Luis Hernández Cruz, abstraction is tantamount to religion; a discipline to which he has consciously and fiercely dedicated his life, disseminating the word through his illustrious teaching career and innumerable exhibitions in his homeland of Puerto Rico and as far afield as South Korea, Norway and Spain. Prolific and in constant flux, his corpus can, perhaps, be best distinguished by its earnest striving for artistic truth – Hernández Cruz’s insistent voice in the wilderness of creativity. Endlessly reenvisioning reality and flouting convention, his work is change; paradox; intrepid, brave and fearless.
Anochecer con franja amarilla (2011), acrylic on canvas.
Born in San Juan in 1936, his earliest forays into the arts came in rigorously observing life. Encouraged by his academic and poet father, he learned to distinguish minute subtleties in shades of colour; to listen to the feelings of Sibelius’ music or re-read Baudelaire from another perspective. Armed with this novel ability to see with new eyes, he faced his future. It was during the late 1950s, while studying figurative and academic art at the University of Puerto Rico under the direction of Spanish exile painter, Cristóbal Ruiz, that an invitation to the home of professor, Argentine art critic and historian, Damián Bayón, lead to an epiphanic encounter that would alter his life’s trajectory. Introduced to a work by Venetian avant-gardist, Giuseppe Santomaso, at seventeen, his insatiable passion for the abstract was ignited. “Suddenly,” he reflects, “I had a new vision of art and European contemporary culture.” Influenced by artistic genres from Abstract Expressionism and Bauhaus to European Informalism, he became master of all; slave to none – an unwitting forerunner of modernity in Puerto Rico’s artistic transformation.
Elana (2003), acrylic on canvas.
Forever examining the dichotomy between innate natural, organic forms versus the disciplined imposition of order, balance and intellect, Hernández Cruz’s early oeuvre encapsulates a battle of polarities, shifting back and forth along a conceptual continuum. Later, he synthesises the two. Interposed between spectator and undulating mountain range, a two-dimensional grillwork of line and colour imposes intellect on nature; the figurative masked by the abstract, competing to produce a voyeuristic spatial tension.
Gran sinfonia (2012), acrylic on canvas.
Railing against a tide of ideological resistance in his homeland – the sort elucidated by American satirist, Al Capp, who described Abstract Art as, “The product of the untalented, sold by the unprincipled to the utterly bewildered,” his interest in the pure expression of colour, pitted him against the dominant aesthetic. Restlessly, he created, producing a number of what Curator of Latin American Art at the Museo Alejandro Otero, Federica Palomero, calls, “manifesto” paintings – militant works that challenged the experience of the spectator, demanding long, intellectual readings with multiple interpretations. In 1963, his artistic crusade was recognised with the award of first prize in the Urban Landscapes Competition from the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture… a harbinger of things to come.
El Arbol de las manzanas de oro (1989), acrylic on canvas.
Rejecting figuration and wholly embracing total abstraction, by 1965 Hernández Cruz’s works bore mathematical rhythm. Often “willfully cold and inexpressive,” they fostered no relation to the physical world, at the artist’s insistence, filtering emotion through intellect. He comments, “This struggle between substance and concept is the essence of my art. I cannot express the concept without the substance, which then wants to take over by its mere presence. I mute it, hide it with anti-colour – white, black and white, grey.”
Marina at palmas (2011), acrylic on canvas.
Next came a return to the discipline of abstract landscapes, this time in monochromatic form. Grounding his compositional methods, paintings were deconstructed into three colour elements: dominant, sub-dominant and subordinate (or “little scream”). Devoid of referents, atmospheric panoramic landscapes distilled essential nature, incorporating the real – the sea, sky and island light – only indirectly, in heavily codified form. Concentrated in two monochromatic tonalities – white and blue, in combination with the “little scream” red ribbon horizon, they echoed classical proportions, eradicating instinctive lyricism through simplification. Meticulously balanced, ordered and organised, compositions played on reflections, mirror images and equilibrium of the masses, appealing viscerally to the brain’s visual system.
Ocaso con sol en cuadrado (2011), acrylic on canvas.
Then in the late 70s, Hernández Cruz helped establish the organisation, Frente, with compatriots Paul Camacho, Antonio Navia and Lope Max Díaz – a movement for “the social renewal of art” that coincided with his ‘archaeological period.’ Often viewed as the cornerstone of his career, the artist, somewhat paradoxically, evoked primitive cultures, introducing the human figure as part of a spiritual and anthropological venture into the past. Painting in ochre, earthy browns and reds, he explored the dynamic tension between organic and geometric forms, revelling in the competing visual elements of two dimensionality and “illusionistic space.”
Co-founding and presided over the Congress of Abstract Artists of Puerto Rico in 1984, it was clear that the seeds of change had finally taken root, yet, again, Hernández Cruz followed his own inner compass, dabbling in Expressionism with a series of drawings/collages entitled, Historia de una pasión.
Historia de una pasión, (1984), crayon and collage on paper.
Yet, despite all the change, one common thread runs powerfully throughout Hernández Cruz’s artistic evolution: his commitment to arts’ education. Teaching at various institutions from the Art Students League of San Juan and the School of Plastic Arts to the University of Puerto Rico, from whom, in 2009, he received an Honorary Doctorate, the high priest of abstraction influenced generations of disciples, leaving his indelible mark on Puerto Rico’s national consciousness.
Composicion con signos negros (1979), silkscreen.
Today, Hernández Cruz continues to communicate the language of abstraction though his fascination with line, colour, mass and texture, encouraging a more esoteric perception of reality freed from the bounds of representation. “Faithful to itself,” his insightful artistic vision stimulates the senses and fires the mind, creating meaning in radical new ways. For all who have ever looked for castles in the clouds or signs in the stars, he calls us to view the world differently. And suddenly, without knowing quite how, we get the picture and are converted.
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