Paul Sierra: A Cultural Corridor (Exhibiton Catalog)
May 9 to October 9, 1998, The Latino Museum of History, Art and Culture, Los Angeles, CA
The Theatre of Nature: Paul Sierra's Paintings
By: Richard Pau-Llosa
The recent paintings of Paul Sierra, the Cuban-American painter most likely to take risks with his imagery, reveal a fascinating synthesis of two currents which have fueled pictorial thought in the Western Hemisphere for a century. Sierra turns North American nineteenth century romantic vistas of nature on their head, deleting the awe of epic entry into new frontiers. He replaces awe with a sense of stagecraft-the theatricality of moment which is steeped in Latin American oneiric painting of this century. Theatre implies an intimate scale centered on human action being beheld, understood, and empathized with by an audience. Turning nature into theatre entails heightening its symbolic charge. Sierra (a last name which, perhaps interestingly, means "mountain range") dramatizes the moment in which man and nature intersect in the unconscious, and he sets this drama by brook and range, in forest or cauldron.
Embracing the theatricality of painting-long a Latin American aesthetic premise which fundamentally separates that region's art from the ironies and reductions North American artists have always hurled against representation- involves engaging a unique set of ambiguities. In the western tradition from the Enlightenment to the present, "nature" refers to both the context of our physical existence as well as the set of laws and impulses which drive the machinery of our personalities. But if our waning century's myriad theories on culture and the psyche have at times sought to explain human action as the effect of the law governing these two "natures", Sierra suggests a shift in emphasis. Action, particularly what Wallace Stevens would call the "act of the mind", has its own ineffable yet implacable agency. It resists the causalities of personal and collective unconscious, socio-economics (that third "nature" that presumably determines us), and that repertoire of physical etiologies (from genetics to nutrition to El Nino) which herd us into this of that.
Sierra's startling blend of Enlightenment cynic and Romantic visionary who sees the individual, in his moment of conflictive entry into nature, as both active shaman and transcendent mystic. We alter the world ourselves, often at great peril, but always reaffirming our powers over the very conditions of life on whose survival we so clearly depend. Man is the alchemist who can turn the raw material of his presence in the world into lead and gold at the same time. In that simultaneity and paradox lies our glory. Human consciousness is the point at which creation, destruction and their balance meet to define themselves. Being is simply the constant reconfiguration of this interlocking triad.
The two fundamental images which Sierra emp0lys to address this vision of man are fire and water. These are the same images which appear in more submerged ways in myriad Romantic and oneiric works of art, both visual and literary (Sierra is on of the best read painters I know). From fiery sunsets above colossal waterfalls in the Rockies, to Frida Kahlo's conjugation of blood and desert, fire and water are noun and verb of intense though, feeling and their mutual expression. Their yin-yang dialectic appears in every cosmology, mythology, poetics, religion and philosophy on the planet. Among their most marvelous attributes is that both elements coalesce male and female principles. The womb of still waters partners the boulder-shattering cataract. The hearth duels with the atomic blast. Fire and water are the bread and wine of the deepest altar of the mind. It is because of their dynamic equilibrium that life on earth is possible. No small part of the visual luxury palpable in all of Sierra's work-from its engulfing colors, to its erotically dramatic subject matter, to its orgasmic textures-hails from this conviction-driven understanding that life thrives on the enigmatic confluence of opposites.
And the mind too is self-governing volcano, at least the mind of the artist. In these recent paintings, Sierra has been unafraid in explicitly referencing metaphysical personages linked to the mythology of fire and water. Prometheus is caught in the moment of theft, at his most untitanic humanness. He is the bare-chested, denim-legged worker in a non-union universe. The prophet, headless but pondering, frames a dawn caught between two pairs of parentheses-his neck and the sky, the flanking trees. Genesis on the four-sided earth; its origin in thought is metaphysics while its manifestation is human. The prophet, after all, stands casually, hands clasped more in thought than prayer, and he is wearing the ordinary clothes of contemporary citizenship. In another painting his head, perhaps, is an alternative sun floating in an aura of foam on the stream, beneath the blazing star.
This set of darings is what defines Sierra's originality and importance as a visual artist. He engages allegory without the hedging prophylaxis of postmodernist babble, but he also does so without the strident, orthodox pedantry of a muralista. He awakens the most profound structures of Latin American art's visual theatre without exploiting the crass carnival of ethnic iconography. Sierra understands and embraces the North American epic of the frontier, but he relocates its setting in the searing intimacy of the oneiric episode, a locale precious few North American visual artists have ever ventured into. Fire and water and their querulous marriage are the expression of reflected feelings that target the very meaning of our existence. While others swim downstream singing about the end of "meaning" and the triumph of undigested variability, Sierra is daring to think about what it means to be alive, here and now. If Sierra ever needs a heraldic motto, he might consider: Necessary art or no art.