Paul Sierra: Symbols and Myths
Robert T. Wright Community Gallery of Art, College of Lake County
March 1 - April 7, 2002
Catalog essay by: Garrett Holg
Writer for Artnews and is the former art critic for the Chicago Sun-Times
Exile and remembrance have haunted the art of Paul Sierra for most of the four decades he has spent as a painter. Born in Havana, Cuba in 1944, he set sail, along with his parents and older brother, for Miami in 1961, leaving behind an "island paradise" ravaged by revolution. For the 17 year old, relocation was quick, dramatic and irrevocable. Although he always intended to return to Cuba that likelihood ceased to be an option as the years passed. Home, for Sierra, became less an actual place with physical boundaries than a symbol made from memories altered by distance and time, an ideal which today exists only in dream and paint.
Suffused with feelings of alienation, longing and loss, Sierra's paintings are among some of the most beautiful and poignant works of art created from the pain of exile. Unlike many artists, who, whether by choice or necessity, find it impossible to return to their homelands, Sierra does not concern himself with the political or social issues of exile. Instead, it is the exile's personal journey through life that interests him most. The works that have been selected from his impressive body of paintings for this exhibition in the Robert T. Wright Community Gallery of Art at the College of Lake County are like pages in a diary from this journey.
Through his art, Sierra re-visits Cuba via images indelibly impressed in recollections of his youth. The tropical landscape, with its vivid colors, palm trees and secluded tide pools occurs often in his work. So do the mysterious ceremonies of Afro-Cuban religions. But one can also recognize the sweep of midwestern prairie, the shape of a shadowy monument in a Chicago park, or a figure from Greek mythology. Sierra fuses them all into a seamless whole and, in doing so, makes no distinction between images borrowed from the past or those defining the present. Moving freely between both, he melds memory with everyday life.
The artist's large, frequently mural-sized canvases, which sometimes measure seven or eight feet in length, engulf the viewer physically and emotionally. His brush work is muscular and charge with a sense of urgency and passion. His colors, rich and vibrant, shine with a hard jewel-like clarity and brilliance. Mysterious and mood-filled, his work always seems to have a edge, a psychological acuity that stings in the gut. And yet, it is also keenly introspective, posing questions more often than it provides answers.
In "The Origin of Fear" (2000), for example, he depicts a man whose head and arms have cautiously emerged from beneath a Edenic tangle of leafy jungle textures worthy of Henri "le Douanier" Rousseau. The man's face is mask-like. His facial features are paralyzed in an expression betraying panic, or dread. His fingers are tense and claw-like. Their tips dig into the side of a road that glistens darkly like crushed garnets under a wedge of bright lemon-yellow sky.
Sierra carefully supplies only enough information necessary to set the stage (an idyllic patch of nature) and jump start the narrative (fear has come out into the light of day). The viewer is left to sketch out the rest. Is this man a fugitive from justice or victim of a crime? Will the road lead to freedom, discovery, or salvation? There are any number of scenarios to choose from, each adding its own particular nuance. The artist entices the viewer to consider every one, knowing the image ultimately will remain tantalizingly obscure.
During the mid-1960s, Sierra studied painting at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, in addition to attending classes at the American Academy of Art, also in Chicago. His early work reflects the stark abstract aesthetics of minimalism, which, at the time, held sway over the art world. However, after a 1975 trip to Puerto Rico, where he was re-acquainted with the imagery of the Caribbean, he adopted the popular figurative style of magic realism, for which he is now internationally known. The predominate voice of Latin American artists, writers and film makers since the early 1950s, magic realism is characterized by its rendering of ordinary events imbued with underlying narratives that are fantastic, supernatural and dream-like.
In "Lincoln Park Lagoon" (2001), for instance, the artist traces the sinuous shoreline of the most famous of Chicago's lagoons, as it lurches forward and snakes around his canvas. The work's hallucinatory sky is aglow with fiery colors - a searing yellow-orange melts into a color shade of violet, which in turn softens into a deep, star-filled dark blue. Across the water's surface the colors of the night sky are mirrored in pointillist brush strokes that shimmer like flickering bits of confetti. Nestled in a narrow clearing between trees, the part's celebrated statue of a rider on horseback rises in a majestic silhouette against the sky.
Familiar, yet strangely foreign, the entire scene pulsates with color. There is a kind of current running through it that seems to even electrify the space surrounding it. Everything in this masterful painting bristles and teems, as the well-known Chicago landmark is transformed into something magical and surreal.
Water imagery, cleansing and life-sustaining, is plentiful in Sierra's work and it often includes the figure of a swimmer. Once of several paintings from a series, "Swimmer #14" (2000), depicts a bare female figure floating facedown in inky black water. Such imagery might have been born in the artist's memory of crossing the Straits of Florida while immigrating to the United States. Perhaps, it is meant as a symbol of baptism and the artist's rebirth into a new identity as a Cuban-American. Or, maybe, it represents a vision of the primordial pool from which all humankind emerged and to which it will some day return. Perhaps, it is about all of these and more.
Images of fire are also numerous in Sierra's work. It, too, is symbolic of cleansing and purification. It provides light, warmth and the potential for destruction. The legend of Prometheus, the mythological Titan who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humans, has been the subject of many paintings throughout the artist's career, tow of which are included in the present exhibition. Fire has also figured significantly in the artist's many works about Santeria, a blend of African, Cuban and Catholic beliefs brought together for the worship of the saints.
In the haunting canvas "Ritual" (1992), a bare-chested man stands glowing in firelight with his arms raised and palms facing outward in a gesture of offering, praise or prayer. Behind him, tongue-like flames burn I concentric rings at the center of a circle of trees. In the distance, between blackened tree trunks, the sky is blood red. The intensity of the image blisters the fire wall of logic and reason. The very air in this picture seems heated with the presence of the otherworldly.
One of the most provocative groups of works Sierra has produced over the years has been a series of interiors. Begun during the 1980s, these unsettling paintings portray everyday events in violent upheavals of emotion. In them, walls crumble allowing the out-of-doors in and the indoors out, rivers burst through doorways and landscapes erupt. Most address explicitly Hispanic themes, but, as with all of the artist's work, the images have become less specific and more universal over time.
The painting "Judith" (1991) fits into this group of works. Its title and subject allude to the virtuous Old Testament heroine who seduces and then beheads the drunken Holofernes, a feared general sent to defeat the Israelites. Sierra's contemporary update on the Biblical tale is a nearly delirious convergence of sensations. In it, the viewer enters a room where outside and inside mix in a continuous succession of alternating images glimpsed through windows and doorways - a room whose slanted perspective makes it appear as if it were whirling about and ready to slide off the canvas at any moment.
A woman who wears a red dress stands inside the room. With one knee bent and mouth wide open, she clutches her side. In front of her, a man's disembodied head has been placed like a centerpiece in the middle of a round table. It is a disquieting scene. Perhaps the aftermath of some tragic episode of rage, the act of some calculated horror, or even a grisly prank. The woman could be holding her side in gut wrenching terror, or side splitting laughter. Sierra again leaves us wondering. As always, he seems to relish the ambiguity.
Essential to understanding Sierra's art is the notion that some kind of unseen animating force courses just beneath the surface of nature, as it links this world to a world beyond. In the artist's skilled hands, a seemingly ordinary landscape such as "Untitled #I-113 (1997), with its somber clouds, craggy mountain, bent and twisted palm trees and thick waves of grass bowing to the wind, is given emotional weight and consequence. Although it is devoid of people, the artist has, nevertheless, invested this landscape with a human consciousness, which connects to something yet far greater beyond.
Time an again, Sierra pokes around in the dark secreted corners of the human psyche, stirring up images that are sensual and spiritual, brutal and poetic. His work reminds us that we are all in a sense exiles. It offers understanding, not only for himself, but for each of us.
©2002 Garrett Holg