Visual Art

GUIDO LLINAS’ BLACK PAINTINGS

Llinás was bom in Pinar del Rio in 1923. There he gets acquainted with basic craftsmanship of painting techniques in one of the many provincial academies. Still in Pinar, he studies avant-garde movements through the art reviews available in the public libraries. At that time, the majority of Cuban artists focus on national items, using certain cultural symbols which embody the “Cuban sentiment”; in summary, it is mythifying painting. In 1946 Lam first makes an impact on Llinás with his first one-person exhibition in Havana. Lam allows a new generation of painters to conceive of painting as independent of the realistic model which is prevalent then.

Guido Llinás, series Pintura negra, 1991, oil on canvas, 18” x 24

Guido Llinás, series Pintura negra, 1991, oil on canvas, 18” x 24. Rodríguez Collection

In 1953, Llinds, together with Hugo Consuegra and a few other angry young men, founds Los Once (The Eleven). The group’s purpose is to end the closemindedness of the Cuban art world that blocked the advances of the School of Paris in the 1920s. Los Once admire the abstraction of the postwar, a break with cubism and an art bound to eradicate national frontiers. In the fiffies, Llinás begins his first trips to New York, Washington and Philadelphia, where he discovers, above all, Motherwell, Kline, de Kooning, and Gottlieb. Rather than of direct influence we should speak of elective affinity, because Llinds considers their language not just a formal one but uses it to express the violence that marked the Cuba of the 50s. Despite the fact that there is no Afro-Cuban content to detect here, the works he realizes until the 60s portend what “Black painting” means, too: they deal with the darkness and violence of History. From 1959 to 1963, in a series of “anti-paintings” almost monochromatic and empty of form, the bruslistroke is more and more aggressive, stressing color as a matter and eliminating illusionist depth. These paintings made of hints of spots on torn bags, frayed at the edges and stretched over frames not always perfectly rectangular, seem to deny any meaning.’ We may posit that Guido Llinds’ “Black paintings” start from a background free of symbols.

In- 1963, Llinds sets foot in Paris. Confronted with the French intellectual medium of that time, the Cuban Diaspora lives in forced isolation. Llinás finds time for introspection and develops his friendship with Lain, who shows him the possibilities inherent to his marginal position. As ihe artist puts it, he had to live outside of Cuba to understand what being black meant. Nostalgia may be the vital reason for Afro-Cuban heritage to surface in the foreign environment. In that time Llinds begins to realize also wood engraving, in a manner that approaches him to African wood sculpture. But it is not before the 70s that the artist will call his works o Black paintings >), a group that has been recently completed by a series of “Elegies” and “Epitaphs”.

Guido Llinás (1923 - 2005) Composition, 1957, Tempera on canvas

Guido Llinás (1923 – 2005) Composition, 1957, Tempera on canvas. MOAS, The Cuban Foundation

Rather than of withdrawal back to Cuban identity, we should speak of breaking dependencies when using this new idiom, because it opposes Llinás to the French informalism of the fifties and sixties; on the other hand, it is likely to structure his abstract paintings, until then void of figures. His first works of the Paris period feature series of “signs” painted or incised, standing out against a monochromatic background. The emblems – crosses, double crosses and arrows – are placed in random form, somewhat dispersed. The relatively modest formats of the works lead the painter to insist on the edges, indicating the fragmented character of the canvas. The painter soon begins to emphasize this tendency because the signs insinuate a double movement inside and downward outside the pictorial space.

The rhythm starts to organize itself with certain vigor, including extra-rhythmic accents, as a counterpoint to the basic structure.

With the emergence of symbols, the painter is faced once again with the opposition between figure and ground, defying automatism he always had defended. The risk he assumes is that he simply “represents” signs, like others would paint a landscape. Thus the work will undergo a melting of all planes of the canvas, a game between the different layers of paint, that is between half-covered and half-emerging forms. In Peinture rouge (1966) the indented form on the right which reminds of an item typical for Lain is black, even though black is also the color of the background; in Signs, a good example for the quotation of Abakua symbols as starting point for Llinás’ “black painting” (the triangle representing Ekue, the sacred Abakua drum, the eyes of Tanse and Sikan and the vertical (12)and horizontal lines, each one possessing a well defined meaning in ritual) at least four colors define the shapes as well as they constitute the background: ambivalence that compels what Anton Ehrenzweig called scanning of the picture, a comprehensive vision that focuses at once all the elements separated by analytic approach.

Thus framing is getting more and more important as an essential structuring element of Llinds’ painting in order to create constellations of signs which enter in rhythmic tension. Basically I distinguish two types of composition: circular or spiraling displays; and on the other hand, binary structures with parts sometimes rather independent, separated by a vertical or slightly diagonal axis, but in constant interplay due to a common or ambiguous background, or to similarity of symbols, like in Pintura Negra, a work from 1993. A third element is now introduced as a counterpoint which reorganizes as a whole the binary organization I have proposed. At a first glance it seems that this vertical structure rests only on the red pattern. Nonetheless, when we concentrate on the white forms, we note that three of the four white crosses are placed in diagonal position, pointing to the left, but there is also a circle and another cross pointing to the right, another one which seems inscribed into an unfinished circle; and I should not forget to give a precise description of the shapes in red, oscillating between form and background; black shapes seem to be more rudimentary, but there are incipient forms, too.

This is what we could call, metaphorically, polyrhythmic painting, based on the overlapping of three structures defined by black, white and red color. A general characteristic of Llinás “black painting” is the use of three predominant colors with emblematic function, as in Abakud drawing, where yellow signifies “life”, white “death”; or as in Santeria, where every Orisha is defined by a color. For instance, in Uri,& work blue may remind us of Chango.(15) I cannot help using once more a musical metaphor saying that by and large the scale of principal colors used by Llinás is so to speak pentatonic, ranging from black and white to blue, red and some earthen yellow tones (the green used in Signs is the exception that confirms the rule). Needless to say that black is used as color, not as a mere background, even if it is not necessarily present in “black painting”, because the rhythmic or compositional aspect is primordial.

As rhythmic elements start to prevail, symbolism is evolving: The Abakua cross placed diagonally inside the circle has no longer the typical ovals and crosses. The arrow, still present, will be reduced to only the tip and be reduced to a triangle. Starting with a basic vocabulary, Llinás enriches his language by introducing polygonal forms derived from the circle and the triangle, as in Black Painting.

Guido Llinas, Formas, 1955, Oil on canvas, 22 x 18”

Guido linás, Formas, 1955, Oil on canvas

With time the painter acquires more freedom with regard to the ritual signs, now considered of as elementary pictorial forms. It is not about verifying if a certain element is found in the “dictionary” of symbols. But Anaforuana are not just pictograms, and their aesthetic use cannot supersede totally their ritual and cosmological significance. Due to their origin in initiation rites, the geometric forms convey a highly emotional dimension, reinforced by expressionist style.

Since the 80s, Llinás tries to avoid any evidence of the brushstroke so a “chromatic sculpture” can be accomplished. This consists primarily in removing several layers of paint by applying acid, in order to deepen or highlight the painting’s surface. By minimizing the pictorial act, he poses himself as an interpreter of the intrinsic possibilities and limits of the canvas – like African sculptors who are said to be deeply concerned with the material they employ.(16) ” On the other hand, this all-over proceeding used by abstract expressionism opens the door to a largely improvised painting – once more I am tempted to establish a parallel with Afro-Cuban, and why not, all Afro-American music..

Christoph Singler University of Besançon, France.

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Categories: Visual Art

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