Living in a small apartment in Ridgewood, Queens during the late 1970s, Azaceta was responding to the violence endemic in the city in his grotesque parodies of urban life. These feature dismembered, luridly painted and bleeding bodies, festooned with stabbing knives, shooting guns and littered with cigarette butts. Both paintings and drawings, done in graphic, bright colors, are exuberant displays of casual atrocities with the helter-skelter action of a comic book. Most of the works from this period also feature subway tracks looping around the action, tying together the many disparate actions both literally and compositionally. Motifs such as matchbooks, rainbow eyeballs, cockroaches, pissing dogs and pirate flags add to the visual texture while street signs proclaiming, ‘Do Not Die Here’ bring a touch of irony to the gruesome scenes. Despite the frenetic energy in this work, there is a sense of order to the flat, outlined forms that hints at a tendency towards abstraction. This coalesces in a 1981 self-portrait, Shit, My Head is Burning But My Heart is Filled With Love, where contained within Azaceta’s head is a reductive version of his street scenes, while atop it sits a crown of flames.
Since his move to New Orleans in the early 1990s, Azaceta’s work has become progressively more abstract. The examples in the exhibition are from his most recent series’, what he calls Spatial Incongruities or Innocent Incongruities: labyrinthine compositions of blocks of color interspersed with meandering black lines in the same characteristically bold, primary colors as his early paintings. Their specific geometry suggests architecture - though the Escher-like rooms, hallways and doors lead nowhere. At first glance minimal, the shapes that emerge give the sense of facades or cutouts, as if the same chaotic scenes of forty years past had been painted over, leaving only their outlines. Azaceta has said, “I see no difference between the figurative and the abstract. I use abstraction as a socio-political vehicle, as I have done with [figuration].” Unsurprisingly the vacant spaces and maze-like pathways evoke the sense of isolation and vulnerability that has long been a central theme to his work. Throughout his career, Azaceta has described what he considers to be his exile from his birth country, Cuba, (he has never returned) as the impetus behind his art-making. Not only does he frequently cast himself as the “other” – and much of his earlier work has a voyeuristic quality – but he treats the attendant issues of discrimination, violence, displacement and feelings of horror or despair with particular empathy. For an artist who has always sought to “[create] something meaningful that reflects our condition,” Azaceta has continually found new methods of encapsulating the concerns of the present moment in his art.