Whitehot Magazine

Donald Kuspit on Jorge Tacla’s Death Anxiety

  Jorge Tacla, Anatomy of Dyslexia 06, 2017, oil and cold wax on canvas, 16x13 in



            Born in Santiago, the capital of Chile, in 1958, where he lived until he moved to New York in 1981, Jorge Tacla experienced the 1973 coup d’etat that overthrew the democratically elected Marxist government of Salvador Allende, replacing it with the right-wing military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, which lasted for 16 years.  It was a bloody event:  3,000 people were killed, among them Allende, who was murdered in cold blood; Tacla could have been among them.  It was the climatic event of the conflict between the left and right that almost tore Chile apart in the 1960s and 1970s.  It was a sociopolitical crisis that had profound psychological import, for it signaled the perennial conflict between the life and death instincts.  The Chilean Civil War was reminiscent of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), also between the left and right—a democratically elected Republican government with a communist faction and a right-wing military dictatorship supported by the Catholic Church--which lasted for 36 years.  As in every war, and especially during a civil war—a war between neighbors, as it were, people who had something in common however different their ideologies and religions, rather than between different countries, with very different histories--death and destruction became commonplace.  And disillusion and despair--the greater the hatred between the enemies, the more vicious the violence, the more depressing and meaningless life seemed. 

Jorge Tacla, Injury Report 4, 2021, Oil and cold wax on canvas, 55 x 55 in

Tacla’s paintings in Injury Report--a sort of mini-retrospective, featuring Beirut, 2020, alluding to the explosion that occurred at the port of Beirut, the capital of Lebanon on August 4, 2020; May 25, 2020, the date George Floyd was murdered, picturing a Black Lives Matter rally that occurred in New York; Architecture as Symbol, a painting of the United States Capital as a ghost of itself after the January 6, 2021 assault on it in an attempt to overthrow the American government; and Sign of Abandonment 27, 2018, alluding to the burning of far-left books by the military in 1973, the year it seized power in Chile, an event reminiscent of the year the Nazis burned books in 1933, the year they seized power in Germany--are in effect the artistic residue of these socio-political disasters.

They had a regressive effect on Tacla’s life:  they signaled the return of what he tried so hard and was unable to repress, what had become an inextricable part of his psyche:   his first-hand experience of the Chilean civil war.  The disturbing historical events documented in his paintings could not help but evoke the disturbing historical event he experienced as an adolescent in Chile.   Compulsively repetitious, his paintings dwell on the contemporary disasters obsessively, indicating that he has been unable to recover from the painful effect of the Chilean disaster.  He was stuck in the past, unable to work his suffering through, as psychoanalysts would say, and move on to happier themes, to a brighter emotional future.  His new paintings give it emotional presence, morbidly meditate on it.  Tacla is a miserabilist, and as Breton said miserabilism is the enemy of life.  Each new social disaster—and they are never ending, as history tells us—will make him sick unto death, which is what Kierkegaard said depression does.  And confirm that the world is rotten, and the will to social power, whatever the human cost, is all that matters.  James Joyce made art in an attempt to awake from the nightmare of history, but Tacla’s art shows that one can never awaken from it—that art is no escape from it.  Social history and personal history inextricably mingle in Tacla’s paintings, tied together in a Gordian knot which Tacla is unable to cut.

Jorge Tacla, Identidad Oculta 112, 2015, oil and cold wax on canvas, 80x80 in

An impressionable vulnerable adolescent at the time of the Chilean Civil War (Tacla was 15)—adolescence is a time of “crisis in which only fluid defense can overcome a sense of victimization by inner and outer demands,” as the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson writes(1)—Tacla could not help but internalize the conflict.  He became a victim of it.  The civil war was centered in Santiago, the capital of Chile, the seat of its government, and Tacla grew up in Santiago and witnessed first-hand the downfall of Chile’s democratic government, and its replacement by a fascistic government.  His paintings bear witness to this event, remain fixated on it—it is the unconscious substratum of his other disaster paintings—they testify to its traumatizing effect on him.  It was a crisis in which Chile’s identity was up for grabs, and occurred at a time when Tacla’s identity was up for grabs.  According to Erikson, every one of the eight stages of life has its “phase-specific psychosocial crisis” or conflict.  At the fifth stage, adolescence, the crisis or conflict is between “identity vs. identity diffusion.”(2)  An adolescent is a “preadult,” and as such has an unfixed identity, an uncertain, insecure, unstable sense of self.  Just when Tacla was consolidating his identity—coming into his own, beginning to own a self—his development was traumatically interrupted, indeed disrupted, and, I will argue, arrested.  He and his paintings remain stuck in the traumatic past; his art ostensibly deals with socially historical events, but it is subliminally an attempt to come to terms with his personal history—an unsuccessful attempt, as its depressing dreariness suggests. 

Jorge Tacla, Identidad Oculta 102, 2015, oil and cold wax on canvas, 13x16 in

In short, Tacla compulsively, obsessively, redundantly dwells on death and destruction wherever and whenever they occur in the world, emotionally revisiting and reliving the original scene of the psychosocial crime he experienced as an adolescent in Chile.  There was no escape from it, and his paintings suggest that he can never escape from it.  He remains stranded in the painful past, suffering from what Freud called “strangulated memories” of it:  his paintings have the defeated look of memories—memories become defensively murky even as their murkiness testifies to the misery that informs them.   

The architecture that is the subject matter of several of the paintings is a symbol of Tacla’s body, if Freud is right in saying that a house is a symbol of the body, and the expression “body of art” has more meaning than is usually attributed to it.  The Capital building is an embodiment of the American government, a book is an embodiment of a mind, George Floyd’s body was held down by the body of Derek Chauvin, a fascistic policeman with a powerful body, the crowd at the Black Lives Matter rally make their presence known by agitating with their bodies, the Beirut port was the entrance to the body of Lebanon.  Significantly, Tacla compares the tactile surface of his paintings to a skin, suggesting that his paintings are so many bodies, implicitly all projections of his own body.  The lines in the paintings are “like cuts in this skin, symbolizing the vulnerability of the body and mirroring the violence” he depicts.  The psychoanalyst Didier Anzieu has written brilliantly about the importance of the skin ego, the first ego, as Freud said, as a container of the body ego.  Tacla is flaying the body of the painting alive, leaving its painterly guts exposed, and with that suggesting he is as full of pain as the buildings he paints.  I think the point is explicitly made by the gutted interior of his library—a monumental body made of mindful books.  I am arguing that Tacla projectively identifies with the victims of tyranny, be they books, buildings, people, all bodies with minds.

Camouflage 117, 2016, Oil on Canvas, 45 in x 73

If trauma involves a break in the continuity of existence, as the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott writes, then the discontinuity between the solid structure of the buildings and their diffuse, “melted” appearance in Tacla’s paintings, conveys the trauma he experienced as an adolescent.  One wonders if the difference—certainly unresolvable tension--between the solid body of many of the buildings and their oddly fluid appearance--the gestural, “expressive,” atmospheric handling that turns the Lebanon building and the library into evaporating mirages--implies that Tacla was unconsciously undecided about which side he should take in the Chilean civil war.  Was he neutral, concerned only that he not be killed in the crossfire?  The indecision or uncertainty in his painterly handling may bespeak the conflicted adolescent identity he had at the time of the Chilean social conflict.  His psychosocial conflict became objectified in Chile’s political conflict—also implicitly a psychosocial conflict.  Was he a passive witness of the civil war rather than actively taking sides in it, risking his life—his body—by fighting in it?  Did other adolescents--young men with energy to spare—participate in it?  It seems he was not even a participant observer—not a coward but afraid of dying, getting killed in the conflict, or perhaps afraid of choosing the wrong side.  The mystery of his actual behavior during the Chilean civil war of 1973 remains.  He survived it, but what did he do during in it?  Are his paintings compensation for the fact that he did not engage in the violence?  Does their grimness acknowledge his guilt? 

August 4th Beirut, 2020, Oil and Cold Wax on Canvas, 49x71 in

More broadly, his paintings strongly suggest that the death instinct has triumphed over the life instinct.  Even the lively crowd in the May 25, 2020 painting is informed by death—has death on its mind—as its blurred appearance implies.  Blackness has infiltrated the scene, as it has in the other pictures, but does not overwhelm it, suggesting that the paintings are more about living death, the notion that to inhabit a violent world is a living death—from which there is no exit except actual death.  But Tacla’s diffuse handling is a kind of defense against it even as it is informed by death anxiety, his fear that he might have been killed during Chile’s Civil War, when he was still an adolescent, his life cut prematurely short, unpredictably ended.  I suggest that Tacla’s depressing paintings are peculiarly manic as his often excited painterliness suggests, sometimes so hyperactively gestural, not to say abstract expressionist, as in Beirut--also a geometrical abstraction, as the grid indicates--as to blur the scene, as though Tacla wanted to forget it in the act of remembering it while in the act of paying homage to its constructive geometry.  Mania is a defense against depression, and Tacla’s often manic painterliness is a defense against the depressing scene he pictures, and his depression.

The scene seems to disappear—fade away--in the act of appearing, suggesting Tacla’s unconscious ambivalence about the violence—after all, he does violence to the image.  Tacla’s ambivalent handling is a “fluid defense”—to recall Erikson’s term—against “inner and outer demands,” that is, seemingly insoluble emotional and social problems.  The world demands that everyone take a stand on one side or the other of the social division, and with that have a public identity not only private feelings.  Mixing cold wax into “hot” paint to “thicken the body of paint to create a heavily textured surface”—the paint is light and fluid and personal, the wax is dense and heavy and impersonal, making the painting peculiarly opaque—Tacla makes paintings that unexpectedly blur the destructive point he wants to make, however relentlessly he harps on it, even as it embalms the scenes that embody it, preserving them as memento mori.  If the sleep of reason produces monsters, as Goya says, then Tacla is showing us a society that has lost its reason, a society that is self-destructive, and as such monstrous—incurably and hopelessly mad, unredeemable even by art. 

Camoflage 96

All of Tacla’s works suggest that he is suffering from profound death anxiety.  “Death anxiety, when not relieved by a firm belief in an afterlife, surpasses all other anxieties in depth,” the psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim writes.(3)  By giving death an afterlife in art, does Tacla relieve his death anxiety?  According to Bettelheim, “Essentially man has dealt with the inescapability of death in three ways:  through acceptance or resignation, making all life a mere preparation for death and what supposedly comes after it; through denial; and through efforts at temporary mastery.”  It seems clear from Tacla’s works that art—art representing death with aesthetic immediacy—is an inadequate defense against it, indeed, no defense against death but a way of celebrating it, admiring its power over life.  Nothing concentrates the mind as much as thought of death, as the saying goes, and Tacla’s mind is concentrated on death.  He does not completely accept its triumph, and the society that mass produces it, for his art seems to master it by ingeniously representing it, the way traditional Vanitas paintings seemed to do.  I suggest Tacla’s paintings are modern Vanitas paintings, in which dead buildings replace the traditional skulls—but then the dome of the Capitol is a kind of skull—and the blurred figures in the Black Lives Matter Rally painting are like sand in the hourglass of the Vanitas painting.  The grandiose buildings that feature in his paintings are the ultimate expression of human vanity, which is why they are more vulnerable to violence. WM


            (1)Erik Erikson, Identity and the Life Cycle (New York and London:  Norton, 1980), 126

            (2)Ibid., 97-98

            (3)Bruno Bettelheim, “The Ultimate Limit,” Surviving and Other Essays (New York:  Vintage, 1980), 8



Donald Kuspit

Donald Kuspit is one of America’s most distinguished art critics. In 1983 he received the prestigious Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism, given by the College Art Association. In 1993 he received an honorary doctorate in fine arts from Davidson College, in 1996 from the San Francisco Art Institute, and in 2007 from the New York Academy of Art. In 1997 the National Association of the Schools of Art and Design presented him with a Citation for Distinguished Service to the Visual Arts. In 1998 he received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2000 he delivered the Getty Lectures at the University of Southern California. In 2005 he was the Robertson Fellow at the University of Glasgow. In 2008 he received the Tenth Annual Award for Excellence in the Arts from the Newington-Cropsey Foundation. In 2013 he received the First Annual Award for Excellence in Art Criticism from the Gabarron Foundation. He has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, Fulbright Commission, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Guggenheim Foundation, and Asian Cultural Council, among other organizations.

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