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Archetypes of the Apocalypse: Speculations on the Art of Romulo Cesar

Romulo Cesar 'Kiss and Tell' (2011) mixed media on paper (11'' x 8.5'')

By JAMES D. CAMPBELL, May 2020

“Real liberation comes not from glossing over or repressing painful states of feeling, but only from experiencing them to the full.”

― C.G. Jung, The Archetypes and the Collective  Unconscious [1]

I.

It is no exaggeration to suggest that Romulo César’s work has highly charged properties. Not only does it constitute a virulent critique of contemporary social mores, but it insinuates itself in our social ecology, our thinking, with speed, stealth -- and a sharpshooter’s straight aim. This optimal virulence stems from the infectivity of his grotesque collocations of images and marks in terms of language, visuality, and the body. His work channels the deep pain and trauma felt at the heart of the culture in cascading fashion, launching archetypes across a coruscating acreage of cellular scaffolding.

It is also remarkably turbulent, unafraid, and irredeemably urban in mien. The artist harvests his acreage of marks from blighted city sidewalks and the inside of his own head with aggression, fervour and a barely-contained explosion of semiotic industry. He builds hugely transgressive structures that are profane, porous, polysemous – and, more importantly, uniquely his own.

Cesar’s work has an obsessive and possibly apocalyptic component and cast that powerfully sets it apart. Like a thought contagion, his work seems intrinsically auto-generative, leapfrogging from panel to panel in its storyboards with casual abandon. It is in a state of continual becoming and progressive amplification, if you will, as though by fractal multiplication. Marks beget marks that beget still further marks, all co-given within a dark horizon of meaning.

The marking inside the microstructures is worked with extreme care and delicacy, and yet it always preserves a sense of spontaneity and rough, louche, even brutal, expressive power.

It is this intricacy that catches the eye and holds us within the work. The eye of the beholder follows no linear reading strategy as it dynamically pirouettes across the plane searching out eidetic variations radiating outwards from the core.

Each frame trembles with almost carnal abandon, and contributes to a embedded scaffolding that is less carapace than libidinal continua. Cesar uses colour to activate the space of composition, and to bring coherence to the whole. The smudged taches of pure chroma offer an unnatural, even supernatural, clarity to the proceedings and a sense of ignition to the overall field of the work. There is something compulsive, feral and unrelenting in the application and accretion of marks.

The figural markers here enjoy real indeterminancy in the seeing. The ambiguity of the figuration itself heightens a sense of uncertainty as to just what it is that we are looking at. Cesar’s frenetic and intense gestural application of pigment suggests an emotional investiture at a high level. The inchoate and chthonic power of his figuration only enhances its effect.

In an interesting essay entitled “Polymorphous Improvisations: Notes on a recent body of work by Romulo Cesar”, commentator Ross Birdwise notes that the cells in Cesar’s storyboards are akin to cells in bodily tissue. He says: “In a sense, the surfaces of the works become like tissues in an organism, perhaps a cross section, a laboratory sample or a skin, a surface.” [2]

In another sense, each illustrative cell stands alone while remaining integral to the wider context of isolated markings. But where one might expect continuity, there is only caesura. Everything is in flux and not conducive to narrative readings, but understood as a series of transgressions, Cesar’s storyboards make a larger statement about abjection, alterity and the arc light of the apocalypse. The placement of the cells is also indeterminate. They achieve frontality at one moment and recede into the wider construct at the next.  The cells themselves seem tacked up carelessly on the studio wall like advent calendars, so to speak, and collectively constitute a threshold of meaning that exceeds the sum of the individual parts.

This artist’s figural renderings, while consummately ambiguous, are suspiciously organic. They resist easy identification but invoke notions of growth and decay. The organicity stems from and is highlighted by the trellis-like manner of their presentation. There is a certain foreboding we experience as the cells seem to palpitate and propagate. They seem on the brink of morphosis, in vitro mutagenesis, perhaps even metastasis. 

Romulo Cesar 'Mutual Predator Remains #06' (2013) acrylic on acrylic sheet (12.5'' x 10'')

II.

Birdwise wisely identifies human abjection as a latent thema of Cesar’s work. [3] The semiotician and psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva, in her Powers of Horror, argues that the abject refers to the human reaction (horror, vomit) to a collapse of in meaning brought on by the sundered distinction between subject and object or, for that matter, between self and other. [4]

Kristeva's understanding of the "abject" provides a useful framework for exploring – and understanding – Cesar’s attention to subject matter that is "radically excluded “ and "draws me toward the place where meaning collapses" [5]. In other words, Cesar is a latter-day Celine for our troubled times.

The abject, like this artist’s ambiguous melding of abstract and figurative, is neither object nor subject; the abject is situated, rather, at a place that precedes the symbolic order in which we are all anchored. As Kristeva puts it, "Abjection preserves what existed in the archaism of pre-objectal relationship, in the immemorial violence with which a body becomes separated from another body in order to be" [6]. The abject marks what Kristeva terms a "primal repression," one that precedes the establishment of the subject's relation to its objects of desire and of representation, before being anchored in the less-than-ironclad dichotomy of conscious and unconscious.

Kristeva refers, instead, to the critical stage in our psychosexual development when we establish a dividing line between human and animal, between culture and that which preceded it. On the level of archaic memory, Kristeva refers to the primitive effort to separate ourselves from the animal: "by way of abjection, primitive societies have marked out a precise area of their culture in order to remove it from the threatening world of animals or animalism, which were imagined as representatives of sex and murder" [7].

If the abject, as Kristeva develops it, represents the threat that meaning is breaking down and constitutes our reaction to such a state of affairs in terms of "primal repression", it is possible to construe that Cesar places himself on the very precipice where the breakdown is already happening in real time. The abject has to do with "what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules" [8] More specifically, Kristeva associates the abject with the eruption of the Real into our lives. In particular, she associates such a response with our instinctual rejection of death's insistent materiality. Cesar’s works, while so redolent of death and abjection, are far from constituting a flat encephalograph. It galvanises, despite or rather in spite of its dilation on infection and violation, dissolution and abjection. 

Kristeva also associates the abject with a feverish jouissance and suggests that we are being, despite everything, continually and repetitively drawn to the abject with a full measure of poetic catharsis. Such a catharsis is the true promise of Cesar’s refractory art.

In all his work, Cesar interrogates the dark side of life, and seems to be channelling the deep trauma of a culture that has run aground. He asks the same question that the French philosopher Catherine Malabou once asked:

“What is a shock? A trauma? Is it the result of a blow, of something that cannot, by any means, be anticipated, something sudden, that comes from outside and knocks us down, whoever we are? Or is it on the contrary an always already predestined encounter? Something that would force us to erase the “whoever you are” from the previous sentence to the extent that an encounter presupposes a destination, a predestination, something that happens to you, to you proper, and to nobody else?” [9]

Malabou discusses the relationship between creation and destruction in terms of plasticity. She employed plasticity as a means to reformulate the notion of apocalypticism, allowing for a form of apocalyptic thinking that is both immanent and materialist. Cesar works mindfully with the ontology of the accident as core subject matter. The sense of menace and foreboding that this work generates as palpable mood or aura is deeply entrenched. It is, moreover, auratic in both scope and tenor. Cesar effectively interiorizes global psychic trauma as an artistic strategy that is less strategy than profound inner need.

Cesar is fearless in exploring the dimension of the abject where boundaries begin to break down, distinctions blur, where we are confronted with an archaic space before such linguistic binaries as self/other or subject/object. This is the subterranean noumenal space of Cesar’s compacted storyboards that summon up a harrowing vision of the End Times, with himself as both witness and prophet. He upends dichotomies with seeming ease. He palpates the inner membrane of his work, so rife with libidinal integers and explosive jouissance, like a spider at the centre of its web sensitive to the slightest vibration. 

III.

Cesar counts figures as varied as David Cronenberg and Kevin Michael "GG" Allin as ongoing sources of inspiration. Allin (born Jesus Christ Allin; August 29, 1956 – June 28, 1993) was an American punk singer/songwriter who performed and recorded with a number of different groups during his career, and is an important influence as much for frenzied performativity as for courage, stamina and liberating excess.

Allin was a sort of Gunter Brus-like rocker notorious for his controversial live performances, which included transgressive acts, including self-mutilation and assaulting audience members, for which he was arrested and imprisoned on multiple occasions. The biomechanics of Cronenberg go H.R. Giger one better in remaining true to an ineluctably human (as opposed to alien) state of affairs.

Romulo Cesar’s work may be based on the comic book cell as fundament but in spirit effortlessly soars above framed units of narrative with a  semaphore-like insistence. The artist thickly layers gestural markings onto the signage and employs disparate materials such as acrylic, specialized metallic paints and tar to build up his scaffolding. There is nothing tidy, precious or easily assimilable here.

Cesar’s digital-based works are a heady fusion of digital print and spray paints applied on polycarbonate panels with florescent gradients of colour. The compositions often include startling smudges of pure chroma as an activation regime for the endless iteration of figural content that is itself in a continuing state of morphological fluidity. The medium of transmission has a venereal cast that helps explain its somatic intimacy. That may seem like a strange or unwarranted observation to some. But the suggestion of infection is clear and has sexual parallels and implications.

This infectious ontology and narrative that has informed Cesar’s work for many years lends it a dangerous aura undreamt of the epidemiologists amongst us. 

Romulo Cesar 'Tonight's the Night' (2011) mixed media on paper (11'' x 8.5cm)

IV.

Cesar’s work is eerily prescient in the context of viral contagion. It invokes the work of psychologist C.G. Jung and his Archetype of the Apocalypse.  In 1919 Jung used the term “archetype” to refer to the:

“a priori, inborn forms of “intuition,”… which are the necessary a priori determinants of all psychic processes. Just as his instincts compel men to a specifically human mode of existence, so the archetypes force his ways of perception and apprehension into specifically human patterns. The instincts and the archetypes together form the “collective unconscious.”[10]

Jung had previously used the terms “primordial image”. Cesar’s works are rife with such primordial images and an inhering suggestion of psychic apprehension in colour and line and scaffolding. This artist is closely in touch with the psychic forces underlying contemporary issues such as the violence in our society, the psychological meaning of COVID- 19 and HIV, and the ominous onslaught of world terrorism. Such images and fragments of images possess a universal quality and are integral to the “collective unconscious. Cesar’s work captures numinous and generative archetypes.

It is clear that the apocalypse archetype is invested in all of Cesar’s work. The storyboarding has a distinct flavour of torn-out and collated pages from the Biblical Book of Revelations. Cesar gives full vent to his – and, by extension, our own – shadow side. The archetype in question is, after all, universal. Cesar’s works are like the apocalyptic, premonitory dreams of the end of a cycle.

Portents and integers of the activation of the apocalypse archetype on the collective level are obvious. The rise of apocalyptic cults and sects, and in a time of global contagion (COVID-19) and the wholesale breakdown in the social and political structures that we associate with Western civilization, Cesar works the front lines of our psychic extremity with guerrilla-like stealth and ferocity.

The activation of the apocalypse archetype in Cesar’s work awakens trauma out of latency and the destructive plasticity of contingency. It is as valid here as it is in the context of other cultural phenomena like UFO sightings and speculative fiction, dark dreams of the End Times whether in pornography, cable television -- or graphic art. Contemporary culture is fraught with integers of the degradation characteristic of a civilization that has entered its end stages.

It would be foolish to suggest that Cesar is possessed by the archetype in question, but he certainly works within the radius of its spirit, and his work is not only relatable as a latter-day Book of Revelations but further embraces the social dimension of Jungian individuation.

V.

Make no mistake: Romulo Cesar is not an apocalypticist per se, that would be far too pat a stance for such a polymath, but his work still hints the end is near. Jung recognized that the archetype of the apocalypse exists and is now active in our collective unconscious. This artist understands, like Jung, that precisely because it is an archetype, the apocalypse has a certain enduring fascination for us, precisely because of its inherent numinosity, finitude and terror. 

This same far-from-morbid fascination is integral to our reception of any given work by Romulo Cesar. WM

Endnotes

1. C.G. Jung, Collected Works Volume 9 (Part 1) Bollingen Series XX (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 1981).

2. Ibid

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), p. 2

6. Ibid, p. 10

7. Ibid, pp. 12-13

8. Ibid, p. 4

9. Catherine Malabou, “Father, Don’t You See I’m burning? Zizek, Psychoanalysis, and the Apocalypse” in Repeating Zizek (Duke University Press, 2015).

10. C.G. Jung, CW 8, ¶270.

 

James D. Campbell


James D. Campbell is a curator and writer on art based in Montreal. The author of over 150 books and catalogues on art, he contributes essays and reviews to Frieze, Border Crossings and other publications.
 

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