Dusk was just settling over McMullen Museum on a blustery, bleak Wednesday afternoon. Blue light filtered through the huge glass wall of the entrance, illuminating the fitting first exposure to Rafael Soriano’s life’s work, a piece entitled “La Noche,” or “The Night.” “La Noche,” a stunning cerulean, is the first thing you see after they direct you upstairs to the gallery. Its color and lines grab and hold your attention, drawing your curious eye across the canvas as you try to decode the precise shapes. With a strong geometric left complemented by the organic, soft circle of the moon on the right, the piece almost mimics its surroundings, blending into the contradictory modern atmosphere of McMullen that frames the darkening sky.
The capturing quality of “La Noche” is a common thread throughout the entirety of Soriano’s exhibit, The Artist as a Mystic, currently on display at the McMullen. Every one of his works expertly uses a visual element to draw you in, make you want to look closer, and drive you to grasp for understanding. He creates exceptionally curious compositions that pull you to trace his life through his work, following his development as an artist and philosopher from adolescence, through exile, and concluding in death.
The first room of the gallery is all geometry and light. It is filled with vibrant color, repeating shapes, and strong lines. The paintings in this room are busy, wild, and vividly alive. They were created in the 10-year geometric abstraction period of Soriano’s life in Cuba where he was part of a collective of 10 Cuban painters called “Diez Pintores Concretos,” one of two major abstraction movements in Cuba during the 50s. The loud, boisterous paintings are complemented by a series of neutral toned, fluid sculptures created by Augustin Cárdenas, a member of the sister abstraction movement called “Las Once,” which were originally displayed together in the National Museum of Fine Arts in Havana.
As you move into the second room, the atmosphere is much darker, mimicking the dark turn Soriano’s life took in the ’60s. Forced into exile by the oppressive communist regime that took over Cuba after the Revolution, Soriano chose to emigrate to the United States to continue pursuing artistic expression. The physical relocation to Miami paralleled a fundamental shift in his identity as a painter. Relinquishing his success in Cuba as a geometric abstractionist, he shifted to more organic, human abstract shapes with luminosity and depth that were indicative of his search for philosophical meaning in exile. In Soriano’s own words, his practice of painting became “a painting that is spiritual.”
[aesop_gallery id=”128658″ revealfx=”off”]
As you transition through the gallery, the shapes become more and more reminiscent of human form. They are darker, more subdued, with surrealist shapes that mimic the works of his youth in the 40s. They have flowing, circular forms that splice the remnants of his geometric past. They remain fairly two-dimensional, but the use of some gradation hints at the shift his works will take in the subsequent period. His paintings quickly become luminous, ephemeral compositions that makes one think of galaxies and oblivion. The series in the middle of the gallery is characterized by repeating, evolving, fluid shapes that emerge out of navy blue backgrounds into strikingly vibrant, delicate pink structures that defy characterization. One painting that completely captures its audience is “Dimensión Enigmática” (“Enigmatic Dimension”), that springs from the canvas with neon pink and purple warmth. The aqua tones that surround the bright contrasting colors suggest an underwater environment where this burst of life is springing forth.
From the organic shapes, as his level of experimentation develops, figural imagery of human and religious forms start to emerge from the paintings. The paintings begin to portray emotion through the soft light and unspecific imagery. Combined with meditative, yet vague titles, the works take on a new, thought-provoking quality that forces the observer to engage with the piece. Some, like “El Profeta” (“The Prophet”) are serenely illuminated and hopeful, portraying a holy light, while other figures give a more sinister feeling through more angular, hectic, intricate lines, like “Homenaje a Nicolás de Cusa” (“Homage to Nicholas of Cusa”). Others are ghostly and skeletal, with translucent forms like exoskeletons of humans dominating the compositions. Specifically, “Cabeza Hechizada” (“Spellbound Head”) portrays a ghostly apparition of a human head turned from the observer with a ribbon-like, creamy white pile that is reminiscent of the vertebrae of the neck. It feels tight and forced, but still serene because of its delicate colors.
The final room of the second-floor gallery is rich and dynamic. The skeletal forms are overlaid with gorgeous limb-like shapes, giving the canvases a sense of movement and depth. The colors that dominate the room are deep purple and burnt orange. They continue the emotive, soft tone, taking the viewer through Soriano’s lucid nighttime meditations on life and death.
Upstairs, one can find the culmination of Soriano’s life, physically and artistically, as his work becomes more chaotic, dark, and strangled. His forms became more estranged and cropped, and they are more intricate and reflective. In Soriano’s own words, his work came to its end in the purely spiritual realm. His forms lose the ties they have to humanity and geometry, and he feels he is painting the spirit itself. Because of this conviction, he leaves this last part of the series as “Untitled”, believing the voice of the work is strong enough to convey his philosophical intentions of using his art to comment on the spiritual.
Dividing this final piece of the gallery is a long, thin light box that contains images and text from Soriano’s life. There are documents, letters, graphics he created, and photos of him and his wife with the paintings. The lightbox is complemented with a timeline that juxtaposes his personal history with the history of Cuba, a final touch that grounds his transcendent end in reality. This part of the exhibit reminds us that as unreachable, transcendent, and nebulous Soriano’s art can be, however mystical and prophetic he can seem, he is still just a human.
Featured Image by Julia Hopkins / Heights Editor