FROM PLANE TO SKIN: EMILIA AZCÁRATE’S TABULAR PAINTING
Juan Carlos Ledezma
The inscription reads Español (Spaniard), the term that marked the normative standpoint from which Hispanic-American colonial discourse constructed a nomenclature of racial hybridity. Yet the inscription falls in line with typographic rules that do not seek to secure the word’s legibility so much as they attempt to accentuate the visual dynamics of the plane and shape the generation of form. For such rules, which Emilia Azcárate established as she researched the historical construction of her native Venezuela, do not aim at rewriting the statements that meant to elucidate the hybrid nature of the colonial subject. They operate instead for the sake of re-inscribing the origins of a discourse now ingrained in our culture and recalling a misremembered past, the historical tensions of which are assumed to have been solved by modern Latin American constructs of a racially merged society. This past is here evoked and then reshaped as its discourse, the colonial statements of racial difference that exercised a spoken violence on mixed identities, is transcribed and transformed—forced out of the context of history and into that of contemporary art, where it will confront a type of abstraction different from its own.
Used for naming the presumably pure descendants of the New World’s conquerors, the word Español signaled the untarnished, undifferentiated, and unmarked center of a system in which peripheral positions, the product of crossbreeding, entailed a deviation that other linguistic signs would seek to regulate. For terms like Mestizo, Castizo, and Mulato—among others that also designated the mixed lineage of so-called castas (castes)—meant to contain such deviation by adjudicating it a clear-cut place within an order of description, a regulated structure in which any nuance of ethnic identity could be readily located and controlled. These terms untangled the thick admixture of the colonial body and rearranged it according to the taxonomies of a knowledge of order whose classificatory power served the purpose of governing the new continent’s hybrid life.
In charting hybridity, the taxonomic terms of analytical knowledge engaged the interracial condition as a quantifiable dimension, and not as a quality imprinted on concrete experience. And in so abstracting the lived reality of the Spanish colonies, knowledge was able to inscribe ethnic divergence within a system of social stratification that ruled the concession of rights in line with unquestionable quotas of privilege. This ruling made it imperative to state racial difference in terms meant to quantify rather than to qualify: only then could one measure it with precision against radically incongruent conditions—not comparable biological traits, but political, cultural, and juridical factors—so as to integrate and regulate the complex identity of the colonial subject.
[…] By contrast, a new pictorial genre—the so-called cuadros de castas (casta paintings)—served the purpose of providing a true-to-life depiction of colonial hybrid life. Whereas the terms that enunciated racial gradients took distance from immediate reality by heeding the schematic logic of a taxonomic order, the pictorial imagination of Miguel Cabrera and Luis de Mena followed a backward route towards the concrete thickness of the visible. Yet the imagination of these and other painters did not generate a lived knowledge of the colonial body, different from the discursive construction of castas. The pictorial construction of these, on the contrary, adhered to taxonomic discourse by replicating its lexical compartmentalization: either laid out in distinct panels or on a single gridded work, the sectional representation of castas depicted the tabular order of eighteenth-century thought about crossbred reality as much as the intricate consistency of that reality itself.
It is this close-knit integration between discourse and painting that Azcárate unravels by means of a strategy that involves both painting and writing. Proposing that colonial discourse be read anew under the terms of abstraction and that casta paintings be re-perceived from the point of view of our post-colonial present, her double-sided approach adopts the discursive and visual condition of a past pictorial genre so as to reorganize it from within its own structural order—an order that Azcarate reinvents, allowing us new insights into our cultural past.
Here it is a body—the colonial body, displayed across the entire spectrum of its classifications (Mestizo, Castizo, Spaniard…)—that will be represented. Such a representation takes place outside the conventional frames of either discourse or painting, as the artist’s project involves reorienting both abstraction and language, opposite terms which that project redefines as it turns them into the transliterated version of one another. Yet such a transliteration will never be complete. Abstraction, on one hand, will resist discourse by confounding the legibility of the racial terms it quotes, whereas discourse will resist it back by forcing a degree of legibility upon the abstract work. On the other hand, the analytical force of racial terms will constrain our perception of abstraction’s concrete materiality, whereas the work will dismantle the writing of such terms into material fragments.
[…] It is along the way of this mutual resistance between vision and language that a bodily presence will be sensed, for perception, following writing’s prompt, will be led from confronting the solidity of the pictorial plane to evoking the labile surfaces of the colonial body, which eighteenth-century discourse ciphered so as to exert its power. Thus led from plane to skin, one’s eyesight will not only read the term written on the work; it will also recall the corporality whose crossbred condition that term tried to analyze and regulate. But this remembering will not take place entirely under the regime of a discourse of order, the legibility and power of which ebb as they confront abstraction’s resistance. Eyesight will remember, both within the physical, sensorial field of the abstract work and against the grain of the analytical, conceptual nomenclature that prompts it to do so. Eyesight will remember otherwise, under the modality of an act that might be called, given its oppositional character, countermemory.
Informed by the time of history, Azcárate’s Casta Paintings refute [a pure, atemporal opticality]. As the pictorial plane provides the ground for the inscription of terms used in ciphering the skin of colonial bodies, its condition as the ground of pure vision registers as a hybrid surface: the plane-as-skin, which here provides a space of release both from the strictures of pure abstraction and the historical enforcement of racial discourse. The colonial body will be once more sensed, yet now as color, in the materiality of color. And thus confronted by a bodily presence, the […] viewer will be brought back to the recognition of her own, which will then invade the field of abstract painting against the self-purifying logic that informs the relatively recent history of the pictorial medium. The colonial body will be remembered, by a countermemory, with the new density that abstraction’s materiality affords it; abstract painting will see its history deranged by the density of the perceiver’s body along the lines of what could be termed [an emancipatory] “counterhistory.” […] More than just connecting with an oppressive discourse, these works reclaim the object oppressed under its rule: physicality, the materiality of a silenced historical body, here summoned by the substantiality of abstraction against the grain of analytical discourse. That historical body is summoned so that it in turn summons the physical presence of the beholder.
 This essay has been excerpted and redacted for the occasion of Emilia Azcárate’s exhibition at Henrique Faria, New York. The full essay appears in the forthcoming Turner publication, The Genealogy of Color
 See Ilona Katzew, Casta Paintings: Images of Race in Eighteenth-Century Mexico (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004) and Magali M. Carrera, Imagining Identity in New Spain: Race, Lineage and the Colonial Body in Portraiture and Casta Paintings (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003). These two studies inform the following reading of casta discourse.
 Counterhistory and countermemory are concepts introduced by Foucault. See Michel Foucault, “Society Must Be Defended”. Lectures at the College de France 1976–1976, David Macey, trans. (New York: Picador, 1997), 65—86.
Emilia Azcárate (Caracas, 1964) studied Fine Art at the Central Saint Martins School of Art in London in the eighties. She participated in the La Llama International Artists Workshop in Venezuela and in the Artist-in-Residence program CCA7 in Trinidad. She won the first National Prize for Visual Arts Arturo Michelena in 1999, in 2006 she was awarded the Cisneros Fontanals Foundation Grant Program (CIFO), and in 2016 she participated in the Latin American Roaming Art (LARA) Residency Program in the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador. She lives and works in Madrid.
Azcárate has had individual exhibitions at Henrique Faria, New York; 80m2 Livia Benavides, Lima; Galería Distrito 4, Madrid; Tiempos Modernos, Madrid; Faría+Fabregas Galería y Periférico Caracas, Caracas; Casa de América, Madrid; Caribbean Contemporary Arts 7, Puerto España; el Museo Alejandro Otero y la Sala Mendoza, Caracas; and the Centro Cultural de España, Santo Domingo, Domincan Republic. Her work has also been included in group exhibitions at institutions including MDE 15, Encuentro Internacional de Arte de Medellín; Matadero, Madrid; Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Havana; Centro Atlántico de Arte Moderno, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria; Americas Society, New York; Museo de Arte Moderno Cuenca, Ecuador; and the following biennials: the São Paulo Biennial; Prague Biennial and Havana Biennial.
Her work is represented in collections such as the Sayago and Pardon Collection, Los Angeles; Cisneros Fontanals (CIFO) Collection, Miami; Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros, New York; Museo Alejandro Otero, Caracas; Banco Mercantil Collection, Caracas; Berezdivin Collection, Puerto Rico; Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, Caracas; Banesco Foundation Collection, Caracas; Bank of Spain Collection and Coca Cola Foundation, Madrid.all images © the gallery and the artist(s)