Alexander Morales’ paintings, works on paper, and ephemeral sculptures have reveled in ambiguity and duality from the very onset of his career. The two concepts, though often used interchangeably, are different. Ambiguity deals with simultaneous meanings of images, words or phrases, whereas duality is about the essence or identity of someone or something. Yet, as one can imagine, the lines between them become blurred in Morales’ work, indeed as all lines do. What better motif to engage the dynamics of duality than the concept which lies at the center of the human/animal dichotomy? The bestial, understood as a defining essence in both, automatically triggers other concepts which limit, hence define it. The beast within human nature—we are, after all, mammals and mortal—is demarcated and ruled by what we consider purely human traits: conscience, sense of beauty, sense of humor, and complex feelings such as love, envy, loyalty, and ambition, among others. We tend to think of the bestial as a buried reservoir of forces which erupts now and then, in various doses, even at times willingly (e.g. in sex and combat). Perhaps what we truly admire in animals is the opposite configuration: how these presumably higher traits are constrained and governed by those of the beast: instinct, functionality, lack of moral or aesthetic awareness, and above all freedom from doubt, remorse, or illusions. If so, animals embody—in the poetics of our art and the heraldry of our psychological theorizng—how transcendent states of awareness are the buried reserve of nature, seeming to emerge at certain moments but ultimately becoming engulfed and controlled by what defines animal existence. In this manner, Morales welcomes us into a world in which duality of natures drives the ambiguity that energizes our images, especially in art.
Morales works in series, yet all of them move around the central theme of duality. ABC focuses on elegant, textbook-posed images of bulls, standing on a tightrope with unencumbered aplomb, as if they were on familiar pasture ground. There is nothing of the daredevil’s precision, the use of skill to overturn fear and difficulty. These bulls are natives to what they cannot, in the world of experience, lay any claim to. If, indeed, the power and dormant rage of the bull is unleashed with charges that are marvels of power and balance, they have nothing to do with the balancing act of acrobats and gymnasts. The feats of these skilled humans are, among other things, actions that belong to the world of entertainment, a basic aesthetic event whose orientation toward thrill does not remove it, in essence, from a being a kind of art, however simplistic the repertoire of its emotions and the paucity of ideas might seem. The beast does not know aesthetics, hence it cannot know acrobatics. Of course, Morales has taken us into the world of heraldry under the guise of art. The turbulent brushwork, the pyrotechnical colors, the passion of rendition cannot obscure—indeed, they accentuate—the symbolic character of this beast called upon to translate his natural power and instincts into a delicate balancing act which, should he fail, will cost him his life. This is political art of the highest caliber. The bull on a tightrope, however, does not only describe the life of the free-thinking individual in totalitarian Cuba. It also appeals to anyone, in any society, who feels the inevitable crunch of conformity upon aspirations and desires which might set that person apart, at varying degrees of risk. The tensions in the ABC painting—expressed thematically as well as stylistically—provide a guide to the rest of Morales’ work.
Morales’ series on dogs augments the satirical intent of his work. Beloved as pets and companions, guardians and projections of our personalities, dogs have had a unique relationship to humans since the origins of civilization. In modern times, humans have bred a panoply of dogs whose very existence as artifice bridges the gap between the beast and the imagination. Living art, almost, dogs of these kinds could not survive in the wild. Yet for all their debt to contrivance and genetic manipulation by humans, domesticated dog breeds are beasts governed by nature’s mandates, instinct foremost among these. Morales gives us dogs who, like his bulls, evidence the poetic quality of absurdity, its power to reveal what it may not have intended to reveal in the first place. They are constructs, dead-ends of identity, and for all that all the more endearing to us, the mammal whose ceaseless reflection on life and death turned them into invaluable companions in the first place. The duality of the family dog is revealed in its fated failure—they are, yet cannot be, our mirrors.
The Pathetic Clown and the Vedettes underscore the importance of theater in Morales’ imagination. The scene where actors and ideas interact, conflict, influence each other and even meld, is ruled by metonymy—the trope of transference between proximate elements understood in interactive terms. A guiding trope in the Latin American visual thinking, metonymy is an everyday device which enables us grasp language (bringing words together in the mind to create sentences) and to establish contexts that make sense of the things we perceive. An appliance within the theater of a kitchen makes untroubled, practical sense, but placed in a forest or on a beach, it becomes a sculptural (i.e. defunctionalized) incitement to oneiric or aesthetic contemplation. Ruptures of context sometimes provide new contexts of their own, as is the case with Surrealism. The radical close-ups of Morales’ clowns, for instance, make the intensity of their grotesqueness overwhelming while, simultaneously, inviting us to contemplate purely abstract forms which have lost, or nearly so, their place in the theater of the garishly painted face. The vedettes undergo a different journey in Morales’ metonymic dramaturgy. The expressional force of applied pigment becomes foregrounded and the singer on the stage mutates into lumps and congestions that tease the monstrous out of the comical, and vice versa. The duality of the images as representations of theatrical events and harbors of purely abstract painting is left unresolved, as all dualities must remain.
In contrast with other of Morales’ series, Cabra does not depend on context. Human and animal converge in a radical vortex that triggers myriad archetypes, the Minotaur among them. The goat is used in certain Afro-Cuban ritual sacrifices and, as such, has obtained a position of distinction in Cuban and Caribbean culture. Morales does more than transform the goat into an icon of human sacrifice. In some works, the goat skull becomes a complex image of shelter. Painted on military tarps and tents—a support medium which recurs in works from the artist’s career in Cuba—the goat skull offers us its cavernous eyes, annulling judgment and witness with their hollow darkness as they welcome us into the head’s bony womb. One is reminded of Zurbarán’s Saint Francis in prayer and of Calvary/Golgotha, the skull-shaped hill of the Crucifixion. More important is the fact that, in the Cabra series, the drama of intersecting concepts finds its expression in metaphor’s fusion of images rather than in metonymy’s play on the theatrics of space and the transference of values between images. This, after all, is the central paradigm of identity—the mission worthy of any sacrifice, the existential meaning that resists all apologies, deferrals, and temptations. As the goat in ritual sacrifice becomes the symbol of all believers, expunging them of sin, so in art it becomes the shelter that reminds us of the needs—for transcendence, say, or immortality—which living consistently undermines or denies outright. Is art, then, only a vehicle for the contemplation of need and not its fulfillment, the acceptance of wisdom in exchange for our impossible escape from death?
The question these works pose is, Does the condition of the bestial have the ancillary function of a modifier in defining what is essential in our personality, or is it the sustaining, nominative anchor of our natures? This ambiguity is buttressed by the title’s puns (in English) on “best” and “all.” Could the beast within, given its universality, be the ironic path to what is best in everyone? In Spanish (in Cuba, especially), bestial is often used as a metaphor of superlative quality or importance. A great movie or work of art can be described, in colloquial exchange, with this word. It is roughly the equivalent of tired words that express amazed admiration. Popular usage has extricated the word from its animalistic origins, even as Morales’ paintings restore some of these denotations while exploiting its common, laudatory signification.
Mythology and ultimately religion are born from the cult of dualities where the human and the animal mingle, mate, and often dissolve into a new being. Religion is but one of the offspring of duality—art and poetry being the others. In orbit, too, philosophy’s fascination with the relation between mind and world. Finally, modern psychology emerges with its approach to personality rhythmed by the dichotomies between self and world, pleasure and conformity, individuality and belonging. So intensely does duality infuse our view of the self that it makes normalcy a prisoner of relativity and context rather than the fruit of unequivocal definition. The quark, in myriad places at once, is particle physic’s Eros in this tradition of duality thought, until now, to have been contained in the arts, philosophy, and the nervous sciences of identity. The inexhaustible life of this theme is evidenced by Morales’ witty, masterful and riveting works. The goat of inspiration never dies here; the bull never falls from his precarious duty.