Substituting Emptiness: The Paintings of Rafael Francisco Salas
Rafael Salas’s artistic project is threefold: portraits, still lifes, and landscapes. With all of these forms, Salas gives voice to the void that haunts the human heart. It is a story that begins with a tragedy, passes through nihilism, and ends with, not hopefulness, but not- knowing, a charged waiting.
The portraits of men and women introduce the subject, the romantic. Women stare dead-eyed and smile grim-faced, as if sick and tired of standing still on the pedestal, the object of such impossible longing. And men pose like knights but wear the appearances of knaves, knowing that they are fools for love. The masked woman in the large painting, “Spring (Rain)”, is emblematic of all these sad figures. She- or perhaps she’s a he? – cannot even bear to show her/his face, such is his/her anguish and desire to disappear, becoming a fugitive on the lam form the laws of the self. The portraits, while specific in their details, appear also interchangeable, as if one could stand in for another, all substitutes for loss.
The still lifes occupy a middle ground, a transition. They lead away from the dead ends of the portraits and point towards the horizon-like vistas of the landscapes. It is no accident that alcohol is the ruling spirit of these paintings. The beer cans represent a liminal space, reeling with drunkenness and disorder. This is the impulse to obliterate, self-destruct, embrace the void- broken-heartedness like a drop of mercury, forever dividing into the ever more infinitesimal. Then you black out. But this annihilation clears the ground for the emergence of the landscapes.
The landscapes are the flip sides to the portraits. In these paintings, Salas maps out the shifting contours of a zone where past and future collide, creating a landscape of possibility, just off the side of the abysmal present, like the ghost of now. He paints geographies of emptiness-in-abeyance- those parking lots, subdivisions, X-mas trees, and fallow fields. Evoking a world at once ours and oneiric, elusive, and so everyday as to be overlooked, shorthanded and sterile. It is here, in these over-determined sites comprising a seemingly endless series- houses, trees, parking spaces, leaves- of- grass- that Salas makes his stand, stakes out a no-man’s-land. These are atmospheres echoing with anticipation, settings for strange stories yet-to-happen and already happened, endings and beginnings missing-in-action, with characters forever waiting in the wings of the stage, brides and bridegrooms both stripped bare, exposing an unnatural, ghostlike nakedness.
David W. Andrews