Luisa Basnuevo’s The space, the play, the angles at CENTRAL FINE, Miami Beach

By March 23, 2024
Opening Reception for Luisa Basnuevo’s The space, the play, the angles at CENTRAL FINE, Miami Beach. Image courtesy of CENTRAL FINE, Miami Beach.

Stare for long enough at the paintings by Luisa Basnuevo and you’ll start to see things that aren’t there. Yes, that’s a pair of oxen, and yes, that’s a pair of Cupids. Chances are you are not recognizing the pre-Romanesque architectural flourishes and references to Plutarch’s “Triumph of Love,” and instead are filling the paintings with your own iconographical bias. What the oxen appear to be carrying on their backs and what the Cupids seem to be adorning is a procession of jumbled forms. Irregular zigzags of violet and purple—inspired by carpet pages in illuminated manuscripts but reading like graffiti—float in the foreground. Rotund organic shapes of indistinguishable origin populate the middle and softly faded washes curtain the background. Even though they’re an accumulation of older and what some lesser thinkers might consider provincial appropriations, Basnuevo’s paintings pulse with an energy and aesthetic that is almost trendily youthful. Some of the graphic stripes remind me of the Monster Energy motif while other elements have the dark romantic swag of a crumbling dystopian ruin.

The title of her show at Central Fine, The space, the play, the angles, represents the autonomic sensibility Basnuevo asserts over her practice like a queen over territory: “Because it’s my space,” she says, referring to the paintings. The artist continues to prime her own canvases and build her own stretchers from wood she buys at Home Depot. As if quietly flexing on this fact, the paintings all contain areas of bare canvas, mostly around the edges. Meanwhile, the play is a chess reference. “I’m not like, you know, a tournament champion or anything like that,” Basnuevo tells me of her game play. “But I do treat the work like that. I make a move, and then I wait for the painting to respond.” (The artist cedes some jurisdiction: “It’s the painting who really controls you,” she adds.) The angles are all the various bits of information present in the work, the vertiginous action taking place and the countless perspectives one could take.

Luisa Basnuevo, Lizo, 2019, mixed media on canvas, 80 x 66 inches. Image courtesy of the artist and CENTRAL FINE, Miami Beach.

Born in Cuba in 1962, Basnuevo’s family were called gusanos, people against communism. “My father, who was a Latin professor at the University of Santa Clara, lost his job and was sent to cut sugarcane in the fields,” she says. “My mother, who was a kindergarten teacher, also lost her job, but luckily was not sent to the fields.” The family slowly fled to Asturias, Spain, when Basnuevo was around 7 years old. “They were still using [oxen] for getting potatoes out of the ground and moving things,” she says; the house didn’t have a refrigerator, TV, telephone, or hot water. The family then moved to Miami, which proved an even greater shock. Spanish wasn’t the dominant language in Miami yet, and Basnuevo knew no English. “I didn’t even know how to say yes. And the day after we arrived, they put me into school.” She was one of the first students to receive a BFA from Florida International University then went to Yale for her MFA. While there, the work of Cuban painter Carlos Alfonzo—bold brushwork and a wealth of abstract symbolism—deeply impacted her, as did the mentorship of English painter John Walker. Basnuevo then returned to Miami and started teaching at New World School of the Arts in 1992, where she still teaches today.

The first two years were tough. “I was like, Oh, my God, they’re gonna eat me alive—these kids—I cannot control them!” she says. “They were fearless…. they were so creative. I got a lot from that.” Teaching impacted Basnuevo’s art practice greatly. “I learned a lot from them. The idea of changing. A lot of people, when they paint, they don’t change that much, they keep doing the same thing over and over, maybe a little bit differently. I don’t care.” Her students have included painters Hernan Bas and Loriel Beltran, the former figurative and the latter abstract, who have developed significant bodies of work that each reflect something particular about Miami.

Luisa Basnuevo, Acts, 2019, mixed media on canvas, 80 x 66 inches. Image courtesy of the artist and CENTRAL FINE, Miami Beach.

Though open to change, Basnuevo has consistently sought a spontaneous, drawing-like quality in her paintings for much of her career. She recently switched from oils to acrylics (because her studio lacks ventilation: “I miss the smell of turpentine,” she says), and in order to get the drawn effect, she’s resorted to tactics like silkscreens, sanding down acrylic lines, and working feverishly quickly in some cases. Another constant in her work is northern Spain, a place that looms large in her oeuvre. She’s never been back to Cuba, but goes to Asturias every year, which has been a fertile ground for Basnuevo’s vocabulary. “I bring this, all the imagery that I get from Spain, and I bring it to the contemporary time, in the place that I’m making these paintings.” Once you know to look for the pre-Romanesque architectural motifs, you start to recognize these ancient forms. But there’s something about her new paintings that render Miami as contemporary outpost of a dying empire.

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Basnuevo lives downtown, which has seen an unprecedented building boom over the last decade, the irony and hubris of which should not be lost on anyone with eyes. “I am constantly surrounded by construction,” Basnuevo says. “This construction never ends, because one day they finish something, then something else starts.” The boom includes giant triumphant arches as ornaments for a nearly billion-dollar highway, but no real solution to the flooding that now takes place on light rain days; such manic preponderance has seeped into Basnuevo’s paintings.

Some of her paintings are colorful and playful, like the walls used to gentrify or the sunsets that sell a lifestyle, but the darker ones trace collapse, past, present, and future. A sense of nonstop production dominates these paintings, but the implications are mysterious and uncertain. “I’m bombarding you guys with images, because one of the things that I want the viewer to do is to stop,” Basnuevo says. “Even if they don’t understand it, they’re going to see things that are recognizable, and things that are not recognizable. But I’m going to make you stop and wander around the work and look for things.”

Luisa Basnuevo, Azulejo, 2019, mixed media on canvas, 80 x 66 inches. Image courtesy of the artist and CENTRAL FINE, Miami Beach.

Luisa Basnuevo’s The space, the play, the angles at CENTRAL FINE, Miami Beach was on view through March 20, 2024.

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