Frank Chinea Inguanzo: Mastering Melancholy

Frank Chinea Inguanzo (b. 1952) is a Cuban-American artist based in Miami, Florida. The art critic and founder of The School of Francis Bacon, Alexander Verney-Elliott, says of Chinea Inguazno’s work,

“[It] vividly reminds me of the German Expressionists Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Emile Nolde and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff. Also the German Natural Lyricism of Paula Modersohn-Becker. There is also an element of the dream-like fantasy world of Marc Chagall, and so Chinea’s work in both style and content is very early to mid 20th century; almost a melancholic nostalgia for that lost world.”

Indeed, Chinea Inguanzo’s work arises from a melancholic nostalgia. He didn’t start painting until 1997, and this after a “major heartbreak.” Speaking with the artist for over an hour, the pain of this break-up is still palpable. Whilst he didn’t go into explicit details, it seems that the relationship, which ended around 1997, had an almost holy, spiritual soulmate dynamic. Yet, Chinea Inguanzo refused to allow himself to turn into a self-destructive person. Stating, “Some people become very aggressive, or incredibly unable to do anything, but I really took that sadness and I said that I would turn it into something creative.” So, at 45 years old, having never painted before, never trained or educated in art or art history, he began to paint as a catharsis.

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Frank Chinea Inguanzo’s Life upside down 16 x 6 (US) 2017 / Oil on canvas

“As I was painting today, some thoughts came to me and I want to write them down for people I love. I know that I shall not live very long. But I wonder, is that sad? Is a celebration more beautiful because it lasts longer? And my life is a celebration, a short, intense celebration. My powers of perception are becoming finer […] with almost every breeze I take, I get a new sense and understanding of the linden tree, of ripened wheat, of hay. I suck everything up into me. And if only now love would blossom for me, before I depart; and if I can paint three good pictures, then I shall go gladly, with flowers in my hair.”

– Paula Modersohn-Becker (1897), from as quoted in Voicing our visions, – Writings by women artists, ed. Mara R. Witzling, Universe New York, 1991, p. 196

Chinea Inguanzo’s piece above evokes the deep, provocative imagery of German Expressionism, along with its desire to capture movement. Everything in Life upside down is shifting, tilted; the people in the distance stand or walk up a vertiginous, variegated hill into an incarnadine passing, ripe sunset sky. Some figures stand on the sky itself, as though the ground itself merges with the warm, crimson firmament. The main character, perhaps a priest, perhaps a man from a time past (or future) looks through a door into another world, whilst another man, wearing either a bowler or homburg hat, looks up from another door, perhaps wondering about his newfound place too?

For the central figure, a world of night awaits, whilst the man emerging from another door below seems to be coming from the daytime, and the people in the landscape, namely, the ‘here and now’ exist in a twilight zone. This piece is incredibly sophisticated on many levels because it induces visual and temporal dizziness; the same type of asymmetrical flourishes, almost feverish, found in German Expressionist film, for example Robert Wiene’s 1920 film The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. Additionally, Chinea Inguanzo’s Life upside down has an interesting contrast, those on the left side of the canvas are dressed in white, whereas those ascending the hill on the right side are in black. Black and white, somewhere beyond the door, or into the cabinet for the night?

“I don’t paint happy.”

– Frank Chinea Inguanzo

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Still from The Cabinet of Dr Caligari / Courtesy: https://thebestpictureproject.wordpress.com/2013/10/31/the-cabinet-of-dr-caligari/

Throughout The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, the viewer is met with a world both eerie and uncanny, yet present. Chinea Inguanzo’s own oeuvre takes the real dizziness and palpably preternatural feelings almost everyone experiences at some point in their lives, and places this experiential unease, an unease that can lead to enlightenment, onto canvas. Deeply informed by the mid-20th Century, his work is infused with the powerful zeitgeist of German Expressionist painting and cinema, some 100 years ago, reminding one of the powerful archetypes that create or structure individual memories of loss and the accompaniment of nostalgia, but also of the possibilities of hope and futurity.

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Frank Chinea Inguanzo’s When no one listened 48 x 60 (US) 2015 / Oil on canvas

Chinea Inguanzo is self-taught, he began painting after finding himself, through mediating a dispute with two mutual friends, managing an art gallery in Miami. This coincided with his painful split from his soulmate, the sort of wrenching, tearing one feels, as though Aristophanes’ definition of love is both physically and psychically correct. The painting above, reveals a deep intimacy with loneliness, abandonment and social dismissal. When no one listened is haunting and angelic; the people below, walking in their business attire, pay no attention to the standing figure, perhaps a woman, above. The reading of gender here could consume an entire PhD thesis, however, in order to be pithy: while the exiting (from where? a garden?) businessmen (people?) are juxtaposed to a silenced feminine figure above, almost everyone in this painting is quite androgynous. A man with long hair could be the person alone, above, not among, the bustling crowd that is moving in time, from a place of life, perhaps the Garden of Eden, to a place of work and hardship, an industrial place, where the colors get thicker, darker and harden. Again, the movements of thought and the graciousness of paint create a meditative and ambiguous scene, demonstrating the manifestations of an adroit, skillful artisan.

“The canvas is also an artist. It is an equal. The canvas plus everything around you informs and creates the work. An artist is the person who does it, but there are many people in a piece. And also there is so much pain. Love is painful, or it can be. Most of my pieces that hurt are the ones that make more impact, and they impact me too. People think that we are a happy, painters. Not true.”

– Frank Chinea Inguanzo

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Frank Chinea Inguanzo’s Somewhere in time / Oil on canvas 5 x 6 (US) / 2017

Leaving a small town in Cuba in 1962, Chinea Inguanzo’s parents took him to Miami. They were “quite liberal.” Growing up in a “very racist environment, remember it was the early 1960s, and Cubans were really newly arriving into Florida.” He recalls, “The drills from the Cold War. I always wondered why did this make us get under the desk and put our hands on our head. So I am in the process of making a triptych 10 X 8 about the Cold War school scenes. This was a traumatic experience for me; teachers yelling ‘get under the desk!,’ and I didn’t even know the language. At the time my parents worked 3 or 4 jobs and I would never see them. I was not a good student. Perhaps it was the environment, yet I didn’t like school. Maybe, in a different context, I would have enjoyed it.” Continuing about his latest triptych and his own personal relationship to painting, “I am not sure where this triptych will take me. It’s like that with all my pieces, I am feeling, not so much thinking, it’s …” He grapples for a metaphor, or rather to place a metaphor he already had into words over the phone, “… It’s as when you make love, you don’t know what’s going to happen. You have to listen to canvas. Be aware of it. Deeply aware of it. Because the canvas is also an artist. It is an equal. The canvas plus everything around you informs and creates the work. An artist is the person who does it, but there are many people in a piece. And also there is so much pain. Love is painful, or it can be. Most of my pieces that hurt are the ones that make more impact, and they impact me too. People think that we are a happy, painters. Not true.” That’s mastering melancholy.

. . .

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