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Discovering the Emotional Expressionism of Efrain Cruz

Written by: Maurice Taplinger

Mujer de Padro Navaja - Oil on Canvas Born in Veracruz Mexico, now living and working in Valdosta, Georgia, Efrain Cruz is a "natural," judging from the work on view in "The Allegory of Form," at Agora Gallery, 530 West 25th Street from February 5 through 26. (Reception: Thursday, February 7, from 6 to 8PM.)

For Cruz’s work, most of which focuses on figures and portraits, whether imaginary or based on specific individuals, is refreshingly unselfconscious, and his take on Expressionism is unabashedly emotional. Although he is a populist who says "I paint of my people," and one may discern the influence of Orozco and other Mexican muralists in his bold shapes and fiery colors, his approach is personal rather than political. Instead of indulging in the theorizing so prevalent among other painters of his generation, Cruz simply states, "I believe that life is beautiful and color possibilities are amazing. I like to use deep purple, sunbeam yellow, and strong shades of blue, green and red to make images active and sensuous."

Yet for all his directness, his oils on canvas display an innate sophistication that comes across most impressively in the fluidity of his forms. In the composition he calls "Juntos," for example, two faces flow together as though a single entity and dissolve at the shoulders into swirling rainbow ribbons that lend the composition a remarkable abstract integrity. Which is to say, while the subjects’ distinctively delineated features suggest specific individuals, the composition as a whole conveys a concern with plastic values that transcends conventional portraiture.

Along with conveying emotion chromatically, through generally intense color choices, Cruz alters his formal stance from picture to picture to capture particulars of personality through formal rather than anecdotal means. In "Maria," for example, a saintly face is enveloped in luminous halo-like auras akin to stained glass or the hues in Rouault’s religious pictures. By contrast, in "Pedro Navaja," a somewhat less spiritual character sporting a slouch hat at a rakish angle is captured in areas of neon-bright color and sharp planes more reminiscent of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner.

Appropriately enough, among Cruz’ most rhythmic compositions is "El Musico," where undulating areas of blue, yellow, and orange hues swirl around the central figure of a musician playing a bass fiddle, while jagged shapes influenced by African sculpture and, in turn, Picasso, dominate the strong portrait head called "Cesar."

Efrain Cruz’ ability to avail himself of all the cultural riches of art history yet transform them for his own purposes reminds one of the late Jean-Michel Basquiat. Cruz, however, is an artist not so smitten with aesthetic heroes as with how his own gift can be applied to celebrating his friends and family, of whom he speaks glowingly, as when he says, "The internal image of my mother gave a great deal of inspiration. . . . She taught me to be strong, wise, and thankful for every day of my life. The many struggles she passed through made her eyes look sad, but her smile stays bright and happy."

Reconciling such contradictions would appear to be the artistic mission of this passionate and altogether engaging young painter.

Image Credits: Mujer de Padro Navaja - Oil on Canvas 60" x 48"

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