You meet the Spanish artist Alexandro Santana and you think, cripes, can he be for real? So handsome, so flamboyant, so seductive, so amusing -- you’re not sure whether it’s intentional or inadvertent. And then you discover he is the son of a notorious Dominican admiral, that the tyrannical dictator Trujillo was best man at his parents’ wedding, that his mother was a fabled high-society beauty, that he grew up on battleships and estancias before going, inevitably, to Brown.
Even more surprisingly, Santana stayed in Providence for graduate studies at the Rhode Island School of Design, where he received his degree in architecture, soon plying his trade in Manhattan and his adopted city of Savannah, where he eventually set up his own firm. Astonishingly, in this era of CAD, he draws every detail entirely by hand.
Considering his tweeds, his bow ties, his drawl and debonair dress, it is perhaps not surprising to learn that Santana’s architectural taste is strongly neo-classical, inspired by the vernacular Palladianism of antebellum Georgia, with of course a touch of the Postmodern.
Santana’s detailed and decorous architectural plans for his clients are complemented by drawings created for solely for himself -- exotic imaginary cityscapes and urban fantasias, like the dreams of Sir John Soane channeled through Aldo Rossi or John Hejduk. One’s appreciation of these drawings is enriched in turn by Santana’s pencil portraits of friends and lovers, personal sketches of disarming intimacy.
Santana’s line has a languid, fluid eroticism to it which perfectly suits his subjects; he touches them all with a graphite whisper coaxing them to appear.
But the surprise within the Santana oeuvre is his series of large-scale abstractions, outrageously bright and scandalously juicy paintings that were recently on view at the Besharat Gallery in Atlanta. The setting was indeed a fine and dramatic one, the scale and grandeur of its spaces, with walls of pure local granite, hardly better suited to a display of riotous color and anarchic vigor.
Some of Santana’s works bear hints of fragmentary imagery, from guns and weapons to genitals and guts, as if indexing a sublime violence matched by the savagery of his palette and his brushwork. In the 48 x 60 in. oil Haecceitia, for instance, formless blotches of rose and pale blue sprout a black line drawing of a foot in a high heel, or a series of louche paint marks that might well be lipstick kisses.
Clearly, more is going on here than idle expressionism. His exhibition title lends a clue: "Haecceitia: Homage à Michel Foucault." Plumbing the catalogue essay, it becomes clear that Santana is seeking not decorative effect or personal expression, but rather is making a stab at painterly semiotics, an open-ended mode of signification ("haecceity" can be translated as "thisness") that the artist claims "takes on a pictorial platform" in his work.
Whether or not Santana’s paintings rise to this philosophically mystical level, they certainly have an artistic flamboyance and wit that is as eccentrically remarkable as the artist himself. And that should be enough for anyone’s first major solo exhibition.
Alexandro Santana, "Haecceitia", Nov. 19 - Mar. 1, 2010, at Besharat Gallery, 175 Peters Street SW, Atlanta, Ga. 30313
ADRIAN DANNATT is a New York-based critic and writer.