Julio Larraz’s paintings have often been compared to works by Edward Hopper, and perhaps for good reason. His expansive color palette and ability to render rural and urban scenes with great detail are in keeping with Hopper’s oeuvre. Many of the subjects of Larraz’s paintings seem plausible at first glance—a wedding cake topped with bride and groom, a beach house seen at nighttime, and a boat passing through a port. But after looking more closely at the works, viewers will find surreal details creeping in—clouds that float alongside layers of cake, a moon so large it overshadows an entire house, and a figure so disproportionate in scale that its calf is the size of a freight ship.
Larraz’s first solo exhibition in London, “Rules of Engagement,” features a mix of paintings that combine real and fantastical imagery, set ablaze to a rich color palette. Larraz’s work is often contextualized within traditions of American and Latin American art due to his background—he is Cuban, Caribbean, and is a political exile in the US. Larraz is skilled at subtlety, though, and his works are too complex to be reduced to aspects of his identity.
While some of the works’ titles reference classic literature or create allegories anew, in most cases Larraz leaves the specifics of people and place in the abstract. Case in point: The House of an American Poet (2012), wherein a gleaming moon, stilted house, and anonymous figure create a striking trifecta of subjects. The impossibly large moon radiates white light onto the house’s overhang, the water’s surface, and the edge of cumulus clouds—creating a mood that feels surreal. Larraz chooses not to articulate the figure’s identity, and instead draws the viewer’s focus to a path of sticks lining the foreground; each stick is placed within poetic distance of the next, with enough room for dramatically dark shadow lines. This attention to detail shows that it is not for lack of skill that Larraz leaves aspects of his work—individual identities and geographic places—as vague quantities.
In works like La Fragoletta and the King of Diamonds off the Coast of Cumae (2011) and Dictum (2013), odd angles and an exaggerated scale hint at Larraz’s prior work as a political cartoonist. In Head of Secret Police (2011) three black microphones jut out towards a figure whose identity is once again left mysterious. His face is made up only of blocks of color that feel pixelated. Besides a background map of Central America and the Caribbean, hints of a geopolitical reality, the specific police figure’s head is not clarified. Perhaps Larraz put forth this image as a critical statement about political censorship and state-enabled violence. Alternatively, he may have intended it as an expression of white collar boredom and postmodern malaise. This is precisely where Larraz’s works find their strength—in the space between real and imagined realms, specific and unspecific realities, where vaguities in the paint lend the viewer a range of available interpretations.
“Rules of Engagement” is on view at Contini Art UK, London, Oct. 3–Nov. 24, 2014.