The stuff of Luis Cruz Azaceta's painting is terrifying. The subject is AIDS. The method is through powerful, expressionistic images that vent his emotions and convey a social message. Tough stuff, yet the works in his show, at the Ringling Museum of Art, are easy to view. The paradox comes from Azaceta's philosophy: "I believe that a work of art has to have aesthetics with a strong message." Yet aesthetics never serve to ameliorate or temper the works' strength. Emaciated figures, sometimes screaming, sometimes falling through space, appear in compositions of bright color and artful balance. The viewer is invited to explore and, in doing so, to experience.
"Through these paintings I want to make people aware of these horrible things," he told museum members and docents during a recent walk-through of the show.
He explained at the beginning that he is heterosexual, married and father of a teen-age son. He confronts a universal dilemma, made urgent by the shadow of AIDS: telling the boy enough to make him take heed, without alienating him. So Azaceta paints.
The AIDS series, begun in 1987 and continuing into 1990, was triggered by news of two Hispanic artists in New York who, when they learned they had AIDS, committed suicide by leaping from a window.
He paints big, the better to work out his angst. Every gesture has a meaning. Though most of his images are negative, he uses bright colors for two reasons: to celebrate life and to give the viewer "something nice to look at even though the subject matter is so grim."
He applies paint roughly, not only as an expressionistic device but to convey the idea of a virus, eating away at the fabric. Red and white bars in some paintings could symbolize the flag, or they could mean a barricade.
On a painting of a victim falling (in a suicide plunge), he dribbles streaks of paint to emphasize the downward movement.
Azaceta confronts the many aspects of AIDS beyond the physical: a person dying alone, a crucifix on a mound with the word "LOVE" written again and again, a pattern of chain link fencing for isolation.
In The Hour II, Azaceta repeats clock faces, surrounding a frail, shuddering figure who treads a solid black incline encroaching upon his small space, wiping out the time he has left.
In contrast to Azaceta's expressive images, a teddy bear in The Plague: AIDS Epidemic pops out as slick as if it were in a toy store advertisement. The bear represents hope and love. In other works, he uses the color blue to symbolize hope.
In Babies with AIDS he sets infants of all races against an American flag, which Azaceta calls "the strongest emblem that we have in this country." But the stars are replaced by skulls.
The back gallery contains smaller, quieter works, mostly drawings with acrylic washes. He describes these subjects as "more deadly." He treats them with expanses of negative space "to create a kind of coolness."
One work especially troubles the artist. It is a young boy looking in a black mirror _ his son.
Azaceta represents his message clearly, hoping that the viewer who understands the art also will understand the dignity of victims of AIDS, and the need for compassion.
Azaceta came to New York from Cuba in 1960 at age 18. In the course of his career, he has progressed from cool geometric abstracts through cartoon-like humor to his present expressionistic style.
The AIDS series is just one of several themes he has used to convey his urban anxiety. He has also covered drug addiction, violent crime, homelessness, racism and political oppression. He says he paints "things that affect me personally, experiential things, things that affect all humanity."
Like Goya and others who look to art as a means to reform, Azaceta wishes that "through art I could change the world." It is an altruistic goal. He acknowledges that he could be rich selling paintings of flowers and landscapes, but he would not be true to himself.
But like the blue patches and the teddy bears in his paintings, there are signs of hope. He says, "Thank God museums are buying my works _ and a few gutsy collectors."
The exhibit is the first to be displayed in the renovated West Wing Galleries (formerly the New Wing Galleries) and the first under the new curator of modern art, Ileen Sheppard, who came in contact with Azaceta's work at the Queens Museum in New York in her prior post as director of exhibitions.
The galleries now have concrete floors and plain plaster walls, all in neutral gray. The walls divide the show into three galleries, one behind the other, each one narrowing into an almost claustrophobic space reminiscent of an Egyptian tomb.
While the walls can be moved to give the galleries a different configuration, the cold surfaces will remain.
It's hard to tell whether such a stark environment will work for future shows. But for the Azaceta show, it is a fitting setting.
AT A GLANCE
"Luis Cruz Azaceta: The AIDS Epidemic Series," 27 works through Dec. 16 in the West Wing Galleries of the Ringling Museum of Art, 5401 Bayshore Road, Sarasota (off U.S. 41). Daily, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Thursday until 10 p.m. Admission: $6; children 6-12, $1.75. Free on Saturday. Call 355-5101 (Sarasota).