Alain Leduc. Couteron Gallery. Paris.
Catálogo exposición “Eris Et Pele” Galería Couteron, París. Octubre 2009.
JOSE MANUEL CIRIA: THE FRATERNAL COMMUNITY OF PAINTERS
Alain (Georges) Leduc
In the history of the Russian novel, the most eloquent examples share a common, circular construction. This is true of Mikhail Lermontov and his A Hero of Our Time, of Gogol and Dead Souls, and of Ivan Bounine, with The Life of Arseniev. Without doubt, the structure of Fete (1960), one of Roger Vailland’s finest novels, stems from the Slavic culture he admired… There are similar loops between epigraph and finality in the work of Claude Simon, where there is a perfect balance between the opening and closing words.
The novel as a metaphor of a Sisyphian act, no less.
In any case, in what is taken to be the founding novel of our modernity, breaking free from the shackles of medieval literature – I am of course referring to Don Quixote, recognized the world over as the first modern novel – the narrative structure is multiple, and the story is punctuated with “diversions”: inserted poems, songs, etc.
If my liminary remarks linger on the novel, literary history and the past, it is because José Manuel Ciria, about whom I have taken on the task, here, of penning a few pages, is both haunted by the latter and one of the few artists I know who cultivate such complicity with literary texts and literature.
The work of this young Spanish-American artist uses juxtaposed series, overlapping sequences which he creates in parallel. Some of them over a period of five or six years, as new ones begin. The last work he started before leaving for New York, his Gilgamesh series, shows his major concerns regarding inscription into grand narratives, illustrating the memorial durability of the essence of painting.
Figurative, abstract: there is no rupture. A philosophy of rupture is one which denies anthropology. Abstract, figurative, concepts which I approach very gingerly. Though there has been so little conviviality between the two, both tell the same story, in nearly identical forms. For the foundations are the same. Jean Hélion (1904-1987), who crossed the line twice; Nicolas de Staël, who never found his way back: both have shown us that.
“¿Abstracto? ¿Figurativo? ¿No son la misma cosa?” asks José Manuel Ciria at one point, in a text called La mirada subjetiva. Una posible defensa de la pintura(1). In the late eighties, his work answered to the broad outlines of a kind of figurative expressionism. Then, imperceptibly, he began an exploration that was fully his own, towards a form of synthetic figuration where, from then on, his paintings feigned similarity with patterns. (But what is resemblance after all? The resemblance between two twins who are said to look alike, or an allusive similarity?) The greatest risk is that of being decorative. Of succumbing to the ease of decorative art.
Ciria analyzes, considers everything. He writes voraciously, theorizes, debating issues with particular art critic friends or teachers of philosophy and the plastic arts. “It is noteworthy that there have been many artists and theorists who were in agreement that the history of art is a history of plagiaries and appropriations, of never-ending advances and retreats, paternities and filiations, all of which, despite appearances, is not negative in the slightest(2)”.
Nobody would dispute that there have been recurrent forms and themes throughout the centuries. Such is the case of the labyrinth, of stripes, of Saint Sebastian. As if the history of art had never existed! Everything is always a quotation. Cinema, photography, both copy painting. Nobody invents anything, we merely remodel old forms. Degas, Bonnard: their works were already cinematographic stills.
Everybody is familiar with Leonardo’s very famous remark: La pittura è cosa mentale. Do I need to say how much I appreciate, in the work of this Spanish painter who has made New York his home, the incredible propensity for exploring, searching, “inquiring” after things(3), while simultaneously mocking the aporia of Marcel Duchamp’s celebrated phrase: “bête comme un peintre” (“dumb as a painter”)? A wonderful judgment – what a subtle self-portrait! – pronounced as if facing a mirror. Duchamp, whom none other than a Spanish painter – and not an insignificant one, Eduardo Arroyo – symbolically assassinated with the help of two accomplices, the Italian Antonio Recalcati and the Frenchman Gilles Aillaud, in a series of paintings dated 1965 entitled Live and Let Die, or, The Tragic End of Marcel Duchamp, by throwing him down the stairs…
“Despite being ingested by the retina and the stomach, painting is a purely mental matter”, wrote José Manuel Ciria in echo of da Vinci. “If we wish a work to contain a conventional idea, an analytical or theoretical intention, a meaning or a simple reflection, all of it must be in the artist’s head before the final execution. These elements can never be found between brushes and colors, between lines and splashes. The “thing” must be programmed or idealized beforehand(4)”.
Devices easily identifiable throughout history, from decorated Magdalenian caves to the present time. Ciria agrees: “Masaccio and Brunelleschi, in 1427, with their Trinity, permanently resolved the problems of representing perspective, but quite apart from the truth or representative exactitude of a realist or abstract scene, of syntagms or speeches, of symbolic elements or ulterior motives and techniques, there is a gigantic universe to be discovered under the “skin” of the painting(5)”.
At the heart of the text I have quoted above(6), he was already asserting: “To speak of painting today is to speak of a problematical family history full of prejudices, arrogance, unresolved disputes, misinterpretations and conflicts.”
In Uccello’s Deluge, the piece of headwear, the mazzocchio, is merely a pretext for shapes, it is obvious… “Uccello was attempting to be realistic. For my part, I never know where the real is. There are so many different levels of reality.”
A painter is a painter is a painter(7); they are links in a chain. The wild boar by Saura, or Fautrier, or Rebeyrolle…(8) It is the often unconscious move towards the meticulous organization of a magnificent dispositio, beyond the unseemly multiplicity of stylistic registers.
Ciria was good friends with Saura; Saura was fascinated by Velázquez…
Here, by way of a new example, is a second vector.
Will our century reap a windfall, the small change of rupture, in which I believe I have said I have little faith? It is not hard to get José Manuel Ciria to admit to his dependence on a broad and age-old inquiry concerning the very purpose of painting: “My own development shows those who follow my work that I belong to that group of artists who, when they are painting, are not interested in the subtleties of trying to offer something which could be described as beautiful, and it is this grace which probably lends the work its beauty. My paintings simply exist. I can also offer something for the eyes to admire from time to time(9)”. Sensuality or Latin morbidezza: perhaps we need to revert to matter, as defined by the German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872), who wrote of the materiality of the this, a materiality of a kind that was already almost phenomenological. If Hegel already engaged in a polemic against the “bad this”, Heidegger would go on to retort: “Must it be? It is.”
Penelope L’amour (written in French: is love, like the French kiss, irremediably French?), Hair Standing on End after the First Kiss, or A Peanut Day, a title stemming from a word game played with his friend the American painter Darrell Nettles(10) (the latter were initially written in Spanish, these are my translations), Ciria also grouped a series of works under the English label The Crazy Paintings – “título un tanto titubeante”, he admitted – no translation necessary… It conjures up Rimbaud’s album zutique, or (unavoidably) Goya’s caprices, or Giambattista Tiepolo’s Scherzi di fantasia… (Allow me a short digression. There was once, in Venice as it happens, at the time of Goldoni and Casanova, a curious custom which was acted out each year under an awning suspended in front of the square of a certain church. At a fixed date art lovers came, amid general applause, to discover new artists. Vox populi, vox Dei? That, by the way, is how Giambattista Tiepolo was discovered.)
“Sometimes the title is decided on beforehand, sometimes it happens during. Afterwards you have to graft it on. If I take my own example, it is like a diary, the diary of my life. I use what comes along to nourish my work. Drawing has a special place. It is a constant reminder of perceptions, of different languages. The idea that there is a void to be filled. I don’t draw in the studio. I might paint on paper in the studio, but I never draw there. I do it when I am traveling. In a sketchbook. A pad. The paper is important. The drawings are hyphens in my work, punctuation. Little tracks in the snow.”
Scales, or the finished piece? Often what is seen as preparatory or peripheral is particularly precious. Too frequently perceived as a lateral activity, drawing slyly upsets the hierarchical order and authoritative arguments. “Some are interesting in themselves, others have no use. Sometimes there is no relationship with what is next to it, sometimes only a formal proximity. A little drawing can potentially explode into the painting. There is no set rule, no simultaneity. It is a necessity. But also a pleasure.”
Nothing can be painted any longer as it has been, already nothing can be painted as it will be. Something has been erased, but a trace remains; something appears in a sketch, but the outlines are not yet clearly perceived. The artist is an archer shooting in the dark, Gustav Mahler assured us.
Experience counts: and so Ciria experiments. Painting would become petrified if substance were not mobile, ductile, transformable by nature. There is nothing which can be uniquely, purely formal. He is suspicious of purity, indeed he dreams (these are his words) “of breathing femininity into masculinity”. Even mathematical language is not pure, as was thought in La Mettrie’s time(11); behind one language, there is always an individually or communally chosen language of presuppositions. It is because the sensory domain is reputed to be incommunicable that it has been rejected by physicians, so that their discipline could become a science; yet simple observation of stills of the often anarchic trajectory of photons and the hirsute figures they sketch in space shows that reality principles come to the assistance of the law, the lex. Hegel may have fantasized the real, but, paradoxically, he transformed it into a new reality. If reality, the real, contradict each other: it is still reality, it is real. And therein, precisely, in this propensity for contradiction, lies the complexity of the real. Now painting is an inheritance, a transmission. The anthropology of the immutable and the mobile. Just as eternity transforms it into itself! And so erratically! Movement within movement. “It does not tell you anything about things you sense, but about your work. Everything comes back to your work. My mother has given me the best advice in the world. ‘Don’t be silly, don’t change.’ ‘Trust in yourself.’ Am I the best?” Painting stages an ontological quest, for which the need is recounted by each episode. This is why it consists, never-endingly, it consists in replaying and adapting an initial process, which is put to the test each time the same variations are remodeled.
Listen to the words of Alberto Giacometti: “I search, but I know discovery will always elude me. Whatever I look at, everything is beyond me and astonishes me. It is too complex. So you have to copy simply to try to account some little way for what you can see. However, the closer you get to the thing, the more it distant it becomes. The distance between the model and me tends to increase endlessly. It is an endless quest(12)”.
The tireless quest of the Knight of the Sad Countenance…
There is nothing gratuitous, then, in the work of José Manuel Ciria. But there are signs which are not founded, either, on an insistent search for meaning, but rather on a saintly ignorance of the very question of a potential lack of meaning. We need to see his works as epitomes of the history of art, as territories where something crystallizes.
This is what he said to me last May about the poet Antonio Machado, whose grave I visit regularly, in Collioure: “When he wants to make us cry, he makes us cry. When he wants to address social issues, he makes us face social issues. His poetry is useful. It takes hold of us. Transports us. It is poetry that carries.”
And he went on: “I try to express my ideas. There are social whys and wherefores. It is impossible to create a work without roots in what is going on around it. There is painting about pain.
‘Do you see blood? It is color!’ We speak the same language.”
Couleur/douleur. Pigment, pain. Douceur: gentleness, too. And also: “I transmit concrete things.”
To be within yourself so strongly that you become the other person. A question of doubling, of otherness.
The great difference between Ciria’s pre-New York and post-New York works are his structures, his drawing of structures and all the spattered projections of paint. There is the undeniable influence of action painting and its progeny: painting on a new scale. History tells us it was the same for Max Ernst or André Masson. Nobody comes through this sort of journey unscathed. New York is the ville debout, the standing city lauded by Paul Morand, and it is there that the Gilgamesh series would take form…
A rather long quote to develop my point, with no further commentary: “In the final Gilgamesh work, the composition aimed to show surrender faced with the inevitability of death. In New York, the representation took on a new meaning. Apart from my recent move, my fears, my solitude, or the fact that I miss my sons, here faces have to struggle to stand upright, to attain a vertical position. This work, several paintings grouped together under the title Máscaras de Rorschach(13) and an unfinished series from the mid-eighties, Automatas, opened a window for me to throw myself into my homage to the post-Suprematic Malevitch and his figures. If you look closely at this little group of paintings, you will notice that apart from the head, the lower third of the compositions already forms the waist and hips onto which the torsos of Malevitch’s bodies are to be placed(14)”.
If we look at it in more depth, further on the Spanish painter admits to having Kazimir Malevitch’s composition as a support, but at the same time, using a different base. “There is no epic aspect and although I started this series as a critique of the return to figuration – similar to the Polish-Russian painter’s refusal, his not wanting to let himself be drawn into the compulsory domain of Socialist Realism – in these pieces there are a lot of components which are legitimately my own. First, the figure is a ghost, a specter, a piece of clothing without a body, as can be seen in the lack of finishing on its left leg, which gives it a floating effect. It is Malevitch in its absence of face, but it is not him in its threatening attitude; the cross made by the arms does not show a crucifixion – even if it seems inevitable that the concept will crop up – but a silhouette with open arms(15)”.
As if something more than the obvious signs were retained, in the sense one might speak of obvious signs of wealth. The outer shell of things. A way of inscribing a place within the fraternal community of painters. But all the while he remains European, in a similar way to the Frenchman from Marseilles, Piotr Klemensiewicz(16), the Romanian Cristian Sida(17) or the Norwegian Kjell Pahr-Iversen,(18) for whom I have to admit to a profound liking, and who cultivate a certain manner of taking root in the pictorial tradition of the “old world”. Ciria knows the bodegones, he has seen the cardoons painted by Juan Sánchez Cotán (1560-1627). He is well aware that the famous urinal signed R. Mutt de Duchamp (him again!) bore on its underside – who would have thought it? – a skull… A vanitas ironically addressed to his successors beyond the grave.
A conversation with José Manuel Ciria is quickly strewn with references to Walter Benjamin, Vassily Kandinsky or Joseph Beuys. Out of the blue he cites Bob Nickas, the camera obscura or the poet Rafael Alberti, whom he was fortunate to know. Hartung, Chillida and his Empty Mountains, Pollock(19). Names appear as if from nowhere in the middle of the conversation. They are those of his fathers, his pères and peers. The Balzac of Frenhofer’s Chef d’œuvre inconnu, the Unknown Masterpiece. The Goya of the Perro hundido – the Buried Dog – in Madrid (Prado).
On Picasso, the response is ambiguous: “A magnificent nineteenth-century painter…!” The remark is not untrue. Americans, even recently arrived ones, have a refreshing outlook. Some artists have made a greater mark than others, like Rauschenberg, whom he considers a great, a very great artist,“a master”. A form must always be perfectible. Never perfect. A perfect form would be closed. An impasse. There is not the rift one might imagine between Europe and the United Sates. There is nothing more to be known, or so it is believed, about that particular dialectic which has historians out in force. There has been abstraction on both sides, and regular exchanges between the two. The works of Henri Matisse, for example, have been seen, absorbed, assimilated by the major post-war American painters, Mark Rothko as well as Ellsworth Kelly. It was the abstract, or bordering on abstract Matisse, who interested them. What can be said, then, as to the content, of a form? A form cannot be neutral. Critical judgment and aesthetic judgment each call on the other. I have never believed in the purported neutrality of forms, in formalism. One form cannot exist without another. One color cannot exist without another. It would be meaningless.
I remember, in the Prado, in Velázquez’s equestrian portraits, the pink paste on the rider’s knees, looking like little cakes or meringues. Bits of paint. The slightly soiled leather of the boots… The painter of The Maids of Honor was interested in details, but above all, in how they combined to form a whole.
Our critics no longer look to the moon; they stare at the finger pointing to it. And so they write, with little wisdom, that painting is dead… Its death has been announced a thousand times. Yet the corpse is indeed alive and wriggling once more. You can feel the pulse beating; its eyes are not glassy… Put a mirror to its lips and its breath will leave a mist, like in Memling’s Virgins… All of which is indicative of that “French malaise” which, here, is the hatred and refusal of painting: the lack of exhibition space here in Paris is a symptomatic sign. Running counter to the spectacular panic in artistic production, the deterioration of information filtered by the media, the blurring of institutional and private landscapes, the devaluation of argumentative and critical discourse, wouldn’t painting have merited vastly increased visibility in Paris and in France? To say so is the prerogative of an outside viewpoint, which looks with ease from afar, as if through a telescope, moving to a distance to ensure greater freedom. Ciria is not just involved in painting, he is viscerally implicated in it through each cerebral lobe and each pore of his skin… Through his actions. His thoughts.
Yes, action, acts, doing: le “faire”. The act of making, fabricating, quite simply.
I would be happy to have been able to praise José Manuel Ciria’s painting as highly as it deserves in these pages – but his painting speaks for itself.
Alain (Georges) Leduc
Writer, art critic and member of AICA (International Association of Art Critics).
1.“Abstract? Figurative? Aren’t they the same thing?” José Manuel Ciria, La mirada subjetiva. Una posible defensa de la pintura. (The Subjective Gaze. A Potential Defense of Painting). In Ciria – Intersticios (Madrid: Ediciones Roberto Ferrer, 1999). Where no reference is given, quotes from the artist are from my interview with Ciria during one of his recent visits to Paris, at Dominique Bény’s, on May 9, 2009.
2.La mirada subjetiva, etc.
3.The double meaning of the French quérir (to look for, or want), associated in both French and Spanish (querido) with love, is no doubt due to the intervention of the word quête, quest. (Translator’s note: in English, the same Latin root gives us inquiry, question, quest and exquisite).
4.José Manuel Ciria, Propósito analítico y líneas de investigación experimental. (Analytic Proposition and Experimental Lines of Investigation). Unpublished text written in New York in 2006.
5.Propósito analítico, etc.
6.La mirada subjetiva, etc.
7.Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose, Gertrude Stein in a 1913 poem. The sentence would later be taken up by Marcel Duchamp.
8.Antonio Saura (1930-1998); Jean Fautrier (1898-1964); Paul Rebeyrolle (1926-2005).
9.José Manuel Ciria, Pozos de luz: un viaje entre pinturas (Light wells: a journey among paintings), partially published in the catalog Ciria, Alasdurasyalasmaduras, Madrid, Annta Gallery, 2009.
10.Born in Richmond (Virginia), in 1948.
11.Julien Offray de La Mettrie (1709-1751), a doctor and Enlightenment philosopher.
12.Alberto Giacometti, interview with André Parinaud published in Arts, 1962 (translated from the French).
14.Pozos de luz, etc, p. …²
15.Pozos de luz, etc, p. …²
16.Born in 1956.
17.Born in 1974.
18.See Alain (Georges) Leduc, Kjell Pahr-Iversen (Paris: Fragments Editions, 2004).
19.Hans Hartung (1904-1989); Eduardo Chillida (1924–2002); Jackson Pollock (1912-1956).