Ana María Guasch. Bach Quatre Gallery. Barcelona.
Texto catálogo Limbos de Fénix. Galería Bach Quatre Art Contemporani, Barcelona. Octubre 2005.
JOSÉ MANUEL CIRIA YEAR ZERO: the flapping of an effable painting.
Anna Maria Guasch
“I can not avoid my penchant for painting. When you look at Zurbarán or Morandi still life, it is certainly always the same, but different, too. There is a kind of time trip. The painting puts different readings across, depending on the way you are looking at it. Naturally, we may find evidence of a period in a painting, but a good painting has a soul, and that soul changes and is transformed with you. It lives.”
José Manuel Ciria, june 2005
Humans’ works can be understood by looking at the nature of the “self” and its host of circumstances as a relationship that seems to respond to the “butterfly effect”. This effect, despite its poetic name, involves the more technical notion of sensitive dependence in chaos theory. Small variations or errors in the initial conditions of a dynamical system produce large variations in the long term behavior of the system. According to meteorologist Edward Lorenz, who presented the “effect” theory to the New York Academy of Science in 1963, it does not matter how precise the calculations to forecast the weather are, just a butterfly flapping it wings on the other side of the planet can produce drastic long-term variations and invalidate the calculations.
The practical consequence of the butterfly effect is that in chaotic systems where variables change in a complex and erratic way it is impossible to give reliable predictions because the system can be significantly modified by small variations throughout time and space. And if this affects the weather or the stock market, imagine what could happen in the complex and chaotic system of artistic creation. We are going to reverse the “butterfly effect” trying to verify – because to prove it is obviously impossible– that the notable changes which took place in North American artistic practice during the 60s influenced Ciria. That was the period of Ciria’s childhood and the “effect” definition. European and, to a lesser degree, North American semiotics from those years are the strong “flappings of wings” of the arts and critical thought. That produced those variations that shape, after some years, José Manuel Ciria’s small –because individual– creative system.
José Manuel Ciria arrived in this world in the year zero – for many the first one– of a decade, the 60s. In those days, as Lucy R. Lippard has pointed out in her Six Years…, art, until then devoted to the “business of aesthetics,” wanted to dissolve all limits. The limits of the artistic object, the means, and the materials, but also, and that is undoubtedly more important, those of the artistic thinking itself. All artists –all of them, artists and non-artists, if that distinction could still be drawn– were called upon to imagine a new world, a world sung by John Lennon:
Imagine there’s no heaven,
It’s easy if you try,
No hell below us,
Above us only sky,
Imagine all the people
living for today…
Imagine there’s no countries,
It isn’t hard to do,
Nothing to kill or die for,
No religion too,
Imagine all the people
living life in peace…
Imagine no possessions,
I wonder if you can,
No need for greed or hunger,
A brotherhood of man,
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world…
You may say I’m a dreamer,
but I’m not the only one,
I hope some day you’ll join us,
And the world will live as one.
People –dreamers? solitary dreamers?– should imagine a world in which there is heaven without hell below us. A world in which people could live for today. A world without countries, religion, or the need for greed or hunger. A world in which no one kills or dies. A world shared by all the people living life in peace. And artists? –did painters exist at all?– They not only imagined the world, but the art that should reflect it, bearing witness to it, as Ciria would say.
This golden, happy, but at the same time chaotic, period of the 60s (the ravages of the Second World War were far away and only local “exotic” wars –Vietnam above all– cast a shadow over consciences), was the period of counter culture, opposition, and also of women’s liberation and democratic movements. During these years, conceptual art scorned poor, ephemereal and cheap subjects to the benefit of the idea. All in all, it despised the reality whose return Hal Forster announced years later. The idea dreamed again in the objects which were art just because the artist, without further ado, declared them to be aesthetic (Aesthetically Claimed Things). Objects inspired by Duchamp’s ready made. And paradoxically, at first sight and apart from his explicit presence, Duchamp’s influence anchors in Ciria’s creative bay.
Apparently for the first time the idea surpassed the conception of art as a work well done, as an artistic/aesthetic opposition, with the thematic and a background full of significances that one wants –or needs—to give it, but in a proper way. Nevertheless, the point was not only the priority of the idea over a rich and lasting subject, or over an object that should have a salable mansion/museum format, but the fact of being considered an art piece itself. So declared by Sol Lewitt towards the end of the decade in his recognized article “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art” (1969), published in Artforum. Therefore, in the 60s, art shut itself in a dangerous tautological carousel, which tried not only to corner history and its tradition in an abyss of nothingness, but also the relation art/material reality at the bottom of creative memory.
Art –it was practically unthinkable in those days talk about painting or sculpture– was being formed as a metalanguage, in which validity did not depend on some empirical verification, or on something that had not been involved in or came from the outside of the creative process itself or, in any case, its creator. That is what, to a large extent, worries Ciria years later, as he highlights in his Cuaderno de notas (1990), “Artistic creation is always subjected to the creator’s potential and resources –states the painter–. Therefore, intention should be as important as the result.” Everything that was “volitional” or intentional became “valid,” when it fell down like a house of cards, shaken by the slight puff of formalism. A philosophy upheld and spread, until then, by the official critics of the system who governed the new metropolis of art, New York: C. Greenberg and R. Rosenbeerg.
It was like that: we assert it . But it was also different. The decade of the 60s, in which Ciria perceives reality although he does not think about it in artistic terms, bears witness to a confrontation of artistic methods and conceptions. These conceptions, being involved in the debate idea/idea’s materialization, cause a creative tension that explodes in those years and continues today. Its intense and erratic shock wave is prolonged well into the last third of the 20th century and still undermines, without going dumb, today’s interstices of art and painting– and here we can talk about painting quite naturally–.
Moreover, the development of this shock wave generates, according to our opinion, the visual nature of Ciria’s pieces. Pieces in which cognition expresses itself in a constant dialogue. That does not necessarily mean reaching a consensus with the “inner self,” that is, with the self’s purest definition, a consensus between to be and to have, or a consensus with that which makes one really unique and contributes to one’s self-assertion, regardless of what one thinks he is or how good he is. It is not only gesture or expression that oppose “reason’s regulatory intention” (Ciria) and nature which define Ciria’s work. What really defines it is a balanced horizon of values, seeking for the deep values of modelling and being.
The opposition between post-painterly abstraction and the painterly styles of action painting, or abstract expressionism, generated this wave. Both trends, undoubtedly, were North American but they came about at very different moments of the North American, even international, situation. As Irving Sandler pointed out in The Triumph of American Painting. A History of Abstract Expressionism (1970) –the second volume of his trilogy on North American art of the long postwar period– artists, mainly painters, who created the basis of abstract expressionsm, began their artistic career in the 30s. It was a chaotic moment due to social, political and economic difficulties, not only in North America (the Great Depression), but also in Europe (Hitler’s rise to power, Spanish Civil War, etc.).
At first, art, evidence for and agent of that period, went into the practice of a social realism which turned out to be rather convincing. That was because the artistic image of the 20th century, the same as in the course of previous centuries, played an important propagandist role, and even, let’s say, an advertising role for regimes, policies and ideologies. However, as image, art has not been an effective means of social or politic denunciation –it would be different if we talked about action instead of image. In this regard, to analyze May ’68 or today’s micropolitics would be enough– All of this plus the arrival in the United States of important participants of the European avantgarde (abstract, constructivist or surrealist artists) who turned New York into a city swarming with artists greedy for modernity, and the end of the Second World War, determined the gestation of an “American style” painting. An identity and ghetto painting, like R. Motherwell stated. Nevertheless,) even though paradoxically –paradoxically in inverted commas because the intervention of the North American intelligence services was decisive– it was spread over Western countries, even the isolated Spain, as pedigree or as change, renewal, or progressivism of high quality. According to Motherwell himself (The School of New York catalogue, 1951), the result was a painting that had no prejudices, a kind of painting/adventure for “intelligent, sensitive and passionate people”, a fortuitous painting, the result of the clash between the painter and the canvas, in front of which the artist should give himself up to the painting in order to find himself. Now—and we quote one of Ciria’s ideas in his Cuaderno de Notas, related to his own abstract-realistic painting— that explains how the significant aspect of that painting “could be found outside the realm of iconocity, because normally it will be dissociated from an external allusion (an existing object),” and that demands “a non allusive reading, which provides other types of interpretive associations.”
Burts or the explosions of abstract expressionism blew up “good painting” principles, both the “good painting” of the 19th century tradition and the avantgarde: cubism above all, but also Dali’s surrealism and metasurrealism. The same Dalí who fascinated Ciria when he was young, but who, now, is respected by Ciria only for his literary work. According to Adolph Gottlieb’s statement in The New Decade (1955), these burts broke and settled the foundations of a way of painting which was free to represent visually valid things and the quality of feelings. A kind of painting in which subjective images did not need be the result of rational association, although painting was a “rational, objective and deliberately disciplined” act.
This stance, like the first –in opposition to the deep– pictorial reality of Ciria’s work, culminates into action, an action that could be considered “bubbly.” Towards 1960 appeared dissenting voices against this “bubbly” stance of North American abstract expressionism. Those voices committed themselves to “art identity” in order to confront the identitarian stage of a political nature that came with expressionism. This aim would be also shared by minimalists and conceptualists –mainly when it was related to ” the artist’s identity”. The result was a form of painting (post-painterly) of cold and rational sensibility, a painting lacking, at least, in relationships, illusions and gestures. A kind of painting that is explicit in Ciria’s pieces if we read them from their material or visually superficial part towards the deep one until finding the physical limit of their support. Spontaneity, ambiguity and an expressionist, subjectivist and existentialist complexity gave then way to geometric order, systematization and clarity. In other terms, they gave way to a purist, formalistic and exclusively visual art based on symmetry and modular repetition that could not be found in a system of illusion. The pieces which resulted from this post-painterly trend had a repetitive structure that seems to come from the stretcher itself. These pieces, due to their format and modular structure, represented just themselves.
In 1990, Ciria reflected on these and similar matters, noting down in his Cuaderno, “The repetition of constituent elements, subjected to different formulations and hierarchical changes, will offer numerous readings and therefore the alteration of significances.” And after quoting concepts like “theme,” “sign,” “word,” “colour,” “technique,” and “object,” he wonders, “Will we tend, thus, to approach the formulation of a visual semiotics?” This reflection —then expressed, but now his objective— involved “observing how changes of distinctive/significant units are used in plastic experimentation, so that we could class plastic components in order to establish relationships and differences within each stage of the experimentation.” Here we have a purpose which is clearly related to semiotic analysis. These concepts, semiotic analysis and semiotics, are difficult to define, and that is why they can be considered concepts with no precise definition within the scientific field and are subjected to large and intense debates.
Although the origins of semiotics date back to classical times, to be precise to Hippocrates’ and Galen’s attempts to understand the relation between body and mind, especially their attempts to relate symptoms to illnesses, that is to relate signifier to signified and the British philosopher John Locke introduced the term “semiotics” in its current sense in the middle of the Baroque period. However, the truth is that the systematic and programmatic study of signs was established between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century by the contributions of the American Charles S. Pierce and the Swiss Ferdinand de Saussure. Nevertheless, it was not institutionalized until the decade of the 60s –the decade of Ciria’s year zero, we should remember– together with the artistic processes that we have analyzed before and thanks to thinkers like Roland Barthes and Umberto Eco and their different, but equally fundamental, essays: Éléments de sémiologie (1964) and Opera aperta (1962), respectively.
First and in order to summarize, it can be accepted that semiotics deals with signs, sign systems, sign events, and linguistic and communication processes. That is, language is understood as a faculty of communicating and, at the same time, as the practice of this faculty. So it is possible to talk not only about the semiotics of language, but also about a semiotics that takes an interest in other sign systems (Umberto Eco mentions up to twenty-one areas of semiotic research in his Trattato di semiotica generale, 1975). Among them are sign systems like social phenomena, law and power relations, devices used to communicate situations or feelings (signpostings in urban thoroughfares and roads, heraldry, body and sign language, language for the deaf, etc.), signs of space variations (landscape, gardens, architecture, sculpture, etc), taste codes, medical codes, object systems and, of course, visual phenomena, which can be described as art: photography, cinema, television, video and…painting.
When talk about a visual semiotics and even of a semiotics for “artistic” objects, we always bear in mind that the main and primary object of the Significance and Communication Theory is verbal language. Thus, according to Roland Barthes in his Éléments de sémiologie (1964), speaking and thinking are the priority of semiotic research, and, therefore, semiotics, is derived and adapted from linguistics and represents its extension. Meanwhile, the other languages that we have mentioned in the preceding paragraph –including those not mentioned so far– should be considered as semiotic devices, peripheral and impure, devices mixed with perception and stimulus-response processes. Ciria refers to these stimulus-response processes in his Cuaderno de Notas, when he considers that an art work presents formal aspects that cause in the observer a series of simple responses, directly related to plastic stimuli. Responses like “complacency, interest, pleasure, rejection or embarrassment.” On the other hand, Ciria thinks that these responses entail some difficulty when trying to reach the level of meaning, because significance means for the artist, “the appreciation of the stimuli by means of intention and experimentation.”
If it is accepted that verbal language is the only one that could comply with the purposes of total “effability”, that is, the only one that is able to express properly what one wants to express. Thus all human experience and all content which could be expressed with semiotic devices could be translated into verbal terms. This assertion brings us, immediately, to a worrying and highly relevant question: Art, painting, could they be translated into verbal terms? Obviously, “translation” should not be associated with “description.” According to Roland Recht, in his introduction to Le texte de l’ouvre d’art (1998), description is one of the most specific means of art history. It legitimizes the discipline itself, when neither art philosophy, nor aesthetics grant description with a visualization function –not translation– of the work of art.
In any case, answering this question entails a new one: Why has verbal language a recognized effability? The answer is neither easy, nor universally accepted. However, without any risk of suggesting wrong digressions, we could hypothesize that verbal language effability comes from its complete capacity to articulate and combine. That capacity derives from the use of discreet and very uniform units which are easy to be learnt and which can be exposed to a small number of free variations.That is why sign systems like art which do not use —apparently— these discreet uniform units cannot be translated into one or more verbal units, unless by using vague approximations. The great question of art lies here: human beings are able to feel, to grasp art, but they are not able to express this grasp with words and much less, consequently, to translate art.
We can even say that the translation of art through a verbal system —or its attempt—would or could reach the level of a “lie”. This was brought up by Eco in his Trattato, in a generic and a little bit ironic way, although not in the sense that the translation work of art/verbal language is not a lie, but that the lie is nothing but the semiotic system itself: “A sign is anything that can substitute, significantly, another thing —Eco said— That other thing does not need to exist or to be somewhere the moment the sign replaces it. So semiotics is, in principle, a discipline that studies everything that can be used to lie. If something can be used to tell a lie, it cannot be used, inversely, to tell the truth: in fact, it cannot be used to tell nothing. I think we should consider the definition of a lie theory as the global problem of general semiotics.”
At this moment we cannot raise the question of semiotics as “a lie,” but relating to Ciria, we need to go back to the reasons of non verbal art translation and, to be more precise, to the —supposed— lack in art of “discreet and uniform units”. This was one of Ciria’s main theorical and practical worries. In 1990, in his Cuaderno, the painter thinks about the need of creating “a reading system or table” which does not have, necessarily, to be perceptible for the observer as such, but by the artist in the plastic creation process. This “units system” would enable the de-construction (that is the deconstruction, defined by the French Jacques Derrida and the North American Paul de Man, we add) of the work and its construction —we might say translation, in accordance with the aforesaid— by the observer.
However, in this regard we must bear in mind that Derrida’s and also Paul de Man’s de-construction does not try to be “a creation system”, not even in the sense of creating a new reading theory (in this case, of western philosophy) but a critical system. The purpose of that system would be to undermine the logic of the dominant reading theory, a logic that was wrong when favouring certain values, arguments and ideas over others with its hypotheses, preferences and repressions. Although Derrida’s deconstruction is not a “creation system”, it can still be considered as a creative practice device of critical character that takes as its point of reference the creative practice itself, or even reality. Moreover, as in several disciplines of a humanistic nature, it can be also considered a device that questions classical arguments and oppositions, such as the relations between primary and secondary sources, between cause and effect, or between text and context. Or, as Derrida clearly and simply says in his “Mythologie blanche” essay (in Poétique, 5, 1971), deconstruction, which is always questioning ideologies, dogmatisms and hierarchies, must, primarily, allow “to think again” all the possibilities and articulations of philosophy and literature (of art, in our case).
In this process of re-thinking art, painting, Ciria is absorbed, especially in the definition of the “discreet and uniform units,” basic structures that he calls “Alpha alignments”. As he points out in his conversation with Juan Estefa Freire last June, for Ciria these alpha structures can be perceived “all along the history of painting, from the Renaissance and Baroque periods to contemporary abstractions and illustrations, without forgetting Romanticism, Cubism, Suprematism, Constructivism and North American abstract Expressionism.” Ciria would like to see a computer programme capable of reading painting, a computer programme that could “undress” the painting from those lines and gravitational points that constitute the structure of the composition […] We would then realize that many compositions which are apparently different have a common soul and structure, and that is because those fundamental lines and points totally coincide, or are very similar.
In this respect, Ciria has nothing to do with McLuhan’s definition of Narciso in The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962). Obviously, he is not that anorexic and postmodern young man who is in love with himself. Neither is he the artist who is so fascinated by images that he annihilates all his senses except sight only to fall, benumbed, into the water on which he is reflected. Nevertheless, Ciria’s work has something to do with McLuhan’s reflection about cinema and, especially, with the consideration of this world as a result from what he calls fordism, that is, the industrial form of capitalism based on the segmentation and assembly of different parts that make up an organic whole. The work of art becomes, then, the final product of an accummulated joint work. It becomes a tremendous machine producing schizophrenia or division between idea and materialization, between thinking and action, between the subjective and the objective world.