Carlos Delgado. AMoA. Amarillo. Texas.
Texto catálogo “Rorschach Heads”. Amarillo Museum of Art (AMoA). Amarillo, Texas Mayo 2011.
The exhibition “CIRIA. RORSCHACH HEADS” brings together a selection of paintings from the artist José Manuel Ciria over the last two years. This period of time coincides with the creation of his Rorschach Heads III series which is part of his North American cycle, beginning in 2005 when he moved from Madrid to New York.
The “Automatic Deconstructive Abstraction (ADA)” theoretical model created by the artist in the 90s, which is highly formalized and organized into five conceptual fields, has been the prevailing interpretive framework used by critics for addressing Ciria’s abstract work. The quantitative enrichment of the pictorial variables unfolding in Ciria’s production since late 2005 converges with the ADA concept in several significant ways. On one hand, is the importance of varying degrees of figuration in the image, which is directly tied to the structural position of drawing, Secondly, the possibilities of color are multiplied at the same time as its function as a representative register is questioned.
It should be pointed out that this iconic and chromatic invasion has a counterpoised binary logic. The hieratic bodies of the Post-Suprematist (Post-Supremática) series (2005-2006) led to the free, evasive, mutant and formally differentiated forms of the La Guardia Place series (2006-2008). In contrast to achieving meaning like an open rift, the work that came afterwards tended towards the linear condensation of the recurring purified and straightforward oval design in the Schandenmaske series (2008). Perhaps as a purely semantic response to the mask-module, in these later pieces the artist broadened his chromatic range, accelerated his flowing rhythm over the support and sought to heighten color through dissonant contrasts. Fractured iconography and intense chromophilia, two codes that were incompatible in previous projects, only reconcile themselves in the painter’s following series where the experimental modular root gives way to an iconographic freedom that does not fit any authoritarian order. I am referring to the Doodles (2009) series in which Ciria invents a new kind of figure similar to the idea of children’s stickmen, which he had already partially developed in the Appelian Diversions (Divertimentos Appeleanos) of 2006, and that are an energetic mix of the Cobra temperature with the naiveté of Miró materialized into stridently colored petrified feeling rag dolls with frizzy hair and distended features.
Over the last two years, Ciria has pursued two different conceptual and formal projects in parallel. On one hand, there are the paintings that make up the Abstract Memory (Memoria abstracta) series that illustrate the new levels the artist achieves in his examination of the potential links between gesture and structure. In contrast to the broken staining of Masks of the gaze (Máscaras de la mirada), where the resistance between water and acid eroded the morphology, Ciria is now using flat stains of color that engage in a violent dialogue with the black. The syntax this produces possesses a frenzied internal energy that seems to be struggling to free itself from the strict geometric compartmentalization that structures its rhythm over the surface.
In parallel to this wholly abstract series, the artist explores a highly unique figurative concept through the series that is the focus of the present exhibition: Rorschach Heads III. In his most recent series, Ciria has opted for painting that is wholly figurative apparently free from any abstraction that would hinder a referential reading, yet which is by no means naturalistic. The most recent series consists of larger-than-life faces that become battlefields with counterpoints of light and chromatic distortions; highly charged close-ups that draw the viewer into a raw dialogue with the viewer. They are, nevertheless, still portraits with no conceptual divisions or formal exploration other than what comes out of the desire to make painting a compelling visual event. This bold aesthetic strategy -distanced from the aloofness of some of his riskier more conceptual work- allows us to connect with the one who looks in a direct way through the use of our senses.
In New York, Ciria coalesced into an artist who makes constantly changing direction the pattern that spurs his evolution, which becomes a rejuvenating anxiety that is heightened by the interruption of each (now only temporary) return to his studio in Madrid. An intermittence foreshadowing the disappearance of a unique discourse whose result is that the stories diversify and tentatively order themselves. How then can one go about the task of clarifying a career that is so evocative, yet so full of ambiguity? The present exhibition suggests a response with two complementary methodological tools. On one hand, the mask is taken as a principle of discursive subjection and unification. And on the other hand, the artist’s (physical and mental) nomadic nature is taken as a generating principle for development.
The Artist as Nomad
Ciria’s mature abstract work has accounted for some of the most outstanding moments in Spanish painting in recent decades. In New York, his paintings play a key role in the significant shift towards a new position based on his interest in drawing and away from relying on mainly gestural expressionism. He has not, however, abandoned his theoretical investigations into the understanding of form as a language and the central role of time and memory as the thematic understructure of his production. The most recent developments in his work, sustained by an invariable inventive continuity and capable of surprisingly coherent moves in radically divergent directions have certainly been quite complex. It is this constant movement that leads us to characterize Ciria as a “nomadic” artist, in both the physical and mental sense.
In a physical sense because Ciria is an enthusiastic traveler and a great assimilator and integrator of contrasts and cultures. In consonance with the unstoppable process of contemporary globalization, Ciria has perceived with incontrovertible lucidity that apprehended territories are not foreign places, but rather the spaces of his own privacy, the realm of his freedom and creativity. Ciria has worked systematically on his paintings as if they were a unique cartography expressing the creative incidences of the time he has spent in different places around the world (Paris, Rome, Tel Aviv, Moscow, and now New York).
Ciria, however, is just as we suggested, also an artist who is a nomad within his own poetics. The materials he uses, in addition to the ones marked by the passage of time (the re-used supports), oscillate between ones traditionally used in the visual arts (paint, paper, canvas…) and experimental derivations that have consistently turned out to be quite serendipitous discoveries (e.g. plastic tarpaulin, polyvinyl, insulation panels). It is one way of expanding the geography of pictorial Art that sustains his break from rigid formal stability and is exemplified by the ongoing succession of series or families that make up his New York cycle.
The (formal) geography of the head
Monumental yet intimate, the series Rorschach Heads III is a significant point of inflection in Ciria’s career. In the context of the referential iconography from Ciria’s New York period, the figure had been used as a stimulus for free interpretation that, even in the most figurative work, was oriented towards defining the essential features of the shape of an icon that had undergone various degrees of metamorphosis. After morphological appearance had disintegrated, and, along with it, the notion of the specific subject and its being in the world –in the words of Merleau-Ponty–, the figure lost the anchor of its identity. In paintings like Strange woman (Mujer extraña), Bather, New bather with round forms, Contortionist I (Bañista, Nueva bañista de formas redondeadas, Contorsionista I) or, Contortionist II (Contorsionista II), which are all part of the La Guardia Place series, the artist emphasized the metamorphosis that produced the almost total loss of recognizability and the superimposition of the versatile forms on top of the static ones alongside a complex tension in the ambiguity of meaning. Clearly, Ciria’s explorations into the genre of figure/portrait painting were resolved through what Rosa Martínez-Artero has called –between interrogative signs– new constructions of the subject: “a feeling deeply rooted in contingency and fragility (the not-defined), in opposition to the security given by naming (the hierarchizing structure of the “one”), that produces a subject – “I”, which is difficult to describe pictorially”(1). This difficulty emerged in the pseudo-figures of La Guardia Place because they were bodies interpenetrated by multiplicity, by dismemberment.
In Rorschach Heads III, the difficulty does not lie in seeing the portrait. The wide margins of iconicity between which figuration in contemporary painting is defined make it possible to continue talking about this genre even when the concept of likeness has been debunked. Line, volume and light, or handling color using a scale of tones and varying saturation, are not applied in order to imitate a specific subject, but rather to say something new about the artist’s identity as a painter. The subject of the portrait, when it is real, does not own their own image and they can scarcely find a cartography for orienting themselves along the path of their identity. The subject, however, is also a mask whose identity has been projected beyond its own morphology to integrate a new self, mediated by painting. In a sense, representing someone else’s body implicitly articulates the artist’s attitude towards his own body, and ultimately all his work becomes, in one way or another, a self portrait.
The (emotional) Geography of the head
In a personal conversation, Ciria acknowledged two recent events from his personal life that could have sparked his new series. First, his father’s fatal brain tumor and, secondly, his trip to Easter Island and encountering the Moai and the primitiveness of the Rapa Nui culture. Symbolically these two events present the idea of the face/head as the synecdoche of a totality (the head as an emblem for a suffering human self, and the head as an icon of a lost civilization, respectively). But, culture, creation and Art, on the contrary, are what make it possible for some part of a person to become immortal, to leave their mark on history. A person lives and dies and is merely a speck of dust in the totality of what it is to be human. Culture, creation and Art, on the contrary, are what make it possible for some part of a person to become immortal, to leave their mark on history. The former is objectified, a face linked to a name, while the latter is a social face, a symbol, that is not or does not mean to be anyone’s head.
Over the last two years, Ciria has made a number of tributes to his father using the symbol of the mask pierced by a gestural stain. In those tributes, the head is an active site that presents the imbalance produced by forging identity and its association with the idea of death. As José Miguel G. Cortés has said, “a society based in the hegemony of rationalization and the confrontation between the contradictions found in human beings is a society that leads us to the conclusion that we have a body, without ever understanding that we are a body.” By accepting the second affirmation we can situate the body in a place where it will no longer be a border to get beyond but part of the symbolic whole where life and death are not conceived of as antagonistic elements, but as complementary parts of a totality that shapes our existence.
Conversely, Ciria has worked systematically on his paintings as if they were a unique cartography expressing the creative incidences of the time he has spent in different places around the world (Paris, Rome, Monfragüe, Tel Aviv, Moscow and New York). His “nomadic” nature has always been tied to his commitment to locating, and it should not be surprising that his trip to Easter Island has led to a significant exploration in his painting.
There is a theory that the Moai were carved by the Polynesians to represent deceased ancestors. For Ciria, however, that idea is overshadowed by his interest in the monumental conception, imposing frontality and synthetic expressiveness of those sculptures. Ciria is connecting in this way with the recurring interest throughout modernity in so-called primitive culture, which is considered to be the culture produced by ancient peoples that predated the ones who marked the beginning of Western civilization. It cannot be denied that in Ciria’s interest in the Moai there is a desire for escape, to get away from the complex visual density of the current culture for the masses by seeking refuge in a symbol of the primitive. Nevertheless, what for the artistic pioneers of the 20th century was a pure discovery that helped liberate them from the traditional canon, represents for Ciria just one more reference to digest, analyze, translate and incorporate into his work.
Being a face, a represented image, before anything else, means no longer being other things. The ambiguity Ciria presents between going back to the figure and its persistent anti-naturalistic transformation, which he carries out within the framework of the formal problems of representation, indicates a proclivity to constantly transgress or even negate the physical and psychological affirmations of the genre. Like stage makeup, structured in bursts, the colors usurp the verisimilitude of the skin of the figures that make up Rorschach Heads III. It may be precisely the eye-catching tonal distortion, the absence of any specific setting and the static frontal position of the figures that constitute the only ways to ensure the permanence of the “I” in times of ephemeral occurrences and frantically-paced transformations.
Ultimately, Rorschach Heads III, must be seen as a series supported by extremes. Firstly, there are the chromatic combinations, whose violent combinations are risky and dissonant. Secondly, there are formal extremes that drive him to impetuously vary the descriptiveness of some faces, (for example, Crossed out liar or Grunda), alongside paintings where the caricatured deformation shifts the picture into the terrain of the grotesque (like his imposing Self-portrait). In particular, however, Rorschach Heads III is a series that thrusts us from the Now into its extreme temporal opposite: the beginning. The human figure was one of the essential elements of Ciria’s early work and in paintings like Tormented (Atormentado) from 1987, Waiting (La espera) (1988), Swimmer (Nadador) from 1989, or Face (Rostro) from 1989, the structure of the composition is already derived solely from the face, color has lost its figurative quality, the physical deformations are an index of expressiveness and any measurable spatial reference has disappeared. Perhaps unconsciously, Ciria has constructed a part of his New York work through cyclically revisiting his previous series, which we already saw in Post-Suprematist and Automatons (Autómatas), La Guardia Place and Men, hands, organic forms and signs (Hombres, manos, formas orgánicas y signos) or with Masks of the gaze (Mascaras de la mirada) and Abstract Memory. With Rorschach Heads III, a circular cycle whose only outlet is a seepage that breaks through its edges, things seems to have come to a close. And, because of Ciria’s seriousness about constantly rethinking his painting and its elements, we can be sure that his work in the near future will be as distinctive and intriguing as that which preceded it.
1.MARTÍNEZ-ARTERO, Rosa. El retrato. Del sujeto en el retrato. Montesinos, Barcelona, 2004, p.261.