Carlos Delgado. Foundation Carlos de Amberes. Madrid. II
(Continuation of ‘Carlos Delgado. Fundacion Carlos de Amberes. Madrid. I’)
After the context that drove the creation of these paintings had been analyzed, Ciria set about on a rigorous analytic study that would not result in the direct appropriation or repetition of what he had seen. This artist is an innovator who asserts the possibility of dismantling the legacy of heroic modernism in order to select from it the elements that are valuable to him. The artist does not lurk in the shadows rather he seeks direct confrontation as the starting point for his laboratory-like work. His figures no longer belong to the concrete world, and his exploration of the marginal territories between figuration and abstraction occurs without the personal dramatism of that particular phase of Malevich’s work. The painter discarded all of those conditioning factors before setting forth on the deconstruction of the internal structure of Malevich’s imagery, in order to find the origin of his own forms.
On one hand, Ciria took up a certain kind of composition in which any reference to the horizon was reduced to its essence in order to emphasize the human figure by bringing it to the foreground. But, on the other hand, the same figure was distanced from the neatness of Malevich’s neutral fields of color to elevate the interiority of the form using “some shapes that look like flames, like little porous or corrupt, igneous or sulphurous triangles”(46). Both ideas were accompanied by the renewed presence of line, framing and limiting actions and recording the idea. Visual comprehension was then determined by a way of referring to reality that had been rejected up to now in Ciria’s mature work (47).
But in that kind of recovery of form, insofar as human, we recognize a formal ellipsis, already present in much of Malevich’s second peasant series, that becomes evident through the lack of clearly defined features and morphology of the figures. In this way, line merely indicates the contour of a recognizable iconic type, but in Ciria’s work the interior disintegrates into compartmentalization, modulated once again by line and complex chromatic textures. Form and color construct the image through a contrasting compositional structure that, in this way, aims to stabilize the image in serene equilibrium. The extreme frontality of the figure, one of the aspects that would be repeated throughout the Malevich series, proposes the definition of a new iconic model and it keeps alive the avenues of experimentation opened up by Malevich in this same vein(48).
The progressive elimination of chromatic sensuality from these figures (red being substituted by grayish tones), and the occasional amputation of some of the automaton’s anatomical parts increased the elliptical tension between absence and presence, figurative dissolution and progressively self-referential compositions. The relativization of the codes that determine the traditional opposition between both concepts is not a new theme in the artist’s work, but his interest in it solidified in his New York period by emphasizing the indelible qualities of such seemingly discordant terms.
But, on the other hand, the visual rhetoric embodied in this new series was not articulated in a way entirely specific to this time period. The artist himself has expressed surprise at discovering a circular temporality inscribed in the “Post-Suprematist” (“Post-Supremática”) series(49). Its formal similarity with his “Automatons” (“Autómatas”) series, completed between 1984 and 1985 is undeniably noticeable. In that work Ciria closed in the textural fields that were the result of the “resist technique” with a decisive line that defined an ossified anthropomorphic structure. Combinatorics generated an infinite number of solutions through the repetition of finite elements, and in this case the resolution he has come to has brought him into a past that tells more about the present, estranged from linear time and false distances, memory searches in the interstices of forgetting to put into motion a new point of departure.
The projection of the body would determine the creation of unexpected parameters. After his initial discoveries, the artist established a new dynamic from which three families would emerge: Figurative paintings alongside totally abstract pieces and simultaneously compositions that could not be clearly put into either category. Once his insistence on the Malevichean figures had been clarified, Ciria moved his work into a space with full iconographic liberty that would be grouped under the generic title that makes reference to the location of his studio in Manhattan; “La Guardia Place”.
Beyond putting any piece into a particular family, the work from this new period maintained a common thread indicative of the artist’s work in New York. He imposed a greater level of control over the chromatic stain, which reduced its corrosive nuances but widened its possibilities of suggestion, while line came to define spaces that never break into adjacent areas. Except on certain occasions “Saturn’s flight” (“El vuelo de Saturno”) and “Inam’s Dream” (“El sueño de Inam”), contour acquired a cleanness that revealed the structure of an expanded form on a subtly compartmentalized ground with predominately light tones and slightly altered by light textures. The systems of controlled chance gave predominance to composition, understood as the totality of conscious and controlled aesthetic decisions. Concrete form was now singled out as being of primary importance.
Conversely, the close confines established between abstraction and figuration in this new series once more expressed the echo of the passage of time and memory during its production. For those of us who have followed the artist’s work for years, it is not difficult to find an association between this New York series and “Man, hands, Organic forms and Signs” (“Hombres, manos, formas orgánicas y signos”), done in Madrid from 1989-1990, during the time before the consolidation of his abstract painting. Many of the questions raised by its four-fold title, ending with “sign” as the nexus in the transition towards non-representative painting, were at this point considered once again by Ciria. On one hand, there was the analogous disintegration of form into non-referentiality through enumerating themes. What had been at one time four themes were now reduced to three more general categories; figuration, abstraction and abstract/figuration. Conversely, if at this time the artist resorted to rather primary units of compartmentalization (for example, rectangular shapes) that were maintained throughout several pieces (with notable variations, in line and color as well as color and motif…), he was also developing a similar serialization through the iconic sign.
We are taking two paintings as the starting point of our analysis of the implications of the series “Contortionist 1” (“Contorsionista 1”) and “Contortionist 2” (“Contorsionista 2”), almost the positive and negative sides of the same aesthetic idea. The duplication of a compositional and formal system implied the variation of all of the elements that were encompassed by them, which is to say color, light, shadow and ground. Committed to pictorial hypothesizing on, principally, the constructive centrality of line and its protean nature, free from iconography, the artist now opted for compositional repetition of both components in order to play with the valences of the elements that give order, in traditional painting, to the three-dimensional projection of form. If through visual astuteness we manage to eliminate those aspects of each piece, we can clearly observe that the linear meshing that defines the exteriority of the contortionist rises up as the only stable motif shared by both pieces.
Nevertheless, the plurality of nuances that we have just eliminated from the game was not merely an accessory and neither was it marginal in the development of this new image. He had radicalized, therefore, his investigation of form, and all that happened would consequently be in relation to it. From there the repetition of certain motifs was the point of departure for stabilizing diversified images that at the same time shared a transversal conceptual hypothesizing. It would be a consideration that was also evident in other pairs of pieces from the series such as “Abracadabra” and “Birthday Present” (“Regalo de cumpleaños”) or “Saturn’s Flight” (“El vuelo de Saturno”) and “Inam’s Dream” (“El sueño de Inam”)..
Due to its nature, the iconic sign, petrified or slightly modified, incorporates a creative progression that goes well beyond merely superficial alterations. As the sign was immanent in the production of this work, the variable components whose placement was determined by combinatoric analysis transformed the sign (without modifying its external form) into a multiplicity always open to new developments during the process, where the slightest shift in its components would provoke tangential modifications.
Similar to what already happened with the “Automatons” (“Autómatas”) and the “Post-Suprematist” (“Post-Supremática”) series, many years of work and research have passed between the theoretical and practical hypotheses now set forth in “Men, Hands, Organic Forms, Signs” (“Hombres, manos, formas orgánicas y signos”) and “La Guardia Place”, both being united by a bow tensed over the recovery of line. This suggestive circular discourse, where a mark made early on reaches its maximum depth as the artist re-worked it, must not obfuscate the radical newness of his latest ideas. There is a long intermediate period in his work during which, through the painter’s highly demanding system, the possibilities of the five components of his conceptual foundation were selectively explored. From this point of view, the personal reasons for this apparent return to formulas that he had already outlined during the beginning of his career must be related to his wish to close an important cycle of his production and open a new line of experimentation directed towards the future. But, within such a finely woven career we must also understand it as a turning point made possible by the previous sequence. At once lock and knocker. Or nexus between two the vertices creating the tension in which he would find his strength.
In fact, “La Guardia Place” can be considered the strongest work Ciria produced in New York. It is fascinating to follow, painting by painting, the progressive coldness of the coordinates of his expressiveness and the rough and unfinished character of his compositions. They are authentic cartographies in which consistently disturbing linear routes are plotted, organic metamorphoses whose features settle in a void where no shadows are cast and where the mark of time remains hidden. The interiority of form-matter is superimposed against this cold background, full of nuance and with its bodily unity engulfed by multiple compartmentalizations, like liquids boiling in different containers placed side by side.
Pieces like “Man with Wrenched Heart” (“Hombre con corazón estrujado”), “Adolescent Figure” (“Figura adolescente”) or “Patch-Head” (“Cabeza-parches”) maintained the formal ellipsis of an identifiable iconic sign that was already present in the “Post-Suprematist” (“Post-Supremática”) series. But now, these figures defined their interiority with more flexible structures at the same time as they were the culmination of a progressive determination to purify color. Form denied its own properties in order to obey rules that proposed a new identity, a different level of perceptive definition. In this sense, this work was within a figurative category that it simultaneously seemed to want to escape from. And if the titles seemed to support a narrative meaning, the strategy of ellipsis and interior compartmentalization carried the burden of delivering the disintegrating blow to meaning. In this way, the artist transformed the body into a substance between life and death, ossified and breathless, a mere sign that in the terrain of representation is perceived as disjointed.
In a piece like “Hands” (“Manos”) the artist’s handling of visual elements had a more strongly referential character in which selection and enlargement, strategies typical of Pop Art, were taken up again by Ciria with a different character and intention and resolution which determined the monumentality of the crossed hands. The coincidence found with one of the thematic cycles of “Men, Hands, Organic Forms and Signs” (“Hombres, manos, formas orgánicas y signos”) does not seem accidental, in line with what was mentioned above regarding the parallel nature of both series. As the hands are not the object of analysis neither are they, perhaps, a synecdoche of the “creative” figure (the artist’s himself?), that Ciria projected upon his structure using a single light source that delineated the lights and shadows and at the same time defined the empty space sheltered by both. We understand the spatial logic, the recession through depth generated by the fingers, their volume, and it all seems on the verge of taking shape into a fully referential reality. Nonetheless, the painting only allows us to get that far, as the interior of the organic mass had once again been contaminated by the porous fluidity of the pigments, becoming compartmentalized in the areas delimiting what we had previously associated with light and shadow. The skillful and on occasion uncomfortable dialogue the artists established between the desire for direct representation and its constant disruption prevents us from getting close to the ambiguous character of the meaning of this series.
It is a kind of ambiguity that is accentuated in those pieces which, despite the descriptive nature of their titles, demonstrate that they had already been defined by such a referential stylization that it makes it impossible to find recognizable forms in them. In addition to the aforementioned “Contortionist 1” (“Contorsionista 1”) and “Contortionist 2” (“Contorsionista 2”), a piece like “Bather” (“Bañista”) (2006) illustrates the tension between “almost being” and “not being” quite well. In particular, this last piece makes the fragility of those associations evident. Discovering the position of the sign-form that vertically crosses the composition, elucidating its physicality is a possibility that is excluded from play. Transformed into an organic gear, the bather of the title ends up being construed as the symbolic understructure of referentiality(50). The individual has gone from being one species to being another, metamorphosed in the other’s skin without anybody knowing its present or past identity, recomposed as a transformed and inapprehensible being.
This body, lost in the practice of its physical dimension, would culminate its figurative distancing in a piece that acted as a hinge between the work already commented on and other pieces where the moorings of any concrete reference have disappeared. I am referring to “Abstract Figures” (“Figuras abstractas”), a painting whose defining form is a central shape of undulating forms lacking any warmth or sensuality. In this piece, the iconic sign has made way for the formalized sign and reconstruction has become construction. Now, form, color and texture are organized in a way far from being a referential signifying complement. While the “contour that surrounds the bodies has burst and only the organs remain, free, creating their own geometric combinations”(51). A rupture of that type implies a breaking apart of form (as in “Abracadabra” and “Birthday Present” “Regalo de cumpleaños”) or a linear continuity where every stain acts as the origin of the next one (“Penélope l’amour”).
The reading we have proposed up to now sets out a narrative thread that goes from the abstraction José Manuel Ciria developed in the nineties to his unexpected turn to figuration after his arrival in New York to end up with a progressive return to a form of abstraction dominated by line. Nonetheless, his period in New York did not comprise that trajectory in its entirety, as the three sections that make up the series overlap in time.
In the early months of 2007, the artist constructed the second part of “La Guardia Place” through the “Winter Paintings” suite, which now included a disturbing bluish tint that made the strangeness of his use of color even more marked. Once again, he took to modulating his work through figurative, abstract-figurative and abstract sections in which he explored new modes of questioning their own definitions.
Pausing the process of understanding seems to be the strategy chosen by Ciria in a piece like “Reconstructed Vision” (“Visión reconstruida”). The title itself makes a specific reference that, at any rate, does not make itself clear. As a result, the semantic contextualization of the motif remains uncertain, deferred. What is the purpose of the distance imposed between the visual text and ourselves? Thus, far from being able to establish links oriented towards any identification, the reconstructed vision the painting refers to establishes the impossibility of a word-object association. We cannot define that presence that centers the composition, except by using strictly formal language, making reference to its color, texture or the way it is drawn. This seems to be the only path open to us, the only possibility to activate the word, conscious that human experience is linguistically structured. Nevertheless, we intuit that several specific meanings are escaping us, the one from before as much as the one that comes after the metamorphosis of the form, thus, if vision is reconstructed it must have had a different appearance before. Then we fall into the trap. As Mercedes Replinger has pointed out, “perhaps sometimes we are looking wrongly, we want to recognize a compact body, without cracks, when what we’re given is an interior. There are completely figurative forms, but not ones we’re used to seeing, what we’re given are stone viscera. Artaud thought of a body without organs, perhaps it’s time to think about organs without a body”(52).
Quite close to this organic formal concept one finds a “Games of Seduction” (“Juego de seducción”), “Embrace of Curves” (“Abrazo de curvas”), “Between two ideas” (“Entre dos ideas”), “I Think It Hurts” (“Creo que me duele”) or “Forms of the Threat” (“Formas de amenaza”). All of the above comprise a formal universe that is self regulating and distributes itself through the combinanatoric and shows a continuous reflexive transition determined by the modular rhythms of form and the compartmentalization of the ground.
A piece like “Game Room” (“Habitación de juegos”) also enters into this universe, but regardless of its accent on the referential-thematic inventio, produces a split in the visual poetic. The iconographic tradition of the domestic interior remains latent in the work even if its tense equidistance with abstraction is not weakened, we will make note of the overt mention of a certain narrative. The interpretive filter of the title and the iconographic connection that we can establish between form, the human figure, the ground and the spatial context displaces our gaze as it moves towards any identification. Even the modular geometry that compartmentalizes the upper part of the composition is seamlessly included into the symbolic mediation. But there is no last word on what the symbol means, as this artist always introduces an ambivalence that activates thought and reflection. In this way Ciria makes a claim for painting’s capacity for establishing a line of logical questioning.
This is what happens with, “Figure Phosphene” (“Fosfeno de figura”), a highly original work within the general development of “La Guardia Place”, in which the artist proposes a limit to the bodily state, through its own existence. We see a human figure that does not have organs, body, skin or blood. As in the phosphene, there is no real light that justifies its presence. It betrays itself as an absence that has oozed out of the darkness. Its substance is an accident, an optical illusion that the artist tried to stabilize. The mixture of temperatures brings us closer to one of the determining characteristics of Ciria’s recent work, the rawness and strangeness of his painting.
Currently, Ciria is, in his own words, making “rare” paintings (understood as raw or unfinished)(53) that, without passing into eclecticism, avoid any sense of definitiveness. Now any such possibility has been filtered through an inconclusiveness that bestows new freshness and impulsiveness on the work in which, apparently, anything can happen. The artist’s capacity for reflection is what opens the way for the potential not making that directly collides with the unity of utopian modernist discourses to establish a new approach in which the concern for form disintegrates. On analyzing José Manuel Ciria’s current painting, we can contemplate an abandonment of the insistence on formal nuance (the insistence on which that artist locates within the latitudes of European painting) to make a turn towards a less stabilized approach, suggested by rawness, which he considers linked to the North American painterly experiences with a gestural spirit.
On the other hand, the artist is the creative instance, and the viewer is the receptive instance who actively participates in the meaning, re-adjusting and enriching the reading of the visual text. In “La Guardia Place” José Manuel Ciria incorporates, as if to subdue, his continuous doubts about the symbolic sustenance of the work that alters the comfort of such re-adjustment. We have already appreciated the figurative works that destabilize the clarity of the narrated, as well as his abstract work imbued with a figurative inclination that is not brought to bear, and also those other pieces where the terms are diluted into an unstable iconography. In any case, the ambiguity of semantic value contributes to the appearance that the work is not conveniently finished, so the terms in the opposition seem to appear in equal density. Because of this they neutralize each other, erase their differences and that which escapes the opposition is what must be construed as its condition of possibility.
But, there are other factors that come to determine the pertinence of the adjective, “rare”. In “The Tradition of the New”, Harold Rosenberg indicated that at a certain moment the canvas became, for American painters, a space to leave their own mark, “…an arena in which to act, as opposed to a space in which to reproduce, re-invent, analyze or express a real or imagined object. …what was to go down on the canvas was not a picture but an event”(54) Ciria’s current work vacillates between the image and the event, one existing for the other’s sake, stimulated by the other. This divergent meeting point is generated by Ciria’s interest in forcing the mechanisms of painterly practice, now stemming from a strange conjunction of traditional European Avant-Garde and the late formalism of North American abstract painting. Rusty tools our artist bricoleur puts into practice with new results.
Raw, unfinished, painting in which the rhetoric of the visual text always maintains the desire for a different emphasis. In myth, Levi-Strauss says, emphasis is “the visible shadow of a logical structure that is kept hidden”(55). The “rare painting” of Ciria incorporates this flexibility, making understood more than what is apparently expressed, as a potential palimpsest that has yet to be re-written.
These characteristics continued to be accentuated when the artist took up his third line of research, or suite, within the series generically called “La Guardia Place.” A new section now emerged from the crossing of his New York period work with the use of supports that had previously been used to cover the studio floor while he was making other pieces.
The integration of these “eloquent unintentional incidents”(56) that do not just incorporate the memory of the support but also the memory of the artist’s career, who had already painted between 1995 and 1996, “The Perverse Garden I” (“El jardín perverso I”) and later in 2003, “The Perverse Garden II” (“El jardín perverso II”) suites which were part of the “Masks of the Gaze” (“Máscaras de la mirada”) series, were based on this same idea. Chance as an aleatory mechanism freely approaching the surface then becomes the point of departure for pieces in which the painting process re-invents the first accidental stains. The tarpaulin, stepped on and stained, echoing artistic activity was recycled and valued for its expressive immediacy but also, in particular, because it exemplified the concept of chance which did, at the same time, contain a memory closely linked to the artist himself.
Once again, for Ciria, the powerful unpredictability of rhythms, frequencies and flows, masses and colors, are the reflection of an urge deemed worthy of further investigation. The visual information casually placed on the canvas in its rough state is susceptible to being relocated as an “order generating” strategy that gives formal coherence to the work. In fact, in the beginning all those aleatory stains were disoriented, strange and had only ambiguous relations between themselves, before becoming complicit with the visual arrangement made by the artist. In the intersection that the artist found between “La Guardia Place” and “The Perverse Garden” (“El Jardín Perverso”) he unerringly united two extreme cases of chance and control. The operativity of this syntax was the result of a demanding subtlety that managed to find previously inexistent links between accidents woven by the powerful iconography integrated into this perverse garden.
As we have already been able to establish, Ciria’s art is the result of a continuous purification of the possibilities of each area of research. A constantly renewed form of painting that, in its latest explorations, has led him to investigate the use of polyvinyl paint on insulation panels. In his laboratory/studio the metallic appearance of this support has become a space which seems to repel and accept the material at the same time in a world of reflections where light continually leaves visible but intangible traces. Ciria continues to explore multiple approaches to making and perceiving images, examining the contingencies of representation and submitting the results to inventive and unexpected manipulations. His new work with polyvinyl paint on insulation panels shifts between opacity and reflectivity. It is a world of never-ending exchanges, slippery and stable at the same time, where the matrix of meaning is never completely isolated. It is now tempting to associate the figure of Ciria with the alchemist, due to his capacity for creating work that seems to be in a continuous process of transformation, trembling in space, a mutation in art of the most unsuspected materials.
As we have been able to see, Ciria’s art is the result of a continuous refinement of every last area open to investigation. Constantly reinventing his work, his latest explorations have led him to investigate the use of cork-chlorine on sheets of thermal insulation. The metallic look of this medium is transformed through a process carried out in the studio-lab into a creation which seems to sustain and expel the material at the same time, a world of reflections where light continuously incorporates both visible and intangible touches. Ciria continues to explore multiple ways of making and creating images, examining the contingencies of representation, and subjecting the results to unexpected and inventive treatments. These new creations fall somewhere between opaqueness and shine, a labile world of constant exchange where meanings are never fully isolated. It is now tempting to compare the artist to an alchemist, in his ability to create pieces that seem to be fully immersed in a process of transformation, shaking in space, with the most unlikely materials mutating into Art.
But perhaps the most surprising aspect of this last suite is that it shows us a new twist on the imaginative paradigms of time and memory, whose essential role in the artist’s work we have already pointed out. This material medium, sheets of thermal insulation, is as unstable as the image reflected on it, and possesses a surface which tends to tear, revealing a newly evanescent consciousness in Ciria and his relationship to time. He presents a scheme in opposition to permanence, an interest which had shaped the painter’s technical explorations from the start of his career, and which established him as a brilliant experimenter, operating effectively on multiple levels, employing a variety of pictorial formats and materials. But now it is the very flow of unfolding circumstances which surprises and moves him: the possibility of integrating temporal transitions on material, the recognition that the slightest pressure in this new media, an accidental scratch, an excessive temperature or a level of tension that is off, can damage the painting, with no chance to mend it. It’s a brief and fleeting instant teetering on the slippery terrain of the possible, and it’s vital to capture it given the uncertainty of the time remaining.
Then why not just avoid this medium, this format? What sense does it make to fashion this kind of ghostly creation? More unsettling still than these questions, and perhaps the answers to them, is the fact that an artist so interested in the material permanence of his pieces should now adopt a temporal tendency which defies the eternal and embraces the fluctuant. Let’s ask ourselves again then: is this, perhaps, an expression of postmodern cynicism, a trope for banality? No, and neither is it an audacious experimental game, like that which he played in his “Mnemosyne” (1994) series, in which chemical processes actually destroyed the artist’s pieces completely. We are now witness to a new attitude at odds with the idealization of the finished work, reverting positively to the “preformative”, crude and strange nature of his painting. This projection of the invisible to the fringes of the unknown suggests, at the same time, a branching out into multiple possible outcomes, something which, on the other hand, all human productions (all phenomena are susceptible to transformation, modification and destruction) are subject. But upon questioning right from the origin of the creative process the principles of subjection to the permanent, Ciria evades a fixed identity for his pictorial work, as the latter finds itself from its very genesis bound to a tentative outcome.
The essence of the outcome is, for Deleuze, the union of two meanings: “that of the future and that of the past, of evening and the following day, of more and less, of the excessive and the insufficient, of the active and the passive, of cause and effect”(57). That which is captured is diluted under the prism of the event, which seems to imply a temporal development inherent to the work itself. But unlike the performance, the action or the happening, where the privilege of process grants relevance to the experience of the event as opposed to the material presence of the work, Ciria’s new suite does not seek resolution in the strict present. We thus encounter the possibility of future modification rather than any measurable time scheme in progress. But to what extent is it pertinent to talk about what still has not happened? The inclusion of this perspective is fruitless – we might argue – in the field of perception, which is, in rough terms, the link between the subject and the object. Nevertheless, the precariousness of the material brings with it uncertainty with respect to the work’s perspectives for alteration and expiration. In addition, due to its formal resolution, as already analyzed in these pages, the work generates a sensation of unfinished rawness. In this way, perception is always contingent upon the renunciation of any totality. In other words, the utopia of time promoted by the vanguard is excluded. We are dealing with a vision which now reveals something which it seemed to be denying: the time of perception is no longer singular, restricted to one instant, but rather opens up to a new regime of possibilities, which is internally temporized (the painting is also susceptible to expanding from the inside).
As the reader will have been able to note, we continue to present an affirmation of change before it comes about. A hypothesis which is, to say it once and for all, an excuse for a conceptual thinking which seeks to replace a single order of representation with an approach which was until now latent in Ciria’s recent production: in contrast to the immobile staticity of a viewer used to visually dominating a world framed and objectified in plastic media, the artist proposes a vision which unfreezes the unique and opens up new relationships, a vision which raises questions about the temporal challenges inherent to plastic imagery. Ciria finds himself in a place of crisis, standing at formal and conceptual limits as he seeks to overcome the challenges of time and material through a medium which vibrates with the vital register of the encounter. Our gaze invites the paralyzing Medusa,(58) irremediably traversing the way of the mutable and the perishable due to the experience of its fragility. It was Freud who reflected on this last aspect, pointing out that the value of the fleeting carries with it a value of uniqueness in time and that “the limited possibilities of enjoying it make it more precious,” then immediately noting that “the value of all that is beautiful and perfect resides only in its importance for our perception; it is not necessary that it survive and, consequently, is not dependent on survival in time”(59). In order to appreciate the great value we assign to our concrete experience, irrespective of its singular, non-universal and unrepeatable nature, perhaps it would be appropriate to remember the words of the android “Roy” in the final scene of Blade Runner who, before his imminent disconnection, declares: “I have seen things that you would not believe…all those moments will be lost in time, like tears in the rain…”
As compositions, these paintings are subject to their own contradiction, to the other painting which they haven´t yet become. Damage to the material modifies the painter’s action as the image’s sole creator. Incisions, breakage, perforations, the marks which time leaves behind, were some of the tools used by Tápies to emulate the passage of time. Ciria uses plates of thermal insulation, inverting this strategy: where Tapiés used these resources with an evocative rather than a compositional technique,(60) Ciria employs the tension between natural accident and plastic conception as the inception and motive for a new approach. In other words, if a tear unintended by the artist destabilizes the work’s compositional logic, and given the impossibility of its correction on the original material, it shall then be necessary to project a new mark which reorganizes the structure’s stability. But this option only seems to make sense if the work remains accessible to the artist in the moment of the accident. Otherwise, it would be necessary for him to go to wherever the work is located in order to carry out a kind of perverted surgery, one which seeks beauty through the creation of a scar which matches another previous one. A kind of impossible “work in progress” employing an aesthetic of degradation taken to the extreme, with the multiplication of damage and the total destruction of the plastic image, plenitude through annihilation.
“There are days when I’d like to harass the passers-by, shaking a big knife at them. (How could one manage the same effect through painting?)”(61) reflected Ciria himself a few years ago. In this last series he seems to have found a strategy to achieve a traumatic perplexity, defining the painting as the first to scream out. When we try to define the moment in which this consciousness of a profound crisis is produced in the viewer, we are seduced by the idea that it is not just that confused looks pause before the painting. On the contrary, they are provoked before this perverse and problematic, and thus dangerous, object. It’s a way of summoning – and not the last, as we will later have occasion to analyze – Dr. Zaius, that judge lurking behind our aesthetic judgment, before the subversion of the normal, the expected and, thus, the acceptable when it comes to a work.
“Law is not sin, but I didn´t know what sin was until I found out about the law”(62).
In 1984, Pat Steir (New Jersey, 1940), showed the project Breughel Series (A Vanitas of Style), composed of 64 paintings, each one of which referenced a pictorial style from the Renaissance to the eighties. All together they made up an image of a flower pot that had been painted by Jan Brueghel in 1599. Through this typically appropriationist practice Pat Steir attacked modernity from two very specific angles. On one hand, she attempted to break with the idea of history as a linear progression, and on the other, with the notion of dedication to one style. But in addition, she turned the parts into pieces of a big puzzle where, ultimately, everything was subordinated to what could be defined as a traditional artistic genre, the straightforward floral still-life.
From the impossibility in art of the absoluteness of representation, Franz Ackermann (Neumarkt, Germany, 1963) has been making, since the beginning of the nineties, and using classical techniques (watercolor, drawing, painting and mural painting) landscapes or, more specifically “mental maps” where he does not seek a specific cartography, but rather a totality of heterogenous entities that are brought together into a fragmented structure. This kind of activity, where abstraction and figuration establish a complex dialogue energized by the use of psychedelic color attaining a complex level of synthesis between the real and the mental though their approach to the urban environment.
The artistic couple made up of Markus Muntean (Graz, Austria, 1962) and Adi Rosenblum (Haifa, Israel, 1962), make work with images of adolescents using traditional techniques and employing a proliferation of classical compositional devices and perspective, even making use of iconographic types derived from religious imagery.
When, in the year 2000 the Tate Modern was opened in London, Lars Nittve, the space’s first director, made the controversial decision to exhibit the museum’s collection in non-chronological order, opting to divide it into four large groups by the academic genres of History Painting, Landscape, Still-life and Figure (nude). Recently reorganized with four new axes, that first installation represented, nonetheless, not only a new concept of the museum, but made evident how the genres had survived throughout the twentieth century.
The genres of art, well established since the 16th century and associated with the tradition of art and with systems of illusionistic representation, have been one of the kernels of that tradition to which contemporary artists have consistently shown irreverence. Once the hierarchization of reality has been done away with, alongside the antiquated categorizations, the persistence of these iconographic motifs in contemporary painting must be presented using a different analytical model. The restitution of thematic modalities linked to the figure, the landscape, the still-life or history-painting in the contemporary work of art, do not propose a path for the heroic survival of genres, but rather it opens up a new field of research where the pertinence of these iconographies oscilates, generally, between ironic revisionism (Muntean/Rosenblum), iconographic cross breeding (Franz Ackermann) and/or alteration of their formal regularities (Pat Steir).
The history of contemporary painting can be written, in part, through reference to surmounting the codes of perspective, the properties of easel painting and the conventions of genres. As noted by Geoffrey H. Hartman, in contemporary Art “when the rules or norms come into play, they are complementary. They are only there in order to be broken”(63). For that same reason, if the genres have played a significant role in the transmission of authority, of rules, they have also played a role in the creation of conflict and insubordination.
When they are used as tools for organizing an image of the world, choosing the motifs judged to be most adequate and determining how they should be represented, genres propose a kind of simulacrum of the world. Contemporary painting tries to overcome those restrictions, located in tight and sometimes difficult to avoid spaces. For example, the relation ships established by genres between motifs and formal modalities. In this way, Chuck Close’s paintings are portraits and at the same time they change the rules created by the genre, as much through the quantity of topographic and descriptive information as by their gigantic format (64) In fact, the artist himself has explained that the size of his paintings also acts as a device to make the viewer see the painting in a way beyond just taking into account its iconographic subject matter(65).
In the fragmented and malleable space of contemporary painting, with its daunting range of visions, the category of Art, as it comes into the present, loses its traditional definition. It gets muddled by a completely new artistic, social and perceptive context that clouds the anthropocentric vision that attempted to answer the questions, who, where and with what. Artists have managed to discredit genres as formal or hierarchical conditioners to the extent that they have become almost unrecognizable. Their boundaries have been broken, changed, their classical rhetoric has been destroyed, but they have not been completely erased, as their mark remains latent. “In our world, when one refers to genre, it is always done as a challenge to its boundaries, and thus also a challenge in all the ways the genre was historically accepted, and so, no longer is anything the thing itself, nor by itself, but precisely in its “fluidity”, it is something in permanent change, it is never “genre” but rather “trans-genre”, or the constant transgression of any genre”(66).
Whatever the current situation of painting might exactly be, (this is not the place to explain it in all its ramifications), it is true that the loss of orthodoxy as much as the mixture and heterogeneity of its recoveries put us on a new horizon that Calzo Serraller designates with the prefix “trans” and that we, for reasons explained further, will designate by using “post” in our approach to the work of José Manuel Ciria.
Contemporary criticism has time and again made use of definitions typified by these two prefixes. Relative to the particle “post”, which indicates the end of something and the resulting appearance of the new that emerges from that end. The prefix “trans” implies” transformation, dynamism, going through something by different means, that which “traverses”, that does not lie idle, and therefore implies the notion of transcendence.”(67)
In José Manuel Ciria’s case, and in line with his recent research regarding the basic tensional structures of the artwork (68) many of the formal characteristics that define the genre do in fact have value. The placement of elements, composition, or the way these things raise questions for the viewer make up an instinctive reevaluation of the genres, consistently raised since the beginning of the artist’s career.
In this way, Ciria’s attitude regarding the figure, the landscape, and the still-life is not an attempt at transforming them in order to reach a later state. Rather, he strives to maintain their connectedness to the visual nature of various pictorial traditions that have already been concluded in order to pick apart their inner workings. On one hand these workings constitute their intellectual mechanism, and on the other hand, they reveal the modes of interiorization and reception that have been created for the spectator.
Ciria’s use of cultural memory as a mechanism for his work conveys a dense landscape. As would happen in his Malevichian figures, it is not simply an appropriationist strategy but a creative act that takes on and expands the underlying poetry of a route that has already been started. But including the presence of semantic elements with a referential proximity to the figure, the landscape or the still-life are not undertaken from a mimetic relationship. The iconographic subject matter gets thicker, it becomes opaque, disconnected from any kind of systematic rationalism… its articulation seems to be only half finished.
Once the subject of its own accidents has been freed, as we have seen throughout the “La Guardia Place” series, the title will often dictate recognition. In other cases, the persistence of a particular compositional device will create tension in identifying forms. Figure, landscape and still life persist in José Manuel Ciria’s painting, but with a different function which has been determined by present time and active memory, they have become post-genres.
The aspects of José Manuel Ciria’s work that approach still-life seem to displace the possible symbolic precepts of the genre (69) and, likewise, he suppresses the devices used to describe form and space. There only remains, therefore, the structure of the genre, reduced to a map of relationships between devices with no intention of mimetic equivalence. In the piece “Table of elements” (“Tabla de elementos”), José Manuel Ciria retains the normative essence of the still-life, that is, the carefully considered placement of objects on a table (70). In 1954, Rudolf Arnheim had already indicated that; “In the great works of Art, the deepest meaning is expressed in a powerfully direct way by the perceptual characteristics of the compositional system”(71). And even if Arnheim’s position presents notable limitations when it comes to explaining the work of Art (72) for an artist the static relationships between objects placed on a table offer a rich point of departure, “when what’s relevant is the trial, the test or the study”(73). Which is made evident by the early Avant-Garde’s interest in the still-life, which was at that time truly a laboratory for formalist experimentation.
In “Table of elements” (“Tabla de Elementos”), the placement of the various formal signs is distributed across two spaces or supports. The larger one incorporates a black structure, as if the shadow that characterized the background of numerous baroque still-lives had had its borders solidified. Smaller in size, the lower compartmentalizing level barely appears capable of supporting the three signs that appear, or float, on its surface, as they project themselves outside of the space delimited by the support. Which was a device that was, on the other hand, recurrent in the still-life tradition as a strategy to create a sense of trompe l’oeil.
The existence of two levels of pictorial devices, along with the presence of objects that extend out into space, are devices that we can observe in, for example, “The Ambassadors” (1533) by Hans Holbein the younger. The work has gone down in the History of Painting, in addition to its indisputable quality, for the latent mystery of the anamorphosis in the center of the scene.
During one of his seminars, Jaques Lacan put the attendants to a simple test to introduce them to his concept of the gaze. He gave them a reproduction of The Ambassadors which they were to look at very carefully and, after a few minutes of lecturing on geometric perspective, he asked them “What is that strange, hanging, oblique object that is at the center of the painting, in front of the people? (…)They have no way of knowing, they divert their gaze, thus missing the fascination of the painting”(74).
The fame that that painting by Holbein has achieved means that today there are not many people who do not know that the strange distorted form spread out on the floor, framed by the two portraits, is an exceptional anamorphosis of a skull that only recovers its correct position when seen looking from the edge of the painting. “We shall see, then”, Lacan said, “it (the gaze) delineate itself following, not the phallic symbol, the anamorphic specter, but the gaze itself, in its libidinal aspect, splendorous and unfurled, as in this painting. This painting is simply, what all paintings are, a trap to catch the gaze. In any painting, it suffices to find the gaze anywhere, precisely to see it disappear.(75)
We will have to return later to this observation of Lacan’s, which anticipates a gaze that does not come from the subject but from the object itself. For the time being let us consider the piece “Table of elements” (“Tabla de elementos”), from the negation of the same devices present in the anamorphosis in Holbein’s work, the negation of geometric optics, logical placement in space and apparent mimetic referentiality, to reveal that our artist has extended the fascinating mystery of the skull to the entirety of his composition. In “The Ambassadors” the viewer must move in order to reach the proper point of view and resultant meaning of the work. Ciria also proposes a movement, but not a physical one, as the artist does not intend a simple anamorphosis. It is now no longer a question of restoring form but of restoring our perception, increasing its intensity and, along with it, our search for what the artist is, in reality, offering us.
The relationships José Manuel Ciria has established with the figure and the portrait are more complex and dynamic. The irony of the title “Twenty years to go back to painting a female nude” (“Veinte años para volver a pintar un desnudo femenino”) also hides a truth, which is that that is exactly the length of time that has passed since the artist painted his last female nudes, dating from 1986 and 1987, and which are endowed with a strong neo-expressionist flair that characterized his style in those years.