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Celia Montolío. Crossroads of memory.

Celia Montolío. Crossroads of memory. Las Formas del Silencio.

Libro monográfico “Las Formas del Silencio. Antología crítica (los años noventa). Enero 2005.

 

CROSSROADS OF MEMORY

 

Celia Montolío

 

We have to be wary of the memory running through the work of José Manuel Ciria: it may be an unreliable memory, shamelessly affirming its own reality. Elusive and astute, memory is as quick to attribute constancy and presence as it is to cover over with layers, hiding things (for the time being) in the forbidden space of oblivion. Ciria’s fascination with the processes of painting –the natural process, the imaginary process, the processes of biography, the process of interpretation- translates into a game without rules, in landscapes where maps are of no use, where all directions have disappeared. Like the muses, his paintings may speak false for true, but may also speak the truth: real and imaginary are confused in a territory where memory sheds the understood guarantee of objectivity, instead playing the part of storyteller. Doubt, therefore, is present from the outset: when Ciria paints, he leaves the alternatives unresolved, to be decided by the physical metamorphosis of the painting, in collusion with our eyes. Two moments of his trajectory are particularly significant an understanding of this painter’s particular fascination with memory: the 1994 period, when he was working on plastic supports; and the Parisian advertising hoardings, which, for a few days, had their physiognomy, altered. In these works, memory (perhaps a more conscious theme since early 1993, but always central to his work) extended its domain to convoke explicitly two factors which have always been present in his work: the physical quality of the materials, on the one hand, and, on the other, that fact that his paintings need to be looked at in order to advance the process detonated by the crossings, clashes and antagonisms of their silent battles. I have always been amazed at the way in which the erased lines, the illegible writing, the remains of ash on plastic canvas and, in short, those elements in Ciria’s work which could be classified as minimal, act as a subtle provocation. However, this minimalism is the fullest expression of the sudden appearance of infinite moments below the large bursts of colour and the blots arrested in full movement. They were not expressly sought by memory, but rather rescued themselves and entered the picture by chance, by intrusion or by the intimate need to show that each gesture is a way of guaranteeing one’s own memory, one’s biographical memory.

 

“We do not see one thing better and the rest hazily, but rather all is submerged into an optic democracy. There are no rigorous profiles, it is all blurred, almost shapeless background”. These words of Ortega could well be applied to paintings that require us to be constantly on the move, to redefine the chronological order assigning to each layer and element its condition of background or primary presence. In this way, new tensions are born at each step and, far from shattering this “optical democracy”, serve instead to secure it. These paintings erase hierarchies and not even the slightest trace of pencil (the slightest moment in our lives), or the slightest accidental blot (the slightest unsuspected encounter) plays a secondary role. Ciria’s “blurred, almost shapeless background” is memory, becoming enriched with new folds during each incursion into the countless spaces in which it travels.

 

Thus memory creates new latitudes, by reaffirming painting as a process. It does not merely reproduce known latitudes (which is why I have warned that it is unreliable). In this regard, we are inevitably reminded of the distinction established by the early Romantics between the two types of imagination: that which merely reproduces the habitual relations between happenings and objects, and the other kind, which alters the ordered sequence into which habit structures the world. They bestowed the second type, the type that plays with our weary eyes and opens fissures into the heart of the unknown, with creative value in the most radical sense of the word. Rather than a representation, Ciria’s paintings are an exhibition of the narrative possibilities contained in the initial detonation of materials. This sparks off several reflections: on the direction (the sense) of painting as a practice with a historical memory, and on how this (absence of) direction may manifest itself in his voluntary refusal to close the work, making it a provocation for our eyes. The eyes of each viewer, certainly, but also those more general eyes which, as Ortega has said, know that “the aesthetic value of works of art rots and ages earlier than their material reality”. Although this broad statement may well be applicable nowadays, Ciria challenges it, subjecting his work to a process of literal, material, aging. Irony also plays a part, inverting the terms of the maxim and suggesting that, as in so many contemporary reflections on the ephemeral nature of works of art, perhaps the duration of the work may only be controlled up to a certain point. The artist provides the starting elements; wear and tear, decadence and future absence then determine the natural process of the work and affect the capacity of our visual memory to refer to remember what had been there at the beginning. It is a race between conceptual and physical duration.

 

This confusion between structure and chance, determination and freedom, in pieces such as those contained in the Use of the Word series, and the voluntary shedding and reduction first profiled in the following year in others such as Yellow Kid or the White series, led to the double search contained in the works painted on plastic in 1994. In these works, the need to create tensions and to leave their resolution to each look that falls on them is expressed in two directions. Memory is the axis of both: on the one hand, it becomes a reflection on the mechanisms that led Ciria to his present intention; it is a trustworthy memory which incorporates the artistic biography of Ciria, resuming and playing with it until it opens new possibilities. Ciria makes use of them and gives them an unsuspected twist: he transfers the idea of movement and process to the very physical plane of the materials, refusing to preserve a certain moment, choosing instead to let evolution follow its course. The seed of this aspect, which characterises the type of construction proposed by Ciria in his work on plastic supports, was sown in his previous work. This is the possibility of following the infinite movement of his pictures; previously only in the imagination, but now also physically and necessarily. What was previously left to our choice (the journey through the interconnected levels of his work), is now obligatory, because Ciria has provoked the future destruction caused by the gradual wear of the materials. In his drawings, the high acidity of the solutions soaked up by the paper is important, but I am particularly interested in the plastic canvas, gradually yellowing in contact with the light, and those splashes of acrylic medium that ultimately drying, cracking and cracking the plastic to which they cling. Likewise, the structural geometry of picture no longer appears in pictorial form, but remains implicit in the superimposed sheets of rectangular plastic and in the squares of the frame, visible through the transparent material. While in his previous work the varnish was a way of ensuring the presence of a work whose internal contradictions gave it a fleeting aspect, it now disappears and allows the oil paint to turn, one day, to dust. It is as if Ciria had descried in each element the signs that announce its future absence. The openness and confluence of interpretations that have always been central to his work become absolute vulnerability, radical openness and, finally, the self-immolation of the pieces.

 

To memory, therefore, it only remains to be the remembered image, the recovered gaze, assuming the real time of things for art, imperatively demanding our gaze to retain each step of the process. The tension between controlled and fleeting becomes more dramatic, as what escapes from us is a process whose keys remain beyond our reach and beyond the reach of Ciria. Leaving the pictures themselves to construct their paradoxical process of self-destruction, Ciria chooses to detonate the process rather than to control it. Although we think we can trust the painting, it is the first step in the process of its own destruction. The material reduces itself to a memory, an image half-seen in a street, matter affirming the construction of a different, remembered life at every step of its decadence. Memory has become a part of Ciria’s work, particularly the work he has been developing over almost two years, as a result of a compulsive habit, rather than any overt intention of paying homage to the theme as such. Like loops that mix levels, times and places, his pictures reproduce on different levels the crosses between public and private life, between the order and the spontaneity of composition, between the tendency to remain and the organic processes of living and dying. The primary strategy for us to understand the levels that call to which others, in a bewildering profusion of combinations and voices, is to respond to the strongly material climate of his work. Ciria’s memory is tactile and deeply material. It invites us into his paintings, to share the reflection of Levinas, who said that, “what is visible caresses the eye, we see and hear as we touch”. The inevitable closeness of his work originates in its physical qualities, affirmations that the image finally retained in the memory will not simply be a visual image, but will invoke a sensitivity to textures, objects and the body.

 

Rather than trapping time, or arresting things in their constancy, memory in this work represents our ever-denied desire to grasp the fleeting. It annuls its objects and renounces its own capacity to close images once and for all, and, erasing at each step, advancing by negations, always provokes the same question: what has been erased and what remains? The plastic, for example, hosts a dialogue between art as construction and the environment as nature (change, mobility). Far from reproducing this dialogue externally, Ciria’s art penetrates into its most basic mechanisms.

 

Once again, and this is a constant element in Ciria’s work, the factor of chance plays a part. Essentially it had always dominated two moments: the moment of creation and the moment of the battle fought with the geometry of the finished picture. Now, however, the matter becomes even more complicated, as it aims to affirm that however the picture may impose its rhythm, it is the artist who, in allowing it to happen, makes the decision (reminding us of Malraux when he says that in art, “we are the first to inherit the whole of the earth … accidents alter and time transforms, but we are the ones who choose”). As if once the basic terms have been settled, it becomes a completely independent object, subject to the laws pronounced by the materials. More than ever, this voluntary submission to the tension within the work, independently of what Ciria himself may control, is shown in the advertising hoardings interrupting the habitual urban panorama of travellers down the Rue des Halles and the Rue Ponthieu in Paris. This level of memory, understood as the relationship between objects, the moment and the surroundings, reproduces the experience and biography that have always been present in Ciria’s work. They continue to be present as gestures; the small incisions that peek out, seeming to intrude onto the picture, often act as a refusal to allow the composition to have the last word, insisting with a complicit spontaneity. Therefore, Ciria’s work on the hoardings is particularly significant of his relationship with his work. Though the context chosen for land art was the natural one, and both were incorporated into a physical symbiosis, Ciria chose urban space as the environment in which to develop his new, particular symbioses.

 

The hoardings were erected on the conviction that a look could spark off a reordering of the environment: without decorating or stylising it, but opening incisions into its heart, fissures that create crevices in our habitual landscape. Just as he allowed ash or footsteps to intrude into his paintings, affirming their bonds with the rest of the world, Ciria now maintains this nexus between the exterior and the plane of the picture, as a living thing. Exposed to the action of the city, they are attacked, caressed and transformed by the environment – the workshop comes to the streets. Like the ambivalent, provocative world of Kafka. Ciria knows well what pictures to paint. Kafka wanted to write books “that hurt us”. Ciria moves in similar zones and, therefore, refuses to control his work until the end: because painting also involves unpainting.