DAA – MATRICES
Dinámica de Alfa Alineaciones (D. A. A.)
Repetition and Discovery, New Perspectives on the Late Work of José Manuel Ciria
The images that illustrate this text share a formal exploration circumscribed by the recurrent use of the same modular matrix which generates recurrently new semantic meanings through repetition and variation. If I didn’t decide to include these lines as a final coda to the text “Ciria. Rare paintings, post-genres and Dr. Zaius”, which begins this book, it is because the ensuing ideas that will be advanced did not fit into the original analytic itinerary.
With a bit of hindsight I have realized that since my first visits to the artist’s studio and the first studies undertaken in developing the theoretical framework for the exhibition I overlooked the fact that the formal structure of the work itself presented a new level of ambiguity in its semantic projection. The intricacies of the formal description of Ciria’s production often passes through uncontrollable vicissitudes, as his discourse –as we have already seen– has a structure with extremely complex conceptual layers.
The attention I have given to the modular aspect of Ciria’s work would have remained overshadowed by all the concepts elaborated upon at length in the previous text. This is not due to the fact that the idea of modularity appears in the artist’s work as a superficial trait, but it is rather the obstinacy with which he writes about his late work in order to locate it within parameters associated with the recovery of line and the expressive tension between abstraction and figuration. Nevertheless, it is precisely the validity of this interpretation that will be refuted through applying a new reading of the iterative distribution of certain signs that invariably appear throughout his compositions.
One of the outcomes of pursuing Ciria’s affirmation of drawing was organizing part of his experimentation through the repetition of a specific catalog of forms. In the analysis undertaken in “Rare paintings, post-genres and Dr. Zaius”, the iconographic similarity of the same formal element which can be found in many pieces did not go unnoticed. By this I am referring to the insistence on certain syntagmas of iconic construction whose variability was stimulated by tonal vibration, placement and their relationship with the ground. Nevertheless, a closer observation allows the scope of such an operation to be re-located within something that goes well beyond the virtuous repetition of a particular motif in that it gives pre-eminence to the structural analysis of a matrix that generates diversified semantic discourses.
The systemization of the new conceptual stratum described here had already been conceived of long before it was put into practice. During our last conversations, which led to some conclusions that I have briefly expounded upon, Ciria remembered that a lot of these approaches in his work had been found in one of the texts that became one of the pillars of his early theoretical writings and conceptual explorations. We should now go back to those times before his Memory Notebook (Cuaderno de memoria) (1990). This notebook is the written form of the thoughts he had at that time which were intended to clarify the mechanisms of painting by analyzing them as language. Ciria found himself fascinated by the diversity of the aesthetic thought in the writings of Kandinsky, Clement Greenberg and Walter Benjamín as well as by the philosophy of language and semantic theory from Wittgenstein to Chomsky. It was a period of great intellectual eagerness on his part and it would expand throughout the course of his career as he moved from an intuitive search through the variables that held together his early creative explorations toward a coherent systemization of his readings and reflections regarding pictorial construction .
It was in the context of research that Ciria got access to the doctoral thesis of José Luis Tolosa Cambio semántico del módulo para su utilización en una práctica pictórica (Semantic Change of the Module for Its Use in a Pictorial Practice)1 in which this professor at the University of the Basque Country puts forth an operative formulation of the modular element through his own praxis as a painter. In this way, it is sought to clarify the operativity of the laws dictating the functionality of the module through a system of a demonstrative nature whose interest lies in that, far from purporting to be a universal or conclusive definition of the operative possibilities of the module, it expresses a possible personal dialectic of the outcomes. For Ciria, in seeking to intensify the limits of his painting, that reading of the text opened up certain reflections which have remained, as if in soft-pedal, throughout his creative explorations during the last decades.
When Ciria revealed this to me as a possible beginning of his current instrumentalization, we realized that a lot of the observations made by José Luis Tolosa in his text were only tangentially applicable to his own personal investigations. To begin with, the term “module” presented us with a serious terminological problem from the outset. A module is defined as an iterative figure invariable in shape and size, whose repetition is carried out in a methodological fashion and where the individual parts are not important for its logic. Nonetheless, the motifs elaborated by Ciria stretches these concepts without losing, of course, the modulation that undeniably identifies the figures as being similar. Ciria himself preferred to talk about the “matrix” at that point, making reference to the concept of a mold, which gives form to something concrete and whose reproduction in a series always allows for various degrees of alteration in respect to the original. In any case, if it is true that in the semantic line of flight these slight variations of shape or size will not have any greater importance, the essential protagonists of the shift in meaning will be the characteristics that may come to dynamize the sensation of modular repetition, which is to say, placement, color, shadows, figure-ground relationship, etc.
In Ciria’s work, when we speak about the module or, more precisely, the matrix as a basic unit for distinction/signification2, which acquires its function through its repetition –the latter being the element determining its difference– we are always referring to an external recurrence. Which is to say, it is not about the repetition of one image in the same composition, rather about its appearance in different pieces that provokes, therefore, a familiar and at the same time utterly strange sensation between pieces..
Conversely, the figure is usually presented as the central motif of the image and not as part of a heterogeneous iconographic inventory, which is why its interpretation becomes the central thematic content of the work. Each piece is always read individually, but at the same time each one conditions the reading of the others that share the same matrix.
We will only mention a few examples of the use of minimal iterative units in modernist painting in order to determine a bit more precisely the conceptual framework we are setting forth here. Ciria’s interest in the combinatory and repeating the same matrix is located in a territory that includes, in contrast to previous examples, a complete semantic transformation for each new register. We will now see how repetition is now understood as semantic reactivation, based on the variation of what is found at both sides of the exact edge of the drawing (its interior and its relationship to the exterior-ground) and the immanence –always nuanced and sometimes violated– of what defines it as a matrix (the nearly identical features of its profile)..
Visual perception is an interpretative process. The information from any visual motif is so great that “the nervous system would not be able to interpret it if there were no process of abstraction to reduce it into manageable quantities. Perception is therefore a hierarchical process of interpretation”5. This implies, on one hand, the elimination of certain information structures in favor of others where the formal and semantic dynamic is re-organized to generate a hermeneutic explanation in the viewer. Which, even if it is not the only path that opens up for someone who wants to approach a work of art, it “implies an effective relationship between the interpreter and the work”6. In this sense, the matrix form we are referring to is always located within a composition and with a sufficient relative size so that it is not overshadowed by other thematic-formal variables present in the work..
The compartmentalization of a finite surface by means of an objectifiable predominant matrix codifies a large part of the meaning the spectator has access to in the work. In the case of What do You Want for Dinner I (Qué queréis cenar I) and What do You Want for Dinner II (Qué queréis cenar II), the title itself seems to tell us that the explorations are characterized by the same semantic idea7. Within this family, in Flying Pants (Pantalones voladores) and Miracles in the City (Milagros en la ciudad), the specific identity of the matrix motif is found inverted in respect to the previous examples, and in the last work mentioned above it is clearly altered to provide greater protection for one of the appendices, highlighted with red. Essentially, the four pieces share some codes (not only graphic but also in their color and internal structure), but at the same time they have substantial differences. It is these last pieces that run the gamut of the semantic versatility of the original matrix..
Considered as a group, in every variation we discover the artist’s interest in an investigation that is not infinite. Being as it is not merely formal, but also determined by an experimental mode of working whose resolution is a specific state. Without a doubt, there are multiple alternate variations to what the artist has presented us with. We ourselves can imagine a lot of other possibilities for the elements that make up the work. But nevertheless, the elements mentioned here have been the ones that have guided his concerns regarding the delimitation of his direction by using only a specific group of ideas to work from. Therefore, in his investigations the artist has acknowledged a number of formal notions which he uses to make work: the internal subdivision of the figure, the inversion of the figure on a vertical axis, a simple relationship with the ground and a chromatic range..
Nonetheless, we should mention that the exploration of the matrix does not come out of seeking a linked grammar, and therefore the family groups that may result from it have not been composed according to a concrete plan or a preconceived idea of seriality. These modular families, which all belong to the series called “La Guardia Place”, have the common denominator of having been developed though the working process itself. Thus the homogeneity of the module stretches until it becomes a moldable matrix, capable of generating obvious connections but not exact copies..
Therefore, the limits the artist imposes on himself in his explorations obey a systemization mediated by the way painting works and by semantic disintegration. The latter characteristic leads us to the question: What do these paintings mean? “In the process of being painted the work has a meaning for the artist. And once it is finished, it has a meaning for the viewer. These two meanings do not necessarily have to overlap”8. What we perceive, at any rate, is how the artist has managed to provoke different meanings for a specific module. The shape-matrix belongs to a particular visual order, but the artist’s inventions create an undeniably polysemic formal universe. Which is, furthermore, joined with the selfsame ambiguous morphology of the matrix itself. We have already pointed out the strange referential nature of Ciria’s iconography. Even though it deals with elements in which different anthropomorphic references or references to objects may appear, it is invariably the result of a working process that has nothing to do with mimesis. The artist’s interest in repeating a particular visual motif does not reduce its complexity, rather it multiplies it through constantly questioning the possibility of any one single reading (emotional or referential) of any motif in particular. His concern with transforming these figures or matrices though repetition reveals another facet of the artist’s extraordinary syntactic complexity. Furthermore, the visual architecture Ciria constructs is labyrinthine, enigmatic and uncomfortable, but always navigable. This is because his voice is not lost in the complex machinery that he is developing, but rather he cautiously dominates the secrets in its inner workings..
Repetition, therefore, functions in Ciria’s work in a positive and creative way, which is a notion derived from the research undertaken by Deleuze into the distinction between the repetition of identity and the repetition of difference, the repetition of the same or the repetition of the new, active repetition and passive or reactive repetition9. An initial matrix, upon appearing again in another piece, does not preserve what it denies, rather it affirms what it changes, its novelty, which is always essentially semantic. So that repetition never runs out, “it must be accompanied by the game of creativity, which adds something new to repetition”10.
Copying one’s self11, copying work that already exists12, or re-hashing what has already been done denotes disenchantment with the myths of the avant-garde. Faith in the work of art is replaced by a critical questioning that fractures the identity of the visual image. For Craig Owens, an appropriated image has to undergo a manipulation that empties it of its meaning so that as a consequence it will seem “strangely incomplete: (like) fragments or ruins which must be deciphered”13. In this way, appropriationist painting invented for itself “a process through which images that were very familiar, emblematic or allegorical, undeniably, become opaque and distant from their origins to the point that their meaning came to be precisely that distance itself”14.
Then five examples of matrices: