Catalog from the exhibition “Box of Mental States” Galería Art Rouge, Miami. Noviembre 2008.
BOX OF MENTAL STATES
Affirmative painting, Interrogative painting
Donald Kuspit reminds us that, on one occasion, Marinetti called an old master painting a “funerary urn”(1). His observation, inscribed in the neurotically renovational context of the historical Avant-garde, bespoke the end of painting which would later on become a polarization between its negative acceptance -synonymous with death- or positive acceptance -as an objective-(2). The second option, the modernist imperative defended by Clement Greenberg about the flatness of painting, its specificity and purity, would be overshadowed by the systematic practice of combining mediums and by an expanded approach reaching beyond specificity, for example, in Rosalind Krauss’s theories(3) about sculpture. Alongside this investigation, contemporary artistic theory and practice have continued questioning the validity of a visual system that seems to have stretched its own limits to the extreme(4) and which has seen itself swallowed up by the hypertrophy of images and the digitalization of the contemporary gaze.
A large number of cultural events, shows, talks, books and articles during the last few decades have brought attention to the uncomfortable relevance of painting in contemporary Art. If the accusation of having become an “overused language”(5) radically altered its status as a privileged medium (as a sounding board for the diversity of creative possibilities represented by Western visual culture, painting came to play an apparently marginal role in the development of creative possibilities defining the labile post-modern space), this kind of questioning would provoke responses from many different fronts. In artistic production, painting will always find survival strategies, through the cynical emptying of content, the revalorization of ornament, the refuge of the banal, or the hybridization of spatial expansion. Without a doubt, painting will keep functioning, but it will cloak itself or deny itself, these being the only viable options to avoid being considered merely an epigone of the Modern Tradition; “It’s hard to talk about painting today because it’s hard to see any. In general, painting doesn’t exactly want to be looked at but rather absorbed elliptically and visually without leaving a trace”(6).
In response to the often-used strategy of dissolving the pictorial, José Manuel Ciria’s work has a powerful presence(7) a physicality in tune with Berger’s assertion that, “Painting is, more directly than any other art form, an affirmation of existence, of the physical world that humanity has been cast into”(8). It is a way of making work that hasn’t let itself be overcome by the “toxic legacy of modernism”(9) or let itself find comfort in the paradigm of banality that has consolidated Ciria’s position as one of the most solid painters working today. The quality of his work and the insightfulness of his theoretical program have been the building blocks of his enormous prestige in Spain and are what have driven the unstoppable rise of his career internationally The progressive (re)configuration of his work reveals an ongoing pursuit of evolution and an eagerness for coherently developing an argument in favor of the permanence and relevance of painting. His commitment to examination and analysis also guides the cyclical revision of his conceptual approach, and as a consequence, the reconsideration of the formal solutions he employs in every new period.
One of these solutions is what connects Ciria’s painting to certain currents explored in the hegemonic tradition of Modernity but doesn’t fall into an ironic re-conceptualization of those elements, a strategy widespread among new modes of abstraction that, like Ciria’s, arose after the nineties. Ciria hoards, saves, and archives in order to construct other realities detached from any heroic linearity. If, as Hal Foster said, “Art is Avant-garde to the extent that it’s radically historicist; the artist delves into the history of Art in order to escape from it”(10), Ciria is traversing a different narrative. One characterized by painting that’s affirmative at the same time as it’s interrogative. The first, because his investigations have always concluded with the decisive affirmation of the expressive, communicative and poetic possibilities of painting; the second, because these conclusions stemmed from the analytical deconstruction of the formal grammar of the abstract Avant-garde(11) and its recycling through the questions the artist raises in his own theoretical program.
DAA: Before America
In constant tension with his own work, Ciria has always undermined the possibility of defining the linear development of his evolution. Rather, his work suggests a cyclical revision of certain concepts, so that elements of an earlier visual system that had at one time been subordinate later on become dominant, and vice-versa. The stain, geometry, the support or iconography, in differing arrangements determined by the combinatory, had been the principal formal and theoretical examples of his Deconstructive Automatic Abstraction (DAA), conceptual strategy that would be the basis for the vigorous abstract painting he made in the nineties. At the same time, these four variables, shaken up by the combinatory, transform the surfaces of his paintings into a conceptual discourse. A field of evocations and readings contained by constantly moving edges, where painting activates the consideration of itself as a problem -painting as a meta-language- but without favoring those considerations at the expense of sensuality of form and color.
The insistence on giving painting a conceptual basis, effective in its formalization and corroborated through numerous theoretical writings, makes its strange nature apparent, its constant otherness, production that becomes ambiguous when its classified into groups. Understood in conjunction with the aforesaid in that as it encounters the technological sprawl and the contamination of mediums that will result in the disintegration of the limits imposed by the support inscribing it in a diversified time and space, be it virtual or material, which, in any event, will be detached from the closed model of the traditional pictorial support, Ciria insists upon the idea of painting as “Painting”, as an object that doubtlessly only shows a weak sense of contemporaneity, excluded from the directions the latest biennials and Documentas have gone in(12).
Through this carefully-examined decision Ciria paradoxically invites us to re-examine his work as a physical, material, limit, as a questioning of the idea of the highly developed surface, presented as finished, as an unrepeatable and auratic totality, a classical metaphor of the discourse of the creator, which the artist conceives of as being just what it is, an imperfect metaphor.
Ciria’s concerns seem to move in a direction along these lines when the format used incorporates memory prior to the creative picture-making process which the artist doesn’t try to avoid; content sedimented outside painting, which even if it ends up being part of the discourse, isn’t the result of the artist’s actions (manual or artisanal, if you will) but rather a permissiveness regarding the mark that’s inscribed within a conceptual analysis. Or perhaps, as occurs with his recent incorporation of insulation panels, the artist incorporates the threat of deterioration and the potential of reflection, the fragmented future mark left by each viewer. A potentiality that also takes shape in the reading of the iconographic repertoire of his recent New York work, where the divergences of signification that may arise are multiplied, their solutions waiting for the narration of the critic or the intuition of the viewer. Modernist strategies that are restructured through the estrangement of post-modern interests displaced towards an eccentric discourse, in constant tension with the limits of genre itself in a ruthless examination of painting that in every way avoids being inscribed within the banal.
In this regard, Ciria is a perfect example of a trend running through the end of the century, inscribed in a post-heroic or even post-minimal abstraction. But, what conclusively delimits the originality and relevancy of his abstract work before he moved to New York is the lucidity of his language. At the periphery insofar as mannerist re-definitions, as much as regarding ironic joke making, lyrical melancholy or ornamental resolution. It would be the consistency with which he created an original and alternative approach that determined his status as one of the most important figures in Spanish painting during the nineties. This assessment, which numerous critics and Art Historians have been making since that time, continues to be valid about the work he is making currently.
The contour line
Around the end of 2005, the artist decided to move to New York in order to rethink his paintings. This would lead him to modify the values which had served him so successfully during the previous decade and introduce definitive changes in the direction of his work that would, once more, prevent a definitive classification his work. The eloquent re-invention of his own language in New York came, strangely enough, out of an examination of Malevich’s artistic production. But, in contrast to the explorations that emerged in the scenario of the Russian Avant-garde, moving towards making Art detached from the object and thus towards an absolute abstraction, Ciria would become interested in that new beginning because the final evolution of the Ukrainian painter who tended towards representing rigid bodies, making them solidified inside and heroically concealed with rigorous drawing, transforming them into subtle icons.
The first drawings Ciria made in a move towards a new language different from the gestural abstraction he had been doing previously indicated an exploration of figuration linked to Malevich. Even if the artist’s interest in heads and torsos without any specific identity had had some short lived precedents in the “Cabezas de Rorschach I” (Rorschach Heads I), (2001) and “Cabezas de Rorschach II” (Rorschach Heads II) (2005) series. In the context of New York Ciria’s aesthetic thought found a place to start from, not only in the recovery of this iconography, partially modulated by referentiality, but also in new explorations that would include the condensation of the gestural stain, free and expansive, within a visual structure delimited by a contour line.
Ciria undertook a rigorous analytic study of Malevich’s work that would not culminate in direct appropriation or reproducing what he had seen. As we’ve already stated, this artist is an innovator who asserts the possibility of dismantling the legacy of heroic modernism in order to select from it the parts that are valuable to him. In his examination of Malevich, he doesn’t 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 is carried out without the particularly dramatic nuances found in that phase of Malevich’s work. Ciria discarded all of those determiners before setting out on deconstructing the internal structure of Malevich’s imagery, with the objective of finding the origin of his own forms in mind.
His earliest experiences in this direction would make up the “Post-Supremática” (Post-Suprematist) series, and based on this source, he began developing his faces without identity, bodies without flesh, figures with frozen gestures and with a hieratic appearance. One word, hieratic, which is used to designate a severe and immutable expression, but whose original meaning in Greek refers to the sacred and, thus, to timelessness. If great poets have always rescued words from the process of erosion they are exposed to through common use, Ciria rescues those individuals from their own history, from their own humanity, and he reinvents them as icons, isolated from any quotidian narrative and located at a threshold between figuration and abstraction. Painting as a container for enigmas about painting itself.
Towards other identities
Every era and every culture imposes certain specific personality models and its own conception of individuality(13). If in classical antiquity man was shielded from identifying himself as an individual separate from society through the strong kin relationships that went far beyond himself, the later development of history would incorporate the history of individuality integrated into the circumstances of its time. From the Confessions of Saint Augustine to the new ideals of individuality that culminated in the 19th century, the processes of the mutation of the individual’s sensibility towards his own “I” shift along with new theories emerging about human perception.
The fictionalization of the subject that characterizes a large part of modern literary forms activated a new “I” that did not consist of a chronological series of experiences, as it had up until then. For Proust, past and present merge through intervals of space and time. Freud demonstrated the subjectivity of memories and of memory itself. Nietzsche sustains with the Eternal Return that all the moments of our lives must repeat themselves, that every act of our lives has to go on existing eternally, while for Bergson the present is fugitive and unstable, the ungraspable progression of the past wearing away at the future.
When we delve into the problem of the representation of the subject in contemporary painting and try to relate it to the problem of identity, interpretation becomes, in many cases, irresolvable. The shift to the new century has presented another being with new names; “indefinable, dejected, separated, empty, unexpected, acute”(14) where the concept of uniqueness disappears definitively. New identities, inter-subjectivities, un-demarcated individuals inscribed in the fiction of a new era alien to the deceptively clarifying nature of the traditional denominations. Identity becomes versatile, multiple, and the body moves into the discontinuous and random, towards metamorphosis. The occlusion of identity and the dissemination of an “I” in constant fragmentation. It’s no longer about -as in body art in the sixties and seventies- turning the body into a representation, but rather of “re-thinking the body”(15).
“La Guardia Place”: Raw painting
This process of de-articulating Being to the extent that its characteristic of being flesh constitutes, as we shall see, one of the possible avenues for the analysis of the work Ciria made in New York. That exploration starts with the reinvention of his Malivichean automatons, from the acceleration of the decomposition (de-codification) of body identity. The logical evolution that came out of this idea will be one of continuity as much as rupture; continuity because in those early works an exceptional tool was found for the later work, drawing as the structure of form. Rupture, because those early figures would be modulated until a territory of progressive liberty became possible, with forms that would soon stop being regulated by the logic of the body that makes it necessary for us to consider them differently, to read them in different terms. This shift is the origin of what is doubtlessly one of Ciria’s most brilliant and exceptional periods, marked by the broad range of “La Guardia Place”.
Out of the artist’s explorations of drawing, families of drawings of varying referential intensity would emerge. In every case, it’s possible to intuit the presence of a fragmented morphology where realities are re-instituted which are nonetheless always kept at a distance from any descriptive interpretation. The drawing that structures these pieces holds inside of itself a tangible yet petrified matter. It turns out to be conceived of as the kernel of an iconic sign that, through its numerous nuances, devours it as a legible register. At the same time, it’s the only means the motif has to defend itself against the threat of its own disappearance. If drawing didn’t exist, the stain would expand in a haphazard process that might in fact have a lot of similarities with Ciria’s abstract production. Nonetheless, we mustn’t understand this drawing as being merely the demarcation or edge of the stain. Line becomes the image’s structural and compositional tool, it defines new iconographies and opens up the possibility for regulation and modular repetition.
Through patient observation of the paintings that make up the series “La Guardia Place” we can gain awareness of the recurrence of the same formal element being present in many different pieces, or rather, the insistence on certain syntagmas of iconic construction whose variability is stimulated by tonal vibration, their placement and their relationship with the ground. Ciria’s interest in the combinatory and repetition of the same module or matrix is located in a territory that includes, in contrast to previous examples, a complex semantic transformation for each new register. As a result of the variation between what is found on either side of the precise edge of the drawing (its interior and its relationship to the exterior-ground) and the immanence -always nuanced and sometimes transgressed- of what defines it as a matrix (the nearly identical description of its profile), repetition is now understood as semantic reactivation. Through this process we can see to what extent the artist is interested in achieving solidity within the visual text, in order for it to later on be taken into a different state.
The relevancy of modularity in the artist’s work lies in how it makes ongoing exploration possible, a systemization of his investigations into the subject. What’s surprising is that his investigations don’t end up being over refined. In fact currently, Ciria is making what he refers to as “rare” painting (in the sense of raw or unfinished(16)) that, without falling into eclecticism, avoids the sensation of volume, that property of painting is now filtered through an inconclusiveness which gives his paintings a new freshness and a rich impulsiveness in which apparently, anything could 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 engage in a new approach where the concern with facture disintegrates. On analyzing José Manuel Ciria’s current painting, we can appreciate how he abandons the insistence on formal nuance -which the artist considers to be within the province of the European tradition- to make a turn towards a less stabilized approach, evocative in its rawness, which he considers to be associated with North American painterly experiences with a gestural dynamic.
On the other hand, if the artist is the creative instance, 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 they were muted, constant doubts about the symbolic sustenance of the work that alters the comfort of that re-adjustment. We’ve already seen the figurative works that destabilize the clarity of the narrated, as well as his abstract work imbued with an intimation of figuration that never quite materializes, and those other pieces where the terms get diluted into an unstable iconography. In any case, the ambiguity of semantic value contributes to the appearance of the work not being 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 this opposition is what establishes itself as determining its possibilities.
But, there are other factors that come to determine the germaneness of the adjective, “rare”. In The Tradition of the New, Harold Rosenberg stated that “at a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act-rather than as a space in which to reproduce, re-design, analyze or express an object, actual or imagined. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event(17). Ciria’s current work goes back and forth between the image and the event, one existing for the other’s sake, stimulated by the other. This divergent meeting point is brought about by Ciria’s concern with forcing the mechanisms of painterly practice, now stemming from a strange conjunction of traditional European Modernism and the late formalism of North American abstract painting; rusty tools our artist bricoleur puts into use and gets new results from. 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”(18), Ciria’s “rare paintings” incorporate this flexibility, implying more than what they apparently express; like a palimpsest in waiting that has yet to be re-written.
But, on a conceptual level as much as a purely visual one the focus of this series makes a shift towards other multiple derivations ranging from tonal disaffection (particularly refined and enigmatic in the “Winter Paintings” suite) to the explorations of the use of polyvinyl paint on insulation panels. This latter material, as unstable as the image that can be reflected on it. So fragile and ephemeral looking, it reveals an aphoristic consciousness of its relationship to time. It never ceases to be disquieting that an artist so interested in the physical permanence of his work is now involved with temporal concerns that secularize the eternal and surrender to the mutable. Is it an expression of post-modern cynicism? No, and neither is it an audacious experimental game like he would play in the “Mnemosyne” series (1994), where the paintings self-destruct on the stretcher. We now find ourselves with a new attitude that brazenly confronts the idealization of the finished work, finding recourse in the “performative” aspect of painting. Visual construction remains latent from the moment when transformation materializes itself as a constant discovery of the painting’s identity. This vindication of process imparts an inconclusive present upon his work, determined by the articulation of a suspended becoming.
Explorations with such a profound theoretical dimension don’t deny but rather integrate the most “sensorial” aspect of pictorial technique. In fact, the chromatic intensity found in Ciria’s latest work could perhaps not be explained without taking into account his visit to the Dominican Republic and other Caribbean countries during the months prior to his preparation for his exhibition that will travel through the Americas which began in the summer of 2008. But also, the savage strain of the Spanish tradition he was schooled in is at work in the synergy that drives his work; those reds and blacks that dominated a large part of his abstract production of the nineties and that’s now present alongside new influences in a spectacular syncretism. Harmony between diverse centers as the only origin from which a universal work of Art can be born.
The color of the surface itself has to be included in the broad range of color in the pieces which aren’t painted on new canvas. That latter point, which has motivated a number of comments on Ciria’s evolution, manifests itself in the “La Guardia Place” group as a new category that arises out of combining 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 those chance occurrences doesn’t just incorporate the memory of the support but also the memory of the artist’s own previous work, between 1995 and 1996 “El jardín perverso I” (The Perverse Garden I) had already been painted, and then later on in 2003, based on this same idea, “El jardín perverso II” (The Perverse Garden II) suites, both belonging to the “Mascaras de la mirada” (Masks of the Gaze) series were painted. Chance as an aleatory mechanism freely approaching the surface then becomes the point of departure for pieces in which the first accidental stains were re-invented through the painting process. 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 and, at the same time, it contained memory intimately linked to the artist himself.
Once again, the powerful unpredictability of rhythms, frequencies and flows, masses and colors, become, for Ciria, the reflection of an impulse the he considers deserving of further investigation. The visual information casually placed on the canvas in its rough state is susceptible to being relocated as a strategy for creating order that gives formal coherence to the work. In fact, in the beginning all those random stains were disoriented, strange and had only ambiguous relations between themselves before later on becoming complicit with the visual arrangement made by the artist. In the intersection between “La Guardia Place” and “El Jardín Perverso” (“The Perverse Garden”) the artist found a balanced combination of two extreme examples of chance and control. The operativity of this syntax is the result of a demanding subtlety in which previously non-existent links between accidents woven by the powerful iconography integrated into these paintings are found.
Welcome, Dr. Zaius
The multiple vertices that make up Ciria’s latest work, considered as a body of work, manage to destabilize our sense of security before the object seen, the painting, turning it into a nexus of restlessness and doubt. Ironically banal as it may seem to mention right now, some time ago, during the development of the “La Guardia Place” series Ciria remarked, “I want the Art critic who looks at my work to become Doctor Zaius from Planet of the Apes, where they get vertigo, feel afraid and distrustful, and want to kill me because I’m from another planet, I’m threatening, and I paint these paintings”. If we look into the latent observation that lies behind this joking film reference, Ciria is making a claim for the idea of the painting as a mine field, appealing to something beyond mere contemplation.
“There are days when I’d like to harass homeless people…, wave around a big knife. I wonder how I could get that same effect through painting”(19), commented Ciria a few years ago. In the paintings that are part of “La Guardia Place” he seems to have found a strategy to activate a traumatic perplexity identifying the painting’s body as the first one to let out the scream. When we try to define the moment when the consciousness of a profound crisis in the viewer came about we are seduced by the idea that that strange gaze doesn’t stop in front on the painting, on the contrary, it becomes flesh and blood in front of this perverse, problematic, and consequently dangerous, object. It’s one, among many, ways of summoning Dr. Zaius, that silent judge at our aesthetic trial, for the subversion of the normatized, the expected and thus, that which is determined as appropriate for the body.
The shift in the pictorial concept that we’ve been describing in Ciria’s work, the movement from expressionist abstraction towards rough and unfinished work, the complex symbiosis between form and meaning, and the conceptual complexity that sustains his painting are factors that seem to alter the “Apollonian” extreme of pacifying the gaze that Lacan attributed to painting. As much for the observer who is familiar with the artist’s career as for one who is seeing the work for the first time, José Manuel Ciria’s current work provokes, without a doubt, a strange kind of wonder.
This is the moment when the hypothetical viewer (art critic, curator, gallery owner…) can become the tyrannical Dr. Zaius, Minister of Science and Chief Defender of the Faith in ape society, who during the trial against the man, whose capacity for reasoning he refuted during the trial, concedes to him, at best, the ability to mimic or of meaningless repetition. Could it perhaps be the self proclaimed destiny of painting, atavistic medium and useless artifact, to constantly engage in creating the last painting? In the case of José Manuel Ciria’s current work, the threat emerges from a painting modeled on a conceptual solidity that is usually considered appropriate to other mediums. Which is evidence of the firm dedication to painting of an artist who does not define himself as a painter, “but as someone who observes and analyzes the elements that make up painting and experiments with them”(20). His defense of painting comes out of a process that explores the limits of the medium, as much at the margin of traditional cataloging and hierarchies of painting as well as in the principal currents that are passed through the filters of the enormous biennials of recent decades. His theoretical investigations, his studies and his writings provide the intellectual back up for his defense of painting, but we mustn’t forget that Ciria’s discoveries are the result of the play between thought and imagination. A universe of constant questioning, José Manuel’s paintings envelop and interrogate us.
Towards the profile of the mask
“I’m exactly what you see – said the mask –
and behind it, I’m everything you fear”
Elías Canetti, Mass and Power.
In “Some Simple Reflections on the Body”(21) the poet Paul Valéry undoes the unique notion of the body to provide three points of entry; the first body is that asymmetric mass that comes into my field of vision and doesn’t have any past, and which is thus an entity which I always live in the present. The second, “so dear to Narcissus”, is the uniform covering that the others see, whose surface I see get older without having any suspicions as to what’s hidden in its interior. The third body, nevertheless, is deprived of its unity: it’s the open body, shredded and dissected in Histological Cryptograms, which we only have reference to through the words of doctors.
The iconographic repertoire that José Manuel Ciria began, in late 2005, with the “Post-Supremática” (”Post-Suprematist”) series, and which would continue between 2006 and 2008 with “La Guardia Place”, could illustrate the irreconcilable narrative of these three bodies. In the new space of his New York studio the artist embarked upon a course that he would subsequently modulate without fully being aware of the implications of its development. The calculated detachment from the gestural expressiveness of his abstract painting in the nineties would find its origin in the simple refuge of drawing as compositional structure. Evolving out of this first solution, the stain of color would be modulated by the architecture of a line through which specific meanings would come to the surface. Drawing, confident of its prerogatives, would maintain the stigmas of its origin in an indelible first moment; figures, torsos and faces would focus the contingency of the stain, turning it into the inflamed skin of the androgynous Malevich automatons. But, shortly afterwards these bodies would alter their morphological descriptions, opening up towards iconographies that, still having a biomorphic nature, would cast aside the rigor of the description of the body. The physical dimension would then disconnect itself from the rational filters of the subject. We’ll continue talking about bodies −or, more specifically, organs without bodies(22)− because the plainly figurative as much as the decidedly abstract endeavors during Ciria’s New York period would come together in one unique formal eloquence, imposing line and the containment of chromatic temperature.
Like in Valéry’s third body, the most complex iconographies of “La Guardia Place” have gone astray within their own skin abdicating every trace of their predictability. The part resists being represented in the totality, the body disassembles itself and the figurative subject succumbs to multiple corporalities. Ciria delves into a problematic that engages with the contemporary conception of the subject(23), to contribute to the graphic projection of a reality of a different order.
In addition to the three bodies already mentioned, Paul Valéry puts forth the idea of a fourth body that isn’t subject to the regime of social control that seemingly comes out of dissatisfaction with other bodies. More like a thing than a living organism(24), it’s located in a territory where what’s not there can come into being, the fourth body is defined however I want or need it to be. It’s a new level, dictated by a dimension autonomous in respect to the other three, (the body that is shown, the body that is contemplated, and the body that opens up) and it conceals the “I” as the public identity demanded by society.
A second skin over the surface of the contingent, a threshold superficially usurping the condition of verisimilitude(25), the mask can be used as a tangible conceptualization of that abstract fourth body. An “I” covered by a mask evokes an image that is new but perceived as a counterbody or a contradiction in what in reality seems to be but what in reality it isn’t. A container for connotations that turn us into the Other, the mask operates at the tremulous threshold of identity. It re-situates us, clearly, in order to suggest the presence of an absence, the power we imagine in the Other and which we supposedly lack(26),
After having executed and dismembered the body, Ciria then proceeds to design the simple contour of the mask. This shift in the center of gravity of his subject matter has been subtly gradating itself. As can be seen in how the faces of his Malivechean figures don’t have any greater degree of description than those new enclosed ellipses. A mask over a mask? The artist’s current conceptual activities consist of alienating the face from its irreducible natural context, which is the organicness of the human body. In contrast to those bodies apparently without identity, Ciria is now suggesting an identity without bodies, a paring down that would interfere with the strings still tying his morphologies to the human.
But, in order to understand the scope of Ciria’s dialectic with this issue, the antecedents marking out his current work must be considered. In 2000, at the high point of his exploration of abstraction, Ciria began to represent, with the title, “Cabezas de Rorschach” (Rorschach Heads)(27), the shape of human profiles whose eruptive interiority canceled out the specificity of the face. In 2005, when he went back to exploring this same direction in the “Cabezas de Rorschach II” (Rorschach Heads II) group, they would become sectioned and individualized into pieces such as “Cabeza sobre negro” (Head on Black Ground) and “Cabeza sobre rojo” (Head on Red Ground), to finally multiply their disquieting presence in the piece “Tres máscaras” (Three Masks).
During 2006, at the same time he was developing his “Post-Suprematist” series, and also moving towards the moderation of the expressive charge of his previous work, Ciria produced the brief “Estructuras” (Structures) series. In spite of being made up of complex “linear grids”(28), incorporating the internal void and, as a result, rejecting the sensuality of physical mass, the titles and the general design make it possible to identify them with faces, again disconnected from any physical body that might “explain” them.
Part of the explorations of form and motif found in “La Guardia Place”, the mask had been directly enunciated in pieces made in 2007, such as “Máscara y tres elementos” (Mask and three elements), “Cabeza máscara” (Mask Head) and “Máscara africana” (African Mask). Nevertheless, considering this series as a group we can discern that the real turning point towards the new formal conception the artist would develop immediately following two pieces made in March of 2008; “Bloody Mary duplicado” (Bloody Mary duplicated) and “Cabeza sobre fondo verde” (Head on a Green ground).
In both pieces, the aspect of disegno has been reduced to the configuration of a simple elliptical structure in contrast to the free and expansive protean iconography that dominated the series as a whole. But, it is color and contrast that marks the originality of both pieces; the greens and oranges, by no means frequent in the artist’s work, or the return of red in “Cabeza sobre fondo verde” (Head on a Green Ground), already beginning to turn towards pink through its fluid interaction with white. These are new chromatic dimensions that would indicate the path he would follow in the new work that would be part of the “Schandenmaske, Máscaras burlescas” (Schandenmaske, Burlesque Mask) series.
The estrangement produced by these choices will augment a new mode of conceiving the pictorial act which accentuates the accidents of time that disintegrate the gesture of the action, as will be seen later on when we look into the lines of interpretation that open up through the formal analysis of this new series.
“Schandenmaske”: or the absent hand
The Latin term “persona” is derived from the Etruscan “phersu” and this, from the Greek “provswpon”, which designated the mask that tragic actors wore to make their voices carry further (per sonare). Formally and conceptually, in the “Schandenmaske” series Ciria concludes his search for this original meaning(29) which is tied to the desire to be other, to subvert the established in order to engage in a metamorphosis in which “you see the deception, the appearance, in other words, the disguise. It turns out not to be Zeus who seduces his victims, rather the other, the others”(30). The artist, as we have already mentioned, has understood this process progressively, working from an assemblage in which the body now opens up until it produces an “I” camouflaged by the mask as a paradigm for what the body attempts to invent about itself.
But “Schandenmaske” is, also, a concentrated examination of pictorial language and its interstices, time and memory, order and chance. Donald Kuspit pointed out, while talking about Bruce Nauman’s work Mapping the studio (Fat chance John Cage) that for the post-modern artist (or post-artist) chance is no longer as creatively significant and inspirational as it was for Cage, or earlier, for Duchamp: “Chance is no longer the dumb luck of Art; in post-modernity it has become an everyday event, that’s how it happens on the street”(31), I think that in “Schandenmaske” there is a lucid consciousness of the importance of chance parameters, in contrast to the rejection of the creative inflection of the uncontrolled, Ciria locates this aspect of his painting, essential to his work from the nineties, in a prominent place, and he once again comes to integrate it as a negation of his own creative gesture.
The search for the accidental had been one of the principle lines of exploration developed by José Manuel Ciria based on his DAA working method. The use of techniques such as decalcomania, frottage, grattage, runs, drips, spattering and sanding would allow him to create unexpected textural fields. The incompatible mixtures of oil, acid and water, as well as the incorporation of varied chemical ingredients, would set into action the spontaneity of a stain which, at times, would end up “painting itself”, developing on the surface by itself, generating its own space and time. The artist’s hand is no longer metonymically reflected in the stain, as the only thing now visible is an echo filtered through the eruption of the automatic processes.
In contrast to the strict formal control that demanded the complex modulation of line of the “La Guardia Place” series, Ciria has now shifted the creative axis into a different terrain; the placement of color within a simple recurring structure, like the one that closes the contour of the mask. Nevertheless, color is freed from conscious repression and wanders from one side of the canvas to the other turning the accidents into the protagonists. Fluctuating in this way, chromaticism twists and folds, opening up pathways and at times even defining the limits of its own expansion, in this way “my gesture always turns into a residue”(32).
This action is interesting in two ways; on one hand, it heightens the semantic ambiguity of the work, in consonance with the artist’s entire New York period; and on the other hand, it transcends the gestural expressionist poetics without violating one its central principle, flatness. The impression of apparent purity as key to modernism, defended by Greenberg’s formalism(33) and undone by Steinberg’s, Mitchell’s or Mary Kelly’s responses to it, as well as by contemporary trends that have accepted all kinds of contamination(34) isn’t taken up again by Ciria as a mere fetish. For him, flatness has a symbolic meaning; the mask is a curtain so heavy that what lies behind it cannot be revealed. Looking at these paintings implies a constant doubt that never makes it possible to decode what they’re holding inside. It displays, making the mask visible in order to hide the face, and more than a veil it’s an impassable wall.
If for Mitchell “to see painting is to see touch, to see the movements of the artist’s hands” (35) a complex entanglement of the optical and the tactile, Ciria chooses to neutralize the effects of tactile sensibility. The carnality that Berger attributed to the pictorial is pure illusion in Ciria’s work, a mirage that vanishes as we approach his paintings; there is no volume, no spaces to go through, nor any trace of his activity. The masks, more than floating within a determined space, are imprisoned by it, they are a violent parentheses tattooed on the skin of the support. There is no space or solid foundation to locate it in, the mask doesn’t reference anything else but its own existence. The artist himself reveals that this is pre-meditated, even though it’s resolved using chance elocutionary formulations: “Making it so that the first question that ones asks when they see the paintings close up is ‘how was that painted?”. What technique did he use? How were the textures integrated in such a way as to allow roundness of form? Did he use brushes? Did he paint it by hand? Or maybe, the painting painted itself and the only thing that had to be done was to let it express itself. Years ago I wrote in a text that I’m not a painter that my intention is to organize a “scenario” where things happen in the painting. Chance is what paints my paintings, not my hands. The medium itself takes control in order to try to express itself. “It’s my mind at the service of an event, in the same way as the brushes, the oil color, the tubes of paint, the tools, the varnishes and oils…”(36).
But this frozen two-dimensional drama is also a subterfuge, a disguise. Among the “formal events” that the artist develops, dripping or splattering paint onto the painted image, he superimposes a new formal plane on top of it and makes it give off a powerful atmospheric energy that acts as a screen that mediates between the viewer and the chromatic spectacle of the flattened mask. It’s the only way out the artist gives to avoid the complete annihilation of the viewing distance, directly making us one with the mask.
The unique configuration of these paintings makes me think about the formal syntax of Antonio Saura’s versions of the Half-sunken dog, the most intriguing of the Black Paintings by Goya, which were painted on the walls of his house of the Quinta del Sordo around the end of the eighteen twenties. Like Saura, Ciria avoids falling into any kind of revival kitsch and instead the conclusions he comes to are as an intelligent autonomous spectator and they had already been seen in the brief suite that he made in 2002 with the title “Saura’s Dog” (El perro de Saura). The “Schandenmaske” series doesn’t depart from that origin, but the range of its conclusions implies a subtle connection with that legacy.
As Valeriano Bozal has stated, the monster Saura transforms Goya’s dog into possesses a certain amount of self-consciousness, “It’s painting. It doesn’t put the fact that it’s painting at the fore, but nevertheless you can’t overlook it”(37). The violence that breaks out in marked gesturalism makes us see that “every image is mediated by the subject that makes it and that is portrayed by it”(38). Similarly, in contrast to Goya’s dog, Saura’s found a pretext, “the one he created himself and which he created with painting, which is to say, through language, through his language. It is in painting, in the language of form where it finds the only support available to it and where it reveals itself to be the monster that it is”(39).
Ciria’s masks don’t have any gestures (neither in their expression nor in their production), nor are they in any kind of setting. We don’t see them appear, they are simply there. If the representation of a body evokes narcissistic feelings, if “representation implicitly articulates the artist’s own attitude towards the body”(40) the mask would then be a double negation of the creative subject. The metonymy has shifted: the stain in not the artist’s gesture, rather the absent hand is the absent body. We intuit a paradoxical irony in the representation of the mask; if it has to come into being as a veil that conceals, Ciria’s pictorial process impedes any other meaning from being revealed beyond the closure of the chromatic stain itself.
Rhetoric of the Wound: paintings on insulation panels
There is a small family of paintings within the “Schandenmaske” series painted with polyvinyl on insulation panels, materials that Ciria had already explored in some of the most spectacular pieces from “La Guardia Place”. At this point, I want to stress that the qualities of both materials induce a particular theorization whose extremes drift between opacity and reflectivity, towards a labile world of incessant exchanges.
The apparent fragility of the new support implies an approach opposed to permanence. This interest had driven Ciria’s technical explorations since the beginning of his career and has made him be considered to be brilliant at experimenting with the multiple levels of effective operativity between pictorial supports and materials. But now, it’s the flowing of the accident itself that surprises and invades the painter. The possibility of including the effect of the elements of matter, the recognition that any slight pressure on this new support, any accidental scratch, extreme temperature or misjudged tension, can irreparably damage the skin of the painting. It’s a brief and fugitive instant, tied to the elusive terrain of the possible, but which must be named due to the uncertainty of time remaining.
So, why not just avoid this material as a support? What sense is there in forcing this wayward phantom? Perhaps more unsettling than these questions and the answers to them is the fact that an artist so interested in the physical permanence of his work is now involved in temporal issues that secularize the eternal and yields to the mutable. Pushing the changeable to the edge of the unknown suggests, thus, a derivation towards multiple possible endings; something which, on the contrary, all human production is subject to, (any phenomenon inscribes into its own identity the possibility for transformation, modification or destruction). But, by questioning from the outset of the creative process the principles of subordination to the permanent, Ciria eludes giving any nuclear identity to the pictorial work, as it would be discovered through its own genesis to be determined by the acceleration of its aging.
The essence of becoming is, for Deleuze, the union of the senses, “of the future and the past, of the day before and the day after, of more and less, of too much and not enough, of the active and the passive, of cause and effect”(41). The detained dissolves under the prism of the event, which seems to imply a temporal development inherent to the work itself. But distinct from Performance Art, actions or the Happening, where the emphasis on process gives relevancy to the experience of the event, rather than to the material presence of the work of art. When Ciria uses insulation panels he doesn’t intend to find any resolution in the strict present independent of the specificity of the work of art as a painting. We are thus dealing with the possibility of modifications in the future more than in measurable time as it passes. But, to what extent is talking about what hasn’t happened yet pertinent? The inclusion of this point of view is ineffectual −it could be argued − in the field of perception. It is, grosso modo, the link between the subject and the object. Nevertheless, the precariousness of the material activates the uncertainty regarding the possibilities of alteration and expiration of a work of art that furthermore, (due to its formal resolution that has already been analyzed here), produces a feeling of unfinished rawness. In this regard, perception is always conditioned by the resignation to a totality, or what’s the same, by the rejection of the utopia of zero time advanced by Modernism. Now, let’s distill the gaze that reveals something it seems to be negating. The time of perception is no longer singular, tending towards the instant; rather it opens up a new internally temporalized regime (like painting prone to expanding from the inside as well).