Esther Esteban. Amarillo. Texas.
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Esther Esteban. Amarillo. Texas.

Esther Esteban. AMoA. Amarillo. Texas.

Catálogo exposición “El Mito de Prometeo” Galería Cordeiros, Oporto. Noviembre 2011




Esther Esteban


José Manuel Ciria has traditionally been seen in the context of the abstract expressionist painting, which has been so significant for the evolution of contemporary Spanish Art. The massive seemingly random stains and dissonant colors with red, typically overpowering, that are characteristic of his personal visual language have been the main reason behind his work’s association with the aforementioned tendency. But apart from that initial categorization, Ciria’s work has been positioned as a discourse that has contributed to the reconsideration of painting within contemporary art practice. Like other major artists Ciria’s work, regardless of its style and iconography, must be seen as a cultural beacon rising above the crowded multiplicity of our over saturated post-modern society.


In no way attempting to downplay his ties to Spanish art, the convictions Ciria expressed in the decisiveness of his move to the United States (New York to be precise, where he has lived since late 2005) should be seen in the light of reinvention and exploration, spiritual strength and courage. All too many artists remain dormant after their early successes and never manage to escape the labyrinth of market demands that they themselves have created. Escaping from one’s self, like someone fleeing an angry mob and confronting the blank canvas covered only in isolation and solitude, is one of the situations in which some artists seek discomfort in order to push beyond the edge, experience new solutions or find new form.


Unquestionably, the period that starts with his show at the Palacio de Velázquez in Madrid and the first grant he was awarded by the Spanish Ministry of Culture for the Colegio de España in Paris (both in 1994) and his development between that time and the traveling exhibition organized by Seacex in the National Museum, Krolikärnia Palace in Warsaw, the Pasquart Contemporary Art Center in Biel-Bienne and the three museums in Mexico, are all career milestones that establish Ciria as a significant artist internationally. Alongside the work of only a scarce few of his contemporaries, his paintings become a visual representation of that entire period of our contemporary visual sensibility, creating a connection between opposites. It is painting entirely of the “Now” yet also inextricably bound to our tradition. The way light travels over the plastic tarpaulins and canvasses, the volumes generated through the stains and his facility for making textures that create materiality where there is only a completely, utterly flat surface all show the depth of his work.


Regardless of how often it is mentioned, what still makes Ciria’s paintings uncommon, if not entirely unique, is without a doubt the conceptual and theoretical framework he develops in his work. Most critics insist on the importance of the “Notebook – 1990” as a foundational moment for his painting. The interesting thing is that when we gain an understanding of what he’s called Deconstructive Automatic Abstraction (DAA) and its formulation insofar as analytic fields, themes and series that, according to Ciria, are all turned into a kind of “mechanism” to determine the different formal solutions and investigations he’s going to carry out, we’re left with a feeling of perplexity caused by the conceptual strength and inventiveness that the entire apparatus expresses. Because, regardless of whether we situate the point of inflection in the development of Ciria’s “mature” work in 1994 -to be precise, in preparing the work that would be shown in the since-disappeared El Diente del Tiempo Gallery in Valencia, which would constitute the majority of the work shown at the Palacio de Velázquez- it’s quite clear that his paintings from 1991 and 1992 were already definitively immersed in his very personal artistic ideary.


It’s also clear that all that baggage casts an ascetic and spiritual light upon Ciria, who is trying to find in painting a field to develop all kinds of investigations into painting itself. It’s a kind of eccentric painting legacy that has formed the personality and mythology of the artist.


Although it may be possible to identify numerous affinities and similarities with the work of other artists, it’ is undeniable that his approach to painting is epic in its methodological and analytic intentionality. With Ciria, it’s not just a matter of quality and flawless resolution. Rather, we perceive how everything we understand painting to be is “picked apart” and, more than that, it’s done with such stunning facility that it could even be taken as an affront to some of his contemporaries.


Leaving aside José Manuel Ciria’s place in Spanish art, let’s shift our focus to his time in America. If we take into consideration the number of series the artist has begun and seen through in the last six years it becomes apparent that his assiduousness for investigating and searching hasn’t let up for a second. The series are Post-Suprematist (Post-Supremática), Rorschach Heads II (Cabezas de Rorschach II), Crazy Paintings, Structures (Estructuras), La Guardia Place, Schandenmaske Masks (Máscaras Schandenmaske), De-occupations (Desocupaciones), Doodles, Abstract Memory (Memoria Abstracta) and Rorschach Heads III (Cabezas de Rorschach III), while also intermittently continuing previous series such as, The Perverse Garden (El Jardín Perverso) and Constructed Dreams (Sueños Construidos). All those groups or families of paintings can be neatly categorized and clearly sorted by their iconographic form. Sincerely, I know of no other artist who is on a par, moreover because his paintings make anyone who has ever come into contact with his work subsequently able to easily recognize beyond a shade of doubt when they are looking at a painting by this singular artist.


At this point, I’d like to focus on the last two New York series: Abstract Memory and Rorschach Heads III. I’ve had the rare privilege of seeing Ciria paint. Artists usually avoid being watched, and Ciria is no exception, arguing that when someone is watching they try to turn an intimate action into a performance and make their gestures more grandiose, which completely destroys the concentration required for connecting to the work they’re doing. Nevertheless, seated in a chair in a corner, without murmuring a word or shifting an inch, scarcely breathing even, I had the opportunity to stay a rather long time watching Ciria work on one of his paintings. Obviously, there were no muses circling round him, neither did it go beyond being just a mere exercise in putting colors onto a canvas lying on the floor. But, the most magical and memorable thing I witnessed during that experience, aside from his obvious facility and his movements, was Ciria’s gaze, his way of looking. It was an inquisitive gaze that saw not just with the eyes but with the entire body and, at the risk of overstatement I would even venture to say, with every cell of his being. It is a gaze that the canvas can certainly feel on its own tight skin. The painting that was coming to its culmination at that time was part of the Abstract Memory series. Something else I saw that surprised me was how the “controlled chance” Ciria has commented on so much doesn’t depend quite so much on chance, rather it could more aptly be likened to a choreographed ballet. The resulting texture grows with every successive painting session, precisely controlling how the oil paint dries.


Insofar as their reading, the paintings from this series could be clearly divided into two completely separate actions. On one hand, the organization and creation of the geometric ground, and on the other, the sessions where Ciria’s much talked about gestural stains are articulated. I’m unsure whether even an adept viewer would be able to ascertain the time difference between the two, let’s call them, “layers”. It’s amazing how both “intervals” merge and integrate with each other so perfectly naturally. Abstract Memory becomes a prodigy of small formal solutions, which I would only wish to qualify as being of extraordinary experiential value. According to Ciria, Abstract Memory is an exercise in revision, or re-thinking, Masks of the Gaze, the series that came immediately before his move to New York. The length of time that separates the two series is five years. However, Ciria maintains that one is a continuation of the other, aside from two fundamental differences. Firstly, the compartmentalizing or geometric field has become significantly more relevant while previously, in Masks of the Gaze, the geometric elements were typically squares, rectangles or different sized bars of greater or lesser predominance in the composition or simple linear cuts either across the ground or across the “motifs” of the paintings and that were always in neutral colors, black, gray and only occasionally red or orange or a drop of yellow. Conversely, in Abstract Memory the abstract elements have grown exponentially to cover the entire ground and, likewise, the palette of colors has grown to include ochers, pale yellows, orange and red earth tones, blues, greens, pinks and a jarring eruption of aluminum. Additionally, in the gestural “layer” we see the arrival of orange, a color rarely found in Ciria’s work.


The other major difference between Abstract Memory and Masks of the Gaze lies in how in most of the compositions the stain is enclosed within one of the “windows” that are created by the ground and which, consequently, means the stains have to be smaller. This characteristic is found throughout practically the entire series with the exception of a very few compositions where the stains travel freely over the compartmentalized ground. In summary, the evolution of this series in regards to the one preceding it is characterized by its having more geometric radicalness, a coloristic expansiveness, how the stain is subjugated to the ground and the persistence of the number nine, with all its magical and spiritual associations. It can also be seen how in countless paintings a kind of concentric frame appears within the picture plane. But despite their profound differences, both series are clearly of the same spirit and come together to form a clearly recognizable node.


Without stretching too far, we can fit almost the totality of the American series within the “protocol” that ADA provided. Many of them, as Carlos Delgado has pointed out, are like revisions of the artist’s earlier series. Accordingly, we can draw strong parallels between the Post-Suprematist series from 2005-2006 and the Automatons (Autómatas) series from 1984-1985, and between La Guardia Place from 2006-2007 and the series titled Men, Hands, Organic Forms and Signs (Hombres, Manos, Formas Orgánicas y Signos) from 1989. There is a deepening of a trail already traveled down and that is then made new again. Nevertheless, it is hard to see José Manuel Ciria’s last series, Rorschach Heads III, in quite the same light. The artist has said that what triggered the series didn’t come out of formal or conceptual investigations, but rather from wholly personal experiences. The death of the artist’s father from a brain tumor, suffering his loss and his journey to see the Moai of Easter Island are what led Ciria to paint a painting in 2001 that’s impossible to understand within the context of the artist’s body of work: Oh! Wild days (Oh! Días salvajes) from 2010. If in other series figuration had previously appeared, (for example, Homage to Late Malevich, the figures and nudes of the La Guardia Place series, the icon of the mask (Schandenmaske Masks) or the stickmen in (Doodles), Rorschach Heads III should be seen as a series that is extremely easy to read figuratively, while not ceasing to be abstract. An alchemical apparatus that contains everything we know to be Ciria; the strength and boldness of his compositions, the “stitching” of the abstract stains, the powerful presence, the textures, drips, the “clouds” and the distinctive atmosphere… However, Rorschach Heads III is, perhaps more than any other series by the artist, a group of paintings with a clearly political intention. Distortion, the ellipse, and the grotesque shake hands with broad fields of emotional vocation. Faces that frighten us, or perhaps faces showing fear, aggressive gestures seen every day in contemporary society, desolate tenderness, a lost gaze, rage against one’s limitations, the unhappiness of solitude, isolation, lonely luckless figures, raucous gestures, deformity: the Rorschach Heads evoke so many different things in the viewer that they’re certainly a little scary. But, the fear comes from the thoughts they provoke in the viewer. It might be better to bury your head in the sand like an ostrich and ignore these paintings. At any rate, it’s a lot easier for us to look at other series, and Ciria himself has commented that “abstraction is not the right vehicle for expressing concrete ideas”, even though the underlying intention might be one and the same.


As I mentioned above, whoever comes into contact with Ciria’s painting are invariably always able to recognize his visual language afterwards. We see dozens of shows in art galleries and museums every year that vanish completely from our memory. On the contrary, whoever has followed Ciria’s work will agree with me that we can remember a lot of his shows in quite a bit of detail. I don’t think I’m wrong in saying that, when I ask myself about my reaction to the paintings that make up the Rorschach Heads III series, I find that this group of work is indelibly carved into my memory, that it has created strong roots. Many of the gestures, expressions, or the color and the eyes are etched into our brains and retinas in such a way that we can never get rid of them. It’s painting going full throttle aimed at our conscience.


To wrap up, I would like to comment on two more points. The first is the iconographic inventiveness and prowess of all of the paintings in the series, which could probably be sorted into three large groups: the paintings most closely approaching realism, the paintings characterized by free inventiveness (mostly small format), and a third group of paintings with an unequivocal inclination towards the grotesque and that in some way directly re-connect to the Spanish and European traditions. In 1490, Leonardo da Vinci was the first artist to make paintings that were intended to be grotesque caricatures. Since that time, we can pick out a number of artists who have also shown a predisposition for this kind of painting, from the extraordinary Goya in his Black Paintings to others including Odilon Redon or Edvard Munch, the sculptor Messerschmidt or James Ensor, and we can’t leave out German neo-expressionism and Antonio Saura.


What I’m proposing, is that within just one series we are confronted by unexpected twists and turns and a kind of gallimaufry where everything goes as long as it might be used to reach the stigmatized iconography of the head-sign. This leads into the second point I want to make. I have a magnificent catalog published by the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1996 about Picasso and the portrait. Leafing through the book, we can begin to understand that for Picasso every little painting, every sketch or every drawing offers an inexhaustible opportunity for formal invention. From small sketches to completely finished work, cubist heads to caricatures, stunningly beautiful realist compositions and distorted portraits of women, the blue, rose, analytic, synthetic and neoclassical periods or the late work, the faces full of light and the shadowy portraits, the numerous self-portraits and spatial games, all using a simple portrait-head motif. And, Ciria does exactly the same thing in Rorschach Heads III. In every painting of the series he invents a new universe, but there’s one important difference: in these paintings he is not searching for a canon of beauty, formal achievement or serendipitous compositional structures, but quite the opposite. The language we find here is thoroughly contemporary and problematic. The values referred to above have been altered with the intention of creating paintings fraught with brazenness and discomfort, angry ranting or even horror; a reflexive universe inhabited by solitary, caricatured or terrible personages staring us in the eye, clamoring for a more just society.