Javier Hontoria. Alicante.
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Javier Hontoria. Alicante.

Javier Hontoria. Lonja del Pescado. Alicante.

Catálogo exposición “Teatro del Minotauro” itinerante organizada por el Consorcio de Museos de la Comunidad Valenciana y la Caja de Ahorros del Mediterráneo.
Lonja del Pescado, Alicante.
Casal Solleric, Palma de Mallorca.
Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, Ibiza.
Museo de la Ciudad, Valencia. Febrero 2003.


Javier Hontoria

Ciria offers you a beer, runs off to see how one of his latest pieces is drying, answers his mobile, paces his study nervously. He checks a mixture, beer did you say? He opens the door to take a delivery of new canvasses. He rubs his hand over them, stretches them, rips, feels and tramples on them until they are to his liking. He gets you a beer. He goes to his chair, sits down and, just when he has lit up a cigarette and taken a sip of his beer, the phone rings again. It’s quite a while until he is finally able to sit down and talk about painting. He does so with a passion. He explains how his work is normally configured on an analytical field that can be divided in to five sub-groups. He talks about research into the particular nature of each support, the assimilation of iconographic registers … how this second section can be further divided into another three sub-groups, which should not be confused with the sub-groups of the fourth group, which themselves link directly with the fifth group, which unites them all…

Ciria is always in a rush. He is a torrent of activity. This is why it is so surprising to hear him speak with such impetus, but in such heavily methodical tones. He is truly obsessed by systemisation and rationalisation. For years now, he has been intensely developing a theory of abstract painting and his own painting. He can talk about it; it is all perfectly planned. Every surface, every texture, has all passed through the filter of his contemplation and critical reflection. You will never see a work with which Ciria is not totally satisfied in a gallery or at a fair. No wonder – he uses the box cutter with unsuspected frequency. This is why it is so strange to compare his habitual behaviour with the works scattered around his Madrid studio. As almost always, artist and work merge in a single being. Ciria’s work has impetus, phlegmatic gesture and dynamism, but it also has the rigour, order and precise outline of cold, measured geometry.

When I look at Intersticios (Interstices) I often think of Visiones Inmanentes (Immanent Visions) and the road leading to them. At first, I would have thought that these “bags” would have been the surprising end of a trajectory. The final stage of a painting in which the traditional and first support was fulminated by the voracious desires of a painter tired of being oppressed by the physical limits of the pictorial plane, but who returns now, in this series, to a type of rigidity, or iron-bound containment. With time it seems that this return journey can be understood as a crucial moment in the career of José Manuel Ciria, and, far from being a finishing line, is simply a door to infinite fields.

It seems to me that he has undertaken this process in a radical and decidedly emphatic, but tremendously logical manner. For a long time now, Ciria has been using a strategy of accumulation, superimposing planes and realities. In this way, the paint invades different territories, where gesture and blot run freely, shaping stepped perspectives, overlapping references.

After this initial research, everything has happened in Ciria’s work. Gesture and containment have fought and continue to fight bloody battles. The geometric plane and the rip have cohabited for a long time now, but this time the atmosphere is really tense (Ciria always speaks of the “sudden interruption imposed by hatching or drawn geometric lines (present) – the constructed planes will come later – on the free development of the compositions”). At first it appeared that the gesture would win the fight, but the plastic bag was definitive. The cloistered paint returns to immobility but what about space? Ciria recently decided to intervene in space. Gesture and geometry, locked into rigid translucent structures, now float around the space of the gallery. This gives rise to questions, to the perpetual confrontation between opposing codes and, in short, to reflection. Ciria has acquitted himself well from this wager, strengthened by inviting us into unforeseeable territories with, to be sure, a multitude of possibilities. And, while I had already foreseen that Immanent Visions could be the end of a cycle, it now becomes obvious why it is only the beginning of a prosperous pictorial exercise.

It was this spatial determination that led to the creation of Interstices. Nine structures hang down from the ceiling, gripped by metallic structures. In my view, the direct precedent for these nine structures is to be found in Immanent Visions. Ciria wants to destroy conventionalisms. While he first rejected the traditional pictorial plane in the search for a greater range of options, this time he has tasked himself with questioning the propriety of the expositive space. As Liam Gillick maintains, the expositive space is no longer a container for works of art, but has become the very context of the work. Thus, Ciria plays with the notion of the physical space of the gallery, breaking away from the vertical rigidity of traditional walls.

However, in spite of their formal similarities (they are, after all, part of the same family), there are certain clashing conceptual differences between Interstices and Immanent Visions. On previous occasions, Immanent Visions has been referred to as surfaces behind (or inside) surfaces. On the occasion of the Rekalde exhibition in 2001, Guillermo Solana wrote, “The transparency of the wrapping of Immanent Visions is an image of both the presence and the absence of the skin… Making skin transparent implies developing the body that it covers”. This skin that, as Solana continues, “with its tactile presence and its optical absence”, is locked in the picture has, nevertheless, in spite of its invisibility, enormous conceptual power. While Immanent Visions is trapped by the iron-bound ballast of plastic, Interstices is gripped by implacable geometrical rigour.

The pictures in Interstices are naked, with no protection, skin or wrapping. Their only valid skin consists of the physical limits of the gallery, and their conceptual plot must be understood within the unique territory of the painting in space. The nine structures that hang from the ceiling make up a series of planes consisting of another series of planes. Each structure consists of a surface of military tarpaulin to which other plastic and canvas surfaces have been stuck. These three materials shape a heterogeneous reality. In this regard, we can also look back at Compartmentalisations (Compartimentaciones). This series shows an evolution as regards priorities in Ciria’s work. First came the gestural, automatic paintings, imbued with unbridled dynamism. From then on, he began to introduce slight allusions to a certain reductive vocation, slight pencil-drawn hints, like a declaration of intentions. Later still, constructed geometric space began to play an active part in his work. In this regard, Interstices seem to me to be a considerable step forward as regards the evolution of the constructed plane. Ciria has gone from mere suggestion towards more blatant evidence.

We could say that the Interstices suite is linked to a rationalising current. The rigidity of the paintings is obvious: square and rectangular shapes leaving nothing to chance. This, logically, is as far as the support is concerned. We could mention here certain attitudes to painting that emerged in France some thirty years ago, under the aegis of the Supports/Surfaces group. In her recent book, “El arte último del siglo XX”, Ana María Guasch arguments that, following certain premises of the BMPT group, such as the reduction of the painting to the skeleton of its support, a disdain for the traditional concept of painting, the paintbrush and the gesture of painting, and the affirmation of the fundamental role of the canvas as a unique and vital element, the French painters, in both the Paris and Nice groups, reduced the practice of painting to a sort of research on its own specificity.

Ciria has always been clearly obsessed by supports. Maybe because of an uncontrolled desire to dominate them all, to understand their behaviour and possible reactions with other materials, maybe because he wants to extend his already vast range of possibilities. In any case, his studio has been home to all type of despicable materials, tarpaulins, fabrics, cardboard, pallets… It is a question of being in charge, of seeing how pigments, driers, varnishes and delayers act, of feeling the material, getting to understand it and attaining an absolute notion of its nature. Ciria can use anything. But, unlike the French, always in pursuit of the triumph of paint.

Guasch continues her thesis, alluding to the influence of the critic and theorist Marcelin Pleynet, who became the main spokesman for the group, in the journal Les lettres françaises. In an interview with Eric de Chassey, Pleynet maintained that what most attracted him as regards the pictorial practice of the young group was the systematic suppression of image and style in their paintings. It must be remembered that Supports/Surfaces subscribed to a radical and clearly minimalist current. This means starting from nothing, in the strictest sense of the word. Two of the nine planes in Ciria’s Interstices are totally black, the absolute negation of any sign of representation. In this regard, Ciria recurs to approaches similar to those of the French group as regards the suppression of the image, but not the suppression of subjectivity. Supports/Surfaces rejects subjectivity, alluding strictly to the essential properties of the support and the materiality of the paint. For Ciria, these planes have a raison d’être, a function in the piece. They are neutral elements that follow on from each other in space, with no apparent meaning other than their integral function with the rest of the planes, as a unifying entity that grants a greater degree of corporality to the structure. But this is another story, to be commented later.

One of the first public appearances of the Supports/Surfaces group was near Nice. The place was Coaraze and for six days the artists exposed their work outdoors. As Guasch says, the canvasses unfurled from cliff tops, hung from tree branches or were scattered on the grass. Why do the Interstices hang from the ceiling? Why are they independent? What has happened to the wall? I believe that this is where some of the links between Ciria and the French group may be established. In 1970 Claude Viallat, in my opinion the driving force behind the group and the main supporter of its underlying discourses, produced a work called Filet – a network of ropes joined by a multitude of knots. The structure hangs from the ceiling, independently from the wall, and claims to translate the vision of fabric under a microscope, stressing the specific nature of the support. Viallat wants to break with the conventional bases of painting, as regards form or merely institutional matters, and it is well known that Supports/Surfaces is based on the negation of all museum infrastructure, insofar as it alludes to a cultural policy which the members of the group believe to be outdated. What Ciria does is to break with the affirmation of painting as a static being. While Immanent Visions stand apart from the wall, tending towards an object-based aesthetic, Interstices break tangentially into the exhibition space, leaping into the viewer’s path.

The intention of the foregoing has been to underline certain analogies between the French group and the painting of Ciria, but I think the words of Daniel Abadie, curator of the Parisian Pompidou Centre, are most suitable to reconcile the two poles. In 1998 Abadie commissioned the exhibition Les anées Supports/Surfaces dans les collections du Centre Georges Pompidou, held at the Jeu de Paume National Gallery. In the catalogue for the exhibition, which later came to the Conde Duque in Madrid, offering an excellent opportunity to inspect the group’s work, Daniel Abadie stood apart from the nihilist and deconstructionist current of the group, from the “Marxist analysis of the media of painting”, to celebrate the return of colour to French painting. “It is precisely (colour) that the Supports/Surfaces artists have re-introduced into the field of art, which was hiding behind the analysis of the image, resorting to hyperrealism or to artefacts, in conceptual art. This recovered freedom, this immersion in colour, in paint from when it first appears when the pigment is placed on the canvas, is naturally alien to the language of words, which can only translate the shapes it takes on”.

This is where the true analogies belong: in the repetitive sequence of forms under the influence of colour. Between the lines, it should be emphasised that Abadie is thinking of Viallat’s work, his mechanical gesture, his footprints, his works from the end of the decade, his Repetition, which pertains to a series that clearly stresses the poetics of rationality, and of that trend in his work which could be seen on paper last year in Madrid’s Estiarte gallery, in a small but interesting cross-section of his graphic production, which, it must be said, was very prolific. This is where the two paths cross. Ciria likes to call those spaces of colour (he uses red, yellow, black and white) “cartoon boxes”. The spaces created by the superimposition of materials at different heights and positions form squares or rectangles, similar to comic strip compartments. These spaces are divided into rigid extensions that follow each other, forming a surface that acquires the aspect of a chessboard.

It would appear that gesture was clearly defeated in its struggle against geometrical rigour. Never before has geometry had the power that it has in Interstices. Ciria’s production revolves around the clash between the two poles, and the force of the gesture was always apparent. To a greater or lesser extent, the impetuous and uncontrolled Ciria always left his mark on his works, while the balanced, serene and rational Ciria remained in the background. Interstices offer the opposite version. The lines are set out on the simple geometric surfaces of the work. The painting no longer drips and gesture is perceived as a subtle insinuation, as isolated, almost iconic beings, boxed into the iron-bound geometrical shapes. This is the most rigid pictorial space that I have seen in Ciria’s work, a categorical compartmentalisation where, nevertheless, the paint does not run. It is, therefore, not only Ciria at his most rational, but also at his least gestural. Impulse has apparently disappeared, and automatism, hitherto the artist’s eternal fascination, now materialises in much less specific blots, tending towards the organic, or biomorphism. In many of the innumerable series that he maintains open, Ciria appears to want to concentrate the blot. Many of his current paintings have a blot that hovers over geometric zones, but it is a blot that attempts to agglutinate the fragments disseminated over the surface and to shape itself into a more apprehensible, more concrete nucleus, like drops of mercury that inevitably run together.

Interstices still show the characteristic chromatic explosions of previous eras, but revealed with a certain discretion. They give the impression that the blot that runs over each canvas moves at a strange light rhythm. In this suite, Ciria applies the paint in an enormously subtle, almost intuitive manner, as if erased by time, and materialised as tiny particles impregnating the surfaces with a marked poetic accent. Thus is born a series of insinuations that give shape and sense to the overall suite.

As in Compartmentalisations, the blot is conditioned by the constructed plane. A second glance, however, hurls us towards an unexpected and surprising conclusion. The blot never dies; its impetus does not decelerate when it meets the line dividing the planes, but rather hides behind them. The materials overlap, creating different layers. The paint is concealed by the superimposition of the canvases. We hear its insinuations, but it remains hidden. Ciria admits that the pieces are not of individual interest, but are more like pieces of a puzzle that only makes sense when it is assembled. There are, therefore, two well-differentiated realities. The first is an apprehensible work of which we have a correct notion. Planes superimposed in regular geometric spaces that show the mark of the artist, an ethereal, smooth mark of perishable appearance. The second, a subterraneous painting that is invisible to us, that hides behind the different materials. The paint throbs in the dark, hidden behind the planes. The canvases have different colours and textures and, at the same time, are given diverse treatments. The line never invades territories other than its own. The blot is thus aware of well-defined frontiers, of the pre-established borders that decisively limit its expansion.

As I have already said, this concealment gives rise to a poetry of insinuations. The montage of the pieces implies a conceptual translation of the piece in the exhibition space. While the paint is partially denied to us in the canvases themselves, the series of nine paintings offers an overall vision of this poetry of suggestions. The nine canvases are laid out to cover the entire space. Like theatre backdrops backstage, they are not set out in lines, but overlap, creating intermediate spaces through which it is possible to walk. I understand these intermediate spaces to be a key insofar as they become the territory where the painting is revealed. Right here, in the interstices. Each canvas could be said to be a reduced version of the overall series. While each canvas creates a status of suspicion, with the intuition of the existence of a reality that underlies our vision, a place that we cannot see but where we know the painting is hidden, in the overall suite it is these same spaces that show it in all its grandeur. A frontal vision of the piece does not show it to the full; we do not know what happens in certain angles hidden from our view. We intuit a prolongation of the painting as it is intuited behind each piece of superimposed canvas. And walking between the spaces it comes forward to meet us.

The geometrical rigidity that I have been emphasising from the beginning is likewise multiplied in the spatial montage. Now we appreciate a large body of strict geometries, following on tangentially from each other. The paint-free canvases, the black surfaces to which I have already referred, act as a link between the treated canvases. This happens in the painting and the non-painting, the naked support against triumphant painting. In short, another property always inherent in Ciria’s work: the sum of a multitude of realities in each surface, in each series, pictures in pictures inserted into pictures.

In Ciria’s work, the superposition of images and pictorial references is understood as a desire to widen the already vast range of possibilities determining the relationship between painting and support. His painting expands in all imaginable directions. It is curious, nevertheless, to see how he also covers the pictorial field with all types of planes, materials, wigs or naked women. He makes other, more silent, decidedly less grandiloquent pieces, which he inserts into a painting of immaculate, practically flat surfaces, where a small green geometrical shape is caressed by a blot hovering gently above it. Ciria is comfortable anywhere. He has no problems. Ciria is excess and defect, thunder and silence.

But, how far does he want to go? He gives the impression that he will end up painting absolutely everything, from the windows of his studio to his car. I remember that mythical piece by Jessica Stockholder, in which she painted of her garden. This American painter, resident in Vancouver, uses found materials, many of them despicable, and integrates them by means of an emphatic use of paint to create compositions of a monumental nature. Is this the direction to follow? It would doubtless be a radical decision, but not, I think, a surprising one. Or is it maybe towards a profound analytical approach, focussing more on the peculiarities of the support and its articulation with special implications, in the style of Fabian Marcaccio, with his grandiloquent abstraction and abstractive obsession? Will Ciria end up doing 17-metre murals, stretching throughout the length and width of the spaces? Marcaccio, like Viallat, so far approaches the support that it is possible to see through it. Everything is possible; nothing is impossible.