Juan Estefa. Barcelona.
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Juan Estefa. Barcelona.

Juan Estefa. Bach Quatre Gallery. Barcelona.

Catálogo exposición”Limbos del Fénix” Galería Bach Quatre Arte Contemporani, Barcelona.Octubre 2005.


Juan Estefa Freire’s conversation with José Manuel Ciria


At this stage, regarding Spanish public at least, it is totally unnecessary to introduce José Manuel Ciria. José Manuel is an artist who has managed to get on to the prestigious and privileged position that just a few elite artists occupy. His work is appreciated by a wider and wider market, and for years the most influential and harshest critics support him openly.


I have been fortunate to be Jose’s friend since no less than twenty-eight years ago. I vividly remember the numerous afternoons we met to walk round art galleries in that new Madrid which started to open up with a certain timidity at the end of the 60s. By that time he already was an inexorably devoted painting lover. Tens of anecdotes —if not hundreds— that have been accumulated as time passes by, his own and his work development, and the frank admiration of our mutual friends from those days for the struggle and irrepressible spirits of this exceptional artist, offer me an advantageous position to approach Ciria, not only within the artistic plane, but also with regard to his human facet.


For a few weeks José is threatening me to write a text to introduce one of his catalogues. He appeals to the fact that we know each other pretty well, and to the fact that a friend’s point of view, although I am not an expert on the artistic subject, can also help to understand the person behind the work and, therefore, the work itself.


José Manuel keeps old friends, some of them even older than me. Ciria is always open and receptive. Those who know him —for a long or a short time— should agree with me that José broadcasts a special, modest, friendly and warm wavelength, without loosing a slightest bit of his strong personality or his, sometimes, extraordinarily forceful attitude.


Once I have considered my friend’s request, I obviously declined. I do not have the hermeneutical knowledge —I think it is called like that— to go into Ciria’s work in any depth with enough professionalism, however close our relationship is, or however fortunate I was to know at first hand, at least eighty per cent of his work, before it came out from different studios to consecutive exhibitions. Yes I do, I could have seen truncated experimental lines, works loooking for appropriate solutions which were fruitless in the end, the meetings, his longings, his euphoric and desperate moments, and the most important, the great success of a work full of experimentation and analysis. I presume that critics and essayists have already reported enough on the ambiguous first impression that causes my friend’s work —Abstract Expressionism— in order to be able, then, to understand how far is this sort of painting from that “familiarity,” because what lies behind the surface is a cold and analytical work that constanly appeals to conceptualization and to a rich and segmented theoretical basis from which the whole Formalism theory can be developed. Therefore, that title La forma de lo informe (the shapelessness’s shape) could, seriously, become to José, although it does not seem to, Del concepto a la experimentación formal, con aspecto de informalismo (from the concept to formal experimentation, in the Informalism appearance). I must confess, much to my regret, that José had to spend many afternoons with me, because I am pretty dim, to make me undesrtand the magnitude of his proposal.


That is enough for my first “hermeneutical” attempts. I have no interest neither for rethoric nor irony, for poesy, poetry, syntagms or modules, for pompous language, concepts that can not be simplified or for unintelligible words… I answered José Manuel with another question: —Why don’t we try a conversation?— He accepted relunctanly labelling me as a lazy. Here is the result.


Juan Estefa Freire: Um! Let’s see. Why New York and right now?

Ciria: You kwow that for some time I have wanted to live in New York, for at least a few years. Four years ago I had the opportunity of being awarded a scholarship but the project came to nothing. After that I have been led by engagements. I suppose it is the result of a necessity of search, change and opportunity as well. Currently I have innumerable contacts in the United States, and I feel like facing solitude and knowing what more I can achieve. This necessity mainly involves starting again from scratch. I want a change, and I think it can only occur by modifying my location and environment. My own situation as artist worries me. You know that not many years ago I used to spend most of my time experimenting and endowing those experimentations with thoughtful contents. However, in the last three or four years, this experimentation disappeared for the sake of consolidating a good position in the market in accordance with the instructions of some of my gallerists. Possibly, what I have done until now, will be in the future my most highly regarded work, the most coherent. Nevertheless I do not want to be repetitive. So, even though the truth is that you need a fair amount of control to form a language in this profession, it is also true that I should not paint just what they demand. I need to look for new solutions and proposals. And for that change I require solitude, I require to be isolated and to escape from myself.

J.E.F.: I can understand you when you talk about looking for new iconographies, techniques and experimentations, new supports and innovation. But I do not believe a word when talking about isolation. A few people are more endowed than you for social relations, contacts, and meetings. I could imagine that you need some time before your diary is fulled with engagements, as it is here in Spain, but I do not think you are capable of modifying your own personality. José, you like people, you like reunions, meetings, conversations about art, and, moreover, you are very ambitous within your profession. Although you would never have sold one of your paintings, or you would not have got success, you would have kept on working desperately. It is your nature, just the way you are. You just care about painting, but you love being immersed in the crowd too.

C.: You are right, Juan, I like so much having friends, but I am not talking about never going out. At the studio you work engrossed in your own world, work, challenges and problems. That is the place which I want to be modified. I feel like having a different routine, but I need quite a lot of time to achieve it. Moreover, I can not avoid some feeling of strangulation, excess, overdose of phone calls, or madness. I want to shut myself away at the studio and work quiet. In Madrid I have reached a stage where I cannot do that. Once I have decided to move, New York seems to be the best option. I do not want to stop painting or achieving goals. I am not talking about vacation. What I urgently need is a change of mind, of direction, of space… moving to a place where just a few people know me.

J.E.F.: I see these photos on your table and a Kevin Power’s article on PhotoEspaña, that I read in El Cultural few days ago, comes to my mind. A few people know that you take a lot of photographies: interiors, buildings, strangers, light or dark spots, surprising situations, children, poor and underpriviledged people, prostitutes… Naturally, Power claimed a critic position and an account of arguments. I think your photographies have those ingredients. Then, I cannot understand why you do not show that work, or why what you normally show on catalogues and exhibitions is limited to thematic series with photos of female nudes.

C.: It is quite simple Juan. I am not a photographer. I take photos just because I have fun, but I do not consider them my work. I am very choosy about photography and I should admit that this medium does not interest me much. To begin with, there are a lot of people who take photos, while I perceive just a few as artists. I find it very difficult to become excited with photograhy, and what is more, if you ask me five names of people who make me enthusiastic, I will probably have a bad time. Then, there are also the new technologies, and a bad photo can be touched up until becoming something spectacular and really good. I have a problem even with the artists that interest me, photography catch the time, the moment, but that moment is always the same, it does not change, it does not evolve but in a sense purely retrospective or documentary, just to show that precise moment. I think that digital printing, photo design, and perfect but deceptive pixels collage have a lot more of potential than the purist medium of photography as we knew it till now. I cannot avoid my penchant for painting. When you look at Zurbarán or Morandi still life, it is certainly always the same, but different, too. There is a kind of time trip. The painting puts different readings across, depending on the way you are looking at it. Naturally, we may find evidence of a period in a painting, but a good painting has a soul, and that soul changes and is transformed with you. It lives. I like tense, strong, energetic and full of life painting and that is difficult to find within photography. Accoding to what you comment on my photo series of female nudes, it is eagerness itself what supports those projects. I have repeatedly pointed out that those photographies have to be considered as paintings, not as photos. Furthermore, as photographies they do not arouse greater interest than those you can find in a magazine with publicity fomat. In those series I cope with purely pictorial, not photographic, problems. In a sense I do not worry about lighting or volumetric matters, they are just painting excercises, apart from clear tributes to artists or situations that interest me. In the last series Bodegones de Musas (still lifes of muses) within the project El sueño de Lisboa (Lisboa’s dream) I tackle matters ranging from Mantenga’s foreshortening to Leger’s bodies accumulation. So, just in case the proposal was not clear, I always count on a porfessional photographer to take the photos while I just compose, while I just put the bodies in which I consider the best position, in the same way someone compose a still life before painting it, or someone who arrange the flowers adequately in a vase.

J.E.F.: I was astonished the other day, Why did you start insulting that collector?

C: It is up to me. I wonder why some collectors, after the years and when pieces of art cost much more, ask for paintings reproduced in books and catalogues in those days, spurning what you offer them in the current moment. As time passes by, the same collectors repeat an identical operation, they look for those paintings that they spurned before without paying attention to the newly-finished and hanged ones.

Many times the collector needs to know the artist, so they convince the gallery of the moment to arrange an appointment, trying, inmediately after, to avoid the gallerist brazenly. Some collectors, in the very moment of the first look and handshake, become close friends. Others insist on going on at the artist, convinced that the artist stands all day doing nothing but waiting the collector’s visit. Just a few of them provide you understanding and accompany you as allies, taking more interest in the person behind the work and in the development of it than in the piece they have adquired. There is also who thinks that there is a plot between the gallery and the artist in order to hide the best pieces and offer only the worst works. Certainly, there are paintings that should never come to their owner’s blows.

In connection with this, a brief anecdote that happened to me at New York comes to my mind.

J.E.F.: Tell me, tell me

C: The very same opening day with Hvgo de Pagano, an impecabbly dressed, neat and well-mannered man took an interest in one of my big format pieces. Hvgo, without even blatting an eyelash, cut him off a little bit heartlessly —This painting is not for you. Who are you? Which artists appears in your collection?— Once the man left crestfallen, the gallerist came near and told me that he liked that painting to go to a prestigious collection. Then I asked him ingenously —What if no one is interested in it?— Hvgo answered promply —excuse me, but they do not choose the pieces, I decide to which collector goes each piece— It is probably that in Spain only one or two galleries take the trouble to select the destination of their artists’s works, the rest sell them to the fastest bidder, and too many times with easy payment terms. I have always thought that between black and white there are innumerable tones of grey. This tiny world is very complex, and this complexity affects absolutely, in any sense, all the people who live in it.

J.E.F.: And what about critics? During these years I have heard you raving about some of them, and, naturally, I have also heard you slagging a lot of people off.

C: For Christ’s sake! There are critics that keep you talking four hours about the work, its motivations, about the proposal’s honesty and suitability, about new firm solutions, about its theoretical framework, about… They call you six times to ask you more things, to extend information, to emphasize a point, and, in the end, they indulge in pointless discussions or write whatever they please. ? Just a few of them really work and manage to be themselves on the artist’s shoes trying to understand you and to make you understood. There are memorable essays that arouse interest and open windows, but unfortunately the repetitive excercise that leds you to exhaustion exists too, and even the bullshit in its purest form riddled with laudatory assertions and quotes everywhere. I like much more people who are not very lavish with their own praise and people who take the trouble to go into the artist’s work, trying to help the hypothetical observer to understand the work.

Critics have a difficult job too. You do not have the same willingness every day. Many times ideas do not flow due to personal preferences, feeling, a simple headache, tiredness, inspiration itself…there are many factors. We all had sometime to face up an exhibition in which we understood nothing, or simply which did not interest us. It is thought that artists have always to keep inspired, that the work has to keep on being surprising and moreover, that we have to improve and improve. Sometimes that is possible, but sometimes it is not. For example, I remember when I saw some Susy Gómez’s exhibition. There were some interesting pieces but, broadly speaking, I did not like it at all. Months ago I visited with Horach Moya another of her exhibitions in Palma of Majorca and I came out of the gallery levitating. The exhibition was magnificent and it made me completely reconsider her work. Until that moment I could not go into her work, I could not understand her. This situation happened to me several times. There are some artists who automatically attract you, for others you require time and a more careful analysis. I do not deny, of course, there is also too much rubbish, it is obvious. There are works that are shit anyway, even tough time goes by and although you look at them again and again trying to understand the artist.

J.E.F.: You have remarked many times art is thought. You know that I have a quite subjective and firm idea of that: what is good is good, and what is not is not. Therefore, it is not worth trying to defend it from a theoretical discourse, however clever or suitable it seems to be. The art is not a thought for me, it is just a well done work. I do not want either to seem sectarian, I understand that art could need a theoretical framework and discourse, that it could make you reflect, that it could and, even, must make you think, but my dear friend, I can not bear those who defend some junks appealing to someone’s insensitivity or ignorance to understand how marvellous a proposal can be.

C.: You are right, this is subjective. There are works that you consider splendid and inspired, while I think they are poor and lack of interest, if not even abominable On the other hand, we agree about others. We both were fascinated by Dalí when we were young, currently you still like him, while I think that, appart from his literary work, he is just a clown. You have no great interest for Beuys, while I think he is a sublime and a key artist of the XXth century. You consider that some pieces of Miró are interesting, while almost —if not the whole— work of Miró drives me crazy. It is the same with Tàpies.

J.E.F.: You can not deny that the constant barrage of the media has a lot to do with people’s preferences and tastes. In view of this barrage which surrounds us, it is almost impossibe to admit openly that you do not like a particular artist. I have always thought that art has an intimate and personal reading, so I am not going to trust blindly what many people think, however they consider that a well established artist is a rip-off, although he is not. There are really good Tàpies and others that, I honeslty would not hang at my wall, even though they were a present.

C.: Each painting has a personal view and a joint view. Once, I was lucky enough to attend a Tàpies’s exhibition in the Jeu de Paume of París, an experience comparable to Giotto’s one in Assis. There are Tàpies that are worse than others, so what? all Goya’s pieces have not the same quality, have they? At least what matters is what those artists are able to transmit. They all have the same intention towards us, it is a sort of eagerness to go beyond, it was so for Saura, with whom I struck up a friendship and had long conversations, for Millares, for Basquiat, and it is so for Twombly. I have remarked it more than once, we can observe the development of a project if all the pieces of the puzzle are visible. Many people express their opinion although they do not know a shit, they have just seen a couple of pieces of the artist in question, naturally, without neither training on the subject, nor even the intention of perceiving if there is something more.

J.E.F.: If you do not mind, What if we move on to something else? Let’s try to avoid the surface and go deep into what really matters. You told me a few months ago that you have got over the conceptual crisis you were worried about, and that, in the end, you have found, I do not remember exactly the expression you used but it was something like a hole or a tiny door through which you can sneak in. Naturally, I am talking about your theoretical or conceptual lucubrations. I am not going to make you repeat neither what you said about the five planes or segments, nor what you comment on levels, registers and compartmentations… Besides, I could never undestand the whole thing, although you have tried to explain it to me tirelessly. You know me, when I look at a painting, if I consider it is truly awesome, that will be enough for me. What is that strange Alpha thing you are involved in?

C.: (Laughs) It is called Dynamic of Alpha Alignments, D.A.A. If you notice it, this abbreviation is very similar to A.D.A., which stands for Automatic Deconstructive Abstraction; Mercedes Replinger and García-Berrio tackled it within my work. I name Alpha Aligments those basic tightening structures that can be found in a pictorial work, that is, inside each painting, except for Minimalism and other related ideologies, there is a series of primary elements that compound and tighten the composition. Alpha alignments can be perceived all along the history of painting, from the Renaissance and Baroque periods to contemporary abstractions and illustrations, without forgetting Romanticism, Cubism, Suprematism, Constructivism and North American Abstract Expressionism.” Ciria would like to see a computer programme capable of reading painting, a computer programme that could «undress» the painting from those lines and gravitational points that constitute the structure of the composition. In connection with this, what we see in detective stories about the search for fingerprints comes to my mind. We would then realize that many compositions which are apparently different have a common soul and structure, and that is because those fundamental lines and points totally coincide, or are very similar.

All painters use tricks when it comes to improving a composition. I remember an anecdote with Celia Montolío in París. She came to visit me while I was enjoying the Culture Department’s scholarship. That day I was lifting a painting, that was already dry, off the floor. When I have got it up, the composition began to fall towards the left blatantly, so I dropped it on the floor again, but my foot stained it with paint on the right edge at 30 cm. approximately from the top. Then, I repeated that same excercise two or three times more. Once it was a real stain, and the footprints could not be seen, I lifted the painting, and suddenly, absolutely everything was at its place and the composition became perfect. Celia realized, a little bit perplexed, how those prints near the stretcher’s edge were a vital gravitational element to save the composition I was working on.

Another especially illustrative example comes now to my mind, The Kiss by Max Ernst, from 1927 I think, a medium format painting that belongs to the Guggenheim in Venice. In this composition we observe a couple placed on a horizon line, and a sky which occupies almost two thirds of the painting. The female figure seems to hold a baby while simultaneously another figure that resemble a bird, something typical of Ernst in that creative moment, crosses her. Colors are intense and complementary, they consist mainly on dark orange and ochre tonalities together with bright light blue. We can easily imagine how the shaping process of this work was developed. Once the lines that compound the figures were set out, the artist began to give tension to it by means of dark areas like they were shadows. Nevertheless, he could not achieve that tension even though he crosses off in black the man’s shoulder and arm at the lightest area. It is a wonderful painting but it is not completed. Ernst, dared to paint flesh and whitish colored the women’s foot in the foreground on the right lower corner. He automatically perceives his mistake when that became the improper main feature of his painting. Nervoulsy the artist looked for a solution that could balance again and give tension to the scene, so he resorts to put a little bit of white oil on the top edge, removing it later by means of dragging with a paintbrush or a cloth. It is incredible how everything is organized, how everything gains magic and moves into its place. If anyone read this, I would love that he or she looked for a reproduction of this painting and prove to cover the foot of the women and the dragged white area so he or she could realize that The kiss, apart from the strokes and colors that constitute it, is supported by shadow and black masses and by a line of tension between those two elements, previously described.

J.E.F.: José, I love what you says, but this insistence of yours on deconstruction, dissection, lamination, or turning painting into atoms requires a very educated look and a great knowledge of art, and after all, I could not see the point of it, if it is not just a «scientific» one. Appropriations have always existed, currently it is a widespread phenomenon, and each painter looks for some kind of cunning to compose a painting.

C.: Excuse me Juan, but I think it is really interesting. I am not referring to the appropriations many artists make of all what surrounds us, not about that «cannibal» stance on the misappropriation of a method, an element, a technique, a simple detail…I reported some of these appropriations in an incomplete text within the book Intersticios (Interstices). What I am trying to explain is something much more abstract. I am not saying that The Bombardment by Guston can look like The Plague by Boecklin. I am pointing out that, if we can reduce a composition like Centaur’s Fighting, to continue with the same symbolist, to basic lines and gravitational points, to a simple diagram, plan or map, we will see that when we turn Boecklin’s work ninety degrees, it matches up some of the Elegies to the Spanish Republic by Motherwell with a pinpoint accuracy. And I do not mean that Motherwell, who travelled around Europe, drew his inspiration from this work, I just state that the coincidence is proverbial. Many artists, from different times and periods along history, share a series of instructions, tension lines and distribution of weights which are constantly repeated, although their works are diametrically opposed.

The search of those basic or primary alignments, which I call Alpha, and their dynamic is what I am studying. I pointed out sometime that it would be great to dictate the reading order of a painting, that is, to set which is the main element, the one which absorbs our first look, and which are the following points or stops that demand our attention while looking the painting. To look at and to observe are not the same thing. It will be probably impossible to direct the sight troughout the contemplation of a painting. However, to flirt with this possibility is at least exciting. Not necessarilly what I am trying to analyze is confined to something of scientific proportions, or is applicable to any composition that insterests or pleases me. An example, Leonardo’s Last Supper, a fresco which ca be easy reduced into its basic elements: two curves marked by thirteen heads, two horizontal lines in the foreground, another one in the background and a space perspective. It is quite easy to turn those elements or D.A.A. into an abstract composition perfectly balanced, and what is more, we will see that it matches up an splendid Kiefer’s painting, from his winged palettes.

(Laughs) José it is impossible to follow you, not because I do not know the artists you are mentioning, it is because there are not a lot of people that have neither your capacity of observation, nor the time and the will to confirm what you are saying.

C.: It is use to me. Perhaps my concerns were triggered by my insecurity when I moved into Abstraction by the end of the 80s. I needed a hold, a hanger, a theoretical platform that can be used as a support. This conceptual pattern for Analytical Plots taken as starting point for the experimental development of my works has been loyally useful for me until not long ago, but since a couple of years I aspire to find something new. I think that D.A.A. have an enormous potencial. I am really excited and Iam working on it.

J.E.F.: There is another thing that surprised me the last time I visited your studio, it is that renunciation of a wider chromatic range, like the one you used before. Now almost everything is dominated by red color. Red, white, black and some greys brutally predominate in your palette. Apart from the fact, that I do not see you either working on paintings like the ones you have painted before, much more transgressor. I am talking about the plastic bags of Visiones Inminentes (Inminent Visions), or the heads (Victims) that you painted in Israel, or about that confrontation or counterpoint generated between the series Glosa Líquida (Liquid Gloss), Máscaras de la Mirada (Look Masks) and Sueños Construidos (Built Dreams).

C.: I have often compared painting to breathing. Sometimes you have to breathe in and sometimes you have to breathe out. In some situations your “body” request you to open the work and to experiment different solutions, in others you prefer to insist on a point. There are «wild» days and restrained days. I do not lack in ideas for new and absolutely novel series, with new supports and registers, the point is that they occur in two different circumstances: On the one hand I am sure of being in the best moment of the suite Máscaras de la Mirada. I do not have prejudices at all when working on my paintings, the formula is smooth enough to make me feel at complete liberty. It is not that I am limited to a concrete solution, it is that I constantly try to find new plastic solutions. Works come up easily, the support does not matter: PVC, canvas, paper or graphic work, they come up fearless, with a soul and they impact deeply. I presume that not all my works will have the same quality, but I am sure that, as a whole, this is my most inspired and prolific moment of the last years. The red thing is an anecdotal matter, you know red is my lucky color. I think that by restraining the variation of the colors the suite gains a much more intense and forceful degree. The end of it is simply red.

On the other hand, there is my stay in New York. I do not want to be in such a different city from Madrid painting what I am painting here. Therefore, the prolongation of Máscaras de la Mirada was motivated by the aim of making a deep cut in my career, and beginning new formulations inspired by my change of life and location. The suite Glosa Líquida came to its end, not because it had no more potential, but just because I was tired. There are series which run out after one work, others need three pieces, some of them accompany you for some time, but just a few of them are endless. I will work again on Sueños Construidos, but from a different conception, and I will start openning new series within Abstraction, and some of them can be even figurative.

J.E.F.: José, good luck in New York and my best wishes. Would you like to say something more?

C.: Thank you very much, Juan. Yes, I would like to thank Alexanco for the Bach Quatre. I have fruitlessly tried sometime to give him the favour back. José Luis, thank you for Barcelona, for your friendship, for the Humus, for Tina, Ernesto, Rosa, Joan, and all the people around him. We never see each other, but I like you. A kiss for Nieves, too