Kara Vander Weg. IVAM. Valencia.
Texto catálogo “Conceptos Opuestos 2001 – 2011”. Instituto Valenciano de Arte Moderno (IVAM), Valencia, Septiembre 2011.
STATES OF OPPOSITION: An interview with José Manuel Ciria
Kara Vander Weg
America is no longer a new world, but it surely is and always will be another
world. This is not merely a question of civilization, mentality, mores, or of
some social, economic, or mechanical progress more or less ahead of Europe.
of the sun’s rays. The light and temperature are different. There is something
of the humid warmth of a hothouse, even in the middle of winter; there is
also a hothouse light. In America, human and object lose their shadow.
Giorgio de Chirico, Paris, January 29, 1938(1).
I first met José Manuel Ciria in 2009, four years after he relocated from Spain to New York. Sitting in his La Guardia Place studio for the first time, I was impressed: by the focus behind his prolific career, by his determination, and by his unyielding respect for New York and its artistic potential. He truly believes in the city, and the country, as a catalyst for change. It is no coincidence that his studio is located in Soho, in what was decades ago considered to be the artistic cerebrum of the city. He has geographically put himself in the historical mix.
The irony, which of course is not lost on Ciria, is that there was no dramatic shift in his work following his transcontinental move, nor has there been since, not even upon his many visits to Spain. However, Ciria speaks often about the freedom, or looseness, that has come to exist in his work since being in America. I would agree, and I think what this chronologically ordered exhibition displays is the increasing fluidity of his diverse style over the last decade. There is now a near–constant oscillation between abstraction and figuration, or exacting precision and haphazard gesture. Painting and drawing are combined, now with video. There is a tension, as well as harmony. This, perhaps, is the New York effect. In this notoriously challenging and competitive city, it is important to consider, and reconsider, all the options. This is exactly what Ciria seems to be doing, and the possibilities are endless and exciting.
Ciria has very kindly welcomed me into his home, and to his studio, numerous times over the last several years. I have had the pleasure of many conversations with him. What follows is one of these discussions.
Kara Vander Weg: Jose, you have said that “It is the work that makes itself and I am a tool, in the same category with a brush or canvas. I have control over the composition, but not over the final result.” Yet you have continually applied specific parameters to your art making, which you have defined through statements as “Automatic Deconstructive Abstraction” (ADA, 1990) or the later “Dynamic Alfa Alignments” (DAA, 2004). There seems to be a palpable tension in your work —between exacting control and utter freedom, between the hard geometric edges and amorphous stains, as well as between the origins of your work in Madrid and in New York— this is the idea behind the exhibition’s title, “States of Opposition”. Can you discuss how the opposition and tension may drive your ideas and the production of your work?
José Manuel Ciria: Let’s look at it part by part. One of the five analytical areas that made up the initial base or platform of ADA was using “Techniques of Controlled Chance”. The idea was inherited from Surrealism and it was primarily used for creating textured fields of colour, just to avoid flat areas of colour. I’ve always been interested in techniques that escape the strict control of the artist, like frottage, grattage, decalcomania, tilting and then dripping… Inspired by those techniques, what I finally did was invent twenty-one categories or new possibilities. When I said that the work made itself, I meant that as a result of using those techniques I turned myself into another tool, like the brushes, the paint or the painting surface. The only thing they really had to provide was a “landscape” where the formal elements could play themselves out. Obviously, I was in control of the composition, but having total control over what the chance techniques were going to create was impossible, especially as far as the edges and where the colours met, or the textures and the atmosphere were concerned.
Insofar as the ADA or DAA (Dynamic Alfa Alignments) fields of research, there is no opposition or confrontation; they’re nothing more than different approaches. The fact that the acronyms share elements, not meanings, is a coincidence that I came up with when I was half asleep. ADA was a kind of “mechanism” for generating or laying out abstract images, while DAA is more like an X-ray machine. There’s no continuity between the outcomes of both those approaches, but there’s no conflict either. They’re just different methodological structures. Where you can really see antagonism, however, is in the series those structures have built upon.
If what we really want to talk about is “States of Opposition” or “Opposite Concepts”, first we have to look at two of the analytical segments set out in ADA. If the two major traditions within the historic avant-garde (geometry and gesture) are both invoked on the same picture plane then we can talk about truly antithetical tensions and positions, like gesture and order, the stain and the line, the organic and the rational, the Apollonian and the Dionysian.
One of the ways I’ve given strength and energy to my compositions has been using and emphasizing the diverse possibilities of those seemingly disparate elements, and that can be seen in a number of my series, like Masks of the Glance, Manifesto, Constructed Dreams, Liquid Gloss, or the recent re-invention of Masks of the Glance under the title Abstract Memory, where geometry has become more dominant.
You can also talk about opposition or opposites when you talk about the work I made in my last years in Madrid and what I did after 2005 in New York. When I moved my studio to Manhattan, my main intention, aside from other things like achieving success despite feeling suffocated in the Spanish market, was to take my painting and research into new places. I wanted to get back a feeling of freedom, of being able to search… I needed to gain some awareness about the work I’d already done and, in a way, even go back and recover or rework series I’d given up years earlier. The biggest difference between the work dating from before I went to New York and that after was the return to drawing, line, structure…. I naively thought that by changing my surroundings but without having any previously determined direction in mind beforehand my painting would automatically transform itself. I thought that the muses would magically come to me and my painting would go in a radically new direction. Frustratingly enough, that wasn’t the case. When I started painting in my first studio in New York. I kept making the same work I’d been making in Madrid. I decided to stop right there and, to keep myself busy while I was waiting for inspiration, I decided to go back to an idea I’d had for many years, which was to do a kind of homage to Malevich’s late work that would be simultaneously a scream or criticism in response to the return to figuration I was seeing in painting. There’s definitely a huge tension created by that return to line and to forms contained by drawing of from the works I’d been making in Madrid since the early 1990’s. I kept the language, even the techniques, and a few geometric elements… but I stopped all the research related to ADA.
In the next major block of work after the Post-Suprematist series, whose title —La Guardia Place (or sometimes called Rare Paintings)— comes from my address in the Village, the DAA analytical structure started to become fully developed. I was rediscovering and finding new applications for José Luis Tolosa’s “Module Concept” and generating repetitive “matrices” with variations in meaning. By “matrices” I mean groups of lines, fields or masses that are repeated in different compositions. Or to try and be more clear, you could even think about them as a kind of “template”. And, I kept using that methodology in later series like Crazy Paintings, Schandenmaske Masks and Doodles.
KVW: I really like the way that you describe your works as being “like phosphenes, shadows or memories, ephemeral impressionist ‘pools of light’ that linger with me for a while and then go away”(2). In this earlier period of work (pre-2005), the physical act of staining the canvas, by which you created indistinct marks, was very important to your compositions. Was the idea of a shadow or an unspecified memory part of the concept behind them?
JMC: I’ve always been interested in talking about how there’s been a solid conceptual and theoretical platform behind my paintings. To keep going with that question, I think the greatest contrast or tension in my paintings revolves specifically around that opposition; around completely articulated and mental work, but with an expressionist or gestural abstract appearance that is contrary to how they’re painted. And that’s why I’ve never wanted to avoid using rhetorical “figures” with a lyrical tone. I think it’s beautiful to compare the intensity of a painting with a phosphene, which is like a stain on our retina that remains there for a moment (is remembered) when we look directly at a bright light or the sun. The other underlying idea is the ephemerality of things; of life, of our way of seeing or even our way of understanding the world. I like to flirt with the idea that the “presence” of some of my paintings is imprinted in the memory of the viewer like a permanent phosphene.
Among all the themes my work deals with, I try to make time and memory present always, especially memory. And, to achieve that, I use all kinds of poetic expressions or descriptions, like shadows, memories, or the pools of light that the impressionists liked so much. There are probably a lot of people who don’t know what pools of light are, but I’m sure that anyone who’s gone into the woods or a forest on a sunny day and seen how the rays of sun leave “stains” on the ground as they pass through the leaves of the trees has seen them. In a certain way it’s also another way of talking about chance.
I also have a text about my work titled “Pools of Light” where I tried to explain, or shed light upon, some subjective issues in a few of my paintings going from what initially inspires a composition to the association of an image with my own memory, or just what was going through my mind while I was working on a given piece.
Aside from the physical act of painting, there’s a preliminary state of thought that leads up to making a specific painting or a series. The individual paintings are the outcome of that mental construction and the material realization of it. And then, the image has to resolve itself and, oftentimes, it’s inevitable that some paintings go off in their own direction and stray from the original intention, because turning the “idea” into a painting doesn’t always work out. That’s the point when I have to find new ways of approaching the painting, it’s when mental associations lead to solutions where any untried recourse can be used, and it’s when the formal issues presented by the painting need to be addressed. That’s typically the moment when you’re calling out for the muses… Any concept, shadow, experiment, serendipitous discovery or trick is made use of in order to bring the work to a valid conclusion.
I’ve said many times that I’m mainly interested in two kinds of paintings, ones where you have a “plan” that by some miracle ends up becoming unexpectedly resolved, and, ones where you’re on the razor’s edge and the painting refuses to get resolved despite session after session of painting, losing sleep, and agonizing, and finally it either reaches a climax or completely falls flat. A lot of times, the problem is not knowing how to listen. The painting is always telling you something. I like those two extremes, they make me enjoy myself and suffer. I think all the rest, everything that’s in between, is just craft. It’s vitally important to me that there’s always a degree of experimentation in the work, regardless of the inevitable repetition that always happens while making a series.
KVW: How does the moniker of a specific series guide the creation of your painting? There are several series —Mask of the Glance and Rorschach Heads, for instance— to which you have returned repeatedly throughout the last decade. The aesthetic of works within each of these series has changed somewhat, however. How do you decide when to move from one series to another, is it a conscious decision? Does the classification of a work within a series while you are making it help to define or guide it?
JMC: Painting is pure mental process. You might think that the way one painting leads you into the next, opening doors and raising new question, one series leads into another one, but that’s not how it is. The idea for starting a series doesn’t come from the practice of painting, rather it comes from thought and experimentation. Once you’ve managed to understand and give shape to the formal and conceptual properties of a new series, there’s an experimental trial phase for how it might develop. The titles of the series are usually irrelevant. Sometimes they might try to give a clue about what the content is, but more often than not, they’re just there as a way to tell the series apart.
In my largest series, Masks of the Glance, I came up against a problem that’s concerned me ever since the whole theoretical apparatus of ADA became established. The viewer confronts the painting like someone who’s at a costume ball and cannot recognize the people wearing the “masks”. It’s hard for viewers to understand all the theoretical and conceptual research behind the work, but it’s also hard for specialists in art and criticism, who frequently don’t feel up to the task. They may not have the knowledge needed to really understand the work unless some kind of indications are given beforehand. In a long text written in 1996 while I was staying in Rome on a grant, I described how painting, like people, can be assimilated differently. “Someone is who they think they are, but also what others see in them, and then there’s the person they really are”. Objectively, a painting has certain formal characteristics and offers certain readings, but at the same time, it’s what the painter wanted to create. In my case, it forms part of a conceptual fabric that turns it into something else and gives it a certain specificity that escapes merely visual analysis. Whoever has been able to see the book Ciria: Beyond, published in Valladolid by the Junta de Castilla y León in 2010, will have been able to see the chronological development of the series, in addition to getting a good general understanding of the Notebook-1990, which was an early and germinal description of the entire scope and intention of ADA.
Purely out of a need for mental hygiene, I’ve always liked working on different series at the same time. When I’m painting, I like to feel free to go in whatever direction I want and not feel bound to any one particular approach. That’s why the work grows in a multifaceted way. Series are abandoned and I take them up again and extrapolate from resolutions I’ve come up with in other experiments, creating a kind of enormous network that both shapes and emphasizes a recognizable and open language. To find one significant moment, we could look at the work I made between 1998 and 2005 and see how during that period I was working on six large series at the same time, in addition to seventeen suites or smaller groups of paintings that are characteristically different even though they’re still dependent upon the series.
It’s not as if one series is finished and the next one is begun. The series are never finished, they simply are abandoned. When a new configuration is clearly defined, I just find room for it and start working in that direction. Moreover, ADA allowed for looking at different analytical fields at the same time. The research fed off of one or more themes and was deposited into one specific series, or a combination or hybridization of several series. Everything I’m saying can be conscientiously and empirically demonstrated. The muses (inspiration or intuition), are only called upon when a painting needs to be resolved.
KVW: In a related question, can you talk about how repetition —of forms, of colours, of formats— is useful to you in your practice?
JMC: Painting isn’t all theory and formal experimentation, inspiration and “facility”, it also needs to be concerned with limits and going deeper. While working in blocks or series, it’s inevitable that certain elements or characteristic configurations of the series need to be repeated, because otherwise they would be nothing more than experimental exercises without any points of intersection or line of thought holding them together. Nevertheless, when the same thing gets repeated, it should still be unexpected and it’s absolutely essential to always take it to a deeper level. In any single series I try to have paintings with varying kinds of formal resolutions, and I make sure there are contradictory paintings, some leaning more towards aggressiveness and others that are more accessible. I try to move around the gravitational pull, to split the lines that give tension to the compositions and place the elements that put tension on the edges differently. And, I try to make a lot of variation in the atmospheres of the paintings.
Using Wittgenstein’s evolutionary succession as a guide, there are three possible relationships that can be defined when talking about an artistic career or period. The first is the linear, where one piece has a relationship to the next one and so on. The second is the closed group that uses blocks of works related to each other, but which aren’t related to later groups. Then there’s the spiral, where you find pieces related to earlier work from other groups. And then there are completely related groups that don’t have anything in common with other blocks or “families” of works. So, we’re talking about a straight line, one that jumps, or one that spins. I personally think my work is an odd combination of the last two ideas.
“Those who scale façades —said Benjamin— have to make the most out of every ornament.”
The repetition of colours is entirely due to my lack of interest in colour. Famous last words, and certainly odd coming from a painter. I use a restricted palette and the only colour that really attracts me is red. I only see colours as vehicles and I only look for difference and contrast in them. I might think a Henri Matisse painting is amazing, but personally, I have no interest in using his chromatic range, even though I have a lot of admiration for it. I can find the precisely calculated steps of colour of Josef Albers, Giorgio Morandi or Sean Scully fascinating… but, in the way I approach painting I don’t pay attention to those details. I’m more interested in tones and textures than harmonies.
As far as the format of the paintings, I work in all sizes, but I try to stick to the four or five formats I like best and which are the most comfortable for me. Taking on huge formats is altogether different, and they’re my weakness, even though I do fewer than I’d like.
KVW: The work Vanitas (Levántate y anda), 2001, can be considered as an ode to contemporary art, with historically important pieces by Marcel Duchamp and Joseph Kosuth reproduced as part of it. In the collage, you insert yourself into that tradition, representing your work alongside these masters, suggesting your continuation of history and furthering the discussion. Can you talk about the circumstances that led you to make the Vanitas? Why, specifically, did you select Duchamp and Kosuth as your predecessors?
JMC: Vanitas (Get up and Go), is a very unique piece that’s from the suite called Iconographic Magnets that’s within the Constructed Dreams series. In 2001, I got the idea of doing a subjective revision of the still life genre. The whole series is about collage and its various possibilities, which consist of placing a series of heterodox planes within the rectangle of the painting. In a certain way, a still life is nothing other than placing a series of “objects” in a specific space. My intention was to recreate the “table” that always appears in still lifes using an aluminium bar crossing the composition horizontally to “hold” the different planes and elements placed over the background. I quickly and happily discovered that that idea looked a lot like a couple of old paintings by Samuel van Hoogstraten.
Fed up with hearing about the death of painting and the endless writing about it, I felt a need to speak out in Vanitas and say that there was no crisis in painting, and that if we wanted to talk about crisis, it would have to be with art in general. Is it the case that conceptually oriented art, photography, installations, “stuff”, documentaries or the archive, haven’t been discussed ad infinitum? Turning Duchamp’s emblematic ready-made urinal upside down was the perfect way for me to find a shape for the skull. Every vanitas has to have a cranium. Kosuth’s description of a chair was used to include what I refer to as “conceptual narrative”, (you can’t understand it without an explanation). The landscape was bought at the flea market in Madrid and it fulfilled my desire to include something pejoratively called “vulgar”. And then of course there’s my own painting, and the cloudy broken mirror, of art, which can no longer reflect the world and its sensibilities: a dark night with no hope of dawn in the background.
KVW: Can you talk a bit about your use of the window (in works such as Tres ventanas, 2003, or Nueve ventanas, 2004) as a conceptual device? I see it as a portal, as the introduction of an idea that the viewer must complete. What do you consider to be the role of the viewer in your work?
JMC: Ever since I moved into abstraction, using all kinds of geometric elements has been a constant in my work. Going back to ADA, one of its other analytical segments was specifically analyzing and experimenting with that issue under the name of “compartmentalizing”. Just like with the “techniques of controlled chance”, in the “compartmentalizing” section I ultimately came up with twenty-one different possibilities for including geometric devices. Using the grid has stimulated a lot of compositions. And, the typology of painting you mentioned where the geometry takes precedence over the gesture, which I made between 2002 and 2004, was clearly the genesis for the Abstract Memory series that I started much later, in New York in 2009. Using the geometric “window” isn’t a conceptual device in itself. However, the cross of windows along with the “techniques of controlled chance”, the “pictorial levels” (mediums), the “iconographic registers” and paying attention to the “combination” possibilities, definitely turned into a conceptual research platform. If, furthermore, there’s another level where we’re confronted by other “issues” to deal with, and a third space, which is the one that makes up the formal and phenomenological characteristics of every series, we end up with a total theoretical and conceptual web: a mechanism or method for setting up paintings.
Unfortunately, if the viewer looks at the paintings without knowing anything about the whole mechanism, it’s impossible for them to ever understand the conceptual project lying beneath the surface of the picture plane. Despite that, I’d like to think that people looking at my paintings are able to go a little further and, by intuition, discover that there’s something more underneath the stains, the technique, and the geometry.
KWV: The second room of the exhibition marks the beginning of your move to New York in 2005. You have talked about how you hoped this geographical shift would initiate a major aesthetic transition in your work and how, surprisingly, you returned to a figurative style that you had explored more than a decade earlier. You also cite as your inspiration during this period not American painting, but the late work of Kazimir Malevich, a Russian artist whose peripatetic movements might be compared to yours. How much does your geography influence what comes out on the canvas, and is there a specific link for you between location and style or attitude?
JMC: I’ve already explained what the beginning of the Post-Suprematist series was like and how it was clearly related to a series I did in the mid 1980’s titled Automatons. At the beginning of the Post-Suprematist series I saw the paintings as nothing more than personal exercises that wouldn’t have any greater significance and just I thought I could “entertain” myself with them for a couple months at most. The strange thing is that I started to find lots of things that interested me in the series of hieratic peasant figures that Malevich made from 1927 to 1932. My intention was to reinvent myself in New York, and I had no idea how that was going to happen, I simply gave in to letting myself make completely experimental work that, in most cases, I painted over numerous times afterwards. Meanwhile, the Post-Suprematist series was growing and it started providing me with a tool that I’d been ignoring for many years, which was drawing as the thing that defines a composition.
“Painting —says Malevich— is first and foremost space for constructing contemporary man.” That idea of “constructing”, of using plans, had already appeared in a lot of previous series, especially the collages. However, the underlying idea was constructing using “fields” of colour, with edges and pictorial cuts that weren’t physical or made with masking tape, to just make the constitutive units and get rid of the mystical and epic halo of the Malevich-like paintings.
Right afterwards, it was almost inevitable that I moved towards figuration. I extracted two formal “conclusions” from that. One was to focus on the heads, which would lead into the Rorschach Heads II series, and the other was getting interested in the possibilities of the iconography and compositional lines presented by the headless torsos that would later on end up giving body to a series titled La Guardia Place. There’s no denying that La Guardia Place is obviously linked to a series from the late 1980’s called Men, Hands, Organic Forms and Signs. In a way, it’s as if I were cycling back through all my previous work.
It would’ve been impossible for me to take that step in Madrid, because I had neither the time nor the “freedom” it required. The strange thing about that time was that, because I didn’t have a visa, I had to leave and re-enter the country every three months. And, when I went back to my studio in Madrid, instead of continuing the research I was doing in New York, I went back to painting the Masks of the Glance series. Obviously, those paintings were influenced by what was going on over there —for example, abandoning red and exalting black— but, the situation was almost unbearable for me. It was like being two different painters at the same time. Fortunately, it didn’t last too long and both studios ended up melding into one.
Years ago, an old friend of mine told me that starting to “mature” is starting to accept yourself. When I first got to New York I felt lonely and isolated and I started examining and becoming more aware of what kind of person I am and my position and attitude as an artist. I also started re-thinking painting.
KVW: I don’t think of your work as being influenced by particular trends, but rather ahistorical. Carlos Delgado recently remarked that “Ciria persists with the idea of painting ‘paintings,’ which are objects that seem only tangentially contemporary and have been excluded from the trends guiding the biennials and Documentas of recent years”(3). Was it surprising to you when you arrived in New York and saw the work in galleries here, much of which is influenced by a fairly insular art world rhetoric? How has your impression of the gallery world changed over the past few years? Do you feel that the artists in New York are your contemporaries?
JMC: Maybe the lead up to anything happens unconsciously, but when you start to understand that you’ve chosen the path of research, the formal elements get downplayed and the conceptual directions you might go in take precedence over other considerations. That conceptual approach obviously modifies the formal appearance and components and results in work that’s resolved in very different ways, because the ideas come out of different lines of inquiry and interests related to the specific time they are undertaken, not the place.
On a formal level, an artist only needs to have three components: language, diction, and verb. What I mean is that in order for the work to get away from merely repeating the same exercise, after an artist has developed a “unique” language (style or way of working, a personal calligraphy), subsequently he has to be able to develop his work using a diverse range of formal possibilities that also have to lead to a “serendipitous” and progressive resolution.
For me, once formal problems have been posed and ostensibly “solved”, aside from “virtuosity” or quality, what’s interesting is when the painting starts to explore its own conceptual possibilities and different theoretical approaches. I get really bored with painters who only have one register, even when it’s brilliantly realized. I dislike work where all I can get is so-called retinal, aesthetic pleasure. According to Wittgenstein “Working in philosophy —in many ways like working in architecture— is really working on yourself: on your own interpretation, on your own way of seeing things —and what you expect from them—”. I find very few artists who are painting or making any other kind of work who go beyond trying to be “clever” and reach the point of digging beneath the surface to find questions and answers that give us clues about their own interpretation and way of seeing, who give us an articulate discourse about themselves. On the other hand, this situation shouldn’t surprise us. In these dark days art has been taken over by money and what’s valued more highly than any science or thought is whatever supposedly “provocative” thing that suits the “circus”, provided it’s big enough to make a splash in the “grand spectacle” of things. This goes on with the express consent of the “great thinkers” and art critics, who’ve become mere mercenaries and predictable, disposable little pawns in the big game/business of contemporary art. Artists invest a lot of energy and attention on reaching the mainstream as if it were some kind of panacea instead of putting their energy and intellect into developing their own work. All that seems to be more apparent in large centres of power, like New York, but the reality is that today we’re living in the global village…
I think I’ve responded to what you asked me.
KVW: In the work created after your arrival in New York, you returned to drawing as a framework for the composition(4). You were, however, drawing prior to this; some of these works are on view in the first room of the exhibition. How did your approach to drawing change in New York?
JMC: From 1990 until I got to New York, the drawings I was making were abstract outlines that gave clues about how the stains would later be arranged when the painting was made, but they were never transferred directly onto the canvas. There was never any drawing on the support or preparatory sketches. A lot of the drawings, in fact, were inspired by the paintings or were variations of the paintings. Like I’ve already said, drawing became a compositional armature with the beginning of the Post-Suprematist series. All the later series, including Rorschach Heads II, La Guardia Place, Crazy Paintings, Schandenmaske Masks and Doodles, share that same characteristic, with the exception of the Structures and Abstract Memory series. Not just by coincidence, that situation was conducive to developing the part of the analytical structure of DAA that dealt with forming repetitive “matrices”.
What started to emerge in the preparatory drawings for the Rare paintings from La Guardia Place isn’t just the expressive tension between abstraction and figuration. What was happening was that “visual writing” became the groundwork for a process (DAA) of latent reflection that had been maturing until it found this specific frame of action, which was foreign to its initial and more limited definition.
Originally, working with Tolosa’s “Module Concept” seemed to fit pretty well, but the problem was that those basic differentiating/signifying units are immutable and need to be repeated in exactly the same way. Replacing modules with “matrices” was a natural extension of that. Even though the matrices also acquired their function through reuse and found their meaning/identity out of notions of repetition/variation, they allowed greater freedom for compositional invention and being able to make changes in size and layout on the picture plane. That’s all explained perfectly both verbally and graphically in Rare Paintings, written by Carlos Delgado, which was the catalogue for the show I had at the Carlos de Amberes Foundation in Madrid in 2008 and the exhibition that travelled around museums in South America that followed it.
DAA is a process of analyzing how the elements of formal writing fit together in a painting. I’ll repeat myself to make it more clear, it is like an X-ray machine that finds “fundamental or primary alignments” Alfa, that manifest themselves through dynamic repetition. By having the painting contained within the structure of line, of drawing, DAA found a field that was perfectly ripe for development and which made a new way of understanding, or at least perceiving, painting possible. Its mission is to solidify the foundation of pictorial production, and that wouldn’t have been possible without the methodological shift of drawing.
KVW: I know that the drawings are not really studies for paintings, in fact, they seem more like a forum for experimentation. There is a freedom in the line of the Post-Suprematist series, and even the titles are looser, funny, or a little bawdy. Does drawing provide a respite from the control of painting, do you see it as being an alternative sphere in which to work? Or do the two media just provide different ways to work out the same ideas?
JMC: Sometimes it’s just the opposite. The paintings can be studies for developing drawings, but there are definitely all kinds of contexts. Frequently, when a particular composition won’t get finished or resolved, I use drawing to try to find solutions or alternatives. So, what might look like a sketch is frequently the product of an intermediate stage of making a painting. It’s true that drawing and painting are more closely related in some series, but I’ve always considered the drawings to be finished works in their own right. The medium itself gives you a freedom of movement that’s usually impossible in painting. When you draw some lines on a piece of paper with a pencil or marker you aren’t bound by any external conditions, and if you like what’s going on and it doesn’t fall flat, that’s great. But, if it gets twisted around or you can’t resolve it, all you have to do is pull another piece of paper out of the sketchbook and start again. Painting is different. In the first place, it’s far more mental and not as fast. You need to get the stretchers, stretch the canvas, prepare the right primer, lay down a ground… Even though you’re completely unbiased when you start working and you don’t care whether it works out or not, there’s always something holding you back, which is all the time and energy it’s taken. Another problem on top of that is that, in my case, I like doing experiments at 2×2 meters, which is my favourite format. When you have a perfectly stretched canvas with a nice ground at that size, you don’t want to mess up. It’s also true that I always try to approach a painting just like a piece of paper and if the composition doesn’t want to turn out I just have to paint over it or get a new canvas, nothing doing. In that regard, I feel a lot more free in my Madrid studio than I do in New York. I have assistants in Madrid so that if I don’t like something, the next day I can have a new canvas ready and waiting. I still don’t have that in New York.
But, going back to the question. There is no single method. There are pieces that are just drawings, without any relation to the paintings, and then there are times when they come together and both drawing and painting are dealing with the same ideas. When you draw, paint, make graphic art, or shoot a photo, aside from having mastery over the medium, the important thing is to have as much freedom as possible and to try cast off as much insecurity or bias as you can.
KVW: Malevich said that, “The artist can be a creator only when the forms in his picture have nothing in common with nature” and it seems to me that as much as the Post-Suprematist paintings recreate the figure, they have very little in common with the natural world. Not only are the figures featureless and almost like automons, the environments in which they are pictured seem otherworldly. Are you consciously trying to stay away from nature?
JMC: I’m not interested in having anything from nature in my painting. I’m interested in people and society. That’s why I believe that the mission of all art, (beyond aesthetic triumphs and expanding the limits of what we understand in its own right), must be to try to mirror the face of contemporary society and at the same time be a container where that time is held. We talked about my tendency to use memory and time as themes for my paintings. Those themes have been dealt with dozens of times in many different ways. In a painting from the Iconographic Magnets suite, from the Constructed Dreams series, there’s a plastic bag. What’s in the bag are just some magazines from 2000. The bag will deteriorate one day and it’ll have to be replaced by another similar one, and the person who does that will find time and memory concentrated inside it in a single gesture. In another piece from the same suite, there’s a spot where there’s a white carnation with its stem placed behind the aluminium bar that crosses the composition. The flower has to be changed every week. The piece talks about the ephemerality of our existence and the passage of time. A third painting from the same suite has some dolls in it one of them is from my childhood and there are a couple of stuffed animals that belong to my kids. In that piece, my own personal memory is combined with theirs.
My painting with expressionist stains, with their tension and vermilion reds, tries to show the rupture in our lives, in spite of my having said that abstraction isn’t the right vehicle for expressing concrete ideas. The textural properties of the paintings in a way also reference the organic and living but also the petrified or frozen, and the impossibility of having control over our lives…
When I took on the last part of the Malevich paintings, there was a clear attempt to be cool and stay detached from what he might have wanted to express critically in those figures. Iconographic devices were used in a completely inappropriate way where any aura of mysticism or struggle was erased.
There are no more great revolutions, or maybe we’re just getting ready for the final revolution.
KVW: The oblong head form that you used in your Box of Mental States drawings and the Schandenmaske paintings is quite different than the heads that you had previously portrayed (in the Rorschach Heads, for instance). Do you see the head forms as related? How did you come up with this new format?
JMC: After the La Guardia Place series, and having already started the Doodles series, I needed to take a break and talk about other things. The matrices developed in the previous series were hugely complex and, logically, ended up taking away my freedom to act. Reducing the matrix to a simple oval shape was one way to gain access to the field of “masks” and, at the same time, it was a way of getting back to a way of painting that left more to chance. The Box of Mental States drawings came out of a travel sketchbook made between 2006 and 2008 that has notes made in Miami, Madrid, Washington, New York, and Santo Domingo. The Box of Mental States drawings preceded the Schandenmaske Masks series by nearly two years and there’s no relationship between the two blocks of work besides, of course, the oval “template”. The title Schandenmaske is taken from German, which is the only language where I found a single word that expresses what I want to say with the series. The schandenmaske are masks that can be grotesque, for punishment or for mockery.
There’s no correlation between the earlier and later Rorschach Heads series and the Schandenmaske Masks series. The masks talk about concealment, what we can’t see, what we can’t understand, what we hide from…
KVW: The three works from La Guardia Place were created in your American studio, while the Triptych for the Spanish Tradition was painted in Madrid. Can you talk about how the two locations affected your approach to these works in particular?
JMC: The constant back and forth between my studios in New York and Madrid in 2006, and the way I work on many series at the same time, inevitably made me a little schizophrenic. The two ends hadn’t come together yet and the work I was making in Madrid wasn’t in line with my New York “discoveries”. Nevertheless, there was a shift in the Masks of the Glance series that was very profound and seemed rather joyful. I moved away from using the colour red in the paintings and it was replaced by black and a range of greys. Furthermore, being as I couldn’t create textures on top of the black using the same colour, I had to use white, like in a photographic negative, reversing the normal direction of light, in order to make the direction it took in the painting plausible. The best paintings from the whole series are probably the ones from that brief period and, without a doubt, the most ambitious painting is the Motherwell-like Triptych of the Spanish Tradition. It’s also a way of affirming that in Spain, that’s what painting is like.
I think it’s unfortunate that things are more and more similar. But, in spite of the global village, even today the way of looking, of seeing, of perceiving painting in America is different from the way it’s experienced in Europe, and especially in Spain. My country is a land of painters.
KVW: Does the head form always function for you as a signifier of the human body? I ask because some of the forms are so abstracted or intertwined with abstraction that I wonder if they have come to mean something else, as well?
JMC: I’ve never stopped to think whether the heads implied the existence of a body, but they obviously call up human feelings, like fear, rage, pain, aggressiveness, estrangement, anger, solitude, insanity, unconformity… There are different families or blocks of work in the Rorschach Heads III series. The first group is the one that’s the closest to a realistic representation of the faces. The second would be the heads with a grotesque appearance and that are far removed from any vestige of realism. And, the third block would be a freely invented one, which moves between the two previous groups. To create the first block, I relied directly on photos I found online that I cut up and pasted together to create faces that had never existed, sometimes exaggerating certain elements of their physiology. The reaction had by some viewers who are confronted by a few of the paintings in this series is that of fear, when really it’s just the opposite; it’s the face represented in the picture that’s afraid of what it sees. There are strong political intentions in the series. All too often, human beings are too involved with appearances and we mistrust anyone who’s different from us, or who doesn’t have the same social status, or who just seems ugly… Despite that, they’re faces we can see around us every day. I’d like to think that the fear caused by the Rorschach Heads is really fear of ourselves, of our cruelty, of our lack of reflection. They’re paintings aimed at the conscience, and they are frequently asking for tenderness and understanding.
I try to give all of the heads their own configuration and soul, even though I’m aware of the distress they might eventually cause for the viewer. As far as the construction of the compositional elements, it’s clear that all my abstract painting is contained within those figurative heads. If you look at the paintings close up you can see totally abstract compositions.
KVW: Some of the Rorschach head drawings included in the exhibition have a funny, playful quality. Does parody play a role in your work, do you think?
JMC: I’m not interested in irony and I don’t use any parodic strategies in my work. I just don’t like —as Fernando Castro Flórez says— excuses or camouflage. The drawings from the Rorschach Heads III series show the residue of my own restlessness and pictorial determination, but of course, not without the occasional dose of a little humour. It’s true, however, that I really enjoyed myself in some of these drawings, especially the ones made with marker.
KVW: The repetition of mark making is something that is clearly a focus of your work. How do you think that this repetition modifies the meaning?
JMC: There’s no precise meaning in every painting from the Abstract Memory series, rather there are different possibilities for meaning. The series talks about the social chains we’re bound by these days, about the scant room to manoeuvre and change anything that happens around us, and the barriers and differences politicians or religious leaders impose on us and accentuate between us. It’s also about solitude and the lack of communication. It’s a fragmentary view of the world where the frame has been closed off and we’re looking at a group of people through the view finder of our camera who, even though they’re together at the moment the picture is taken, have no relationship between them and they may never see each other again. It represents a heterodox, regulated and controlled false unity. A jail cell might be an appropriate simile.
Essentially, there are repeated compositional elements that follow each other in a sort of endless loop throughout the whole series and these are separated into distinct groups of work that each has its own formal constants. As far as the peripheral mechanisms, there are open compositions in which the geometric windows reach the edges of the compositions and there are others that are closed off inside one or more painted frames placed inside the images themselves. And then, there are three options for how the stains go over the geometric ground. There are compositions where the stains “travel” freely without any connection to the compartmentalized bases, and paintings where the placement of the stains coincides with the rigidity of the windows that hold them. And, finally, a third kind, which is related to the previous one, where the geometry becomes much harder and reaches the point that it interrupts or cuts off the outside edges of the stains in some places.
I’ll also point out that many of the compositions in the series are made up of a series of nine windows. I’ve always liked odd numbers more than even numbers and, more than any other, I like the number nine, which has always had mythical and mythological connotations across different cultures and civilizations.
KVW: At what point does a head form emerge for you?
JMC: The first head I painted in the third cycle of the Rorschach Heads, titled Oh! (Wild days), from 2009, was a purely personal and experimental painting that I made to represent death. They discovered that my father had a brain tumour and he only had a few months left to live. At the same time that I was going through that really painful situation, I had a show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Santiago, Chile. It was the second time I’d visited the city. And, after the opening of the show, I decided to catch a plane and go to Easter Island —still the most remote place on Earth— which has attracted me since childhood. It was an initiatory journey. On that little island, isolated from the rest of the world, I couldn’t stop thinking about my father and his illness, while at the same time I was there among the Moai, who were representations of deceased people. Those were the two things that triggered the series; tumour-head, Moai-head, both representations of death.
After Oh! (Wild Days) was finished, the painting was wandering around my studio for weeks. Eventually, I couldn’t stand it being there any more and I leaned it face first against the wall and covered it up with some paintings of the same size. Inexplicably, I started making drawings of heads where they no longer represented death. Instead, I was just playing around formally. Some of the heads were more realistic while others were definitely grotesque. For me, the most unexpected thing in the series is that the place it was coming from didn’t follow any of my previous research. It didn’t come from either ADA or DAA. The things that triggered it were personal experiences. That was one way of entering a painting I hadn’t gone back to since the 1980’s. Subsequently, the series has been progressing and growing, crowding out or even ending other series that were going on at the same time.
KVW: It does seem that the head, while always present in your work, has become much more of a focus over the last three years. Why do you think this is?
JMC: I think 2010 marks the end of a period. Some series were abandoned and I’ve focused on Abstract Memory and Rorschach Heads III. I had a moment of reflection when I even decided to bring the Abstract Memory series to an end, even though there are still commitments to show those paintings in Porto (Cordeiros Gallery in November, 2011), Toronto (Christopher Cutts Gallery in May, 2012) and I have a travelling exhibition that will go to several museums in Eastern Europe and Germany in the next two or three years.
The reason is that the series is showing signs of running out steam and a new abstract series is starting to take shape in my mind. At a conceptual level, my intention is to hybridize the ADA and DAA platforms somehow into a single body of theory. At a formal level, what I’d like to achieve is to have the new abstract paintings keep the same level of resolution, vehemence, and tension that I’ve attained with the heads. With that in mind, I’ve already started writing down ideas and making small sketches.
Consequently, there’s an “emptying out” going on in the studio that’s motivating me to focus on Rorschach Heads III. Other influences are the paintings selected by Stefan Stux for the show in his gallery in Chelsea and the travelling exhibition organized by Carole Newhouse for different American museums that’s on tour now.
At any rate, I don’t want to get ahead of myself. I’m sure that after summer is over I’ll be ending the first phase of Rorschach Heads III and I’ll be starting a second period where I intend to cast off some of the rigidity and change some units and components. I expect the second period will keep me busy for a year and during that time I’ll also be doing some mental development and laying down some of the groundwork for the abstraction that will come afterwards.
KVW: You have spoken about the process of painting as one in which the painter always comes back to the same place, a “voyage to nowhere”(5). Yet looking over the last ten years of your work, I would say that there has been definitive movement and progress. Could you talk a bit about how you feel that the work —or your approach to it— has changed in this time?
JMC: I don’t think there’s any progress in art. When I say painters always paint the same painting or go back to same place I mean it in two ways. On one hand, the possibilities of personal “calligraphy” are finite, so consequently it’s limited. Furthermore, perhaps because we’re pressured by the market, artists want our work to be recognizable, in spite of all our efforts against style. On the other hand, “it seems proven —says Walter Benjamin—, that there is no history of Art. While in life, for example, the succession of temporal events implies not only that there is a causal essence, but also that without that succession of development, maturity, death and other categories, human life would not exist at all. A work of Art is a completely different story. Because of its essence, a work of Art is ahistorical”.
On a personal level, I think I’m an art researcher. I’m not the least bit interested in trends or what people are doing right now. I don’t try to be modern or contemporary. I just try to make my work part of this specific historical moment. I don’t think working on several series over many years should be seen as evolution or progression. I don’t think all those multi-media artists or thing-makers making all their “stuff” are a step forward, they’re just different expressions of what “now” is. Any way you read it, the majority of that kind of work doesn’t have any direction, ideology, or thought behind it, and it’s pretty shallow, even though you can sure have a good time in the circus.
KVW: My Father’s Jacket is a very poignant and beautiful piece. It is also, I believe, the first time that you have used video in your work. Can you talk about how and why you decided to try this new medium for this piece in particular?
JMC: It’s too bad there’s not going to be any way to fit this last piece into the installation of the show. I would’ve loved to have people see it. It’s not the first time I’ve worked with video, it’s just that I didn’t like any of the earlier things I’d done with the medium. I’m very demanding with my work and, furthermore, I don’t want viewers to think I’m just latching on to the latest trend. I’m not a video artist, I’m a painter, or as I ironically (but completely seriously) like to say it —I’m a conceptual artist who expresses himself with painting. Likewise, I don’t see My Father’s Jacket as a video, but more like just a projection on a surface. The subtitle of the piece is (All the paintings you haven’t seen); it’s about my father’s death. For a long time Santiago was my loyal collaborator, my biggest critic, and my closest companion. I’m deeply upset that he’ll miss this entire last part of my work, which I sincerely believe he would’ve really liked. In order to get that, I used the projection of the heads on his jacket morphing from one to another. The huge size represents how important he was to me.
1.In Katharina Fritsch (New York: Dia Center for the Arts, 1993), p. 27.
2.Ciria, “Pools of Light”. Ciria. Alasdurasyalasmaduras. Annta Gallery, Madrid 2009.
3.Delgado, Ciria. Five Squares: The American Series, Simeón Palace, Deputation of Orense, 2010. p. 271.
4.Ciria, “Coming Back” Búsquedas en Nueva York. Roberto Ferrer Editions. Madrid 2007. p. 187.
5.Ciria, “Coming Back”. Búsquedas en Nueva York. Roberto Ferrer Editions. Madrid 2007. p. 186.