Laura Revuelta. MUPAM. Málaga.
Catálogo exposición “Juego de Espejos” Museo del Patrimonio Municipal (MUPAM). Málaga, Marzo 2012.
WRITTEN ON HIS FACE
I remember the first time I saw José Manuel Ciria and, likewise, became aware of his work. A little more or less than twenty years have gone by since then. He was a growing artist and I was taking my first steps in grappling with writing about art. Almost, but not quite. If I give myself a little poetic license, I’d say we’ve gone down parallel tracks that have come together, shaken hands and even given each other a hug at a few points and times in our lives. This is one of those times, and that’s why I can indulge in doing a recap, or “flashback” as if it were a movie or documentary, in order to get to the real core of the exhibition, which in some ways is the quintessence of his whole career.
The José Manuel Ciria of those days had a forceful personality. He came on the scene with that self confidence of a creator who isn’t quite sure what they want to do yet, but are completely convinced about which things need doing, telling, writing, or revolutionizing. That is the ambition of the true artist. He had a really, really big studio in Madrid that was one of those studios where the momentum and controlled rage of inspiration can spread its wings and stretch it legs, climb the walls and descend into hell as many times as might be needed to either finally arrive at the work it seeks, or just catch a mere glimpse of it, a sketch with possibilities that would need to be attacked and redirected over and over again. Searching and for searching’s sake. He still has that studio in Madrid, and he always works there whenever he comes back from New York, where he moved in 2005. The trips back and forth, of separation and convergence, have a great deal to do with this show, with the work we can now see in these rooms.
The portrait of Ciria, the purest physical description of him, the one I assimilated as an image in my memory and that I now find has grown stronger, speaks of a forceful artist, pure expressiveness, intensity, matter, a lot more flesh than bones; a lot more blood than guts. And, a lot more body than soul, despite the fact that appearances always fool you (in his case and in this case, you won’t believe how). There’s quite a handful of José Manuel Ciria in presence and strength. He’s someone who absorbs you, who captivates you. From that body or that face, an insipid or awkward work could never be born. Aggressive yet kind because he had a lot of things to say, he withheld a lot of readings and knowledge and he took time to be digested; from the sharp sting of the first punch to other, much more superficial, emotions. In fact, still today, like he did back then, in every conversation, in every interview, I can hear him say that he’s a conceptual artist who paints, or a conceptual painter. Take your pick. As contradictory as it might seem, divergent paths he’s been able to take to their ends converge in him in very different ways. “I’ve always been interested in talking about how there’s always been a solid conceptual and theoretical platform behind my paintings. I think the greatest contrast or tension in my paintings revolves specifically around that opposition; between a completely articulated and mental work, but that has an expressionist or gesturally abstract appearance to how they’re painted.”, as he explained in a conversation published in the catalog of one of his recent exhibitions where some of the pieces that make up this show were seen within a wider context.
In the The Art Conspiracy, Jean Baudrillard pontificates upon how “All art is abstract in the sense that it’s permeated by ideas much more than by imagining forms and substances. All modern art is conceptual in the sense that it fetishizes the concept in the work, it is the stereotype of a cerebral model in art”. His negativity and contrariness are justified, because contemporary art, and whatever people make of the concept these days, has gone a little far afield. Nevertheless, José Manuel Ciria has different goals when he talks about a “theoretical and conceptual platform” that are in no way banal. He stated, “I dislike work where all I can get is a supposed retinal, aesthetic pleasure. Aside from the physical act of painting, there’s a preliminary state of thought. The work is the outcome of that mental creation and the material realization of it.” As we can see, he belongs to a different class of artists who are the complete opposite of the ones Baudrillard discounts and disparages with his arguments.
If we go back to the movie of the facts, to the “flashback”, there’s one anecdote that can illustrate those now long ago times when we first met as if it were a photo, (one he might not remember, however, so it’ll always be his word against mine). I remember a commission, a job, I went to see him at his studio in Madrid with. It was a large image that they wanted him to retouch for the cover of a publication, (it doesn’t matter of whom or what it was about). All he did was lay down one of the stains of paint that have become so characteristic of him over the years over the image. It was some red drips, almost like blood stains. For reasons beyond the artist and myself, the red drips ended up becoming white, (another one of the versions he’d painted). It’s obvious that the pictorial violence of that act was so intense, so offensive even, that out of political correctness and discretion they said the gesture had to be softened and the color had to be purified. White it was, and white it would be published.
Many years have gone by, but I can still see that intensity, that gestuality, in José Manuel Ciria’s most recent paintings. The “Large Grid. Abstract Memory Series”, whose presence in this show lacerates the space. The red and white of the past make a come back, even though at a few points in his work (not included in this show), they’ve blended more into grayish flatlands than deep blacks. The painterly act of that instant, now long in the past and to some extent innocent (like this anecdote), are essentially still the same today (and always). On several occasions, José Manuel Ciria has acknowledged that however much he searches for creative outlets, and whether or not he finds them, it can all be boiled down to an exercise in repetition and the struggle between opposites; in both painting and concept alike. Figure and ground, essence and presence, a body and soul that can never be ethereal: He must release a breath of deep reminiscences, like a nerve buried in the flesh. In his essay The End of Art, Donald Kuspit, to quote and respond to Barnett Newman, writes: “What Newman calls primordial aesthetic roots is inseparable from the first man to cry out his consonants (…) in wails of pain and rage as he looks upon his tragic state, his consciousness of himself and his own helplessness before the void. Humankind’s earliest expression, like his first dream, was aesthetic. Speech was a poetic cry before it was a demand for communication. (…). For Newman, the aesthetic is tragic and defiant at the same time, it’s a recognition of trauma yet at the same time it’s an affirmation of autonomy. Tortured and ecstatic at the same time, the aesthetic consciousness of being suggests that humankind has an artistic nature, that the artistic act is the privilege of humankind”.
José Manuel Ciria moved to New York in 2005. I’ve never been to his studio on La Guardia Place in Manhattan, but I’ve seen photos of him working (the gesture hasn’t changed since the beginning), or walking around the streets covered in snow, as if they were painted a dirty white. There’s no doubt that he’s become a full fledged New Yorker, a New York artist like in the Art History books, neck deep in doing research for his work and the multiple directions it could go in. Getting back to the portrait, his physical presence hasn’t lost an ounce of its forcefulness. He went to New York to experiment (the eternal vocation of a creator), to open the veins of his painting, and his concepts, once again. As Walter Benjamin observed, “Losing your way in a city doesn’t mean much, but getting lost in a city the same way you get lost in a forest takes a lot of learning”. These paintings come out of this violent and purifying process, which having come and gone in bursts, Ciria has ended up becoming accustomed to. It’s a small show, but it’s a definitive, almost the quintessential, expression of his work from this decade.
I’m interested in the image, the pure physical presence of José Manuel Ciria. I think the work he’s been doing for all these years is written on his face. To be honest, I couldn’t imagine Ciria making paintings different from the ones he makes; paintings with less intensity or that took a different direction. Really, he paints himself –he portrays himself– time and time again. I’m not going to delve into psychoanalysis, but in every one of the gestures that make up the extensive frieze (series) titled “Rorschach Heads” I can’t help but see Ciria himself making an endless series of faces in a succession of film stills. It’s as if he were in front of a mirror and he began a process of gestural splitting, acting out characters and emotions hidden beneath his skin. There’s also a pictorial folding in the mirror. His work moves from realism (or, in a way, a real referent) to abstraction, and from drawing to the expressionism that has palpitated throughout his paintings since the start. In the gallery with the portraits, akin to the test it gets its name from (Rorschach), the viewer is interrogated. The viewer asks them self what could have happened, what horror might those anonymous people (the artist’s own alter egos) have witnessed. Maybe it can be summed up by life itself –horrendous, brutal, with devastating illness in the middle and death at the end of the tunnel– like what happens in all those faces marked by panic that occur throughout all periods of the history of art. The oversize heads of Easter island, which he visited while he was in the middle of making this series, are there. In addition to Munch, and his scream of agony, Grosz, Otto Dix, Egon Schiele, Böcklin and his masks with exaggerated gestures and madness contained within a grimace on the verge of exploding… Even the Hieronymus Bosch of vice and passion, or the deaf Goya, obsessive and fighting against the shadows. The same photos published in the newspaper or broadcast by the media day after day. The graffiti pervading the New York urban aesthetic that surrounds him and that, despite its brevity and the anonymity of the artists, is expressed like wounds still festering over all the poverty of all the cities of today, or one could think, of all time. Some of the titles of these agonizing portraits are: “Oh, Wild Days” (Oh, días salvajes), “Eye Trap” (Tragaojos), “Frightened” (Asustado), “Silent Screams” (Gritos mudos). I would never say we’re living in good times for lyricism, rather just the opposite. These are times of dirty, tortuous Dickensian realism. Some things never change.
(“…At the heart of the labyrinth of narrow courts upon courts, and close streets upon streets, which had come into existence piecemeal, every piece in a violent hurry for some one man’s purpose, and the whole an unnatural family, shouldering, and trampling, and pressing one another to death…” extract from Hard Times by Charles Dickens).