Mariano Navarro. Marbella.
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Mariano Navarro. Marbella.

Mariano Navarro. Galería Pedro Peña. Marbella.

Catálogo exposición “Memento Somniare”
Galería Pedro Peña, Marbella. Julio 2003.


Mariano Navarro

“Within the abstract, everything must be abandonment, debris, ash” .

“Incision in an instant” . Although not intended in any way as a critical description, these words by Guillermo Solana on two of José Manuel Ciria’s paintings, Anábasis (Ascensión) and Ruptura del silencio (Anunciación), both dating from 1997, could in fact sum up the painter’s attitude to his work – a cut made both physically and temporally , at the same time defining and declaring a part of him that is incidental, recidivist (it may or may not coincide with painting, but he repeats it), and – why not? – incisive.

So is Ciria a recidivist then? It’s impossible to separate this word from its connotations of error, offence and crime, but it can however be used to make us think of concepts closer to insubordination and insolence. Or disobedience, degeneration, indiscipline, impenitence. Or their opposites: subjugation, discipline, uprightness, thoroughness. And Ciria has this dual attitude to painting. One side of him is captivated and persuaded, right on the edge of an accomplished seduction. The other side uses painting as a resistant, impulsive tool for unravelling complex questions that appear to be beyond it. As I see it, it is this duality which gives rise to his modus operandi of reiteration, trusting and sceptical at the same time.

But we must also bear in mind that as a painter, Ciria is linked by a long and perspicacious umbilical cord to the history of art and, more specifically, to that of painting, although this connection does not prevent him from using irony, which is present in his titles and phrases and even in the name he uses to describe his activity – A.D.A. (Automatic Deconstructive Abstraction). The following anecdote on Ciria’s fascination with Giotto, and the explanation he gives for it, clearly show Ciria’s manner of appropriation. When Ciria was a child at his Manchester home, he was taking out the rubbish one night when he suddenly heard a wonderful singing coming from the sky. He looked up and saw a golden chariot ascending to heaven. He explains that the phenomenon must have been caused by the music from a neighbour’s record player and a plane taking off, and he adds, “my fascination for Giotto came to me in two ways: through his works and their revolutionary aspect, and from his vision of the chariot of fire. I myself have had the same vision” . So this was the History of Art – pinned down and interpreted from an absolutely contemporary viewpoint – and his own personal history or his memories, placed on an equal footing and with a very similar specific weight given to each. One of Ciria’s largest paintings – although all of them are of a considerable size – is a picture of this vision, and he entitled it precisely La visione del carro di fuoco, as part of the series El tiempo detenido (Time stands still).

Another revealing anecdote is the one I have used in the title of this article. “I wasn’t particularly excited about Pollock until I had this incredible hallucinatory experience in the New York Met. A huge painting was hung opposite a designer bench, so that when you looked at it it filled the whole of your field of vision. You observe the painting and at first it doesn’t make much impression on you. Then you stop and look at it and suddenly a fly appears as if from nowhere. A few seconds later another fly appears and crosses the painting, and then the whole thing is suddenly full of them all flying around, and you say My God, there aren’t any flies in here, it’s the actual painting that’s moving…” .

There’s something perverse about Ciria’s painting; there is something of a show in its sumptuousness, an acrid magma is bubbling underneath it. The act of pouring is intensified too, and the state of things are altered and upset. It is as if the matter making it up had begun to rot, as if it was contaminated or being eaten away. Ciria himself has named some of his series Veneno (Poison). A venom or toxin bathes Ciria’s deliberate immersion in the traditional genres, the still life, the landscape, the hint of a portrait, and his use of techniques, from collage to events or to photography.

There is also a certain perversion involved in his repetition, not of a ready-made formula, but of a set of rules, subordinated in an exemplary manner to the visual guidelines modernity has laid down for painting. Through this obedience Ciria does not completely destroy these guidelines but instead casts doubt on them, questioning them and subjecting them to his eloquent and completely overwhelming reasoning.

The numerous different experts who have studied his work have all pointed out the paradoxical nature of a system associating automatism and analysis . Automatism is a method which began with surrealism and also formed part of abstract expressionism, and we could stress that its presence in Ciria’s work is in opposition to both its origins and its North American variety. In its origin it was an impulse or trigger for images or words revealing unconscious mental phenomena, but for Ciria it is just the opposite – interruption, applying the brakes, suspending an experiment; or, in the words of the painter himself, “Direct painting, where the sign is validated as a crossing point of presences, like the edge of an abyss when the immediate evidence of things is perhaps lying at the bottom; it is a sort of visual meliorism that comes out of paralysing a potentially infinite process at one instant, it is never the determination of a previously imposed essential «must be». The automatic stopping at random of forms caught in mid-process of concealing or revealing is therefore a necessary part. Perhaps order and chance, after all, are only points of view within one single reality and their free play cancels out their differences. Within the abstract, everything must be abandonment, debris, ash” . (My italics).

He has also expressed his differences with respect to the abstract expressionists, particularly Motherwell, or more exactly to the Motherwellian style of painting, a certain Mediterranean route towards the informal: “I have always been very anti-Motherwellian (…) as regards my ideological stance on generating the work” . Later on in the same interview he explains that he dislikes the “stupid Motherwellian sponge formula, which absorbs the surroundings and interprets them in accordance with one’s state of mind”. He signals his analytical intentions here: “A journey to the inside of painting, to its most intimate spaces, to show it stripped bare of additions or contrivances, and where without needing to sacrifice the strictly pictorial we can attempt to formulate something close to the concept, an unattainable, uncommitted space bounded by a field which I like to call pre-conceptual” .

One of the more recent books to have been published on Ciria’s works includes a diagram in which he enumerates his “Series” and gives them their place within his creations, pinpointing the dominant “Analytical fields” and their possible combinations, and the strata or level system within which they exist: Themes, Fields and Series.

The different types of support give rise to different pictorial levels. N1 – unused material or paper, painted in the classical manner. N2 – material that has involuntarily and unintentionally accumulated marks and stains at random while left on the workshop floor (self-contamination). N3 – already-used material, canvas or paper which possesses its own mark or contamination from outside. These iconographical registers are further sub-divided into R1, use of the stain; R2, integration of the object within the pictorial field; and R3, inclusion of pre-existing images.

The next step, depending on whether the canvas is divided up into a grid or not, are the “Compartmentalisations” (to which Ciria has dedicated extensive theoretical reasoning, either coinciding with or antagonistic to contemporary dissertations such as those of Rosalind Krauss) or Automatic Techniques, which include decalcomanias, frottage, grattage, dripping and degradation, the use of acids, mixing incompatible materials, etc.

Following a spiral development that infinitely moves on and then retraces its own steps, the next works are: Palabras (Words), Compartimentaciones (Compartmentalisations), Máscaras de la mirada (Masks on a gaze), El uso de la palabra (The use of the word), Encuentros naturales (Natural encounters), Intersticios (Interstices), Imanes iconográficos (Iconographic magnets), Sueños construidos (Constructed dreams) and an unnamed space which his future works are to occupy, as regards works which are exclusively painting. Those in which photography also intervenes on the support are The Dauphin Paintings and Psicopompos (Psychopomps), Odaliscas (Odalisks) and Cuerpos de pintura (Paint bodies) .

Part of the works on show here belong to an intermittent, unfinished series named El jardín perverso (The perverse garden). The first pictures in this series date from 1995-96 and include titles such as Reflejos de Monet, Gracias por nada John (Reflections of Monet, Thanks for nothing John) – “an ironic reflection on Jonathan Lasker’s use of complicated tangles of signs that invade the grid-like spaces of the painting like locks of hair” – Narciso (Narcissus) and Instante del sueño (Instant of sleep). Ciria refers to the title of the exhibition of this series – Memento somniare (in free translation, something like Remember you are going to dream) – and says they are like recurring dreams or like the kind of dreams we cannot grasp when we are awake but we know that some periodical, uniform event happens in them.

It is not the first time the artist has appealed to sleep and dreams in his work. In 1996, in the series Máscaras de la mirada, begun in late 1994, he included the works Coincidencia de sueños (A coincidence of dreams) and Sueño de un poema rojo (Dream of a red poem). In the same year, and within two different series, El sueño de la mirada (The dream of a gaze) and El tiempo detenido (the Roman version or extension of his Masks on a gaze), Segunda imagen del sueño (Second image of sleep) and El cuadro del sueño (The sleep picture) appear respectively.

Since 1999 Ciria has been working on another specific and as yet unfinished series, Sueños construidos (Constructed dreams) including works such as Paisaje de la Coexistencia, Paisaje del Respeto and Paisaje de la Paz (Landscape of Coexistence, Landscape of Respect and Landscape of Peace), created specifically in 2001 for an exhibition in Tel-Aviv. These are created using other previous works by the painter in a kind of cannibalisation process, and the wilfulness of their titles opens up another non-formal perspective regarding his intentions and commitments.

The works in the 1999 series Anamorfosis sintética (ventana) (Synthetic anamorphosis (window)) also belong to this group, and the author says of them: “I found the possibility of creating a recognisable iconographic solution by simply superimposing different supports exciting and surprising. This was how the works Anamorfosis sintética (I to V) were made: they are cubist still lifes with ambiguous titles where the anamorphosis takes place supposedly on a mental plane, as we need to focus or look carefully if we wish to read these works as cubist compositions; the term synthetic simply refers to the period of cubism which features in them. In these works the bottles appearing in the early twentieth-century paintings are converted into a collage made from the crates and packaging of those bottles” .

Jardín perverso now includes works such as Colección de insectos, Fiebre de 45º and Ideas de Alex (Collection of insects, 45º fever, Alex’s ideas). Alex is the name of the artist’s oldest son. The stains are spread over involuntarily contaminated lorry canvases, and the colours seem to float in an airy atmosphere. There is also Ventanas (Windows), whose partially filled in background is a grid which the paint spills out of. On observing these works I could not avoid feeling that they are windows which do not look out onto anything at all, but from which paint is thrown out of – Gardez l’eau! – into the spectator’s face and eyes.

The second group, Venus geométrica, are works that also belong to an as yet unfinished series, and the artist stresses their sexual character and their imagery of a rough-surfaced copulation. The titles are explicit, Rozarte, Penetrarte, Tocarte, Lamerte, Salpicarte (Rub you, Enter you, Touch you, Lick you, Splash you); the agonising opponents are geometric forms cohabiting amongst embers and remnants, a debris of joined figures.

Of the numerous texts written by Ciria and included in the different catalogues, I think one of the most extraordinary is Ideas residuales ante el espejo (Residual ideas before the mirror) , whose recentness – it was published in 2001 – would allow me to venture that his line of thought is still the same today. He mercilessly announces that “Life would be better without painting”. And, contradicting himself as only the truly intelligent can do, he then lists a succession of paradoxes which, following on from his own assertion “the fragment is the only form that can resist in the middle of a shipwreck”, I will take the liberty of citing partially and in the order that best suits me, to conclude my digression. “Getting up every morning and throwing paint out of the window. (…) You have to go to your studio each day and paint your first picture. (…) Painting is not made of ideas. (…) Today painting does not exist without a concept, without a content, without a direction, or without a cargo of ideology. (…) It is impossible to invent a painting. (…) We know what pictures we have to paint, but it’s difficult to paint them. (…) Why did dragons disappear from paintings? (…) Painting is the red dragon”.