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Mark Van Proyen. Madrid.

Mark Van Proyen. Circulo Bellas Artes. Madrid.

Catálogo exposición “Ciria, Heads, Grids” Círculo de Bellas Artes de Madrid. Noviembre 2010.

 

CIRIAN LOGIC AND THE PAINTING OF PRECONSTRUCTION

 

Mark Van Proyen

 

“The contemporary is a fleeting and moribund presence. Its manifestations occur before our very eyes, and yet our eyes are unable to control or define them, just as words are incapable of describing them in time, at the same time. Its flow must be discovered, it remains indefinite and unformulated, it exists and imposes itself, but it cannot be channeled. It is difficult to channel in a single landscape, enclose it in a perimeter in which we can we can pinpoint everything that occurs.”

 

Germano Celant, Unexpressionism, 1988 (1)

“We rest; a dream has power to poison sleep. We rise; one wandering thought pollutes the day. We feel, conceive, or reason; laugh or weep, Embrace fond woe, or cast our cares away; It is the same: for, be it joy or sorrow, The path of its departure still is free. Man’s yesterday may ne’er be like his morrow. Nought may endure but mutability!”

 

Mary Shelly, Frankenstein, 1818 (2)

Jose Manual Ciria’s paintings meet the viewer’s eye with bold and decisive gestures of colors chosen from a limited palette, forming graphically distinct shapes that are crisp, precise and confident. Oftentimes, these seem to be specific, as if they were residues of figurative characters (or fragments of characters, or families of characters) all appearing to behave in the picture space much as if they were non-human actors positioned on a starkly furnished stage. Even when there are visible drips emanating from Ciria’s fast brush, it is apparent that they too function as precise and deliberate actors in relation to the graphic and pictorial architecture of any given painting, parsing the elements of balance and dynamicism with a confident aplomb that is neither hesitant nor hyperbolic.

 

One can go so far as to say that the controlled gesturalism of Ciria’s paintings mirror the purposes of Asian calligraphy, not only in the way that it subsumes and nullifies the binary categories of deliberation and spontaneity, but also in how it supports deceptively simple graphic configurations that do something similar to the dichotomy that has been alleged to exist between beauty and the sublime. In any given painting, there are moments where we can see a transformation of graphic elements into something that appears to be pictorial space (for example, in the use of drop shadows that suggest that abstract shapes are dimensional entities), but these are always balanced by other moments where the same space can be seen to return the viewer’s attention to the work’s surface, achieving esthetic moments where the microcosmic and the macrocosmic shape each other with a casual perfection. Always, Ciria’s paintings reveal a stunning albeit understated sleight-of-hand, where the “here-ness” of graphic fact finds perfect co-existence with the “there-ness” of poetic allusion.

 

Although some of Ciria’s works are quite large, they are rarely overwhelmingly so, and when his scale is relatively modest, it never prompts the viewer to see fetishism or preciousness in what he does with it. On the contrary, when he does work in a modest scale, the results tend to feel larger than what might be warranted by said work’s material facts. Conversely, his larger works can seem somehow more contained and internal in a way that undercuts allusions to any idea of metaphysical vastness of the “sublime” type that animates the work of artists such as Barnett Newman or Mark Rothko.

 

Ciria’s color can be simultaneously explosive and reserved. He often uses expanses of gray and tan to set a tone of understated stasis while also alluding to the austerity of an arid landscape. This austerity is strategically disrupted by gestural applications of reds that echo fire or blood, and blacks the invoke the chill of death, those being the two metaphysical “characters” that infuse Ciria’s works with the animation of Rorschach shapes come to a kind of life that is both absurd and fundamental. This represents a unique approach to color that seems very much in keeping with recent developments in the practice of painting. Donald Kuspit has written about the different approached to color that are visible in 20th century American painting, identifying three broad trends. (3) He labels these psycho-symbolic color, transcendental-pure color and empirically neutral (i.e. matter of fact) color, associating the first with the desire to give para-symbolic form to the “muddiness” of unconscious impulse, the second to escape such symbolism by entering into a sensate realm of transcendental purity where tonality is banished in favor of chromatic intensity, and the third with the attempts that Pop Art and Minimalism made to overthrow the other two so as to displace feeling with the mechanics of fact. Ciria’s decidedly non-American use of color adds yet another category to this trinity, which I shall dub “Frankensteinian” color in homage to the monster (rather than the eponymous doctor) featured in Mary Shelly’s famous novel. The kind of color that I am alluding to is very much like the monster, stitched together from the dead fragments of the other three approaches, newly reanimated by nefarious purpose. It is simultaneously more and less alive than its constituent parts, and has no choice but to seek new purpose in an alien landscape. Like the monster’s murderous rebuke of the morally misguided doctor that created him, Frankensteinian color rebukes the anti-human positivism of Pop and Minimalism while also recognizing that it can never return to the happy paradise of the psychosymbolic earth represented by muddy color, even as it must also renounce the heavenly transcendentalism of pure chromaticism. All that remains to it is the unhappy drama of trying to live by its wits in a world ordered by lies and death. This is the kind of wit one should keep in mind when ascribing the term to Ciria’s work. It is indeed witty, but it avoids being clever. There is no foolishness here, because there is no time for foolishness.

 

The Frankensteinian dimensions of Ciria’s paintings also extend to the kind of brushstrokes that we see in them. Their “deliberate spontaneity” prompts us to remember that the recent history of painting gives us two conflicting theories of the brushstroke. The first comes out of German Expressionism and the American Abstract Expressionism that came after, casting the brushstroke as painting’s existential protagonist and guarantor of deep subjectivity. This model celebrates the primal urge-to-touch that is at the core of all emotional life, and invites us to make associations between what is explicitly visible and what is implicitly tactile. The second of theory of the brushstroke derives from Pop Art, and are best exemplified by Roy Lichtenstein’s works from the early 1970s that deploy a carefully painted, comic-book-style version of the Abstract Expressionist brushstroke as a free-floating graphic emblem. Subordinating the tactility of the brushstroke in this way emphasize the efficient delivery of pre-conceived strategies of social signification, implicitly downgrading the consolidation of any pre-existing subjective state of being in favor of a fantasy of “radical” self-invention that can appropriate the requisite parts of artistic identity from any random source. Since the 1960s, the Pop-derived position has come to the forefront in contemporary painting, in part as a cynical parody of the questionable idealism that was once conferred on the earlier model, and in larger part as a capitulation to an omnipresent “designerism” that seeks to conventionalize and regulate the range of potential esthetic experiences. But as Pop and its post-modern offspring start to recede on the art historical horizon, the role of tactility in recent painting has become ripe for radical reconsideration.

 

In fact, it may now be fair to ask whether or not Pop’s attitude of anti-tactility can be said to represent some kind of phobic contempt for such things as affect and subjectivity, and it seems that Ciria’s work engages these questions in very complex ways. Indeed, after his work confirms the first glance assumptions one can make about its seemingly comfortable relationship to the conventions of lyrical abstract painting as they were practiced by the likes of Robert Motherwell and Antonio Tapies throughout the 1960s, the second glance tells us that there is something else that is afoot in these paintings, something that slyly deviates from and vexes the aforementioned comfort. Even as they manage to be simultaneously terse and generous, there is bad behavior lurking in these paintings, even as it might seem to be shrouded in an arrangement of forms that simultaneously bespeaks improvisation and the noble simplicity and quiet grandeur of a classical sensibility.

 

The bad behavior of which I write is that of the artful dodger. Whereas most abstract paintings want to wear their “heroic” quintessentialization of experience on the visible sleeve of their picture planes, Ciria’s work taunts our interest in such a possibility and then backs away from it in favor of an introverted juggling act that restages a surprising variety of pictorial maneuvers within a system of compositional containers and sub-containers that mirror each other in theme-and-variation fashion. In some ways, his work can be seen as being related to the kind of “Provisional Paintings” (4) of which Raphael Rubinstein made mention in 2009. At that time, Rubinstein took note of a trend that emphasized work that was intended to look improvised and unfinished, and in some cases blatantly provocative in their emphasis on theatrical gesture moving well ahead of form. “Casual, dashed-off, tentative and self-canceling” were the terms that were used to describe the work of Provisional painters such as Raoul DeKeyser, Albert Oehlen and Michael Krebber, and all of the provisional painters were said to have infused Dadaist motives into the practice of an improvisatory abstraction. And yes, all of them use both color and brush in a decidedly Frankensteinian way.

 

But in other ways, Ciara’s work parts company with the bulk of provisional painting. Clearly, the single most noticeable point of distinction lies in his reluctance to indulge in the kind of hyperbolic theatricalism that earmarks their work, instead showing a clear preference for a measured balance of directness and understatement. In Ciria’s work, you have to look before you see, and sometimes you have to look hard. On some occasions he gives the viewer much to look at, while at other junctures, he strategically withholds obvious elements of interest. Always, one has to look at his work with eyes that are both shaped by an awareness of the historical evolution of modernist abstraction, and also shaped by an awareness of the amount of historical distance that now exists between our own troubled moment and the very different world in which Modernist abstraction evolved. Both of these types of awareness are necessary for the task of indentifying the moments when he steps into and away from that evolution; in fact, they are important preconditions for seeing the real innovative character of his work.

 

Throughout its mid-20th century heyday, Modernist abstraction was always best understood to be an art of essences that reconfigured traditional ideas of artistic mastery (of the articulation and organization of experience) into another notion of mastery—the mastery of purity. This was the optical doppelganger for a much-prized ontology of an alleged disinterestedness that would presume to raise esthetic autonomy to ever-newer heights that could rise above worldly experience. Artistic devotees to the practice of Modernist abstraction saw their task as nothing less than the crystallization of experience into a form that revealed its own self-perfection, and in general these crystallizations participated in one of two distinct lineages that run parallel to Kuspit’s notions of psycho-symbolic and transcendental color. Lets call the first of these radical subjectivity, and note that it harks back to 19th century Symbolism, finding its significant revivals in Expressionism and Surrealism. The second is an extreme contrast to the first in that it seeks nothing less than an absolute escape from Symbolism’s condition of cultivated inwardness, seeking “transcendence” in the direct presentation of sensate phenomena. Impressionism, Fauvism and Cubism are the exemplary instances of this lineage, which was significantly extended by Clement Greenberg’s celebration of Post-Painterly Abstraction as well as the Minimalism that followed in its immediate wake.

 

Herein lies the special significance of American-style Abstract Expressionism: it was the only movement in 20th century painting that successfully synthesized the two aforementioned lineages, and it is not surprising to note that its synthesis was short lived, as almost all that came after it retreated to one or the other of the two aforementioned camps. The only other synthesis that was comparable to Abstract Expressionism was one of extreme perversion. Here, I refer to Pop Art and its various post-modernist offspring , which wed a stunningly blunt phenomenalism to a kind of iconography that aggressively mocked and negated the residue of the Symbolist subject in favor of one framed by social demographics and technology. After Pop Art, a new cult favoring a para-esthetic algebra of pictorial integers replaced the older cult of the spontaneous gesture, turning its back on all of the latter’s connotations of inward freedom and existential grace. And this new cult, buoyed along by a widespread interest in the intrinsic poetics of photography, consolidated a position around an inquiry into the politics of representation, which then became the man of straw that would invite significant philosophical attack from those who would claim Deconstruction as a descriptive term of their purposes.

 

During the final quarter of the 20th century, the most prominent and controversial model for philosophical inquiry was called Deconstruction, which followed from the famously cryptic writings of Jacques Derrida. Although Deconstruction had no real tenants other than the desire to demythologize what was called “the metaphysics of presence” so that so-called normalcy could be revealed to be a rigged game, it rang true in one important way: it recast the facts of the world as being separable from the models of meaning that would assign significance to them, rendering them newly available to various strategies of ethical reanimation. One of the reasons why Derrida’s texts were received with such consternation was that they often revealed themselves as ironic literary performances that wittily demonstrated the impossibility of escaping pre-existing predicates, even as they also subtly vilified the givenness of the world on the grounds that it crowded out latent possibilities that still managed to haunt the philosophical enterprise, adding an unhappy and elegiac spin to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s famous dictum stating that “what we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.” (5)

 

Now that two full decades have passed since the rage for Deconstruction found the peak of its victory over a straw army that was cast as a stand-in for western civilization, we can more clearly see that it made a necessary albeit perverse point that reflected the anxiety of a moment when philosophers realized that all they had been doing for the previous two centuries was a kind of protracted batting around of ideas that had been around for much longer, without adding much to the mix. In response to this recognition, many have followed the lead of Michel Foucault in cashing out their philosophical portfolios so as to freely repurpose their efforts toward describing the obscure lineages of various “histories of ideas,” while others applied deconstructive ideas to various sectors of the humanities and social sciences for the sake of revealing and challenging their disciplinary limitations.

 

My epigraphical citation of Germano Celant’s notion of Unexpressionism reflects an example of this latter approach. Originally circulated in a magazine article in 1981 and then reformulated in the form of a book published in 1988, it advanced a harsh critique of the then-current vogue for various forms of Neoexpressionist painting, which was said to embody “an orgy of excitement for painterly materials, an industrious fervor about traditional media and techniques, and a morbid iconographic historicism…” where “the artist plays the role of The Artist.” (6). In contrast to Neo-Expressionism, Celant proposed another way to understand contemporary art; “it must accept being ‘instruments’ and ‘gadgets’ of an overall system in order to reveal its role: to work on illusion in order to avoid deluding itself.”(7) Celant went on to fatten his slim volume with photographic examples of the work of some 32 artists including Jeff Koons, Barbara Kruger and Cindy Sherman, who formed a loosely defined group that, with some additions and deletions, would soon become the stock company that would regularly play at the many international biennials that would earmark the next two decades of activity in a globally expanding art world.

 

To the art historically trained ear, Celant’s statements seem pointed in the direction of two prominent exhibitions organized earlier in that decade by Norman Rosenthal and Christos Jacomedies, respectively titled A New Spirit in Painting (held in 1981 at the Royal Academy in London), and Zietgiest, staged at the Martin Gropius Bau in Berlin in 1984. It is interesting to note that, by 1991, those same curators had come to agree with Celent’s Unexpressionist thesis, presenting his version of contemporary art in another exhibition titled Metropolis at the same Berlin location, featuring the work of many of Celent’s “Unexpressionist” artists. Again, the extent to which these artists have dominated the landscape of contemporary art during the past 20 years needs to be stressed, as does the now questionable assumption that their work might have something to do with a Deconstructive philosophical position, which is to say that a more measured retrospective view would rightfully redraw their efforts along the lines of a making of valuable commodities that cynically pretend to critique commodification as a way of enhancing their status as…valuable commodities.

 

We would do well to wonder what the world of contemporary artistic form would look like if it had been subjected to a more sincere and thorough “deconstruction,” and in the light of that query I would advance Ciria’s as providing an important albeit provisional answer. Ciria’s paintings seems to pantomime a specific condition of subjective coalescence that is in fact “pre-constructive,” showing conditions of being that pass around and through conceptually brittle regimes of representation in hit-and-run fashion. Rather than finalize any quintessential crystallization of experience, his work conducts an elegantly constructed guerilla war against false certitude, recognizing the limited, indeed deluded value of making any kind of art devoted to “working on illusion to avoid deluding itself.” As a counter to such a position, Ciria works on allusion and evasion to succeed in preluding itself, the prelude in question being one focused on the renewed engagement with lively possibility as being the preferable alternative to deathly (pseudo)certitude. Thus, his work cannily creates an event out of the state of potentiality where something is on the verge of happening, even as its outcome is far from certain. The valuable lesson from this is the one that reminds us that quicksilver will keep much better than straw.

 

1.Germano Celant, Unexpressionism: Art Beyond the Contemporary, (New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 1988). 5.

 

2.Mary Shelly, Frankenstein (1818), online text at http://www.literature.org/authors/shelley-mary/frankenstein/chapter-10.html (accessed July 7, 2010).

 

3.See Donald Kuspit, “Unconscious and Self-Conscious Color in ‘American-Type’ Painting,” in The Rebirth of Painting in the Late 20th Century (Cambridge University Press, 2000). 91-100.

 

4.Raphael Rubinstein, “Provisional Painting,” Art in America, May, 2009. 123.

 

5.Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico Philosophicus (1922) (London and New York: Routledge, 1974). 89.

 

6.Celant, Op.Cit. 10.

 

7.Ibid. 12.