Melanie Mariño. Monasterio de Prado. Valladolid.
Texto catálogo “Ciria: Beyond”. Monasterio de Prado. Consejería de Cultura de la Junta de Castilla y León. Valladolid, Marzo 2010.
THE BODY OF FORM: JOSE MANUEL CIRIA’S PAINTING
Dr. Melanie Mariño
¿Dónde está Wally? Jose Manuel Ciria’s painting from 2005 takes its title from a children’s book beloved by his son, Alex. The book plays with the game of hide and seek that never fails to amuse toddlers, who devise endlessly, compulsively, the appearance and disappearance of cherished objects, including, of course, themselves. This is the fort/da game that so intrigued Freud, who observed his eighteen-month old grandson throw away a spool (fort!) only to recover it again with string (da!). In this innocent and persistent gesture, Freud perceived the boy’s effort to master the departures of his mother(1).
The same rhythm of on and off, here and there, pulses through the work of Ciria where abstract form returns again and again to the scene of a disappearance. A grid of twelve compartments scores the monumental painting, which measures 152 by 132 centimeters. Each pane monitors miscellaneous gestures—a staccato of dots; ebullient smears and splatters; ragged fields of color. Wordlessly, these variations announce the performance of an action, the action of marking a pictorial surface. Beneath that non-linguistic plane, however, lies a vast field of speculative questions regarding plastic form and language. Perhaps the question is single: is it possible to dissolve the opposition of chance and structure, idea and visual image, abstraction and figuration? Ciria’s “world of forms” insists that this is the task of painting at the turn of a new century—after, especially after, the many apocalyptic pronouncements of art’s death.
Memory Following a decade of experimentation with figurative painting, the Manchester-born Madrileño, Ciera, arrived at abstract painting at the end of the 1980s—the actual “jump,” as the artist puts it, takes place after the “Cuaderno de Notas” of 1990. Across North America and Europe, the eighties witnessed the efflorescence of the figure in advanced painting. The Italian art critic, Achille Bonito Oliva, to take an example, grouped under the banner of Transavanguardia the work of Francesco Clemente, Sandro Chia, Enzo Cucchi, Nicola de Maria, and Mimmo Paladino. There were other names for like-minded artists in other places—in Germany, the Neue Wilden, Georg Baselitz and Anselm Kiefer, or in the United States, Julian Schnabel and David Salle. These artists operated as cultural nomads roaming freely throughout history, braiding together personal mythology and historical imagery, tinkering like bricoleurs with all manner of motifs and styles so that the Classical would appose the Pop, Christ would reappear as Bacchus, medieval bestiary would burgeon from modern verse.
For critics of the time, the ascendance of figurative painting knelled the end of modernism, or rather, modernism reduced to the scandal of formalist abstraction. Significantly, it was at the moment of modernist abstraction’s decline—or perhaps its crudest misprision—that Ciria initiated his own forensic investigation of its anatomy. In a way, this peculiar project distills an allegory of the painter’s status as outsider within the history of contemporary art. “It is part of morality,” Theodor Adorno once wrote as an intellectual in exile, “not to be at home in one’s own home”(2).
Of course, to foreground Ciria’s separation from his time is also to discount his deep cultural attachment to his place. He was after all soundly attuned to developments in Spanish art and culture in the 1980s. Following the gray cultural landscape of Spain under Franco’s regime during the 1970s, artists throughout the country returned to painting and curators and critics heeded their call. In 1984, “Origen y Vision—New German Painting” was exhibited at La Caixa in Barcelona and the Palacio Velazquez in Madrid. At the same time, the Saragossan Jose Manuel Broto or the Mallorcan Miguel Barceló also held their first one-man shows.
One might travel back further. The road to Spanish painting in the seventies and eighties was paved after all by the Spanish informalists from the 1950s, Antoni Tàpies, who co-founded the Dau-al-Set in Barcelona in 1948, as well as Manolo Millares and Antonio Saura, who banded together with other artists to create the El Paso group in Madrid in 1957. In turn, their experimentation with abstraction could not have taken shape without the example of the historical avant-garde—specifically, of the work of Pablo Picasso, Joan Miro, and Salvador Dali. And all of this is informed, rather ineluctably, by the rich legacy of the great Romantic, Francisco Goya, and the masters of the Spanish Baroque, Diego Velazquez, Barolomé Esteban Murillo, Francisco Zurbarán.
This inventory of Spanish painting is artificial and provincial for the genealogy of a given artist necessarily extends beyond the confines of patrimony—consider Velazquez and his aeration of the space of Flemish painting or his encounter with Rome or his flirtations with Titian and Ovid. Indeed, the lines of influence are deeper and wayward, and the very notion of influence is always already tinged with the peculiar anxiety diagnosed by the literary critic, Harold Bloom, whose influential revision of Freud’s family romance concludes with apophrades or the return of the dead.
The historical formation of a given work, to paraphrase Bloom, evokes the memory of strong precursors as its ground. To clear an imaginative space for a very personal kind of remembrance, Ciria moves back and forth, swerving here between Velazquez and Miro, there between Surrealism and Suprematism, and always between Abstract Expressionism and Art Informel. This undulating movement unveils the paradoxical shape of memory. For memory cannot be forced into synonymy with retrospection. Rather, its line, as the great modernists Freud and Proust intuited, trails the serpentine coil of survival and anticipation, of ruins that infiltrate expectation.
“Will it ultimately reach the clear surface of my consciousness,” the young Proust wonders, “this memory, this old, dead moment which the magnetism of an identical moment has traveled so far to importune, to disturb, to raise up out of the very depths of being?” This passage refers to an elusive visual memory that retracts itself stubbornly from his conscious mind as he ruminates: “Now that I feel nothing, it has stopped, has perhaps gone down into its darkness, from which who can say whether it will every rise? Ten times over I must essay the task, must lean down over the abyss”(3).
In two paintings from the 2009 series, Abstracta Memoria, the pictorial plane is reticulated into a three by three grid, whose flat geometric fields of black and pale grey nod to the perspective latticework of Paolo Uccello while replicating the paradigmatic modernist emblem of the non-mimetic, the anti-natural. Its structure follows that of the canvas, multiplying the vertical and horizontal axes of its two-dimensional support that holds itself apart, as an autonomous entity in itself that could be separated from the flow of quotidian life.
But that autonomy was mythic as Mondrian’s compositions so nimbly demonstrated. In his diamond-shaped canvases, the grid is sometimes truncated by the framing edge of the canvas, bringing into focus the painting’s arbitrary isolation from the larger world outside it (4). This oscillation between closing in and looking out is played out in Ciria’s canvases by the logic of the frame within the frame—specifically, by the delineation of a doubled border around the grid. These thick margins gesture to the partial and fragmentary nature of the pictorial field. Their outlines seem superfluous, bafflingly ornamental perhaps because they seem to inhabit another discourse altogether—they function like the frames of Old Master paintings, which sets the surface of the picture back to disclose its unity with the world of the beholder.
Two lines of memory converge in each composition. There is the bivalent history of the grid, which reminds us that modernist painting has preserved the integrity of the picture plane as much it has ruptured it. There is also the battle between the centripetal pull of each square pane on the gestural mark, on one hand, and the surge of energy emitted by the very mark that undermines the grid’s will to stasis, on the other. Within these paintings, the countervailing splatters of cadmium, chrome yellow, and white, or red, white, and black restructure each compartment as an arena for action, to borrow Harold Rosenberg’s ebullient characterization of Abstract Expressionism.
Everywhere, the generous flickers of Ciria’s brush and the vigorous scrapings of his palette knife announce a debt to Pollock. But there is also a chasm that separates Ciria’s vignettes from Pollock’s intricate, all-over webs, where dripped and flung lines interlace thin and thick, dark and light, where textured skeins of color swirl, weave, run, and pool together with churning dynamism here, with unassertive, even ethereal delicacy there. Pollock’s volatile pulsation of decision and chance renders each painting the residue of a spontaneous, material event. Ciria translates this event as so many signs for the wild, the bodily, the automatic, indeed, the unconscious.
To put it more specifically, Ciria’s marks foreground the dimension of Surrealist automatism in Pollock’s materialism so that the primordial violence of Ciria’ splatter and scrape threatens at each moment to implode the stability of the grid. If Pollock’s drip paintings lash against the organicity of form, Ciria’s work allows for the happenstance appearance of its fragments. Note the thinned edges of his blots, where dots and lines sprout into biomorphic protuberances reminiscent of Miro. The very bodies defaced by the abstract mark creep back in as archeological discovery. The dream of abstraction, it appears, will always yield the viscera of its other.
It may be surprising to learn that Ciria sees his work as conceptual painting. None of this is alien to Minimal and Conceptual art, which depended on the permutations of a predetermined system to investigate a given problem, and more importantly, to avoid subjectivity. It is, however, antithetical to painting conceived as the last bastion of authorship.
For LeWitt, the idea is a machine that generates art. In his work, Ciria has set into motion one such thinking machine. His machine diagrams three circles: the first maps four components: pictorial levels, iconographic registers, techniques of random control, and compartmentalization; the second triangulates memory, experience, and time, and the third subdivides into the different series of his oeuvre. The regulating principle of the whole is simple: feed one disk into another to produce a combinatoire that regulates the pictorial variations of each series. Ciria’s methodical application of chance to the resolution of the problem of painting is alchemical in its logic—it confabulates a semiotics of painting.
The appellation Ciria gives to his conceptual methodology is “Automatic Deconstructive Abstractionism.” As the two terms “deconstructive” and “automatic” imply, Ciria’s system is bilateral. It is “deconstructive” in its investigation of the possibilities of painting—gestural expressionism, the grid, the monochrome, the color-field are a few signs for those possibilities. But this “deconstructive” approach also discloses a deep engagement with the automatist drawing and writing in Surrealism, which sought to mobilize the forces of the unconscious to liberate the libidinal energy of the subject. If that technique released uncontrolled inscription, that writing in its turn decentered the subject; its mechanism is not so much unifying as it is conflicted and compulsive. The mechanical automaton was thus a principal figure for the Surrealists.
But there is another drive that motors the cognitive compulsion in Ciria’s work. It is evident that Ciria uses structure (the grid) to orient traces of the subject (the splatter), walking the tightrope between system and chance. But there is another pathway through that system, which might be grasped through the artist’s affinity for alchemy. The relevant figure here is the artist as magician(5).
There is a ritual from Gallicia in the northwest corner of Spain that dates back to the Middle Ages. Surrounded by candles, a brown-robed, ink-visaged figure presides over a cauldron of aguardiente, lemon, and coffee grains, the liquid ladled again and again over fire. He incants a script to ward off evil spirits, and the participants respond with the refrain, “Queimada.” There is a pause toward the end when they silently make three wishes for each of the three ingredients of the burning water. At last, they drink the magical potion to usher in good luck for the year to come.
Ciria performed this ritual for this writer and a few friends last Christmas. It was a hypnotic reminder of the power of alchemy and magic, which could generate yet another set of questions. Might Ciria’s automatism be shaded by possession? Might the artist’s deconstruction of non-mimetic painting actually conjure the mimetic? Is figuration the corpse Bataille located as the origin of taboos or the dead conceived as the source of magic? The artist began his career with figurative painting, and in significant ways the figure has never exited the picture.
The most obvious example of Ciria’s ambivalence about the figure might be located in his staining of large format photographs of women. In his series, Odaliscas (2001), a recumbent, sometimes splayed, female nude is lashed with ribbons of red and white that transform the fluttering lines of hair and garment in Italian Renaissance painting into the codes of death and pornography; they are the strips of the shroud and the instruments of bondage. In another painting, Sueño (2005), the seated and dressed figure of an anonymous woman is generalized, its identifying features obliterated by the red and black pigment flung over her face and body, drooling white paint at the lower rim. Painterly gesture in these works enacts a kind of violence against the skin of the image. Like the graffiti that mauls the surface of its inscription, Ciria’s abstract tracks of color invade the space of the human figure. They cut against the analogical grain of the photograph to suspend representation in favor of action, or more precisely, to cancel the representational through action.
And then there are the faces, or more aptly, the masks. The series, Máscaras Schadenmaske (2008), deploys an ovoid module in varying sizes and numbers, often bisected vertically and often further compartmentalized by patches and striations of color. Like the African masks that litter the artist’s La Guardia Place loft, these heads are relentlessly flat and emptied of psychological traits—even when one appears as shrieking liquefied cranium in ¡Oh! (Días Salvajes).
Some of Ciria’s critics have likened his mask to the veil, linking its form to the action of concealment. But the private magical enchantment the mask holds for Ciria is closer to the intellectual and sensory revelation that the great anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss experienced within the darkened North Pacific halls of the Museum of Natural History, where Franz Boas had installed by individual ethnic group alcoves framed by totem poles and dimly illuminated cavities of floridly figurated masks, costumes, and tools like “tottering heaps of lost treasures.” Echoing Baudelaire’s rhapsody in the opening lines of “Correspondances”(6), Lévi-Strauss wrote in an essay from 1943, “There is in New York a magic place where the dreams of childhood hold their rendez-vous; where ancient tree trunks sing and speak; where indefinable objects watch out for the visitor with the anxious fixity of human faces”(7).
Within this burlesque carnival of forms and motifs Lévi-Strauss discerned lines of similarity, which he graphed in his work as a system of relationships that could be comprehended precisely by their differential value from one another. This was, of course, the work performed by Picasso’s Guitar (1912). In homage perhaps to Picasso’s apperception of the relation between Western modernism and African art (the Grebo mask), the Schademaske does not imitate the formal traits of African masks so much as attend to its semiological lesson. If art constitutes signs, those signs are arbitrary—that is, they are unrelated to anatomical knowledge, freed from the responsibility of resemblance. Dispensing with volume, Ciria’s masks use color and line to underscore this arbitrariness so that a single plane may signify different parts of the human visage and the entire form a network of abrupt and discontinuous formal relations. Of course, the viewer can make this reading only through the values of figurative representation, only through its difference from another. Arbitrariness is limited(8).
Let us return finally to Ciria’s recent series, Abstracta Memoria. Its forms neither refer to objects nor abstract their forms. Nevertheless, its non-mimetic vocabulary and compositional syntax retain the quality and system of preceding mimetic art. One might object that this is true of all of abstract painting—that is to say, one could read even the most rigorously abstract signs like the cross or the plus as vertical figure against horizontal ground. As such, the pictorial field will always appear as something contingent, a piece broken off a larger whole. Abstraction and figuration are always already one entity.
Semiological analysis rewrites painting as a language. But the absolute autonomy of color stands in the way of such linguistic circumscription(9). One might name Ciria’s colors: they belong to the continuum of the spectrum, non-spectrum, and achromatic. Its reds are cadmium then turn to blood; its yellows are chrome before approaching orange; its blues are by turns shiny, electric, and aquamarine; the earth wells up as ochre, terra cotta, burnt umber; and there is the unequivocal plunge into black, white, and greys. Or, one might name the colors’ scales and their functions; if the “major scale” confers stability to the whole, the “dynamic scale” agitates that balance(10). But this loquacious nomination is futile; it leads only to silence.
Even when gripped by the discipline of geometry, Ciria’s pigment, whether sprayed, splattered, or incrusted, gives the viewer a respite from speech. “It [attaches] itself absolutely to its own specificity,” Stephen Melville pointedly observed(11). What one reads is an effect that may open the problem of ornament (color as something added on to a surface) or that may insist on the basis of vision in nature (color as a referent for the landscape).
But this is irrelevant to Ciria’s painting: he is not a colorist. Color in his work functions quite simply to disrupt the unity of the mark, to summon up its arbitrary and particular character. As each mark erupts within a culturally coded pictorial field, the viewer is forced to recognize the materiality of the pictorial sign and the ultimate illegibility of its experience. In this sense, Ciria’s color is allied to the body, which refuses discourse.
The body that confronts the beholder in Ciria’s paintings is antonymic to the Vitruvian Man, Da Vinci’s drawing of a male body in two superimposed positions of spread legs and arms inscribed within the geometric figures of the circle and the square. As is well known, this drawing mapped an ideal balance of human proportions derived from the Classical architectural orders adumbrated by the ancient Roman architect, Vitruvius, in his canonical treatise De Architectura.
Ciria’s body belongs to an entirely alien realm that proposes the dissolution of good form. The dissident Surrealist, Bataille, described this operation with an adjective intended to function as a verb, the informe or the formless. With this word, Bataille refashioned representation as an action of lowering, of bringing things down to the level of base matter: the spider or spit. There are other images for this operation. All of them rotate the upright representation of the human body to the horizontal in order to move the body up and down, like the foot that erects man as it stands in mud. Indeed, Bataille contended that the big toe was the most human part of the body. It is flat, low, an object of fetishistic eroticism: “One is seduced in a base manner, without transpositions and to the point of screaming, opening his eyes wide: opening them wide then, before a big toe”(12). Creation is celebrated as excessive, ecstatic, at once brutal and carnal, like the bull’s horn that rips out the matador’s eye in Histoire de l’Oeil.
For all their gaming with logical restatement, or more precisely, through their gamesmanship, Ciria’s work transmutes the figure into visceral matter. It is not accidental that his marks recall the bodily emissions of saliva, blood, piss, sperm, or the entropy of dessication (the skin). But these ejaculations do not substitute for abject substance. The “job” they enact is more akin to the stamping of Malevich’s black square over a surface of lush pictorial incident in Rusia: Mujeres, cavias, y un cuadrado negro (2004) or the disfiguration of the square, now red, by similar spurtings in La Repuesta de Asis or Arriba or Cain y Abel (2003). These paintings put into play a reciprocal transformation so that form bridles against form to transform the categories of gestural and geometric abstraction in equal measure.
It should be noted that Ciria’s formless opposes the work of sublimation that is shared by the history of some abstract and figurative painting. If anything, as Bataille theorized, artistic production is closer to the inscriptions of cave art and the doodles of children. In both instances, the mark scratches and grates to despoil a surface, a background, a support. One thinks of children rubbing the oily and liquid tips of crayons, markers, and fingers against walls. Their marking is propelled by the impulse of fouling or of what Bataille called alteration.
All of this bristles, of course, against the semiological scaffolding scrupulously built by Ciria to unfold the memory-structure of painting. But Ciria’s system exists as a deceit; it exists as a machine to foil the transcendence of the body through ratiocination. The body in his work is base. But it is not without cunning in its operation as a transitive verb that incessantly transposes the terms of the mimetic and the non-mimetic. Figuration and abstraction as such are polluted, split always from within in a willful mutilation of their logic, language, and history. Nothing is identical to itself; everything is self-different.
1.The boy’s symbolic repetition of the traumatic event would form the basis of Freud’s theory of repetition compulsion that he rewrote as the principle of the death drive. See Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, trans., James Strachey (New York, 1961).
2.Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections from a Damaged Life, trans., E.F.N. Jephcott (London, 2005), p. 39.
3.Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way, trans. C.K. Scott Moncrieff (New York, 1970), p. 35.
4.See Rosalind Krauss, “Grids,” in The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Myths (Cambridge, 1991), pp. 20–1.
- An important predecessor for Ciria is Joseph Beuys, whose interventions may seem far removed from the context of contemporary Spanish art. Any comparison between post-war Germany and post-Franco Spain would be specious at best. Nonetheless, Beuys’ infusion of felt, wax, and fat, among other materials, with healing metaphysical and spiritual value testifies to an attachment to the myth, ritual, and magic deemed anachronistic by much of modernism but not by Ciria’s work.
6.The opening lines read: “Through forests of symbols walks man/Watched over by familiar eyes.”
7.Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Way of the Masks, trans. S. Modelski (Seattle, 1982), pp. 3–8.
8.This is the principle at the core of Saussure’s idea of the linguistic sign’s “relative motivation.”
9.See Jacqueline Lichtenstein, The Eloquence of Color: Rhetoric and Painting in the French Classical Age (Berkeley, 1993).
10.Le Corbusier and Amédee Ozenfant, “Purism,” in Modern Artists on Art: Ten Unabridged Essays, ed., R.L. Herbert (New Brunswick, 1964).
- Stephen Melville, “Colour Has Not Yet Been Named: Objectivity in Deconstruction,” in Seams: Art As Philosophical Context, ed. Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe (Amsterdam, 1996), p. 141.
12.Georges Bataille, “The Big Toe,” in Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939, trans. Allan Stoekl (Minneapolis, 1985), p. 23.