Patrick Goldstein. Annta Gallery. Madrid.
Catálogo exposición “Alasdurasyalasmaduras” Annta Gallery, Madrid. Mayo 2009.
CIRIA’S PAINTING, A COMMUNICATIVE TOUR DE FORCE
Patrick B. Goldstein
Painting is easy when you don´t know how,
but very tough when you do.
My close friend John Lester told me that a few days back he had seen an interesting group exhibition at the Carriage House Center for the Arts organized by the Spanish government to mark 80 years since the birth Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., inevitably entitled “I Have a Dream.” My good friend, ever the painting enthusiast, had been fascinated by a large-format painting of extraordinary beauty. It just so happened that days later I had some business down at the Carriage House, so when I finished up, despite the frigid weather that day, I decided to swing by for a moment to catch the exhibition.
The showing was quite uneven, with too many artists and without a clear connection drawn between many of the works and the figure of Dr. King. It was a simple tribute exhibit with no greater rationale than the gathering of a series of names to mark the occasion. There were works that were obviously of great quality, but among all the material shown there was one which clearly stood out in my view: a masterful painting by a Spanish artist named Ciria.
That painting and the name of its creator were etched into my memory and came back to me all week. I went back to the exhibit to take it in more slowly and to see if it was just that my friend’s artistic enthusiasm had rubbed off and made me so keen on the work, or if that painting really possessed an irresistible power of communication. Once again, standing before the painting, I was overcome by the feeling that I was in the presence of a true communicator. At the Foundation they told me that the artist had been living in New York for years, a fact which inexplicably cheered me, although they couldn´t give me his contact information. I didn´t want to waste time and I needed to see more works of his. I got on the Internet and I found his email, sending him a brief message congratulating him on that painting. When it comes to artists, you never know how they are going to react. Surprisingly, Ciria soon answered me with an extremely friendly response, thanking me for my kind words and timidly inviting me, if I wished, to visit his studio in Greenwich Village.
Ciria’s studio is very spacious and open with large windows giving out to the east, opposite a sort of little courtyard garden surrounded by the residential buildings of the NYU faculty, a decidedly strategic location which gives the loft a great deal of light. Even though it’s also his home, there is not one corner of it which isn´t dedicated to painting. There’s a table at the back of the work area full of jars, brushes, tubes of oil paint, tubs, tools… and a small tree next to the window. Then there are tarps protecting the floor up to the south wall, where stains and marks reveal where the artist has spent the most time working away. Finished works are stacked up vertically on the thick pillars, along with a large number of easels with canvases either untouched or stored away. An ample central area with a black slate floor leads to an enormous table surrounded by comfortable, roomy, wrought-iron chairs before a kitchen which stretches out, totally open, with its back to the west. There’s another large column with large-format works on it and facing it a living room with two black sofas across from each other and a table of the same color in the middle. In the back, the television and stereo. Mozart´s «The Magic Flute» fills the air. On the left a wall of white closets and a white screen covering the way to the bedrooms and bathrooms. In both bedrooms more piles of paintings covering up the walls, and a cluttered glass table full of papers and a laptop.
From the point of view of contemporary painting, Ciria’s work doesn´t seem high-flown nor to feature any special «voice». There is something in his work which even evokes melancholy. And yet, an analysis of the resources used by this artist gives his language an aura, a communicative capacity and a conviction which immediately strikes the viewer. An intensity which catches your eye and holds your attention without any grandiloquence. Painting with a random appearance in which each color is “sewn” into the next with vibrant, broken or dragged edges. An apparent randomness which proves to be perfectly calculated and extremely well executed, injecting his creations with a very unique freshness and force. While other “abstract” artists today tend towards the emphatic and overstated grandeur, Ciria refrains from seeking to impress viewers or dazzle them by overlapping layer after layer of pictorial material through hours and hours of work and fruitless patience. His painting seems to be dispatched adroitly and in just a few sessions, directly, and orchestrated from the head, not with empty gestures and repetitive brush strokes. There is in this artist’s paintings an extraordinary interior energy, which I believe coincides with his character, as Ciria the man moves very quickly and decisively. It is only natural for his work to be a prolongation of his own personality.
In our subsequent conversations Ciria has never come off as a charlatan, nor does he need to convince anyone that his work is truly masterful. He simply maintains his typically exact and penetrating tone marked by essential and accurate words. To talk about art, you have to know about art. To be able to synthesize the basic and the elemental with elements of greater historiographic, theoretical or conceptual complexity, one must possess an extensive knowledge of the subject, in addition to a fine memory and a capacity to relate things. Listening to Ciria –once again discovering a parallel with his work- is to enjoy clear and well-crafted ideas, like attending, as if we were children, the telling of a “story” full of magic. But Ciria doesn´t just settle for knowing about his medium –painting- but also surprises you with a massive command of information on all kinds of artistic manifestations and creators from all corners. And all of this with a level of English which the artist complains is insufficient to explain himself properly, as he certainly pronounces some words incorrectly. I imagine that hearing him speak in his own language, Spanish, must be absolutely delightful.
Before my eyes, on the table, Ciria begins to deposit some of his latest publications, all of them catalogues of exhibitions which are really magnificent books. I don´t know any case of an artist who at Ciria’s age boasts such an array of quality publications. I ask the artist to order them chronologically and while we chat I glance over page after page of the paintings reproduced. In this artist’s work you don´t have to look for marvelous games of artifice, nor intricate or indulgent pictorial pirouettes. Ciria’s painting manages to immediately win over whoever takes it in, and with the greatest intensity. His painting melds with the viewer’s gaze in an intimate and personal exchange, as if he formed part of the pictorial body in a strange mixture of power and antithesis. Some paintings feature an intense faith, which project the validity of and the need for painting in our time – one can still keep painting. Before the supposed end of painting, there is still room for hope. Before the almost complete exclusion of the medium in its traditional form and at the great events and biennales, a bold painting style stands forth which demands calm and bursts with possibilities. A perfectly clear and concise form of communication.
But Ciria isn´t speaking to just a small segment. His work begs to be seen by the masses. Just a few months ago New York’s MoMa opened the beautiful Miró «Anti-paintings” exhibition. Something about José Manuel Ciria’s works makes me think that Miró, were he alive today, would paint these kinds of works. There is a thoroughly «Spanish» element common to both artists, a way of distributing space and organizing their work, an atmosphere that envelopes you, the relationship and play between the background/s and the figure/s, a shrewd economy of resources, what in Spain they call the “Mediterranean,» a palette of colors which can be reduced to the monochromatic or fan out to deploy every imaginable hue, a kind of “undressing”… a devastating form of communication.
At the same time Ciria achieves an effect of intimacy in his works, as if he were able to infuse each gaze with a personalized character. This is no over-the-top approach to painting, but rather an intimate and exceptional experience. A strong and sharp voice which seems to dwindle to a whisper upon reaching the ear. An intimate unity established from the first glance at the colored surface. A painting which, if it could talk, would thank us for standing before it and which slowly reveals to us, at the same it traps us, an entire array of textures, of small “accidents,” drippings and splashes, strokes and confluences, lines and volumes.
Ciria’s painting is one which contains within it the entire History of painting, all the knowledge, the “mischievousness,» the experimentation. It seems to tell us how it came to be, how it came down to us today, speaking to us of the Baroque and of minimalism, personalizing itself in an infinity of facets to establish an intimate link between reason and emotion. A painting style which assuredly comes with a brilliant résumé, and without falling into the trap of those trendy painters too often removed from the reality of their own medium of expression. A constant renovation of tones and series, of iconographies and formal questionings. Ciria demonstrates that his trajectory is that of an artist who, emerging from common anonymity, committed himself to the pictorial medium in order to help transform it, interweaving emotional elements with rational analysis while offering a multitude of ideas and solutions over the course of recent years.
We will revisit this relationship between emotion and reason, between sentimental ties and rational analysis. But now let´s turn to the resources through which Ciria intensifies his intimate link with viewers. Obviously his public is generally anonymous, but he manages to personalize his painting’s communication, incorporating elements drawn from tradition, not only modern but classic, which function as catalysts of his perspective. That is, any spectator can find in Ciria’s work something familiar to him, even, I would dare say, people with little knowledge of or interest in art. With just one glance we can appreciate in many of this creator’s works a harmonious merging of the geometrical and the gestural (already two modern traditions) and a perfection in drawing –or structure, as Ciria prefers to call it– which connects with classicness and grows, as we can clearly see in countless works a great concern for the use of light within the pictorial plane and a passion for generating plausible volumes even when dealing with abstract “bodies.” Oil, the quintessential, classic pigment, along with masking tape, pure and elegant lines next to blots and drippings, perfect elements blurred along with splashes and random “erasures.” A use of color which oscillates between extreme sensibility and sophistication, and his generous and “brutal” use of form.
In addition to the aforementioned elements, Ciria’s last work -and I think almost all of his work produced in New York– is imbued with a sublime ambiguity. In his studio I’ve had the pleasure of being able to see pieces of a totally abstract nature, like that of my first meeting –Flowers (for MLK), 2008– along with other works with a representational twist, at least as related to the contour or silhouette of the figure. And then there is, of course, his series of late Malevich characters, a genuine treat of investigation and good results. But I repeat myself. In my view the truly extraordinary thing, without downplaying one bit of the rest of his production, is when Ciria presents us with “something” which is neither abstract nor representational, or which is both at the same time. This artist has managed to create in multiple works a realm in which defenders of the purely abstract would cringe, but so would those only sympathetic to representational works. Can one be abstract and representational at the same time? I would evoke Miró again and a few other standouts. Abstract works or doodle figures? The masks from his “Schandenmaske” series achieve a formal ambiguity which freezes our gaze, suspended in the very limbo captured in the paintings. Upside down doodle figures could be another of his resources, that is, underscoring the ambiguously recognizable character of the work through its premeditated displacement.
At times it would seem that Ciria’s painting has a life of its own, apart from that of its creator, as if Ciria had nothing to do with its qualities or merits, a demonstration of the fact that the work achieves a unique level while at the same time revealing to us the grace with which it is executed. It is also a painting style which becomes a promise, a conquest or, better put, a reconquest of dreams and memory. Works which stick in one’s mind and which we need to look at again and again. Creations which adopt a unique tone in which the lyric and the epic are fused or appear to us in unison. A successful quest for the improbable. Limitless possibility stretching out before us, spanning concrete «recognizable» elements and the most demanding and messianic roles. Simultaneous clarity and great depth.
The painter artfully manages to deliver both the lyric and didactic argumentation. Ciria’s language, which effortlessly runs through all of his series, is absolutely recognizable, always clean, transparent, pedagogical. But at the same time it contains all the requisite resources to provoke emotion. To awaken something very much like catharsis. He often provokes this catharsis in us through methods from the “old» traditions –he accumulates demonstrations and adjectives, cleverly usurped «phrases», or anecdotal elements ingrained in our visual memory- discursive amplification, atmospheric graduation, anaphors, lexical repetitions or syntactic parallelisms. And all of this presented with an appearance of simplicity and nakedness, freshness and celebration. To the educated viewer, the catharsis is the culmination of the meeting between the work of art and the sensitive eye. It is the fixing and transformation of our visual sense in exultation and hope in which we find an image which transfixes and moves us.
Moments in Art History and resources embedded in the collective memory which allow us to recreate a certain “familiar atmosphere», an intimacy. The emotionally close along with a highly-rationalized analytical discourse. Here we have the same attitude we see when the politician appeals to the interest of the majority and patriotism, while also taking note of the real needs of the minority. Or that of the preacher who appeals to the religiosity and faith of those who already form part of his church, reaching out at the same time for more members for his flock. Convincing those who are already convinced and those who will be. The objective, as we were saying, is to create an atmosphere of intimacy between the work and the public. As the latter can have “preferences” or totally divergent reactions to it, Ciria’s work responds boldly, offering a potent collection which holds out hope for painting to continue standing as a pillar of culture, knowledge, communication and exceptionalism.