Rafael Sierra. Málaga.
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Rafael Sierra. Málaga.

Rafael Sierra. MUPAM. Málaga.

Catálogo exposición “Juego de Espejos” Museo del Patrimonio Municipal (MUPAM). Málaga, Marzo 2012.




Rafael Sierra


The window is a recurring element throughout José Manuel Ciria’s career. Through his inhabited, poetic windows, the artist gazes out upon the world and tries to decipher it, capture its aggressiveness. Through the gaps that chase the light, which stretch their edges until they touch the heart of things, the viewer looks out onto the landscapes of painting in constant movement. That painting moves forward in many directions at once and encouraging us to risk an adventure whose final destination depends on each individual. And, it is each individual viewer who must decide how far they want to go, how long to draw out an experience that can either remain mere observation, or it can descend into those depths of being where the essential questions are found.


In a present where stillness has become more and more meaningless, where the eye has grown used to change and mutation, Ciria invites us to take an excursion through an open territory that is in a constant process of transformation and where the viewer is called upon to interpret, shape and meditate. The artist immerses himself in his impulses and contradictions, over and over he plays at twisting reality so that all eyes observe what his personal stories construct out of their own experiences and emotions. What is hidden behind the deformed, frightened, indignant faces that make up his various Rorschach Heads series? How much pain can be contained by a gesture, a gaze or an open mouth in which a scream is drowned?


Examining the work of this restless man, this seeker of meanings, this explorer of himself and others, becomes an experience at the very least stimulating and that is full of allusions, points of departure for arriving at reasons, or rather the anxiety that is necessary to keep going. “Diving beneath the surface to find questions and answers”, portrays this artist, who is not motivated to include any aspect of nature in his painting. As he has said, “I’m interested in people and society. That’s why I believe that the mission of all art, beyond aesthetic triumphs and expanding the limits of what we understand as such, must be to try and be a mirror that shows the face of contemporary society and at the same time be a container where that time is held.” This statement of principles is like background music, it is like a compass for orienting ourselves on a journey where, as we have already said, each person must find their own destination.


What does the one who steps up to the window and confronts the fragments of his own existence think? What ideas are born in the evanescent, ephemeral, movement of the clouds he observes? What images are awoken in him by the stains of color, the messages, signals, impulses of energy sent into space by this artist of abstraction? “What is a painting, and what do we see represented by it?”, asked Malevich, who has inspired Ciria deeply. He concluded that it is, “a window through which we discover life.”


“It’s strange to see how the counterpart to the rationality, technification and complexity of the world today is, on one hand, evanescence and on the other, impressionability and sentimentality. It would seem as if being were deserting the real, but only to find the memory of the world in its wounds. It would seem that without pain no word would be possible: no truth or creation. A solitude has moved into the heart of contemporary man that makes him howl, and it should not be surprising that what many artists like to show us is blood: menstrual blood. “Exquisite corpses of matter”, claims Marek Sobczyk in his essay De la fatiga de lo visible (The Fatigue of the Visible).


According to the Polish-French artist and philosopher, the body today seems to be the perfect and definitive representation of “the only universal gap in our recognition”. “The modern body”, he says, “is no longer just a wondrous monument, rather it is a sponge oozing the ignominious blood of history that seeps from its memory. It is a body so autonomous and so badly wounded that it has gained the right to plead with suffering and demand answers from it. Art can no longer answer for humankind but, at best, it might answer for a subject and on behalf of its kind”.


Sobczyk talks about deformation, the grotesque, and the share of ugliness that emanates from modern societies. It calls up pain, anguish, rage, bitterness, complexes, obsessions, fear, desire, violence… His words could be illustrated with the red that pervades Ciria’s entire body of work, with the disjointed faces he rebels, stirring up the consciences of those who look and let themselves be seen. But, it is not a matter of becoming part of the current of contemporary art the text refers to. Time and again Ciria rejects trends, the art of the spectacle, the merely provocative event. It is a matter of closely examining and meditating upon distress in order to find out why contemporary man is moving in this direction, to put a stethoscope up to the mess of his emotions, the uncertainty of his paths over the ground.


The artist has stated, “I want to show the aggressiveness of the World. The frightened figures in search of tenderness and understanding are mine. ”, conscious that whoever pauses in front of his men will feel the unpleasant sensation of coming face to face with a mirror image of them self, and the fear of confronting their own ghosts and deficiencies. The artist is interested in unmasking the play of appearances, the hiding, in bringing to light what you normally do not want to show, and taking the viewer to the limits of his cruelty, selfishness and madness.


“Nobody presents them self to the other using the image they have of them self, rather they use the image they have composed for making the relationship they have in mind successful. We are sad, but at the moment of interaction we either emphasize the expression of sadness in order to get empathy, or we downplay it so that our resilience in the face of misfortune gets acknowledged, or we hide it, or we think it is inappropriate.”, wrote Carlos Castilla del Pino in his book Teoría de los sentimientos (Theory of Feelings ). “Pedantry, kitschiness, impudence, prudishness, reservedness, etcetera, are public selves the subject considers to be ideal for successful interactions. The image needs to get make-up in order to go out in public in accordance with the unpresentability of the private image. This is the dynamism of faking”.


It is a dynamism that José Manuel Ciria seeks to take apart using a game of mirrors and a deep probing into the mechanisms of memory, recognition and identity. It is a dance of contrasts, a combination of reds, blacks and whites, a multitude of observing eyes peering out at possibly undecipherable signs and forms.


In his essay La ausencia (Absence), Vicente Verdú states; “It is so hard to know oneself fully that we think any opinion we hear about ourselves is completely outrageous. Taking tally of oneself, either mathematically or literarily, is the most uncertain of exercises. Truth escapes our analysis, being as any point of view about oneself first requires a biased selection of the angle of vision, manipulating the objective or the impossibility of objectivization (…) We get ready to present ourselves in front of the mirror with the fear of seeing ourselves either badly or very badly, of recognizing ourselves, ultimately, as undesirable (…) There is nothing specific and immutable in our image nor under the safeguard of another interpretation, given that the same estrangedness with which we examine ourselves demonstrates the fragility of the knowledge we possess”.


In his most abstract paintings as well as in his Heads and Masks of the Gaze series, Ciria’s intention is to delve further into knowledge and the mental and emotional mechanisms that make up human beings, that make them unique and cause them to interact with others of their kind. The artist pauses in those complex private moments that cannot be seen but are visibly manifested in the modification of the gesture, posture and coloring of the face, or the light, broken, whisper of the voice and the bristly texture of the skin.


He plays with possibilities, points of view, and with those images, feelings and fleeting moments that only can only be recorded, fixed on the retina, by artistic creation. Castilla del Pino talks about signals and natural signs: blushing, and irregular, labored breathing, the heart racing, the blood pressure rising. He says, “There is a disparity between the scant forms of expression available and the multiplicity and nuancing of interior experience; it is an interesting question that brings to mind a new dimension to the problem of the privacy and incommunicability of feelings.”


If there is one thing that interests Ciria, it is opening the window to these emotions, making them visible. With those petrified, frozen, trapped and arrested gestures the artist wants to stir reactions in the viewer. In his own words, his faces may make us afraid, but the faces are the ones who are terrified by the world they see, by the impact certain images or events have had on them. What was it that filled them with so much terror? Perhaps it was the sight of war and torture; or perhaps the inability to escape the jail imposed by the system that prevents them from being themselves.


In his own words, the artist insists that his figures are asking to be understood and are seeking a bit of empathy and understanding. Contemporary man, connected through virtual universes, isolated in the networks of his own narcissism, feels that everyone else is a stranger. “Each person’s self has become his principle burden; to know oneself has become an end, instead of a means through which one knows the world. And precisely because we are so self-absorbed, it is extremely difficult for us to arrive at a private principle, to give any clear account of ourselves or to others what our personalities are.”, says the sociologist Richard Sennett in The Fall of Public Man, where he reflects upon the threat of strangers in contemporary society, the distortion the sense of community has undergone and the excess of the cult of the self.


“The other looks at us, measures us, sizes us up, dissects us. We delineate ourselves in their eye. On the contrary, the difficulty of knowing ourselves liberates us”, claims Vicente Verdú, who, along parallel lines, searching around the edges of the same things Ciria is after in his work, analyzes the sense of loss and emptiness that defines a present dominated by disorientation, chaos, losing your way. Like Ciria in his paintings, Verdú talks about the ephemeral and the volatile, dovetailing with other thinkers, such as Lyotard, Lipovetsky or the Bauman of the liquid darkness of the declaration of detachment, of the flight to nowhere. “Our vertigo, therefore, comes out of that flight. And, seasickness, speculation and the crash are caused by that vertigo”, argues the author.


Lipovetsky, furthermore, refers to the “weakening of the ever more fragile, stressed, injured and ill contemporary man.” Could that be the man who is asking for help, who is calling out for a bit of tenderness in José Manuel Ciria’s paintings? Are those men not the ones who suffer because they do not have a place to go, because they are not at ease anywhere, because they do not know what to look for or where they lost their smile?


The subject of the Rorschach Heads series is always the same, but it has infinite variations. Ciria and his repetitions bring to mind Raymond Queneau, the founder of Oulipo, who recounted the same, simple incident (the story of a long necked man who gets into a fight with another man over a seat on the rear platform of a bus), 99 different ways in his Exercises in style. Like Queneau, who could combine the verses of ten sonnets into billions of possible combinations, Ciria never tires of experimenting with maps of the face, of the gaze. He never ceases to compose broken fragments of identity, to capture the lights and shadows of memory, the heartbeats of time.


What sky do his windows open on to? What would his figures like to see in order to calm their gestures? There is no quiet sea before them, but there are storms. You cannot quite perceive any happiness or serenity in their gaze, but you can perceive their impotence, the threatening shadows… “Our current need is not to interrogate the Gods, it is to terrify ourselves. Making yourself afraid is a lesson in self-control”, claims Marek Sobczyk.


The Gods, the return to the secret, enigmatic, mysterious, magical and sacred part of life: the answers may be there, in the calm, the lost essence, the last place to look, to go to. “The root of the persecution is in the deepest depths of man’s relationship with the Gods; he is persecuted by them relentlessly and, whoever does not feel that implacable persecution on top of and around them, tangled in their steps, mixed into the most trivial events, deciding and still dictating the events that change their life, and twist their paths, enigmatically lurking in the secret bottom of their life and all reality, has truly abandoned their belief in those Gods.”, writes María Zambrano in El hombre y lo divino (Man and the Divine).


Ciria’s windows could be opening in that direction. Maybe his men are surveying a place they might go; as Zambrano says, they could be longing to look at themselves from their surroundings, the trees, stones, or especially, what is above their heads and still remains over their path, “a vaulted chamber from which they cannot escape: the heavens and its shining occupants.”