Robert Morgan. Amarillo. Texas.
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Robert Morgan. Amarillo. Texas.

Robert Morgan. AMOA. Amarillo. Texas.

Texto catálogo “Rorschach Heads”. Amarillo Museum of Art (AMoA). Amarillo, Texas Mayo 2011




Robert C. Morgan


The term «painting about painting» was frequently used among formalist painters and critics in lower Manhattan during the 1960s. In those days the veritable act of painting was enough to make the case. To be engaged as a painter spoke for itself. Painting was an abstract conduit that carried its own meaning. It had its own cause and effect relationship and needed no further external reason to justify its existence. To cover the surface of a panel or stretched canvas unburdened by imagery was viewed as a complex mental and physical act, the assumption being that there was always more happening than what met the eye. But things have changed in recent decades as new time-based media have evolved to the foreground of attention. Today painting has become more than a process, and to some extent has been obscured through overdetermined rhetoric. On the other hand, some painters are viewing their work less in «conceptual» terms and are more inclined to invent forms that challenge the meaning of what is visible. These artists are moving beyond painting as a mute signifier isolated within categories of abstraction and representation. One of the leading younger painters in this regard is Jose Manuel Ciria.


Committed to retaining the act of painting liberated from categories, Ciria appears to bypass the obvious in order to confront something more personal. His desire to discover new forms of internal equivalence supersedes historical motives and aesthetic effects. While his paintings appear predetermined at the outset, they move toward a gestural abandon. Intentions of this sort are to some degree imitations. They contain a causal complicity that either limits or expands their function as painting. By breaking through the surface, Ciria’s paintings transform assumptions of meaning into acts of defiance. The layering of paint disguises the past –what Ciria understands as Mnemosyne or «images going back in time.» There are moments when the Mnemosyne rides a torrential sea as images shuttle about the surface at the perennial risk of going overboard. For this reason the painter attends to the shifting weight of what he envisions within the act of painting.


Spaniards tend to be less offended by the disengagement of meaning in such art given their distaste for Puritanical effects. As Ciria knows, the best and most heroic paintings will transcend the encrustation of time. Here memory remains buoyant within a sea of tactile images as Mnemosyne speaks of a rising presence emanating through history. Encapsulated by time, one may sense the heart and soul of a culture in early paintings, such as El Espíritu de la Memoria (1994), El Ultimo Instante de la Tradición (1998), and Noche en Torrejón el Rubio I (1999), through a haze of disappearance, yet utterly without remorse. These paintings are so persistently endowed to Spanish culture that they cannot restrain their need to move ahead in search of timelessness. Painting on this level admits a reverberating internal force, somewhere between artist and culture, where it eventually becomes an heroic representation of time. Such paintings go beyond the scope of expressionism by imagining what timeless time might actually become. Ciria confronts an age of virtual deceit where the deluge of electronic images dissolves any prospect for the sensory apparatus to perceive the possibility of truth. While the poetic darkness of Federico Garcia-Lorca and the painterly visions of Motherwell and Tapies may still hover in an exfoliated landscape, there are unsuspecting moments of brilliance, like indeterminate fireworks bursting in the firmament overhead. These fireworks give access to the romantic soul of Spain, a tribute the artist refuses to relinquish. This may further suggest that the promotion of a transculture throughout the networks and blogs of globalization cannot so easily dismiss the premises of a culture that the painter Ciria makes clear in each wash, stroke, and smudge. This gives his work a vibrant elasticity and the murmur of truth. In this sense, the tactile dimension of his paintings proffers the antidote to the overwhelming arrogance of transculture.


Jose Manuel Ciria’s early career as an abstract painter has achieved a certain prominence. His antecedents in late Modern and contemporary Spanish painting, including Saura, Tàpies, and Sicilia, are well-known. While Ciria understands that the medium of painting harbors it own meaning even before the artist’s brush reaches the surface, there is always something else to be done to push the painting further. A sudden stroke, a vibrant color, another stroke, a fractal shape that splatters against itself, another hint of Eros. Titanium becomes the hedonistic vehicle of color. The building and infusion of these formal chromatic elements ascend into a stratosphere of meaning as time is evoked again. Here is a thought by the writer Guillermo Solana: «Time does not merely nibble at the outlines of the shapes; it wears, erodes, corrodes, devours the extension of the smudge from the inside. Time opens its way along the cracks, and the painting, in a strange contrast with its freshness, acquires the appearance of a ruin.» Yet, even in the process of making this constructive/deconstructive sequence of painterly actions and events, Ciria looks toward the final destruction of the surface for a kind of miraculous rehabilitation. More than a trace, these actions push beyond the boundaries of intention, outside any preconception or intention into another unknown territory to secure its visual tactility.


In referring to a group of abstract works from 2009 shown in Paris at Galerie Couteron — based on a motif begun in 2005, titled Serie Compartimentaciones — the artist begins each painting with a grid assembled with various units of color. Once the pattern is in place, Ciria moves against the precision and proceeds to dissemble it. His painterly attack implies a kind of demolition of something previously built. The controlled splatters of paint — using various combinations of red, yellow, black, orange gray, and white — suggest a contrapuntal aggressivity, a violent interface with the smooth architectonics of the surface, a strategic bombing involving microchips set for detonation. The formal placement of the grid-structure in contrast to the relatively controlled gestures gives the painting a tense, static quality — a dynamic interlude, pulsating from one action to another. The «lyricism and construction» noted by the eminent Juan Manuel Bonet in a series of earlier works is more calculated in the recent ones, similar in approach (though not style) to an early abstract Guston, for instance, or a Norman Blume or the nascent marks and colors of a Grace Hartigan, all painters associated with a later phase of abstract expressionism in New York.


Whether one paints from the position of representation or abstraction, the layered faceting by which the painting evolves is what finally becomes content. One might say that Ciria intrinsically understands his direction as a painter as an intellectual pursuit. For example, his idea of painting would be in line with the twentieth century Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset. In retrospect, Ortega’s well-known essay from the early 1950s offers a proto-structuralist argument advocating a synchronic passageway between two diachronic movements: art and philosophy. Whereas scholars traditionally interpret these historical evolutions as being separate and distinct, Ortega perceived them as moving in a parallel relationship to one another. Thus, what was happening in the history of art at any given time might, in fact, give clarification to the advance of a major philosophical concept, and vice versa.


Without overstating the case, Ciria’s interest in parallel bifurcations as a painter is worth noting. As a painter who emerged on the scene at the outset of the 1990s, Ciria has shown a propensity for applying a wash of raw umber as a soluble ground upon which a loose grid of white blocks suggests architectonic flotation on the surface. In other works, twisted lines drawn from his masterful brush are placed beside a loose grid constructed from sheets of newsprint with his familiar roguish blots or smears are placed in some chaotic uniform order. The familiar explosions discussed in the recent series of abstract paintings from the Paris exhibition, where blazing gestures are shown against a precise color grid, are transposed — transported — to a recent series of imaginative portraits. Here we conjure the resonance of unknown amorphous heads — semi-abstract, yet pulsating with vigor — as if to bracket a structural trace positioned on the verge of near collapse or disappearance, as if to dissolve any formidable intention and simply allow the painting to become what it is. Within the scope of these eternal abstract heads, we catch a glimmer of the artist’s execution, suggesting not only a sublime manner of painting, but an exorcism on the penumbra of pitched emotion, a furious belch from Saturn upon eating his own. Could these heads be the multiple transmutations of a menaced ogre in the sweep of history, caught between the inevitable robotic post-humanoid and the loss of selfhood wound toward the throes of extinction? Ciria’s pigments point toward the ritual of the mask, also well-known in Spanish culture, as the incipient disguise that emits the morose implication of human decadence. As the dense harmonies of color start to recoil through the tension of surfeit, given to a metaphorical conquest of Being, we encounter familiar tropes, further obsessed by Ortega and Heidegger, both of whom staggered in the mid-day heat of philosophy’s twin: painting!


In coming to the Rorschach Series III — What are these heads, really? At first, they appear as embolden reifications, representing the dissemblance of selfhood, given to the everyday world of an absurd comic pathos where psychological damage hovers over the artist’s imaginary subjects. In each case, the material world exacerbates both mind and body through invisible tensions and ultra-stress denominators incited through immaterial software. Each painting was completed in 2010 and was painted in oil and aluminum on canvas. The format is square and the scale is relatively large, ranging from 150 cm to 250 cm. The confrontational aspect of the majority of the heads is augmented through an abstract frontal aspect, thus revealing their source in the Russian Kasimir Malevich’s late abstract figures from the 1920s to which Ciria pays tribute in his Serie Post-Suprematica (2006). The titles of the various heads are interesting in that they illuminate a particular emotional aspect both psychological and social that contributes to the absurd aspect felt in his imagined subjects. Even so, there is more than a hint that many of these paintings are intended as self-portraits. Therefore, the metaphorical title of this essay is two-fold: one, the execution of the soul as in the execution of a painting in which the underlying precept is a representation of the self, or two, the artist’s clear decision to immolate or deconstruct himself in the act of painting in order to reincarnate himself as the subject in Rorschach Series III.


The latter fabulist aspect of these paintings is extraordinary to the extent that the desire to self-efface is so indelibly Spanish. Paradoxically, this requires a re-emergence of the Ego as a fail-safe mechanism for the loss of selfhood through the consuming power of the Id. This, in turn, is inextricably bound to the cultural motive behind Ciria’s desire to redefine painting as a condition of selfhood that exceeds choosing between pure abstraction and self-conscious expressionism as if one approach could be repressed in favor of the other. This contradicts the Puritanical idea understated by Americans in which an imperative is made between pragmatism and transcendentalism. In contrast, Ciria employs the viability of both as an equivocation accounting for the temporal balance between the two. Having been raised in Spain, and now living in New York, Rorschach Portraits III is a testimony to his ability to comprehend and apply the advantages of both sides, which was also the position of Freud, lest we go all the way with civilization and its discontents. In this sense, Ciria’s heads may be primal — not entirely removed from CoBrA, particularly in the abstract figures of Karel Appel — yet, at the same time, Ciria updates this critical history to a new level. In viewing Acid Rain, — an exceptional painting showing a three-quarter view of an anguished male head — the general aspect of despair or rage appears less to the point than the psychological turmoil within the mind of someone who makes decisions against the better interests of people alive in the twenty-first century. When I look at Oh Shit! (The Party is Over), the message is clear that abusive corruption in the financial industry was a reality that everyone knew but few were willing to admit. In both cases we are discussing the advent of meaning in painting, the crucible to which the medium has been directed and occasionally rejected since the Paleolithic artisans who worked in the caves of Brazil and southern France. Jose Manuel Ciria has shown that categories of painting are less important that the depth to which we prospect meaning through the painter’s investigation of selfhood. His work raises questions regarding the marketing of art «after the end of art» — to cite a phase used by philosopher and critic, Arthur Danto. The dark side of these forays into the endgame strategies of institutional art has left many observers in a state of cultural paralysis. In the meantime, Ciria has gone another direction. He has gone outside the frizzled seduction of kitsch and emerged with a different, more reflective point of view. His remarkable Rorschach Series III suggests a viable and necessary approach to how we think about art. These are incisive paintings neither to be rationalized nor taken lightly. They are paintings that fulfill the destiny of art by going beyond institutional media in order to become significant.


Robert C. Morgan is a critic, writer, artist, poet, and art historian who holds both an MFA degree in Sculpture and a Ph.D. in Aesthetics and Art History. In addition to his many writings and catalog essays on Spanish artists, his book Del Arte a La Idea (2003) was published by Akal. In 2006, a lithographic edition of his poetry, El Sirocco de la Tarde (in collaboration with the artist Willi Ramos, with an afterward by Juan Manuel Bonet), was published by Vandermaal Ediciones de Madrid and Ediciones Arte Dos Grafico de Bogota, Colombia. In 1999, he was honored with the first Arcale award in Salamanca for his writing as an international critic. Other books translated into Spanish include the first edition of his landmark book, El Fin del Mundo del Arte y Otros Ensayos (Buenos Aires: Eudeba,1998), later published in a more complete English edition by Allworth Press (NYC), titled The End of the Art World. As Professor Emeritus in Art History from the Rochester Institute of Technology and Adjunct Professor in the Graduate Fine Arts at Pratt Institute, Professor Morgan was given a Fulbright Senior Scholar award to do research in the Republic of Korea (2005). In addition to his books in Spanish, he is translated into Korean, Chinese, Farsi, Hebrew, Finnish, Italian, French, German, Turkish, Norwegian, and Polish. As an artist, he continues to work as a painter, installation, and performance artist.