Alwin Kroeze. Tenerife.
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Alwin Kroeze. Tenerife.

One world or another? One world and another! -Alwin Kroeze

Texto catálogo “Fauces”. TEA Tenerife Espacio de las Artes, Tenerife.


Ciria in an international and historical context

Aldwin Kroeze

For centuries mankind is warned to be careful what to wish for. With precisely this warning in mind, I will start a short journey to reach out for some specific aspects of the artist José Manuel Ciria in order to put him in the context of the contemporary art world. The journey departs from a little town in the Italian sun: Sienna. Nowadays it is known for the annual Paglio horserace, the beautiful architecture like the Duomo and the paintings by Duccio which can be found in the Museo dell’opera del Duomo. Some centuries ago Sienna was also known for being one of those proud cities that dreamt of great things among which building the biggest church in the world. Due to destiny that huge Duomo never became reality. The wonderful wish crumbled apart and with it the greatness of the city. The Duomo that nowadays impresses tourists from all over the world is nothing but a shadow of the big wish of centuries ago. Actually, next to the Museo, one can still see pieces of wall that once were supposed to carry the roof of the church and it is a strange thing to consider that the pavement where people park their cars once was destined to be religious ground. This Piazza del Duomo is a witness of the fate of this city. It is a history lesson in which the world of wealth en wishes and the world of loss and disaster come together. Their confrontation brings us insight and helps us reflect on ourselves, humanity and history.

Inside the Duomo is the ‘lucky’ territory. No pavement or parking spot but exclusive marble floors with scenes of wise en pious people. Most of the mosaics are extremely vulnerable and therefore protected by fences. Their area is not for walking, but only to be looked at. One of the scenes depicts the peculiar figure of Hermes Trismegistos. He is shown while teaching Moses. Trismegistos is not a historical person, but a rather hybrid creation that can be traced back to several gods from Egypt and Greece. The theories attributed to him have their influence even in the contemporary era. Important for our journey is that he links the normal every day world in a direct one on one relation to the higher spiritual world. One world mirrors the other. So he too embodies the confrontation of two distinctive worlds and by doing so he brings us insight on how to deal with reality.

This marble scene of Trismegistos can also be seen in The Netherlands, namely, in the museum of contemporary art, De Pont, in Tilburg. Here you can find the four paintings made by Sigmar Polke in 1995 after the mosaic of Sienna. I have seen studied those paintings dozen times and often I go there with my students so they can experience the strategy laid out by Polke. Polke took parts of the scene and represented them with uttermost control in black ink with an enlarged pattern similar to the ones that were used for printing in newspapers. The carrier for three scenes consists of half transparent polyester. At the back of the carrier Polke threw buckets full of paint as a statement of total chaos. Again a confrontation of two distinctive worlds. This time without a church wall in between to tell us where to park and where not to walk. So when we look at the paintings we do what we can do best: We take the situation for granted and almost unconsciously we melt the two worlds together. We unite the world of expressive chaos with the world of methodical control. Dots and splashes challenge us in this pas-de-deux and in a split second the dots become people and the splashes become trees. Only after a second look or a teachers guiding hand the observer starts to deconstruct this symbiotic entity. Thereby grows the awareness of a trinity of identity of those two worlds on the on hand, and on the other, the one world of us looking and giving sense; not a lesson in history, but a lesson in semiotics and Gestalt. It works like an elixir of insight, or, to put it in line with Trismegistos, like a kind of alchemy, in this case the alchemy of painting and representation.

Representation is also one of the themes of Polke’s ‘partner in crime’, Gerhardt Richter. His ability to paint with photographic precision, allows him to play with it or even mix it with the opposite: abstract expression. An example of Richter’s playing can be found in the diptych Moritz (2000) where he shows his son as a baby. One part of the diptych is slightly blurred, whereas the other part seems photographic until it is noted that the spoon the child is holding in his hand has not been painted at all. The canvas itself has become one with the represented image. An example of using abstract expression can for instance be found in Baumgruppe (1987). In this painting Richter mixes photographic control with expressionistic brushstrokes. Although it is hard to ignore the two separate identities in manner of painting we will in the end bring them together in a meaningful unity.

Richter and Polke both started this way of working in the sixties. In America the triumph of Greenberg and The School of New York was crowned with both Post Painterly Abstraction and Minimal Art. Representation had been put aside for almost two decades in favour of the modern search for purity as well as giving leeway to each medium to express itself instead of lending itself to pretend to be something else. At the same time representation had developed into a culture of images which in any political climate had significant impact in society as it influenced the people surrounded by them day after day. This was particularly apparent in the two Germanies Polke and Richter were part of. It was here and in the consciousness of these two painters where the two systems of imaging and representation came together. This way the east and the west with their own visual cultures gave birth in their confrontation by paintings that gave insight in ways of representation. Richter and Polke called their response Kapitalistic Realism and the paintings described above can be derived from this initiative. At the same time another German painter, Georg Baselitz started with his ‘heftige Malerei’: representation not controlled by visual schemata but guided by personal emotion. He and his friends became the neo-expressionistic group Neue Wilden.

Thanks to the theoretical base of schemata of representation, figuration re-entered the art world worldwide. It was not applauded by all though. Moreover, in the same period, others took even greater distance from figuration and embraced concept as the keystone of art. To them even the artwork itself became less and less important. Art, for them became merely a means to communicate ideas. A lemma like Agenda art is a good illustration of how political practise got embodied in the world of art.

These are not just the ingredients of an art world evolving slowly from a modern view into a more postmodern consciousness, they also set the context in which the young Ciria decided to ‘become a painter’. After some childhood years in England, Ciria and his parents moved to their home country, Spain. Whereas he was called the ‘little Spaniard’ in England, he now got nicknamed ‘little Englishman’. The choice to go to art school is not surprising for someone who has been drawing almost right after being born. However, art school turned out too problematic for Ciria. He went to the art school of Madrid, where he soon found out that political debate was much more important than painting. Eric Fischl noted similar problems in several occasions during his academy time in America: they were willing to teach you everything except how to paint. In the Meanwhile a great number of young artist felt an urge to paint. I already mentioned Baselitz with his Neue Wilden. Fischl together with Schnabel and others can be considered as representatives of the New Image Painting, and in Italy painters such as Chia, Cucchi and Clemente were being launched as being part of the Transavanguardia. Although imaging played a great part in this development, the real focus was on the process of painting itself. For several painters representation was a mere excuse to play with the brushes: to undergo the alchemy of painting.

Ciria fits more perfectly in this profile than he might have liked. After he dropped out of art school, he decided to explore the world of painting on his own. Even though human figures show up in his paintings of the late seventies and early eighties, his focus on exploration and experimentation lies with means and materials. In 1984 not only the young German painters presented themselves in Madrid, Ciria too exposed himself to the world. He enters the world of art in more than one way. Apart from his paintings with a sometimes Magritte like atmosphere and figures that do resemble those of Clemente, he also joined the art debates and started to read about art.

For Ciria his entrance in the world of representation turned out to be embracing the world of personal experiment with materials. Likewise, he entered the world of theory and thoughts of others, in order to learn and understand his own world of painting and thinking. From Kandinsky to Greenberg, all their secrets of modern painting and modern thinking were revealed to him and reworked by him to personal benefit. Just when the art world started to turn away from Greenbergian Modernism, Ciria found his personal values in its depiction of purity and unity about the medium expressing itself. He didn’t stop here, he wished even for more! Because he dropped out of art school he became a sort of an outsider; at least for as far as the implicit rules were concerned. For Ciria there were no walls or fences, no ‘where to park or not to walk’. Guided by passion alone he started to mix the world of Greenberg with the world of Surrealism with processes akin to Max Ernst en Joan Miró. It is a tricky road; remember the warning! Entering the world of theory and mixing it with experiments in which control is lost willingly, is not without risks. Ciria destroyed many of his works from this period. He broke down the structures of representation, which unavoidably leads to the question: How to handle the issue of control in the process of abstraction? Losing control is one way of dealing with it, but to subdue or commit the abstraction to a geometrical order, is another way. Again Ciria knows how to complicate things. He takes Max Ernst, pours in a bit of Soll Lewitt and then just waits to see what will happen. Meanwhile he made notes and those notes would become his own way of rewriting art theory in the nineties.

While Charles Saatchi in London pushed the Young British Artists, like Damien Hirst, to the frontlines of the art world with their ready-made sculptures, and Peter Ludwig in Germany got excited about the painterly craftsmanship of the Neue Leipziger Schule with among others Neo Rauch, Ciria had his own fin-de-siècle triumph in Madrid. The experiments and thoughts had written down in ‘the Notebook’ became his ‘rules’. They provided him not only with the strategies to work, but gave him insight on a deeper level about how those strategies might be brought together in a unifying platform. It is here that modern thinking meets postmodern playfulness. This platform, the Automatic Deconstructive Abstraction, can be seen as a instrumental research into the dialogue of communication levels of painting. The material aspects all have their place in it, and so do themes like time, memory and experience. On a profound level Ciria’s work became a dialogue with us. His paintings tell us about all the worlds Ciria entered and how boundaries between those worlds are but mere inventions. It is the magic of Polke, together with the formalistic reflections of Mondrian, the expressionistic gestures of Pollock and the mental values of Fontana. This is how the artist Ciria enters the world of the 21st century. Could one wish for anything more? When your name is Ciria the answer is: Yes, a lot more! Actually he was already looking for a new world in the most literal meaning of the word. In September 2005 he left Europe to enter the world of America.

The warning of ‘be careful what you wish for’ is not only repeated here, but also became reality when it comes to Ciria’s first months in New York. With everything ready, and even with the window wide open, the muses seemed to go anywhere except to Ciria. Notes that were made in Madrid, seemed to be valid only when living in Madrid. The Ciria empire that entered the new century victoriously, was turning into barren land. The wonderful wish was crumbling down, while in the art world itself the phenomenon of appropriation art was given more and more body with artists like Kehinde Wiley. Appropriation art was not completely new. Quoting or rewriting works of art within new works of art actually has a long history, but it seems to have changed its purpose during the modern era with artists like Manet and Duchamp. In the eighties of the 20th century when postmodernism had its party-time with ‘anything goes’, commenting or just playing with history became a strategy of several painters, among which Carlo Maria Mariani. Twenty years later it was a more mainstream strategy as part of the deconstructive process of giving meaning through art. Wiley, for example, takes famous paintings from the western world with powerful men and replaces them with people from another race or culture to communicate about cultural hegemony in art, history and art history. It is tempting to connect this to the way our image reigned culture has grown. Even more than in the sixties images are all around us and in many ways they have replaced the sense of reality. Baudrillard already warned for this and so did Susan Sontag. In this world, in which images can replace reality it is not strange that artists make use of images of works of art to come to new works of art. The represented artwork or reality has become a conveyer for meaning, a tool or a phrase like ‘to be or not to be’ transposed from the world of the past into the world of contemporary culture.

Meanwhile in the world of Ciria, this world of the past came also knocking at his door. I understood that it was one of his friends that pointed him in the direction of the Russian painter Malevich. This friend noted some resemblances in early work of Ciria. This means that Ciria does not only returns to his roots of the eighties with the Magritte-like atmosphere, but also that he dives into the work and world of Malevich to check the connection and to rework the suprematic theories of the Russian into a Post-Suprematica project. With this step representation re-enters the work of Ciria. In the hands of the artist the language of the images evolves into a new personal way of expressing. It also means that Automatic Deconstructive Abstraction got replaced by a new set of fundamental rules. That new platform is the Dynamic Alpha Alignment. Not just Malevich was revisited, Ciria also looked at the history of painting itself. Just like William Hogarth presented us in the eighteenth century with his line of beauty, Ciria presents us with new paintings in which he works with similarities that he found in great works of art concerning their points of focus and tension. It is a diachronic view on qualities in the history of painting. Another way of saying this is that Ciria entered the world of appropriation art, but came out of it with something completely new and personal. He created again his own world by bringing together realities of others, without completely abandoning his older worlds. For example Ciria’s ability to go beyond his point of control, which he developed from surrealist theories, brings him now to works in which persons seems to be decomposed into their most essential parts much akin the process to be found in the sculptures by Henry Moore.

The same is true for the Schandenmaske project which started in 2008. Malevich-like heads form a the basic structures to host expressive brushstrokes of colour. The hand of the artist hardly seems to be in control and on several occasions the world of experiment and pure painting seems about to take over. All raising the question what it is exactly that these masks are revealing or hiding? Isn’t there a real risk that the wish to bring these worlds together without walls or fences will get things out of control? Ciria is too much a postmodern strategist not to oversee these developments with a big smile. He even tempts the development by starting a series of doodles with a Miró like freedom. At the same time other developments would really take control for a moment. Already in 2004 Ciria discovered that in Automatic Deconstructive Abstractions sometimes shapes could occur that either by themselves or together with other abstract shapes all of a sudden became a stimulus to an association of representation. Ciria got grip on this with a series of Rorschach Heads; paintings that force the observer to construct the heads and feel conscious about doing so. A year later in New York after revisiting Malevich the Rorschach Heads returned in a second series in which -not surprisingly- the influence of the post-suprematica project can be seen and felt. Among other things, it shows how consciously Ciria re-entered the world of representation. Due to personal loss and experiences the theme of the human face becomes a central focus point in 2009. Maybe as part of a process of grieving, Ciria starts to deconstruct photographs of male heads into organic shapes consisting of just lines. The shapes themselves are abstract and when seen in a small group they seem to be some kind of google-earth image of islands in a big ocean. Ciria puts these same contours also on canvas and fills them with colour. These are the third series of Rorschach Heads. Some of the contours have been filled with the greatest control. The result is, that the abstract shapes become faces and the paintings themselves combine the world of abstraction and the world of representation at again a new level. The faces are loaded with emotions and the titles trigger our fantasy to turn each face into a little story. We read a part of human history and emotion through some colourful abstract shapes. It is therefore no surprises to see that Ciria filled some of the shapes with less control and with more gesture and expression. He also created focus points by slight deformation and another level of abstraction. In these shapes elements, like the eyes, sometimes reach to an iconic level. Due to the transformations, Ciria not only brings methodical values together with morphological research, he also puts in some iconic value. Even when he lends dark contours out of the imagery world of the comics, the characters breath the depth of a personage of ‘Waiting for Godot’. The power and quality of this work remains not unnoticed and again there is an empire of Ciria. Again we have to wonder: Should one wish for more? Ciria’s answer is clear again. He leaves America and enters a new world: the world of his childhood, England.

In a way our ‘little Spaniard’ has returned home. But at the same time, he has not. He is no longer the eight year old spending his time just drawing. He is now the postmodern strategist who has already conquered two empires and established two sets of rules to construct his own painterly fundament. Ciria is sure for one thing though: Those two are begging to become a trinity. ADA and DAA will get company of AAD. A series called ‘Puzzles’ seems to tell us that Ciria is looking for a direction to give contents to it. It is with his next series, ‘Boxes’, that he finds out that the new path had in fact already started. In this series we can see boxlike shapes being repeated and being transformed. Sometimes they are accompanied by shapes from previous series, like eyes from the Rorschach Heads. The iconic value of the shapes turns out to possess a great associative power. In a semiotic way they rule and determine the way people put meaning into the paintings. So we see that, after methodical and morphological research, now the time has come to enter the world of symbols and signs and to create a kind of matrix of iconic values. Ciria called this the Associative Adjective Determinations. Since this started just about one year ago in 2014, the project is still evolving and a whole new world is still waiting to be discovered.

Meanwhile the old worlds of Ciria are not forgotten. On the contrary, they are growing. A good example is the Psychopomps series. The carrier is no longer just a canvas or a canvas with geometrical forms, it is a canvas with a certain photographic print. In line with the third platform the representation functions as a symbol, as an instrument or tool of meaning. This carrier is combined with expressive abstract gestures in paint. Two distinctive worlds are confronted and combined in the paintings in the way described above by the works of Polke and Richter. Remember their alchemy of representation and expressive abstraction!

One of the paintings in the series is being called ‘Eye’ (2013). The eye can be seen in the digital print on the canvas, which is combined with an abstract geometrical strip of green at the bottom. On top of both, the print and the green, are nine spots of expressive gestures in white, red and black. The picture is triggering me. Just like the Trismegistos by Polke it urges you to look at it time after time which leads you to experience the strategy of these two worlds. Even when we look at the details, the hybrid world of it enters the deepest world of sentiment. The brushstrokes can be seen colour by colour. As is the print. It is easy to imagine that they become alive and stimulate you to travel in your mind to the angels of Giotto in the lapis lazuli air of the lamentation of Christ in the Capella degli Scrovegni at Padova. How many times have I already seen and experienced them when I lived in that town in the nineties. I know I am not the only one who has seen them. When Ciria stayed some months in Rome, he travelled through Italy to experience its cultural treasures. He went south to Paestum and north to Padova. He even went in between and visited a town that once was proud enough to wish for the biggest church in the world. His stay was in the early nineties and after years of experimenting, but also frustration, he was just on the road to conquer his first empire. Ciria collected worlds and brought them together. He did not put walls between those different worlds to give direction to parking places or put up fences to prevent people from walking on marble mosaics. He gave our world his hybrid world in which all of us can make choices about where to park or not to walk. In his world we can walk or park wherever we want. But then Ciria wished for more and he created more. Like the ‘little Greek’, as the roman emperor Hadrian was being called, Ciria conquered world after world and kept wishing for more. We started this little journey with the warning to be careful what to wish for. Ciria did not listen at all, not even for a second, and I have to admit: I am glad that he didn’t!