Carlos Delgado. Berlin.
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Carlos Delgado. Berlin.

Carlos Delgado. Over – Under the Raw. Kornfeld Gallery. Berlin. Germany.

Text from the catalog “Over / Under the Raw”. Kornfeld Gallery, Berlin. Noviembre 2013.

Over / Under the Raw

Carlos Delgado Mayordomo

This text intends to address the formal language of José Manuel Ciria, an artist whose broad and successful career has developed around an investigation into the painterly image as a territory whose cartography can still be rewritten. To those ends, it takes as a point of departure the failures and achievements of the modernist movements that structured the evolution of Modern Art and distills that (in turns poisoned and revelatory) legacy as a structure upon which his own aesthetic principles are founded.

The progressive reconfiguration of Ciria’s painting shows a relentless desire for evolution and an eagerness to develop a coherent defense of the permanence and relevance of the medium of painting beyond fashion, discreditation or death knells. His attitude implies going against the stream and affirming painting -blurred by the paralyzing theory of postmodernism- in the face of concealment strategies and underlines the discipline’s potential to constantly embark into new formal and theoretical territories. Especially, however, Ciria seeks to construct a kind of painting that imposes itself on distracted perception, the trivialization of the image, and that destabilizes the passivity of the gaze.

To start with, it’s interesting to reflect upon the concepts of figuration and abstraction that have marked the different stages of the artist’s career. Both codes haven’t been seen as irreconcilable aspects of his work, but rather as moldable concepts whose intersection generates an evocative place from which to work the contemporary image. After his first series, created in the second half of the eighties in an expressionist figurative vein, the artist started out the following decade with the desire to consolidate an abstract image driven by theoretical reflection of growing complexity.

To start with, the artist began to shed the global representation of the figure and move towards its fragmentation and subsequent compartmentalization. At this point in his career, in the early nineties, Ciria was conscious that his work was evolving intuitively by the parameters of trial and error and that progress could only be reached through an exhaustive study of what it was he wanted to say. “In the late eighties”, said the artist, “my painting was still figurative. I’d done a lot of experimenting while trying to move into abstraction, but the results were frankly disappointing[…] The shift finally happened in a very natural way with two things. On one hand, I was working on a series called “Hombres, manos, formas orgánicas y signos” (Men, hands, organic forms and signs). And that series, as its name suggests, was made up of four families or groups of paintings, the last two of which had a clear inclination towards abstraction that only needed to be developed. On the other hand, there was the sincere need to generate a theoretical platform out of a series of overlapping conceptual concerns. In other words, my longed for move to abstraction came about, aside from my formal experiments in that direction, through providing a kind of theoretical “hanger” or system that allowed me to develop a genuine field of experimentation. A lot of those theoretical concerns were collected in a little notebook that I’ve always kept with me (…)”.

The notebook Ciria was referring to consisted of putting down on paper a theoretical basis that tied together the various interests that drove his painting and legitimized the new avenues of his discourse. And that’s how A.D.A. (Automatic Deconstructive Abstraction), which was a formal system organized around four conceptual fields that are each divided into several possible actions and combined again through combinatorics, emerged.

Geometric compartmentalization was the first conceptual field and it would be dissected by Ciria and resolved with multiple variations and degrees of painterly presence; sharp or indistinct, drawn or constructed. That geometric order would be traversed by the use of Techniques of controlled chance, which was the second conceptual field inherited from the surrealist tradition and it would be manifested through broken and expansive areas of texture, (or the opposite depending on the composition). Rationality and freedom were two parameters that, exemplified by both painting processes, would find their space for action on the support. The latter element would become the third stop in his theoretical program under the name Pictorial levels, which the painter would subdivide into three groups: the traditional, virgin, canvas; the found support; and half way between those two, the found support that already held its own time memory in the remnants of a natural staining/aging process. Lastly, the iconographic research (Iconographic registers) carried out by Ciria, within his move to abstraction, would be concerned with weighing three possible axes: the traditional form of iconography (now stain-painting); the incorporation of a pre-existing image using diverse processes; and the annexation of found objects. In summary, painting, image and object were variables that articulated the possibilities of representation for Ciria’s abstract images. All of those elements formed a part of a visual system intended to not be seen and understood by the viewer as such, but rather be a working surface based in conceptual units divisible into other units and susceptible to being combined into a method of visual construction.

Ciria’s deep intellectual curiosity, his demanding working methods and the breadth of his vision of the discipline of painting would remain with him throughout the entirety of his later work. Thus, following the path he took after discovering the abstract image is to enter a space with paths that fork and come together again. Following the liberation of the signifier that his shift into abstraction entailed, Ciria delved into the expressive possibilities of different supports (fundamentally canvas and plastic tarps). He explored the idea of the ephemeral (“Mnemosyne” series of 1994) and its consequences in memory. He maintained a direct dialogue with the classical tradition (“El tiempo detenido” (Time Detained) series of 1996). And he reconfigured the landscape genre (“Monfragüe” series of 2000). But most of all, he operated through a constant back and forth between gesture and order (the gridded layout versus the agitated irruption of the stain), and both of those elements appear bound together throughout his entire abstract period. Up to the Gesto y Orden (Gesture and Order) show in 1994 at the Palacio de Velázquez in Madrid, geometry was superimposed on the gestural stains. With the “Máscaras de la mirada” (Masks of the Glance) series, which we’ll come back to several times throughout this text, the stains came to occupy the foreground and the linear grid became the background, always through resolutions arrived at by the logic of compositional combinatorics.

A certain figuration

We mentioned at the beginning of this text that Ciria takes the failures and achievements of the modernist movements that structured the evolution of Modern Art as the starting point for his evolution. In contrast to the gesture of the neo-avant-garde that between the 50’s and the 70’s turned into institutionalized repetitiveness under the pretext of its countless reiterations, since the late 80’s Ciria has known how to create a way of working that avoids the decorative and banal and poses very diverse questions about the current possibilities of painting as a medium for art.

The search belonging to a maturity not stifled by just progressively domesticating his own style is what led Ciria to move to New York in late 2005 to re-think the key elements of his discourse, which is a strategy consistent with an artist who has always worked in a personal space in motion and honed a discourse that synergetically integrates the different cultural and geographic contexts he inhabits.

Once in New York, Ciria’s first forays into a new language different from his previous gestural abstraction tended towards figurative exploration translated into the condensation of the gestural, free and expansive stain within a visual structure delimited by a contour line. His earliest experiences in this direction would make up the “Post-Supremática” (Post-Suprematist) series of 2005, in which the artist began producing faces without identity, bodies without flesh, figures with frozen gestures and a hieratic appearance. From this moment onwards, the logical evolution of this idea will be as much continuity as rupture. The continuity in these early paintings was the exceptional tool he found for his later work, which was drawing as a compositional structure. And the rupture was in how the early figures would be modulated to a degree where a territory of iconographic liberty became possible using forms that would soon cease to be regulated by the logic of the body. This shift was the origin of what is doubtlessly one of Ciria’s most substantial periods and that is marked by the expansive group of paintings that make up the “La Guardia Place” series (2006-2008). Families of works of varying referential intensity emerged out of Ciria’s explorations into drawing and in all of them we can intuit the presence of a fragmented morphology where realities are re-instituted that always remain distant from descriptive interpretation.

Within the formal and thematic explorations in “La Guardia Place”, the mask had been directly enunciated in several paintings where the aspect of disegno was manifested by a simple oval structure in contrast with the expansive, free and protean iconography that dominated the series as a whole. Along with a new fluid, flat and agitated sense of color, this iconographic element would be what would determine the path he took in his new work that was part of the “Schandenmaske” series (2008).

The modular experimental root that was clearly the basis for this last series would undergo several alterations, spanning from decomposition through the active function of the void in his “Desocupaciones” (De-occupations) series of 2007 to the deceptively naive expressiveness of the “Doodles” series of 2008. But perhaps the most unexpected turn of all during his New York period would be with the “Cabezas de Rorschach III” (Rorschach Heads III) group, begun in 2009, where Ciria uses oversized faces turned into battle fields with counterpoints of light, chromatic distortions and powerful foregrounds that incite a raw dialogue with the viewer. Those paintings are, ultimately, portraits, without any conceptual divagations or formal exploration other than what is produced out of the desire to make painting a fascinating pictorial event. This bold aesthetic strategy -far from the coldness of some of his more daring conceptual work- allows us to connect in a direct way through the use of our senses with the one looking.

In the early paintings from “Cabezas de Rorscharch III” (Rorschach Heads III), the difficulty doesn’t lie in seeing the portrait. The wide margins of iconicity between which figuration in contemporary painting is defined make it possible to continue talking about the genre even when the concept of likeness has been debunked. The use of line, volume, light and the handling of color with scales of tones and saturation, are not carefully harmonized in order to imitate a specific subject but rather they are meant to say something new about the artist’s identity as a painter. The ambiguity Ciria expressed between returning to the figure and his persistent anti-naturalist transformation, which he carried out within the framework of formal issues of representation, indicated a desire to continually transgress or even negate the physical and psychological affirmations of the genre. Like stage make-up, structured in bursts, the colors usurp the verisimilitude of the skin of the figures that make up “Cabezas de Roscharch III” (Rorschach Heads III). For that reason, perhaps it seems logical that in its final phase this series rejected even the physicality of painting and directly employed a collage construction. And perhaps that strategy is the only one possible for talking about human beings, contemporary human beings, who act with new names -divided, unexpected, transcended- and where the concept of unicity seems to have disappeared. New identities, inter-subjectivities and non-delimited individuals are inscribed into a new era alien to the deceptively clarifying nature of traditional denominations.

Masks of the Glance

If Ciria’s initial figurative experiences were what drove him to expressionist abstraction in the nineties, his investigations into drawing during his New York period was, likewise, the seed for his most recent work. In re-tracing a path he’d already taken in order to venture deeper and more solidly into his previous tracks, Ciria recouped formal achievements attained in his classic series from the 90’s, “Máscaras de la Mirada” (Masks of the Glance), which was the zenith of his dialogue between stain and geometry, and transformed it into a more decisive concept that would, ultimately, result in a new group of work.

In a series begun in 2009 -in parallel with “Cabezas de Rorschach III” (Rorschach Heads III)- and given the evocative title “Memoria Abstracta” (Abstract Memory), the grid device gained a new importance and decisive rigor that was unforgiving and absolutely decisive in the configuration of the image. Conversely, in contrast to the broken stains of “Máscaras de la Mirada” (Masks of the gaze), where the mutual resistance between water and acid eroded the morphology, Ciria began using stains of flat areas of color that engage in a violent dialogue with the black. The syntax this produces possesses a frenzied internal energy that seemingly endeavors to free itself from the strict geometric compartmentalization that structures its rhythm over the surface. That kind of dichotomy between the constrained seriality of the grid and the dynamic, suggestive power of gesture was a shrewd heightening of the tensions between the compositional and expressive devices that he had been dissecting up to this point. The emphasis on intensity and dramatism found in these compositions is not, in any way, a disguise or veil that filters an idea that’s already been explored. Despite the artist’s persistent claims that he inevitably ends up painting the same painting, it’s clear that Ciria has constantly been able to transform the skin of his paintings without having their unmistakable identity get lost as a result.

The latter idea was corroborated once again in his most recent work, which consists of three series made just after the artist closed his New York studio that, at the same time, also brought a seven year period dedicated to reconstituting the fundamental bases of this painting to a close. If his move from Madrid to New York in late 2005 entailed, as we have seen, a major stylistic shift manifested by the certainty of having overcome gestural abstraction through recovering line, his current return to Madrid and his imminent move to London seem to be driving a change once again. Finding himself in a global cartography because of the idiosyncrasies of his career, the artist has taken up a fertile diasporic position where every space where he’s lived is like both a lock closing his previous work and a doorbell for new formal concepts. It could then be said that it’s at times of physical, emotional and professional transit when the artist sets up his main laboratories for ideas and when a dialogic intellectual process predominates that retains both old imaginaries and new positioning strategies.

Ciria has managed to forge a solid yet open-eyed career and a discourse that’s discomforting and under constant tension and that’s currently shifting towards a decided return to abstraction. As the artist himself told me in a conversation, “In this re-thinking of a return to abstraction, a lot of questions have come up I need to find answers to, one way or another. How abstract is my painting? Do I need to change codes and generate new techniques and languages? Should I go back to the «purity» of the Masks of the Glance series? What would happen in the formal organization of the Abstract Memory series if it were freed from such a tightly bound geometric and compartmentalized ground. How can gestural abstraction be united with the return to line and structure of series like La Guardia Place or Doodles?”.

The answers to these questions, of course, could be found with the artist himself. And they slowly began to appear in a seemingly simple strategy where Máscaras de la Mirada (Masks of the Glance) and Memoria Abstracta (Abstract Memory) were used as starting points and the dynamic of the stain was extracted as the «raw» part, meaning the basis for starting to build a new abstract image. This strategy would first be translated into a group of works where two visual concepts interacted. The stain would be extracted as the main iconic register from the 90’s series, and from the New York series he took the formal strength the stain evolved into, (flatness, density and contrast), and compositional order, although the powerful weight of the geometric structure that framed and individualized each stain disappeared. In summary, Ciria took down the scaffolding and discovered that the building stood up on its own. The stain learned a lesson, it interiorized the logic of its placement, it overcame the expansive desire of the gesture and it no longer needed any other resources to configure a composition that was rigorous without being strict, ordered without being repetitive and controlled while not surrendering expressive intensity.

The result, which the artist would define as a new period in his classic “Máscaras de la mirada” group, would also be the point of departure for two new groups that were born out of an examination of the stain -the “raw”- as a limit to act over or under. The first “Psicopompos” (Psychopomps) established painting as a weapon to destabilize the verisimilitude of photography while the second, “Puzzles”, inverted the process through the dissection of fragments of his own iconography and their placement over the stain. In both cases, the artist puts an end to the passivity of the gaze through a “conceptual” tension that transforms the support into an uncanny space that’s intractable insofar as any notion of the work as being merely a map of the free expressiveness of the artist is concerned. Heating up someone else’s image or cooling down your own image are two strategies for separating yourself from the immediacy of painting. This distancing seems to meet the requirement set out by José Luis Brea for the practice of art in the current moment of the banalization of the culture industry, to be inscribed in cold auras -“halos that reject any relationship with worship”- that put the work of art at the same level as any other artifact.

Pyschopomps or the Hybrid Mode

In an article published in the magazine Artforum in 1982, J.F. Lyotard noted that, “the impossibility of painting arises from the greater need the industrial and post-industrial -technological- world has had for photography, which is akin to how this world needs journalism more than literature.” The philosopher thus joined all of those who, starting after the nineteen seventies, proclaimed the death of painting that would ultimately activate an ongoing crisis in the medium even at the times when it seemed to be making a positive recovery. In fact, Lyotard’s observations coincided with a time that was exceptionally lively in international painting. The early eighties was the peak of German neo-expressionism, the Italian Trans-avant-garde, French expressionist figuration, the new Spanish abstraction and figuration and the expressionist revival in the United States. So, behind the art critics’ taste for death metaphors while talking about the (dis)continuity of processes, one has to read between the lines, because, as Hal Foster has said, “What they were talking about was formal innovation and the historic significance of those mediums”. That funereal criticism didn’t deny the possible existence of painting, rather it was more like a virulent reaction to the traditional limits of what painting could be.

The discipline had become an overused language whose terrain had been investigated beyond exhaustion during the historical modernist period. What else could be done? Was investigating painting still even pertinent? A paradoxical annexation between previously distant creative territories would arise with the help of the latter observation. In fact, just one year before Lyotard’s statement there was an exhibition at the ARC/Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris titled “Il se disent peintres, ils se disent photographes“, (They Call Themselves Painters, They Call Themselves Photographers), that could be defined as one of the earliest attempts at re-thinking the flexibility of artists’ positions between both mediums. There were painters who used a support other than canvas, in this case photography, or others who made both paintings and photography and lastly ones who, while doing photography, called themselves painters despite not employing any techniques belonging to that medium. One of the most representative tendencies of post-modernity began to emerge from the dialogue between different codes and it was the hybridization of mediums, which would codify the artistic phenomenon that rejected the specificity of a single concrete discipline.

Along these lines, in his exhibition Acto Postracional (Post-Rational Act) of 1991, with extreme subtly Ciria presented a group of abstract paintings that, because of the way they were installed in the gallery, were reflected in some very striking photos from the Agencia EFE archives. If in these works the narrations of painting and photography were in parallel, the first series that combined both mediums on the same support wouldn’t come until a decade later. In “Psicopompos” (Psychopomps) of 2001-2002, Ciria undertook a painterly intervention over images from advertising posters, and his choice was not free of intentionality. “Advertising photography is the paradise of hygienic desire where nausea will never overtake us. The visual equivalent of that purity is a body with completely smooth skin, without wrinkles or traces of fat; a body without organs. Advertising photography seems bent on stretching the skin of the models until it’s perfectly smooth. Advertising photography is akin to visual plastic surgery”. Those improbable archetypes exercise strategies of seduction on the viewer that are intercepted by Ciria’s painterly gesture; an act of vandalism that, on the other hand, finds its counterpart in graffiti on street advertising.

His current “Psicopompos” (Psychopomps) are derived from the same premises, but they have significant variations. In the first place, the independent physicality of the poster has been superseded by printing it digitally. That decision implies that the texture of the images is subsumed by the weave of the support and, as a result, an ambiguous relationship between painting and photography is created. In this way, the artist generates a hybridization where both mediums dilute the degree of intensity they had had in their “strong definition”.

There were two approaches taken to the advertising posters Ciria appropriated from in the work he made in early 2000; there was either a single poster framed with a passe-partout or a ground built using fragmentation and overlaying several printed advertisements. Now, the element that was foreign and made in series is completely absorbed by a skin that doesn’t belong to it and its message is attacked by the artist’s painterly gesture. The gesture is no longer a violent stroke freely expanding through the image, but rather a stain that condenses its energy at strategic points to semantically reactivate representation.

Aside from that, Ciria has sought out and taken different iconography as his point of departure. Instead of consumer products and advertising messages, images of men and women whose faces become the main objective of his activity now predominate. A second skin over the surface of the contingent, a threshold that usurps the face’s verisimilitude, the mask once more situates itself as a central motif in Ciria’s poetics. Accordingly, its function when it is placed on top of a photographic image is to perturb the viewer’s scopic satisfaction while at the same time questioning the generalized acceptance of the image as a promise of contact with the real. Ciria is thus calling for another interpretation of the human different from the discourse the media have intended for creating blind consumption.

Puzzles, or thinking the fragment

Aware that contemporary art has abandoned modernism’s unique and strong idea of direction and increased in complexity and mobility, in his work Ciria tries to avoid the specific in lieu of a chain of possibilities. A truly rich idea frequently has an incomplete structure, rejecting immediate aesthetic satisfaction and leading to further development in the future. If we drew a schematic map of his artistic output we would discover how out of every point of departure there emerge alternative routes, node points and endings open to the possibility of being taken up again.

As mentioned above, the “Puzzles” series is the direct consequence of the artists current refinement of the “Máscaras de la mirada” (Masks of the Gaze) series. And, at the same time, it forms a link with the return to line as the compositional armature of series like “La Guardia Place” and “Desocupaciones (De-occupations)”. The latter series employs a process of distorting the representation of the rigorously articulated mask by actively incorporating emptiness. “Máscara desocupada recordando a Giotto” (De-occupied Mask in Remembrance of Giotto), one of the most significant pieces in that group of work, already displayed a robust amalgamation of two temperatures. On one hand, it has an unstable quadrangular geometry with imprecise contours that acts as a contextual space-ground. While on the other hand, seemingly rising up in the foreground, there is an abstract structure made up of different areas of color and defined in its entirety by a clean contour line. In a certain sense, “Puzzles” is the outcome of responding to the perimeter tension of that abstract form, extracting it from the canvas, dissecting it and putting it back on top of a new mise-en-scene, like the tense, expressive and rigorous stain of his last paintings from “Máscaras de la Mirada” (Masks of the Glance).

The practice of placing materials on the surface of the canvas goes back to the tradition of turn of the century classical modernist collage. Nevertheless, if the cubists were trying to put the illusion of three-dimensional space into a work with entirely two-dimensional planes-facets, Ciria’s intentions follow different courses. The main one is concealing the painter’s hand, neutralized now by the flat overlay of his own iconography, in a strategy that works not only to temper the carnality of painting, but to reveal its artificial nature. Ultimately, what Ciria is doing in this work doesn’t intend to unify the painting surface, rather it aims to leave a record of its own construction, of its condition as artifact. In that sense, it shows itself as maker and its task as an ongoing process of investigation that generates aesthetic and conceptual processes. Thus, his often repeated statement, “I don’t do painting”, while maintaining a certain air of sarcasm, reveals the desire to have his work be a program with an objective, which is to execute a complex and composite, fully contemporary, image capable of unapologetically yet lucidly traversing a cultural context of uncommon visual density.