Carlos Delgado. Palacio Simeon. Orense. I
FIVE SQUARES (The American Series)
Carlos Delgado Mayordomo
José Manuel Ciria moved his primary studio from Madrid to New York in 2005, soon afterwards finding new directions in which to take his painting. Nevertheless, his work since then has not been disconnected from his previous discoveries. In constant tension with his own work, Ciria has always undermined the possibility of describing his work as a linear evolution. On the contrary, his work has always consisted in revisiting certain concepts in such a way that elements that were subordinated in a previous visual system later become dominant, and vice-versa. Staining, geometry, iconography and surface, in varying arrangements determined by the combinatory, provided an excellent formal and theoretical basis for his Deconstructive Automatic Abstraction (DAA) conceptual strategy that drove the vigorous abstraction that he developed in the nineties.
His insistence on providing a conceptual grounding for painting that was also formally effective and corroborated by a large body of theoretical writing is useful for illustrating the uncanny otherness that is always present in this body of work, which becomes ambiguous when one attempts to classify it into groups. Furthermore, it becomes clear once again how, in contrast to the current focus on technology and the contamination of mediums that disintegrates the boundary between mediums and becomes part of a diversified time and space, either real or virtual and which, in any case, eschew the traditional closed module of painting, Ciria persists with the idea of painting “paintings”, which are objects that seem only tangentially contemporary and have been excluded from the trends guiding the biennials and Documentas of recent years.
Through this carefully examined decision Ciria paradoxically invites us to re-examine his work as a physical and material limit, to question the idea of the highly developed surface, presented as a finished work with an unrepeatable and auratic totality, a classical metaphor of creative discourse, which the artist sees as being just what it is: an imperfect metaphor. This is the direction his work seems to take when he is using a support that has a memory predating the creative process of painting that he doesn’t try to negate. The surfaces have content that has accumulated on the fringes of painting and, regardless of whether it becomes part of the discourse, it is not the outcome of a (manual or crafted, if you like) creative act, but rather comes from his permissiveness with the mark inscribed into conceptual reflection. Or, like in his recent use of sheets of insulation, he incorporates imminent deterioration and the potential for reflection. There is a potentiality that also takes shape in the reading of his recent New York iconographic repertoire where the possible divagations in meaning are multiplied, solutions awaiting critical narration or intuition by the viewer. Avant-garde strategies reconfigured through distancing and post-modern concerns are transported into an eccentric discourse in constant tension with the limits of the medium itself, expressing a tenacity of thinking about painting that rejects the slightest hint of banality.
In this regard, Ciria is a prime example of a tendency permeating the turn of the century, inscribed in a post-heroic, and even post-minimal, abstraction. However, what really distinguishes the originality and relevancy of his abstract work prior to moving to New York is the lucidity of its language, which situates itself at the periphery of mannerist redefinitions as much as ironic parody, lyrical melancholy or ornamental resolution. It is the consistency with which he has created original and alternative work that has established his status as one of the most important Spanish painters of the nineties. This assessment, which numerous critics and Art historians have been making since the nineties, must also be extended to the work he has been producing in New York in recent years.
NEW YORK AS A RESEARCH LABORATORY
As mentioned above, Ciria decided to move to New York in late 2005 in order to rethink his painting, which in turn led him to modify the values that had been so successful for him during the previous decade and make some drastic changes in direction that would, once again, impede us from being able to categorize his work. Rather unexpectedly, the eloquent re-invention of his own language in New York came out of his examination of Malevich’s body of work. However, in contrast to breakthroughs that emerged in the context of the Russian avant-garde leading towards an art that was disassociated from the object and, consequently, totally abstract, Ciria’s interest was triggered instead by the late phase of Malevich’s work that tended towards the representation of rigid bodies with solidified interiors heroically cloaked by rigorous draughtsmanship transforming them into subtle icons.
The first drawings Ciria made that displayed a shift towards a new language that differed from his previous gestural abstraction suggested a figurative exploration linked to those paintings by Malevich, even though the artist’s interest in heads and torsos lacking any specific identity had already briefly appeared in the series «Rorschach Heads I» (Cabezas de Rorschach I), from 2001 and «Rorschach Heads II» (Cabezas de Rorschach II), from 2005. However, in the context of New York, Ciria’s aesthetic thought originated not only in bringing back this iconography partially modulated by referentiality, but also in a new direction that included the condensation of free and expansive gestural staining within a visual structure delimited by a contour line.
And clearly, the rigorous analytic study of Malevich’s work that Ciria undertook would not culminate in direct appropriation or reproducing what he saw. As we already know, Ciria is an innovator who proclaims his right to dismantle the legacy of heroic modernism in order to select from it the parts that are valid for him. There is nothing furtive about Ciria’s incursion into Malevich’s work. Rather, he seeks out a direct confrontation as a starting point for his investigations. His figures no longer belong to the concrete world and his exploration of the boundaries between figuration and abstraction reject the particularly dramatic resonance of that phase of Malevich’s work. Ciria casts all those determiners aside before setting out on the deconstruction of the internal structure of Malevich’s imagery, allowing him to generate his own pictorial construction.
His earliest experiences in this direction were expressed in the “Post-Supremática” (Post-Suprematist) series and, working from this source, he began developing faces without any identity, hieratic bodies without flesh, figures with frozen gestures. The word hieratic, which we now use to describe a severe and immutable expression, in Greek originally had a meaning that referred to the sacred and, thus, to timelessness. If the great poets have always rescued words from the process of erosion to which they are exposed through everyday use, Ciria rescues those individuals from their own history, from their own humanity, and he reinvents them as icons, isolated from any commonplace narrative, placing them at a threshold between figuration and abstraction.
FIRST STOP: LA GUARDIA PLACE
The process of disarticulating the Being with respect to its carnal base constitutes, as we shall see, one of the possible avenues for the analysis of the paintings Ciria has made in New York. This exploration is initiated by the reinvention of his Malevichean automatons through an acceleration of the decomposition (de-codification) of body identity. From this moment onwards, the logical evolution of this idea will express continuity as much as rupture. There is continuity because in the early paintings a very special tool for the later work was found, which was drawing as the structure of form. And there is rupture because the early figures would be modulated to a degree where a territory of progressive liberty became possible using forms that would promptly cease to be regulated by the logic of the body making it necessary for us to see them in a different way, or to read them in different terms. This shift is the origin of what is doubtlessly one of Ciria’s most brilliant and exceptional periods, marked by the expansive group of paintings that make up “La Guardia Place”, which could be considered his first specifically American series.
Families of drawings 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, yet without ever coming close to descriptive interpretation. The drawing structuring these pieces harbors a vital yet petrified matter within itself that is ultimately conceived as the kernel of an iconic sign that, in its multiple nuances, devours its legibility. At the same time, it is the only means the motif has to defend itself against the threat of its own disappearance. If drawing did not exist, the stain would expand in a haphazard process that might end up being quite similar to Ciria’s abstract production. Nonetheless, we must not understand this drawing as being just a demarcation or edge of the stain. Line becomes a structural and compositional device for the image, defining new iconographies and opening up the possibility for regulation and modular repetition.
Through patient observation of the paintings that make up the “La Guardia Place” series one may become aware of the recurrence of the same formal element throughout many different pieces. Concretely, it is the insistence on certain syntagmas of iconic construction whose variability is stimulated by tonal vibration, placement and their relationship with the ground. Ciria’s interest in the combinatory and repetition of the same module or matrix is located in a territory that incorporates a complex semantic transformation for each new register. As a result of the variation between what is found on either side of the drawing’s precise edge, (its interior and its relationship with the ground, which is outside of it), and the constantly nuanced and occasionally transgressed immanence of what defines it as a matrix (the nearly identical description of its profile), repetition is now understood as semantic reactivation. Through this process we can see to what extent the artist is interested in achieving the solidity of the visual text, but only so it can be taken into a different state afterwards.
The relevance of modularity in Ciria’s work lies in how it enables an ongoing exploration, or a systematization of his exploration of the subject. The surprising thing is that his exploration does not lead to over-refinement. In fact, in this series Ciria made self-proclaimed “rare” paintings, (1)(rare in the sense of undercooked or unfinished) that, without falling into eclecticism, avoid the sensation of volume, which is now filtered through an inconclusiveness that gives his paintings a novel freshness and rich impulsiveness where seemingly anything could happen. The artist’s capacity for reflective thinking is what opens the way for the potential not making, which is what clashes so sharply with the unity of modernist utopian discourses and engages in a new approach where concern for the facture of painting disintegrates. When we analyze the “La Guardia Place” series we can appreciate how he abandons the insistence on formal nuance -which for Ciria lies in the realm of the European tradition- and shifts towards a less stabilized approach that is evocative because of its raw appearance and that he sees as being associated with the gestural dynamic of North American painterly experiences.
Ciria expresses a constant, however subdued, questioning about the symbolic sustenance of the work in “La Guardia Place” that makes the re-adjustment somewhat uncomfortable. We have seen his figurative work where the clarity of what is narrated becomes destabilized, his abstract work with intimations of a figuration that never quite materializes, and his other work where the terms dissolve into an unstable iconography. In all the work the ambiguity of the semantic value contributes to the work looking like it is not conveniently finished because the opposing terms seem to appear in equal density and, because of that, they neutralize each other, erasing their difference, and it is precisely that which escapes the opposing terms that gives it its possibility.
There are, however, other factors that ultimately determine the aptness of the adjective “rare”. In The Tradition of the New , Harold Rosenberg stated that “at a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act-rather than as a space in which to reproduce, re-design, analyze or express an object, actual or imagined. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event”(2) Ciria’s current paintings go back and forth between the image and the event, one for the other’s sake, one motivated by the other. This split meeting point comes into being as a result of Ciria’s concern with forcing the mechanisms of painterly practice, which now draws upon an odd conjunction of traditional European Modernism and the late formalism of North American abstract painting, a somewhat rusty set of tools the artist bricoleur puts back into action achieving new results. Raw, indeterminate painting in which the rhetoric of the visual text always maintains the desire for a different emphasis. In mythology, Levi-Strauss says, emphasis is “the visible shadow of a logical structure that is kept hidden”(3), Ciria’s “rare paintings” incorporate this flexibility, implying more than what they apparently express, like a burgeoning palimpsest yet to be re-written.
Conceptually as well as purely visually, however, the focus of this series makes a shift towards other multiple derivations ranging from a tonal dissonance, (particularly refined and enigmatic in the “Winter Paintings” suite), to his explorations into using polyvinyl paint on insulation panels. This latter material, as unstable as the image that it might reflect, so fragile and seemingly ephemeral, reveals to us an aphoristic awareness regarding its relationship to time. It never ceases to be disturbing how an artist so interested in the physical permanence of his work is now involved with temporal concerns that desacralize the eternal and surrender to the mutable. Is this an expression of post-modern cynicism? No, it isn’t. But, neither is it a daredevil experimental game like it was in the “Mnemosyne” series (1994), where the paintings self-destruct on the stretcher. We now find ourselves confronted by a new attitude that unabashedly defies the idealization of the finished work and positively engages the “performative” aspect of painting. Visual construction remains latent from the moment when the transformation materializes itself into the ongoing discovery of the painting’s identity. This vindication of process casts the paintings into an indeterminate present defined by the articulation of a protracted becoming.
Explorations with such a profound theoretical dimension do not deny but rather integrate the most “sensorial” aspect of painterly techniques. Certainly, the chromatic intensity of Ciria’s latest work would perhaps have no explanation without taking into account his visit to the Dominican Republic and other Caribbean countries in the months prior to preparing his traveling exhibition in the Americas, which began in the summer of 2008. Furthermore, the tough strain of the Spanish tradition he was schooled in is at work in the synergy that drives his painting. For example, in the reds and blacks that dominated a large number of his abstract paintings from the nineties, and that can now be seen alongside new influences in a breathtaking syncretism. Harmony between disparate centers is the unique origin from which a universal work of Art can be born.
What is more, the color of the surface itself also forms part of the broad spectrum of color of those paintings where the canvas has been previously manipulated. This fact, which has provoked so many observations about Ciria’s evolution, manifests itself in the “La Guardia Place” group as a new category that arises out of the combination of his New York paintings with painting on supports that had previously been used to cover the studio floor while he was working on other pieces. The integration of those chance occurrences does not just encompass the memory of the support but also memories of Ciria’s previous work. Specifically, between 1995 and 1996 he painted “El jardín perverso I” (The Perverse Garden I) and subsequently in 2003 “El jardín perverso II” (The Perverse Garden II) suites, which both belong to the «Máscaras de la mirada” (Masks of the Gaze) series, and were also based on the same idea. Chance, as an aleatory device on a free flowing path over the surface, then became the starting point for paintings in which the first accidental stains were re-invented through the painting process. The plastic tarpaulin, trampled and stained by the echo of artistic activity, was recycled and was appreciated for its expressive immediacy and, moreover, because it exemplified the concept of chance that was simultaneously inclusive of a memory intimately linked to the artist himself.
And once more for Ciria, the intense unpredictability of rhythms, frequencies and flows, masses and colors were the expression of an impulse that he thought warranted exploration. The visual information placed rawly on the canvas by chance may be moved around as part of a strategy for creating a structure for giving formal coherence to the work. In fact, all those random stains are initially disoriented, out of place and without a clear relationship to each other before becoming complicit with the visual arrangement made by the artist. In this intersection between “La Guardia Place” and “El Jardín Perverso” (The Perverse Garden) the artist has found a well-balanced combination of two extreme expressions of chance and control. The operationality of this syntax is the result of a highly demanding subtlety in which previously non-existent links between accidents woven together by the strong iconography integrated into these paintings can be found.
The transformation of the pictorial concept that we have been describing in Ciria’s work, the shift from expressionist abstraction towards raw and unfinished painting, the complex symbiosis between form and meaning, and the conceptual complexity that sustains his painting, are factors that seem to alter the “Apollonian” extreme of pacifying the gaze that Lacan attributed to painting. As much for the observer who is familiar with the artist’s career as for one who is seeing his paintings for the first time, José Manuel Ciria’s current work certainly provokes an uncanny sort of astonishment.
FORGING THE MASK
In “Some Simple Reflections on the Body”(4) the poet Paul Valéry takes apart the notion of the unique body giving and gives us three points of access: the first body is the asymmetric mass that reaches my gaze and has no past, being as it is an entity that I always experience in the present. The second, “so dear to Narcissus”, is the uniform wrapping perceived by others, whose surface I can see get older but have no intimation about what it might hide inside it. The third body, nevertheless, is deprived of its unity: it is the open body, shredded and dissected into histological cryptograms, which we only have reference to through the words of doctors.
The iconographic repertoire that José Manuel Ciria began in late 2005 with the “Post-Supremática” (Post-Suprematist) series, and which would continue through 2006 and 2008 with “La Guardia Place”, could illustrate the irreconcilable narrative of these three bodies. In the new space of his New York studio the artist embarked on a course that he would then modulate without fully knowing the implications of its development. The calculated detachment of the gestural expressiveness of his abstract painting in the nineties would find its origin in the simple refuge of drawing as compositional structure. After finding this initial solution the stain of color would be modulated by the architecture of a line that brought specific meanings to the surface. Drawing, with its clear cut prerogatives, initially retained the stigmas of its origin; figures, torsos and faces focused the contingencies of the stain, turning it into the inflamed skin of the androgynous Malevichean automatons. But, shortly afterwards the morphological descriptions of these bodies would transform, opening up into iconographies that, despite still having a biomorphic nature, would cast aside the rigor of bodily description. And, at this point, the physical dimension disconnected itself from the subject’s rational filters. There is more to be said about bodies −or, more specifically, organs without bodies(5)− because both the outright figurative and the decidedly abstract paintings from Ciria’s New York period ultimately coincide in a single formal eloquence where line and the containment of chromatic temperature impose themselves.
As in Valéry’s third body, the most complex iconographies of “La Guardia Place” have gotten lost within their own skin, casting away every trace of their predictability. The part resists being represented in its totality, the body disassembles itself and the figurative subject succumbs to a multiple corporality. The problematic Ciria is investigating engages with the contemporary conception of the subject(6) and contributes to the graphic projection of a reality of a different nature.
In addition to the three bodies mentioned above, Paul Valéry puts forth the idea of a fourth body that is not subject to the regimes of social control and that seemingly comes out of dissatisfaction with other bodies. More like a thing than a living organism(7), it’s located in a territory where what does not exist can come into being; the fourth body is defined however I need or want it to be. There is a new level, governed by a dimension that has autonomy from the other three, (the displayed body, the body seen, the body that opens), and conceals the “I” that society requires as a public identity.
A second skin over the surface of the contingent, a threshold that usurps verisimilitude(8), the mask can be a tangible conceptualization of the abstract fourth body. An “I” covered with a mask presents us with an image that is new but which is perceived as a counterbody or as a contradiction where what reality seems to be is not what it really is. A vessel of connotations that transforms us into the Other, the mask operates at the uncertain threshold of identity. Certainly, it re-situates us in order to suggest the existence of an absence, the power we imagine in the Other and which is supposedly lacking in us(9).
After having executed and dismembered the body in his following series, “Schandenmaske”, Ciria moved on to designing the simple contour of the mask. This shift in the center of gravity of his subject matter has undergone subtle gradations that become evident in how the faces of his Malevichean figures are no more descriptive than the new closed in ellipses. Is this a mask on top of a mask? The artist’s conceptual operation now consists of distancing the face from its irreducible natural context, which is the organicity of the human body. In contrast to those bodies that apparently have no identity, Ciria now proposes an identity without bodies, a reduction that begins to interfere with the strings that still tied his morphologies to humanness.
However, in order to understand the scope of Ciria’s dialectic with this issue we need to look at the antecedents that have marked the shape it currently takes. The formal language Ciria developed in the nineties has been circumscribed by criticism, and oftentimes, to a concept of abstraction that eludes any examination of other practices of the enunciation of symbols. Nevertheless, it seems, during his New York period the artist’s concern with varying degrees of referential identification has popped up at different times in his abstract work and, specifically, the idea of heads or masks has been the thread linking them together.
After his early phase rooted in expressionist figuration, Ciria emerged in the nineties with solid ideas for a model of abstraction. After 1992, precisely the same year he discovered plastic tarpaulins as a support for painting, Ciria had his first experiences with making collage. Ciria began to incorporate easily recognizable cut out images into his collages at just the same time that he was moving decidedly into abstraction. In general terms, the feeling or meaning that the figures cut out and pasted onto the painted surface are intended to express never loses awareness of a function that goes beyond the iconographic, which is that they can function as a visual counterpoint or even an instrument for organizing the formal resolution of an abstract painting. Along those lines I am thinking about paintings like «Palabra, color y sangre» (Word, color and blood), «Sencilla historia de amor » (A simple love story), «Todos escondidos » (Everyone’s hidden), all from 1992. Nevertheless, there is a small painting from this year titled Cabeza (Head) where eyes and lips taken from a magazine and laid on top of a totally abstract painting and do, in fact, emphasize the figurative convictions of the title. Effectively, the eyes and mouth integrate the abstract chromatic flow into a referential semantic whole. What we see, before anything else, is a head.
The period of time that spans from the slightly awkward first attempt at integrating abstraction and figuration and the following occurrence of it is indicative of the development of his completely abstract paintings of the nineties. It was in 2002, in the paintings titled, “Cabezas de Rorschach” (Rorschach Heads)(10), when Ciria began to represent the shape of human profiles whose eruptive interiority canceled out the specificity of the face. The title is an allusion to the Swiss psychologist whose research was oriented towards the diagnosis of his patient’s neuroses based on their personal interpretations of certain abstract stains. More than just bringing to mind the famous visual test, which tells us about Ciria’s interest in subconscious processes, in this new series the activation of the viewer’s gaze emerges out of questioning the objectivity of its meaning.
The figures that belong to “Cabezas de Rorschach I” (Rorschach Heads I), do not exhibit any clear physiognomy apart from the silhouette that defines the head, neck and shoulders. The face, however, appears as an explosion of color where there are no shapes that suggest human forms (nose, eyes, lips…) and, consequently, no insight into the mental state of the personage. Nevertheless, the violence of the reds, the density of their application that extends beyond the edges of the figure, can cause the viewer to discover a production of meaning as a consequence of the undeniably dramatic absence of features.
Adorno observed that works of Art are enigmas that, when they are saying something, are also hiding something else. This mystery would require the viewer to engage the complex exercise of transcending the interiority of a work of Art to close a semantic code that will always be opened again by the gaze of a different viewer, or even when the same viewer sees the work a second time. For José Manuel Ciria as well, there is no single meaning for a work of art and neither can one be formally constructed. «There is nothing remotely similar to a literal meaning, if by meaning one understands a clear, transparent concept regardless of the context or what’s in the mind of the artist or the viewer; a meaning that could act as a limit to interpretation by being outside of interpretation, a signified outside of signification. Interpretation doesn’t exist without the work of Art and never produces results, aside from purely analytical ones»(11). More than meaning, which he nevertheless thinks is a valid goal, Ciria is interested in the concept that is joined to the signifier “to construct a linguistic sign or a complex of meaning associated with the diverse combinations of linguistic signifiers”(12).
From this point of view, Ciria presented an approximation to reading that goes beyond mere iconographic interpretation. The formal structure of the head and its pictorial resolution is far more important than possibly recognizing a certain degree of mimesis or the drama inherent to the six pieces in this series, titled “Víctimas” (Victims), made during his first stay in Tel Aviv.
Because in the paintings from this series made in 2004, such as Tres máscaras, Cabeza sobre negro (Three masks, Head on black), and Cabeza sobre rojo (Head on red ground), the oval of the face is taken out of its irreducible natural context, which is the organicity of the human body. The head and neck no longer appear and there is just an oval stain that suggests something that is unidentifiable yet somehow familiar because of the painting’s title. The distancing of figuration, which has ceased to be such, is accentuated by the incorporation of a precise compartmentalizing strategy as a ground in which the head is placed within an experimental and analytical painting that negates any possible connotations of its exact iconographic origin.
In 2005, when Ciria went back to exploring these same issues in the “Cabezas de Rorschach II” (Rorschach Heads II) group, they became sectioned and individualized in pieces such as “Cabeza sobre negro” (Head on Black Ground) and “Cabeza sobre rojo” (Head on Red Ground), and their disturbing presence ultimately became multiple in “Tres máscaras” (Three Masks). In these new paintings, the artist has carried out a purification of the ground and placed fleeting watery tonal variations and discreet compartmentalizations on it. The fractured stain, whose expressiveness in the Tel Aviv paintings now pushed it beyond the head itself, was now set inside a physical interior firmly contrasting with a ground upon which it cast a light shadow, taking the linear rigor of his first New York paintings a step further.
There are, however, still more examples that demonstrate that the head-mask theme is a recurring emblem in Ciria’s work. As part of a larger shift towards cooling down the expressive charge of his previous work, Ciria produced the brief “Estructuras” (Structures) series during 2006 at the same time he was developing his “Post-Suprematist” series. Even though they are comprised of complex “linear grids”(13) incorporating an internal void and, consequently, reject the sensuality of physical mass, because of their titles and general layout we can identify them as faces that are, once more, disconnected from any physical body that might “explain” them.
Already within the formal and thematic explorations encompassed by “La Guardia Place”, the mask had been stated directly in paintings dating from 2007, such as “Máscara y tres elementos” (Mask and three elements), “Cabeza máscara” (Mask Head) and “Máscara africana” (African Mask). Nevertheless, in the series as a whole we see how the new formal conception Ciria developed immediately afterwards really hinged on two pieces made in March of 2008; “Bloody Mary duplicado” (Bloody Mary duplicated) and “Cabeza sobre fondo verde” (Head on a Green ground).
In both pieces, the disegno has been pared down to the description of a simple elliptical structure, in contrast to the free and expansive protean iconography that dominates the series as a whole. However, the originality of both of those paintings is drawn from their color and its contrastiveness. For example, the greens and oranges, which are not at all common in Ciria’s work, and the way he brings back the red in “Cabeza sobre fondo verde” (Head on a Green Ground), whose fluid interaction with the white makes it start to shift towards pink. These are new chromatic dimensions that indicated the direction he would take in his more recent paintings from the “Schandenmaske, Máscaras burlescas” (Schandenmaske, Burlesque Mask) series.
The estrangement resulting from these choices is augmented by a new way of conceiving the pictorial act where the accidents are emphasized at the same time that the gesture of the action disintegrates, which we will see later on when we examine the various interpretations that are opened up by the formal analysis of this new series.
SECOND STOP: SCHANDENMASKE MASKS
The Latin term “persona” comes from the Etruscan word “phersu” that in turn comes from the Greek “provswpon”, which was the name of the mask worn by tragic actors to make their voices carry further (per sonare). Formally and conceptually, the “Schandenmaske” series is the culmination of Ciria’s search for this original meaning(14) bound to the desire to be other and to subvert the established in order to engage in a metamorphosis in which “one becomes aware of deception and appearance, or in other words, the disguise. It ultimately turns out not to be Zeus who seduces his victims but rather the other, or the others”(15). As we have already seen, the artist has understood this process progressively, working from a whole in which the body opens up until it now produces an I camouflaged by the mask as a paradigm for what the body intends to invent about itself.
But, “Schandenmaske” is also a substantial examination of the language of painting and its interstices, time and memory, order and chance. In relation to Bruce Nauman’s piece Mapping the studio (Fat chance John Cage), Donald Kuspit remarked that for the post-modern (or post-artist) artist chance is no longer as creatively significant and inspirational as it was for Cage, or before that, for Duchamp: “Chance is no longer the dumb luck of Art; in post-modernity it has become an everyday event, that’s how it happens on the street”(16). In the “Schandenmaske”, I believe there is a lucid awareness of the importance of chance parameters. In contrast to the rejection of the creative inflection of the uncontrolled, Ciria has made this aspect of his painting from the nineties highly prominent and has once again integrated it into his painting as a negation of his own creative gesture.
The search for the accidental had been one of the principle directions José Manuel Ciria pursued based on his DAA working method. He was able to create unexpected textural fields by using techniques like decalcomania, frottage, grattage, runs, drips or spattering. The incompatible combination of oil, acid and water, as well as the incorporation of several other chemicals, gave the stain a spontaneity that sometimes resulted in it “painting itself”, in the sense of moving over the surface by itself and generating its own space and time. The artist’s hand is no longer metonymically reflected in the stain, and the only thing now visible is an echo filtered through the eruption of the automatic processes.
In contrast to the strict formal control demanded by the complex modulation of line in the “La Guardia Place” series, Ciria has now shifted his creative axis onto a different plane, which is the placement of color within a simple recurring structure, such as the one forming the contour of the mask. Color, nevertheless, becomes freed from conscious repression and is allowed to wander from one side of the canvas to the other, turning the accidents into the protagonists. Fluctuating in this way, chromaticism twists and folds, takes new directions and sometimes defines its own edges, such that “my gesture always becomes residue”(17).
This movement is interesting in two ways. On one hand, it heightens the semantic ambiguity of the work, in consonance with the artist’s entire New York period; and on the other hand, it transcends gestural expressionist poetics without violating one its fundamental principles: flatness. The idea of apparent purity is a fundamental aspect of the modernism that was defended by Greenberg’s formalism(18) and then taken apart by Steinberg’s, Mitchell’s or Mary Kelly’s responses to it, not to mention a number of contemporary trends where all kinds of contamination(19) are accepted, and is not taken up again by Ciria out of mere fetishism. For Ciria, flatness has a symbolic meaning; the mask is a curtain so heavy that what lies behind it cannot be revealed. Looking at these paintings involves a constant doubt where it is never possible to decode what they are holding inside. It puts on display, it shows the mask to hide the face, but instead of being a veil it is an impenetrable wall.
If for Mitchell “to see painting is to see touch, to see the movements of the artist’s hands”(20) in a complex tangle of the optical and the tactile, Ciria decides to neutralize the effects of tactility. The carnality that Berger attributed to painting becomes pure illusion in Ciria’s work, a mirage that vanishes as we get close to his paintings; there is no volume, no spaces to go through and no evidence of his actions. Instead of floating on top of any specific space the masks are imprisoned within it, like a violent afterthought tattooed on the skin of the support. There is no space or solid foundation to locate them in, as the masks do not reference anything apart from their own existence. The artist himself admits that this is pre-meditated, even though it is resolved using chance-based elocutionary strategies: “Making it so that the first question that ones asks when they see the paintings close up is ‘how was that painted? What technique did he use? How were the textures integrated to get the volumetric forms? Did he use brushes? Did he paint it by hand? Maybe the painting painted itself and the only thing that needed to be done was to let it express itself. Several years ago, I wrote in a text that I’m not a painter, that what I wanted was to organize a “scenario” where painterly events happened. My paintings are made by chance, not by my hands. It’s the paint that takes over and tries to express itself. It’s my mind that follows an event, in the same way as the brushes, the oil color, the tubes of paint, the tools, the varnishes and oils…”(21)
However, this frozen two-dimensional drama is also a subterfuge, a disguise. Amongst the “painterly events” that the artist creates, dripping or spattering paint onto the painted image, he also superimposes a new formal plane on top of it and makes it emit a powerful atmospheric energy that acts as a screen mediating between the viewer and the chromatic spectacle of the flattened mask. It is the only option presented by the artist to keep the distance of viewing from completely collapsing and directly making us one with the mask.
Ciria’s masks have no gesture, neither in their expression or the way they are painted, nor do they have any kind of setting. We do not see them appear, they are simply there. If the representation of a body evokes narcissistic feelings, if “representation implicitly articulates the artist’s attitude towards their own body”(22), then the mask would be a double negation of the creative subject. The metonymy has shifted: the stain is not the artist’s gesture, rather the absent hand is the absent body. We intuit a paradoxical irony in the representation of the mask; if it is to function as a veil that conceals then Ciria’s pictorial process negates any other meaning from emerging beyond the occlusion of the chromatic stain.
BOX OF MENTAL STATES
In opposition to the quotidian body understood as a dormant entity(23), its only antithesis is the wakefulness “capable of making an alert body, of making a body that is constantly in tension and ‘distressed’, that interrupts the voracious expansion of the dominant ideological system”(24). Behind Ciria’s most recent work there is a long series of antecedents, of explorations that have passed through one stage after another. As the first level of thematic-referential reading I have suggested unveiling a series of formulations directed at questioning or negating the everydayness of the body. The mystery of this metamorphosis has been incarnated into a second formal-conceptual level that has arisen out of drawing as a means of enumeration, exploration and assessment.
Iconographic metamorphosis, as well as the idea of combinatory possibility, seem to have gained a lot of momentum since the beginning of Ciria’s New York period. This is true in two ways. Firstly, the geographic change made it possible for a definitive stylistic shift to develop that initially materialized through a very specific assertion; “I didn’t want to go back to the gestural abstraction I was doing before New York”(25) And secondly, the professional commitments that have motivated frequent returns to his Madrid studio seem to have been like a point of inflection in regards to going back into the work he was doing in New York; “ A lot of ideas have come up during my trips between the two cities. And, one atmosphere, Manhattan, has seemed more and more relaxed, free, and without pressure”(26).
In our conversations about the implications of those trips, Ciria has always insisted on the importance they have for the evolution of his work. Going back to New York after a period of working in Madrid meant being able to look at the paintings left in the La Guardia Place studio in a detached way, as if they were not his, but he needed to find some kind of decisive response to them. He cannot start working on them again because there is no correspondence with his new creative state, and that is what spurs his desire to go in another direction, caught in a schizophrenic succession of mental states where time and memory become revulsive. Thus it should not be surprising that Ciria has given, precisely, the title “Caja de estados mentales” (Box of Mental States) to his sketchbook, which has been like a privileged witness to the artist’s movements, processes and experimentation in recent years.
I would like to pursue this further, however cautiously, because all of Ciria’s New York series negate the previous ones as much as they confirm them. What has driven his work in recent years has reflected the energy generated by the dynamic between these two cities, which the artist himself sees like two opposite poles. Nevertheless, just as we have been able to see, there is an uneasy harmony that ties together all the states of his latest work; it is a topography the artist seems to materialize unconsciously, even when he tries to renege on what he has explored previously. In this way, Ciria’s future is still inscribed in the circular structure in which he is bound up in a constant conflict between what is his own and what is not, and to an unconscious longing to always paint, as the artist himself has admitted, the same painting.
Ciria’s drawings express this back and forth. On one hand, they are part of a sketchbook focused on the graphic resolution of spontaneous ideas, and on the other, they are a tool for assessing and analyzing the formal possibilities and conceptual model of a unique pictorial project. So, even though their structure is based on the oval, and subsequently by more complex linear organization, it is impossible to articulate a strict evolutionary order to their analysis. The iconographic network that supports the whole is also what accentuates the fluidity of ideas and new compositional relationships. The number of repetitions contained by his sketchbook as a whole produces “a reservoir of possibilities that are integrated into the draughtsman’s memory as potential thematizations that articulate new closures in meaning”(27). Thoughts and obsessions that appear and reappear melted down, expressing compulsive visions, rhythmic variations and expressive twists. A collection of ideas with a common origin, manifesting themselves in the reflection of the specific dynamic of each moment of the creative act.