Guillermo Solana. Lonja de Pescado. Alicante.
Catálogo exposición “Teatro del Minotauro” itinerante organizada por el Consorcio de Museos de la Comunidad Valenciana y la Caja de Ahorros del Mediterráneo.
Lonja del Pescado, Alicante.
Casal Solleric, Palma de Mallorca.
Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, Ibiza.
Museo de la Ciudad, Valencia. Febrero 2003.
MONSTER IN THE MAZE
“If we wished to essay an architecture modelled on the pattern of our souls (we are too cowardly to do so), our archetype would be the labyrinth.” Friedrich Nietzsche: Aurora
In the early beginnings of surrealism, the poets and painters of the group met at Paul Éluard’s house one afternoon and someone proposed a game: each of them was to choose a god from Greek mythology. André Masson immediately wrote down the name of the Minotaur . The Cretan monster had appeared for the first time in Masson’s work in an erotic watercolour of 1922, which today no longer exists, entitled Le grand déflorateur fêté par ses victimes . From that time on, the painter was to revisit the theme of the mythical bull man and his entourage: King Minos and Queen Pasiphae, the architect Daedalus, the hero Theseus and his protector Ariadne. So what fascinated Masson about this ancient myth? According to the traditional allegorical interpretation, the combat against the Minotaur symbolised the struggle between reason and blind impulse, or between order and the formless violence threatening it. Modern versions inspired on psychoanalysis also conformed to the pattern of this traditional hermeneutics: the Minotaur embodied the impulses buried in the maze of the subconscious and Theseus, the light of awareness. Masson took the side of the monster in this duel: “I am the Minotaur”, he was to declare at the end of his life .
In Masson’s version, the palace of Minos, the labyrinth, was to undergo radical transmutation. Over the eras and for many different cultures, the door to the labyrinth has represented the process of self-gnosis or self-knowledge, the tortuous path towards finding oneself. And this path can only lead to the enigma being solved: you either reach the centre, the heart of the maze, or you find the way out. But for Masson the maze had another meaning. It was a place to get lost in, to linger endlessly on its difficult ground and at its crossroads, a scenery of disorientation and vertigo. This concept was tied up with the new idea of painting advocated by Masson, his desire to transfer the surrealist procedure of automatic writing to the pictorial work. The maze for him represented the creative principal of automatism: a continuous line that moves back and forth and then turns in on itself to create an indecipherable entanglement.
According to the fable, when Theseus returned from killing the monster of Minos in Crete, his ship made a stop at Delos. There, before the altar of Aphrodite and accompanied by the young Athenians he had saved, he performed a circular, repetitive dance, whose turning and spiralling mirrored the winding and turning of the maze. In the 1940s, an American painter named Jackson Pollock, who was an admirer of Masson, painted a picture with the title of Pasiphae (the mother of the Minotaur) and reinvented this dance. In Hans Namuth’s famous film of autumn 1950 we see Pollock creating one of his paintings, as if it were an exotic, ritual dance: the artist moves around a canvas laid out on the ground, dripping a thin stream of paint onto it with almost choreographic movements. “When I am in my painting”, Pollock declared in a well-known statement, “I’m not aware of what I’m doing. It’s only after a sort of «get acquainted» period that I see what I have been about. I have no fears about making changes, destroying the image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own” . The result was a network of twisting lines, a vortex of concentric circles where there was no top, no bottom, all orientation in space was lost and the gaze plunged into nothingness. In the year of Namuth’s famous film, art critic Parker Tyler wrote an article where he described Pollock’s painting as an “infinite labyrinth”, a multiple and interminable maze with no single way out. “A one-unit labyrinth […] is simple, whereas in Pollock’s world of dripping threads of paint the colour of Ariadne’s thread gives us no useful clues, as it is usually mixed together with threads of other colours, and the same colour crosses itself so often that it can only seem inextricable. So, what is the creator saying to us with the images of his multiple labyrinths like so many rhythmic tangles of threads? […] He’s saying that there is no solution to his mazes; you cannot walk around them following a single path as Theseus did; they may only be observed from outside, and all at once, like a simple spectacle of intermingled paths, exactly the same as if we look at the heavens with the invisible mazes of movement which in cosmic time offer us the revolutions of the stars and the infinity of universes” .
José Manuel Ciria has chosen the myth of the Minotaur and his labyrinth as the title for this exhibition and figurehead of his most recent work. Perhaps he too, like Masson in the past, considers the Minoan monster to be a kind of close relation, an alter ego. He is no stranger to the pictorial tradition begun by Masson and culminated by Pollock: for him it has been a kind of starting point for his mature work. The history of automatism from the surrealists to American abstract expressionism is one of the possible genealogies of Ciria’s work, as the artist himself has suggested many times. But Ciria keeps his distances with respect to this tradition. For him, automatism is not and never could be the last word on the destiny of painting. Ciria has never made a secret of the fact that his works are premeditated (sometimes he has even included his preliminary sketches, his projects for pictures, in his catalogues: in that of the Manifiesto Carmina Burana exhibition for instance). Automatism is merely one aspect of his creation. Going beyond the automatic component, integrating it and framing it, there is another aspect in Ciria’s work which is sometimes overlooked – his analytical work. “My work responds to a series of analytical considerations close to a conceptual aim”, the artist explains . Like Masson and Pollock, over the last decade Ciria has also constructed multiple labyrinths. But his labyrinths are not, or not only, the tangles of paint of Masson and Pollock; they are not simply spiders’ webs to fascinate and draw in the eye. They are mental spaces where different lines of inquiry advance parallel to eachother, fork apart, meet up and connect: they are the intricate mazes of the brain.
Macchia and clinamen
In 1944, Robert Motherwell wrote a text in which he analysed the evolution of abstract art from Mondrian, through Miró and Calder, to a recent solo exhibition by Pollock in the Peggy Guggenheim gallery. After showering Pollock with praise, Motherwell rounded off his essay by stating that the young American painter now only needed to find his real theme: “And as painting is the medium of his thought, the resolution must come out of the actual process of his painting” . For the rising movement represented by Pollock and Motherwell, the legacy of surrealist automatism, painting was identified with its actual process. This identification could be described using a term the Italian theorists of the Renaissance applied to the first preliminary sketch for a work of art: the macchia. Macchia means a «stain» or «blot» in Italian but it is not just simply a stain: the term implies an added cargo of pictorial sense and value, even if the stain is an objet trouvé. Dalí and Brassaï once compiled an extravagant photographic catalogue of “involuntary sculptures” produced automatically in our day-to-day existence: rolled-up bus tickets, pieces of soap, remnants of toothpaste taking on the capricious ornamental forms of art nouveau . A similar inventory of examples of painting in its wild state could also be made: smears of blood, mud stains, traces of ash, all types of vestiges, whether of certain or uncertain origin. Ciria has incorporated some of these to his works, for instance the scrapes and grease marks incrusted into the lorry canvases that have formed part of the background of his works for a long time. But for these stains to become macchie the painter must actually choose to integrate them into the pictorial process.
The macchia is previously given form to by a chain of decisions – the choice of a certain colour, thickness, viscosity. It takes a determined direction and is unleashed by the movement of arm and wrist. From these calculated dimensions of colour, density and gesture, a drift begins that can exceed the painter’s calculations, a drift that erodes and disfigures his initial intentions. The ancient Latin term clinamen can be used to describe this. Democrites conjectured that the origin of the world was a shower of elementary particles, of atoms falling into space. But how can the atoms meet up if they all fall downwards at the same speed? Epicure devised another idea to answer this question: the atoms on falling changed course, or «swerved» slightly. This very slight deviation meant their paths could cross, their multiple combinations giving rise to all natural things. The clinamen represents the random accident which enters a world dominated by pure mechanism, by the chain of predetermination.
In Ciria’s painting there is some very literal evidence of clinamen, in his series Glosa líquida (Liquid gloss), begun in the year 2000 and which the artist is still working on. The pretext for some recent works in this series is to pay a tribute to the painter Morris Louis. In 1953, Morris Louis discovered the work of Helen Frankenthaler, an artist who emulated Pollock’s staining technique: she placed her unprimed canvases on the floor and poured the paint onto them, allowing it to flow over the surface of the picture. Louis used this technique systematically. Although he never actually let anyone watch how he worked, we know he used to hang the unmounted canvas on a kind of scaffolding and pour acrylic paint down onto it from above, controlling the fall of the paint by tilting the scaffolding and moving the canvas. In his paradoxical tribute, Ciria refuses to use what all the literature on Morris Louis stresses as being the most essential aspect of his art – colour – and uses only black. And rather than the obsessive control over the flow of the paint which progressively dominated Morris Louis’ work, he explores deviant variations on his process. Ciria’s oils are highly diluted when he pours them over the support, so that the flow is subject to distortions caused by the irregular surface of the canvas with its variable tension. This creates a series of transparent veils which fold and unfold, double up and open out like flames, snakes, hair, or the petals and calyxes of strange black flowers.
But this sliding, slipping clinamen is no more than the beginning. For over a decade other forms of clinamen such as the action of chemical forces on the pictorial liquids have come into play in Ciria’s work, in some of the Glosa líquida series works for example, and also in other series. This is a process where oil and water join together to form the stains, and natural forces begin to operate: the water attacks the oil’s adherence and parts of the paint fly out as the stains seem to explode; as the water and oil repel eachother the huge brushstrokes are eroded, corroded away and given a broken, open texture, like that of a skin attacked by leprosy. This technique has become a trademark of Ciria’s work and he uses it in the series Máscaras de la mirada (Masks on a gaze), where the macchia ferments, grows, ages and evolves like a biological culture – until the painter decides to stop it, of course. “My gesture always turns into a residue”, says Ciria. “Normally you don’t see the brushstroke, it disappears under the effect of the chemical reactions of the materials themselves” .
Time and the Cartesian order
If the macchia is painting identified with its own process, its substance can only be time itself. “The real materials I work with”, Ciria has affirmed “are time and memory. Physical time, and time as a concept.” The essential paradox of the macchia is that in order to fix and preserve the flow of time, the painter has to interrupt it. Ciria has talked about “paralysing a potentially infinite process in one instant” and “the random automatic stopping of forms caught in the very process of covering or revealing something” . Ciria puts the living macchia on the dissection table and he interrupts its growth. His painting is both the process itself and the cancellation of the process, the flowing and the freezing of time. The first act of annihilating time consists of stopping the physical clinamen process that constitutes the macchia. But there is also a second way of cancelling time.
Ciria’s work has always been seen as the product of an encounter between geometry and the stain, or between the flow of the paint and the grid of horizontal and vertical lines. Throughout his career, both these components have been embroiled in a duel or dialogue where first one element seems to be winning, and then the other. Until his 1994 exhibition Gesto y Orden (Gesture and Order) in the Palacio de Velázquez in Madrid, the geometry prevailed over the gestural stains. But when he began the Máscaras de la mirada series at the end of 1994, the stains attained prominence and the grid of lines passed into the background. This is still the case in the latest impressive works in this series, the paintings entitled El perro de Saura (Saura’s dog). So has the macchia finally won over the Cartesian order? However in the same series, Máscaras de la Mirada, there are also some works where the canvas and, with it, the continuity of the macchia, is divided. The divisions in the support split the painting into various segments, like a puzzle whose pieces don’t fit, reminding us of the illusion of the successive frames of a cinema sequence. In another recent series entitled Intersticios (Interstices), the geometrical fragmentation of the support is even more accentuated and the macchia is eclipsed and submitted to it.
Geometry is not just a resource for balancing the composition and giving it stability. It is more than that: it is an effective procedure for stopping time. In a well-known essay by Rosalind Krauss, the use of the grid in twentieth century art is compared to its application as an instrument of structural analysis. The anthropologist Levi-Strauss broke down the myth of Oedipus into a squared grid where the course of the history of the King of Thebes could be followed from left to right in the successive rows but where its latent meaning was deciphered vertically, in four thematic columns dedicated to the different mythemes or key concepts. This structuralist use of the grid produced the «breaking up of the temporal dimension of the myth». Similarly, for Krauss, in the history of modern art the grid had come to be a “paradigm or model of the anti-evolutive, the anti-narrative and the anti-historical” .
In Ciria’s work, the grid is the symptom of the analytical work that limits and compensates the presence of the automatic component. It is also the expression of the erosion which the macchia – the identification between the painting and its process, supreme fiction for the abstract expressionists – has been suffering for a long time. In 1957, Rauschenberg created a painting, Factum I, using great brushstrokes of paint and a collage of random images; but in the same year he also produced a second painting, Factum II, which was practically a stain by stain and splash by splash copy of the first. By duplicating an apparently unique work, Rauschenberg satirically questioned the ideas of spontaneity and originality that had been converted into myths by abstract expressionism. Contemplating the two versions of Factum together can make us lose our faith in the identity of painting with its process.
Ciria recognises this crisis of faith, and really he is working on the ruins of the macchia. Like Gordon Matta-Clark when he acted on the ruins of architecture, on abandoned buildings, inflicting an archaeological cut on them. Or like Robert Smithson before him, who worked on the ruins of nature, on the natural places that were most fragile and most prone to erosion or industrial devastation. Smithson structured his work around the dialectics between the site, the natural setting chosen by the artist for exploration, and the nonsite, the installation created inside the gallery or museum with the materials and information gathered on location. The site was the territory, and the nonsite the map of the territory. The site was an open, disperse and potentially unlimited process; the nonsite, the material gathered and submitted to classification . These dialectics could apply equally to Ciria’s work. Ciria’s site is the macchia, the vast territory of painting as a process, to which the artist travels to perform his fieldwork, to gather samples which will later be exhibited, trimmed and organised, in the space of the gallery or museum. Each of Ciria’s pictures or series constitutes a kind of nonsite where, as in Smithson’s nonsites, the materials are often ordered using a grid.
Support and crisis of the painting
I have quoted the series Intersticios as a step towards regaining the grid, where geometry imposes itself again over the macchia, more emphatically, registering itself on the support. Perhaps this is where we should have started, as the evolution of the whole of Ciria’s painting has involved a systematic exploration of the different pictorial supports and their behaviour. Ciria has used all kind of materials as a support for his painting, from the orthodox white canvas to the sheet of aluminium, including plastic canvases, wooden pallets, posters, and metal advertising hoardings.
Experimentation with the support began at the very outset of modern art, as a sign of the materialist orientation of the new style of painting. In the last years of the nineteenth century Gauguin and Van Gogh were already experimenting with the open texture of sackcloth, and the Nabi painters were using unprimed cardboard. But these investigations were not at the forefront of art and, particularly, they lacked the systematic nature of the investigations into line and colour, which were subject to an inexorable process of rationalisation. Cubism, with the invention of the collage, was what really fired the starting gun for an investigation into materials that could be painted on, and this research was continued by the Russian constructivists.
Systematic investigation into supports for painting can respond to different projects and different poetries. Moholy-Nagy, for example, in the nineteen-thirties, experimented with all kinds of unusual supports, a far cry from the traditions of painting – metals such as aluminium, zinc or rhodium, and new synthetic materials like galalite, silverite or perspex. Moholy worked as an industrial laboratory would, testing each material’s performance. At the other end of the scale, a different type of experimentation with supports later emerged with informalism and material painting: sacking that had been torn and resewn, for example, was used in the painting of Burri or Millares. And of course there was the bedspread used to create one of Rauschenberg’s most famous works, Bed (1955). The initial material used for this painting was the cover of the bed Rauschenberg had slept in for seven years; the artist added a paint-splattered pillow and sheet, mounted the whole thing on a stretcher and hung it like a canvas. Bed evoked collective cultural symbols; the patchwork effect was deeply traditional and its squared grid-like design was a reference to abstract art, but more than anything else, the bedspread in question was a personal object, it brimmed with autobiographical references and was the stamp of the author’s private life, like an offering of the artist’s body, sacrificed (quite bloodily, it seemed) on the altar of painting.
The investigation of supports in Ciria’s work can be compared in certain aspects to Moholy-Nagy’s technological preoccupations. He is interested in the different supports’ adherence and in how to accentuate it: by etching the plastic canvas with acid so that the paint will stick, for example. He is interested in how long the materials will last, and sometimes uses a certain type of plastic as a support so that his painting will undergo calculated disintegration, as in the series Mnemosyne. This series shows his fascination for the passing of (physical) time; but there is also a further reference to time as the memory of the materials. At this second level not only the physical or chemical properties of the surface are important, it also matters whether the support is unused or if it already has marks or previous sediments, and whether the support is neutral, created or found. The artist explains that «a new canvas, a piece of material accidentally stained or the awning of a military truck all need different treatments, they impose different structures and offer different memories» .
Over and above these levels – firstly, technological, and secondly, symbolic – there is a possibility of unravelling a third dimension when investigating the supports in Ciria’s work: a conceptual dimension that questions the limits of painting and the concept of what a picture actually is. This third level could be linked with the work of an artist like Robert Ryman. Throughout his career, Ryman has successively experimented with each one of the base constituents of painting: the pictorial medium, the instruments and techniques for applying paint, the surface texture, the thickness of the stretcher, how the work is fixed to the wall. And with all the different possible supports, of course, as Ryman has painted on a huge assortment of materials: paper, canvas, aluminium, steel, oxidised copper or fibreglass. But his experimentation is not scientific and technological like Moholy-Nagy’s; it is a philosophical investigation into the essence of painting, applying something similar to the eidetic variation technique, which consists of varying the features of a concept in order to discover its invariable essence.
In the same way as for Ryman, Ciria’s investigations include questioning and a crisis in the concept of the painting itself. In the large-format works of his 2001 series Sueños construidos (Constructed dreams), the fragments of the paintings are stapled to the wall one on top of the other, like a display of samples or a pack of cards. The objects forming the series Visiones inmanentes (Immanent visions) (2001), bulky collages packed into PVC bags and hung from the ceiling, can hardly be called paintings. The same is true for the pieces in his series Intersticios. Their form and the way they are hung – canvases with no rigid stretcher dangle from the ceiling – makes them installations rather than pictures or paintings. There is a double deviation from the paradigm of the painting. Each of the works in the series consists of a succession of superimposed layers, strips of canvas one on top of the other, which partially mask the painting underneath. The resulting composition is divided into squares, forming a kind of chessboard, a chequered display of cartoon boxes, of «pictures within a picture». In both of these deviations, the Intersticios are an unlimited multiplication of the picture: pictures either multiplied by superimposing, or broken down by subdivision. From the times of Freud we know that on the deepest level the obsessive multiplication of an element can only mean the negation or suppression of this element. The proliferation of the picture means precisely the destruction of the traditional picture. In the Intersticios series, the picture is devalued and questioned as an outstanding, independent work.
Collage and “overpainting”
What distinguishes Ciria from Ryman and other conceptual investigators of the support (like in the French tendencies from Daniel Buren to the Supports-surfaces group) is that whereas these investigators completely emptied out their paintings before submitting them to analysis, Ciria dispenses with this previous voiding of the work. Ciria’s work is not programmatically abstract. He analyses the painting without having previously extracted its content, without having emptied the painting’s stomach and intestine of all their materials in digestion: marks, images, objects. His surgery is performed on the living material: it is not an autopsy, it is vivisection.
One of the predominating resources used in Ciria’s work over the last few years is collage. This has always been a technique bringing together both different supports (material, plastic canvas, paper or cardboard, pieces of metal, etc) and different iconic materials (photographs, printed papers, decorative prints). This double nature of the collage is confirmed in Ciria’s recent work, from the group of works entitled Imánes iconográficos (Iconographic magnets) (2000), where all kinds of reproductions, photographs, paintings, etc were held to the surface of the picture by an aluminium band, to that of Visiones inmanentes (2001), which bring together fragments of assorted images and materials inside a transparent PVC bag.
At the same exhibition where Visiones inmanentes was shown in the Sala Rekalde in Bilbao, a series was also presented called The Dauphin paintings, based on pouring paint over posters and advertisement hoardings. This series has now been extended with a new group of painted posters with the collective name of Psicopompos (Psychopomps). Here Ciria plays with a type of collage invented by Max Ernst at the beginning of the 1920s and belonging to the origins of surrealist painting. They were collages created not by cutting out and gluing fragments of images, but by painting on top of the image using a technique that Ernst called “overpainting” (Übermahlung). Overpainting worked by subtraction: by covering and obliterating certain parts of the image. But whereas in the works of Ernst the painting he used to cover the images was not of interest in itself, in Ciria’s “overpaintings” the macchia really comes into its own. The result in both in the Dauphin paintings and the new series Psicopompos is ambiguous and unstable in its essence. On the one hand, the pictorial macchia can be contemplated as a figure whose vague background is the advertising image. But at the same time, the paint cast onto the background covers up certain elements of the poster and leaves others visible, and it is these visible elements which become the most prominent component against their background of abstract stains.
So, just as there is an alternation of painting and non-painting and of the background and the figure, there is also an alternation of the rhetoric of casual violence and selective intelligence. The macchia imposes itself on the poster with apparent brutality, with a destructive rhetoric bringing to mind affichistes like Raymond Hains and Jacques de la Villeglé or François Dufrêne and Mimmo Rotella, who cultivated the art of décollage in the fifties and sixties by scratching, lacerating, tearing up, ripping out and sometimes “overpainting” advertising posters. But once again this gestural violence is not as spontaneous as it would appear at first sight. What the painter obliterates, and what he leaves visible, is actually very significant. In Ciria’s Psicopompos there is no indiscriminate aggression as a whole against the advertising icon, but simply manipulation which highlights one figure and blots out another, creating sudden ellipses and juxtapositions to subtly reinterpret the images, playing the old game of détournement or making the advertisement say something completely different − on occasions the exact opposite − from what it wished to say in the first place.
The appellative dimension
The critical reference to social communication that began with the Dauphin paintings and Psicopompos is continued in a new series, Palabras (Words), created in the summer and autumn of 2002. Since the invention of collage, the written word included within the painting has always been a radical means of shattering the illusion of the pictorial space, breaking the Albertian window and providing the pictorial surface with a new level of materialness. Words taken from newspapers can be used for this end, with their etched and stencilled typeface lettering. Or irregular, handwritten words, derivatives of graffiti that can be likened to pictorial calligraphy. Within this second tradition, the most famous example in the past is that of Motherwell, who painted a picture entitled “Viva” in 1947, with the title daubed across the canvas in paint. It was an echo of the Mexican world and its vitality that fascinated Motherwell and with which he had close links, as his first wife was Mexican. He used the same resource again in 1955 in the series Je t’aime, paintings where a declaration of love appeared in huge letters, again as if it was daubed onto a wall, framed by bands of colour. The inscription had autobiographical elements: he was hinting at the painful break-up of his marriage.
Ciria’s series Palabras partly coincides and at the same time essentially differs from these precedents set by Motherwell. Where it coincides, of course, is in the desire to appropriate the spontaneous language of graffiti – with all the ambiguity present in this annexation. Graffiti is perhaps one of the «found» materials most easily assimilated to the pictorial domain; it is involuntary painting which, once appropriated, is transformed into a macchia, in a pictorial process in the strict sense of the word. It appears like quotes from a collective patrimony, but quotes to which the painter adds his own signature. It simulates fragments of anonymous street talk, but is rewritten with the painter’s own trademark, his own pictorial style, and his own voice.
But at the same time, Ciria’s Palabras radically diverge from the pretensions of Motherwell. Motherwell wrote his words in Spanish or French to accord them a note of exoticism, and he combined them “artistically” with the stains of paint. But Ciria’s Palabras have no particular desire to simulate exoticism or glamour. In contrast to the sweeping “Viva” or the lyrical “Je t’aime”, they use an aggressive, even brutal, language. In this way they aspire to break the magic circle of art which can do no more than produce artistic objects, like a Midas’ curse of turning everything into “art” in the most banal sense of the word. No elegance, no rhetoric, except that of the (apparent) absence of rhetoric. Words should not be suggestions, they should be a punch in the jaw for the spectator. The series Palabras has an appellative, vocative and pro-vocative function and it cries out for a response. Only in this way, through this hint of direct communication, can painting really leave its own body, and its tedious self-contemplation.
From the action to the plane
Paradoxically, the final step in exploring the possibilities of painting requires leaving the pictorial medium. But to do this, as we will see, is a prolongation of the problems of painting using other means. I refer to the series of photographs included in this exhibition and entitled Cuerpos de pintura (Bodies of painting). Ciria has always used photography as an auxiliary means for revealing the iconic resonances of his painting; in almost all his catalogues he has included photographs to illuminate the macchia of his painting in another way: the reflection of light in a splash of water on the ground, the spray of the waves on the beach, a shred of a poster torn from a wall. But he only began to use photography as an independent means in his series Odaliscas (Odalisques) (2001), included in the exhibition Visiones inmanentes in the Sala Rekalde in Bilbao. Performance was one of the major components of this series, an action or a sequence of actions – and they were pictorial actions, as paint was poured onto nude bodies, staining and covering them.
Cuerpos de Pintura, the series of photographs produced this year, is a step forward with respect to Odaliscas. The new series conserves its performance-like aspect; it is based on an almost dramatic work with the bodies of the models, where actors are directed, rehearsals are necessary and a final showing takes place on a laboriously conceived and constructed scenery. What is missing now is the use of paint in these actions. As Ciria himself explains, the use of pigments is no longer necessary, because the bodies themselves function as paint. This is not merely a manner of speaking. Like the pictorial macchia, the nude bodies are living material, subject to all type of accidental and random factors, and ultimately subject to time itself, which is the stuff they are made of. As with the macchia, the artist’s problem is to know where to stop the vital process. He poses the nude models before the camera and this implies stopping time and interrupting the duration of existence. He then has to fit the bodies into the Procrustes’ bed of composition, cutting, placing, adjusting the elements.
The artist calculates the placing of his nude models within a space designed to seem flat: a horizontal scenery, with huge coloured surfaces at different levels, which the camera is to photograph from above. The whole device is a vague echo of the experiments of Marey and Muybridge with the human body in motion, photographed in sequences against the background of a numbered grid, segmented in improbable postures, verging on the ridiculous, mechanised and dissected. There is almost a sadistic cruelty in this choreography that fragments and assembles the bodies like objects, just as Sade formed unlikely copulating chains of bodies, in the manner of abstract compositions.
Just as the streams of paint in the series Glosa líquida do not flow only in their natural top-down direction, the law of gravity is also ignored in the arrangement of the bodies here. They are placed alternatively face up – face down, for instance (as in the photograph paying an ironic tribute to a classical composition by Jasper Johns), and this takes away one of their essential qualities: their weight. The final stage is the digital manipulation of the photographic image, where Ciria eliminates the shadows cast by the bodies and therefore their volume and relief. And then, deprived of all movement, weight and volume, the nudes merely form a part of the rigorous, relentless composition of a plane.
Five parallel lines
None of Ciria’s exhibitions conform to the habitual standards of stylistic uniformity, or follow a lineal evolution. The series making up the current exhibition which we have been discussing are a perfect representation of the diversity of orientations evolving simultaneously in Ciria’s work. The artist himself habitually sums these up in five lines of investigation: automatism, geometry, support, iconography and combination. Automatism, the first of these factors, basically encompasses the techniques of “controlled chance” developed from surrealism to abstract expressionism, and has its illustration in the two series Glosa líquida and Máscaras de la mirada. The second factor, the geometrical grid, was also used in Máscaras de la mirada. In the series Intersticios radical investigation into the pictorial support and the concept of the painting itself were the dominant factors, and the fourth line, iconographic exploration, was revealed in the series Psicopompos, Palabras and Cuerpos de pintura.
Ciria adds a fifth line of investigation to the other four already existing: the combination. This has already been applied by the artist as a compositional procedure in some of his series, such as Ego magari lucidus ora, whose panels may be ordered in various ways (different arrangements of the same elements). But combination for Ciria is much more than a mode of composition. It is a general method which allows for the integration of the other factors we have mentioned: automatism, geometry, investigation of the support and appropriation or generation of images. So, in each of the series, there is not only one dominant line of investigation but there are also one or more secondary lines: macchia and geometry, geometry and support, macchia and iconography, iconography and geometry…
If, as has sometimes been said, Ciria is an infinitely voracious bricoleur who takes hold of everything within his reach and re-uses it, his own artistic production takes pride of place amongst the materials he uses. Ciria is an autobricoleur. In this respect he belongs to a long-standing classical tradition of artists who largely nurture their creation with their own works – artists such as Degas and Gauguin, De Chirico and Picasso, who often took up previous motives and fragments and re-elaborated them, constantly retracing their own steps. The verb to cannibalize is sometimes used to describe the operation of taking parts from a broken-down machine in order to repair other machines in use, and this kind of cannibalism or self-cannibalism runs through the whole of Ciria’s work, sometimes involving the use of specific fragments from other failed paintings destroyed by the artist to create new works.
On other occasions, cannibalism and combination are applied to much larger units: not just to fragments of works but to whole series, or to their characteristic processes and stylemes, which take on new meanings (and sometimes receive new titles, or sub-titles) when they are re-used in different contexts. Bridges may be built between abstract form and figurative content, and in some of his recent series Ciria has provided the macchia with a more or less explicit iconic meaning. This was what he did in the works for his exhibition at the MEIAC Contemporary Art Museum in Badajoz, where the discontinuous, broken, punctured style of his paintings was unexpectedly similar to the textures of the stratified rocks and oak tree bark of the nearby Monfragüe sierra. Or the huge composition Eyes & Tears, presented in Israel, where the dripping of the Glosa líquida series appears juxtaposed with a photographic collage of eyes like tears. As we have already seen, the pictorial macchia can serve to distort and enrich the advertising message, as occurred with The Dauphin paintings and is occurring now in the Psicopompos series, or it can serve to recreate aggressive street graffiti, as in the series Palabras.
System and kaleidoscope
Ciria made the following comments on the function of combination, the supreme level enveloping all others in his work: “I often get the impression that I am obeying this analytical pattern, over and above pure pictorial practice, and over and above the development of the themes. It is also the perfect excuse to keep different series open at the same time, allowing me to apply this field of research, and it is also much more enjoyable and much more complex than a linear evolution which would only cater for purely artistic results” . This last comment gives rise to an unexpected reflection. In contemporary art, the combination of elements is an organisational model that characterises systematic tendencies like minimal art or certain types of conceptual art. It is the paradigm represented, for example, by Sol LeWitt’s exhaustive exercises based on the geometrical structure of the cube. In the case of LeWitt and other comparable artists, the combinatory model has its own definite features: it is a simple system, reduced to a single formula or basic equation; it is closed, as it never incorporates or produces empirical information; it is tautological or circular, because all we can possibly extract from it is what was already contained in its initial premises.
What is special about Ciria’s combinations is that they are an open model, integrating and generating new information and aspiring to favour an increase of plurality and complexity. “We are complex, we move in infinite directions. Maybe the purely conceptual artist can contain himself and create reductions to nothingness, to the bare minimum. But no, he can’t. We are all complex, we are interested in so many things at the same time, and I think we artists try to include all these things in our work… In this era, such a complicated one in all senses, the resulting work – or what actually filters through from the resulting work – has to be in accordance with this complexity. This is an idea I find fascinating” . In another of the artist’s texts there is a sentence which could easily be the motto of his recent evolution: “Use every idea you have and mix them all together like a kaleidoscope” . Not just any old kaleidoscope, of course (as kaleidoscopes are, after all, simple, tautological and circular), but one to which new materials are constantly being added and new elements of form and colour incorporated. With this kind of kaleidoscope he could continue to surprise us every day with unexpected combinations and unpredictable mutations. The system of painting, if you can call it that, which Ciria has gradually built up is not a definitive system but one which is re-created each day, a system in expansion, a multiple, unpredictable system, very similar in fact to an inextricable labyrinth.