Juan manuel Bonet. Painting, singular. Las Formas del Silencio.
Libro monográfico “Las Formas del Silencio. Antología crítica (los años noventa). Enero 2005.
Juan Manuel Bonet
It is now almost 20 years since the magic eighties of Madrid, with their high hopes, their pictorial euphoria and the passion that surrounded the visits of Robert Motherwell and Marcein Pleynet, the Matisse exhibition at the Juan March Foundation, the MOMA centenary at the Spanish Museum of Contemporary Art, José Guerrero´s ministerial retrospective at the Palacio de las Alhajas, the first major individual exhibitions of Broto, Campano, Albacete and Sicilia, the 1980 and Madrid. D.F. group exhibitions… The dawn of a new era, a splendid, unrepeatable time, a time of particular intensity in many cultural spheres, a reconstruction of which has been attempted on many an occasion.
Just before the eighties, when most of the “young” or “current” studios in Madrid and Barcelona were still dominated by programmes, dogma and certainties, it was fashionable to use a redundant or tautological term – painting-painting.
Looking at the work of José Manuel Ciria, a painter who arrived on the scene in the second half of the eighties and who now, at thirty eight, is one of the best abstract painters of the nineties, I often think of that redundant, tautological term of the late seventies. Nowadays, the term “painting”, in the singular, is enough. Painting. “The Possibilities of Painting”, by Juan Gris. Painting, always starting over, like Paul Valéry’s sea. Pure painting. “Painting and its enemies” also: some people will always be allergic to art. However, leaving aside the former reliance on dogma, on the programme, the intention is still fairly similar to what fired the leading figures of the seventies revival. When all is said and done, they are joined by an invisible thread to their heirs, the “end-of-century lyricists”, collected by Santos Amestoy and annotated by Enrique Andrés Ruiz, two critic-poets, just as they had been joined by another thread to their fifties predecessors, or to the transitional figure of Jordi Teixidor. Painting in the singular, then. Personal and non-transferable: painting, simply painting, no adjectives attached.
Ciria, and this is only a superficial contradiction, frequently leans on other cultural references. Painting in the singular, without adjectives, but for this very reason open to other world experiences and, above all, other ways of relating the world’s mysteries. External references, not necessarily pictorial. A Twomblyan openness.
This productive Rome-New York tension – or Venice-New York tension, as Philippe Sollers proposed in the 1980s – is the key for those of us who, contrary to the dogmatists or extremists of one or other side, understand that tradition and avant-garde are not opposite, but complementary terms.
In Manhattan, some years ago, there was a time when we thought that the geometry, the orthoganality which astound and impress each time, just like the first time, were going to dominate over all other “ingredients” in Ciria’s work”. Experimental Geometry was the title of a 1992 series. Later, his grids and squares, part minimalist, part Mondrianesque (Mondrian had become an adopted New Yorker by the end of his life), seemed poised to take the lead role in an art that was increasingly pared down, increasingly “Japanese”. But time proved otherwise, and showed that geometry and minimalism were, in this case, simply background music, a backcloth against which to continue to develop a more complex project, capable of taking contradictions on board in a creative manner. He reticulates and blots – this is the short and acute formula used by Antonio García-Berrio and Mercedes Replinger to sum up the artist’s work, in their exemplary and definitive monographic recently devoted to the painter. Ciria too seemed to allude to this idea, naming one of his 1997 paintings Poema sobre un campo geométrico blando (Poem on a Soft Geometric Field).
Geometry, and an essential space of our lives: the window. One of Ciria’s recent canvasses is explicitly entitled Ventana habitada (Inhabited Window). Its neighbouring paintings also show, behind threatening red and white blots, the vertical, rectangular profile of these small spaces through which we greet the world each morning. A space so often approached throughout the history of art by painters from the most widely differing schools, holders of the most diverse poetic visions.
Matter. Beyond any doubt this is one of the central axes around which a certain Spanish style of the fifties, with Tàpies as its main proponent, at times almost obsessively revolved. Its memory comes up time and time again in recent Spanish painting. It has always featured in the work of Ciria, the extent varying in accordance with each period. Nowadays it is becoming deliberately more visible by means of the collage procedure, part of the modern canon if ever there was one – the incorporation of wood, cardboard, wallpaper pieces – as used in the 1996 painting The Potato Cutter -, sewing patterns used as maps of a domestic sky, a poster of Maria Vivó in Carmen, wires –their shadows paradoxically drawn in – and, once again, the classic truck tarpaulins that Ciria has used so effectively in some of his most impressive works.
Grey, the colour of melancholy and of ashes, the colour par excellence of the symbolist poets, used as a pseudonym by José Victoriano González (“Juan Gris”). Grey, a luminous grey, is José Manuel Ciria’s supreme colour, more than ochre, yellow, black, dun or red. Poema gris (Grey Poem) is the name of one of his most striking large-format paintings, from the 1995 Masks of the Gaze suite.
In Memory of my Feelings, a lovely title from the Motherwellian Frank O´Hara, the best poet of the New York School and a good friend and accomplice to its painters. In some of his most recent paintings and as part of a beautiful series based on the three m´s, Memoria, momento y muro, -“muro” (the wall) is, of course, Tàpies, but also Brassaï, one of the leading lights of the Catalan school, and, further back in time, the Quevedoesque walls of the fatherland-, Ciria, who in 1994 composed a series under the generic title Mnemosyne, draws in trembling, faltering lines the silhouette of a tricycle, a vehicle which, he has told me, is emblematic of his English childhood, complete with nanny. From that past moment, the salvaged instant glimpsed in the flow of the paint itself, he embarks on a journey back to his roots, the origins of his existence, the life of a Spaniard born far away in industrial Manchester. This drawing of childhood reminiscences –the painter’s earliest memory, but now also, I imagine, the memories of a son beginning his own journey through life-, is like a melody. This drawing, as a talisman of the remembrance of the painter’s own feelings, accommodated in this integrating project, where orthogonality co-exists peacefully with Memory of the Dream, the name of one of his 1994 paintings, hung near another called, in neighbourly spirit, The Spirit of Memory.
Out of all these new paintings, which we can view at the Salvador Díaz Gallery in Madrid, and which I have just seen in the painter’s austere but packed studio in the part of Madrid clinging to the Barcelona motorway –anonymous corridors of offices of various sorts, ceilings higher than one would expect judging by the corridors, a scrap-filled yard that seems to await the next Caesar or John Chamberlain, María Callas playing at top volume in the studio-, out of all these new paintings, one in particular struck me as special: War Watcher, a monumental cascade of paint in whites, blacks and greys, “Out of shadow, light”. A heroic painting, in the sense imbued into the word by some of our favourite American heroes – the Mondrianesque Rothko, the surly Clifford Still and above all Barnett Newman, the author of Vir Heroicus Sublimis, of Achilles, of Ulysses. A painting which, once again, takes shape against a background of geometry and architecture. There are precedents: Waterskin, as he entitled one celebrated suite and his 1993 individual exhibition in the Galería Altxerri of San Sebastián, and in this more recent production, another huge piece, Water Mirror. Branches, too, tree-like forms, proliferating leafiness. The gesturalism and automatism are consistent with an order; they dialogue with the square, the form used by the artist again and again as if it were ruled paper. This also explains Ciria’s participation in the 1994 three-way exhibition held in the Palacio de Velázquez with a painting bearing the double dedication Gesture and Order. This work is initially about war, against war, recalling his 1993 triptych Warriors. But the real battle, the all-out battle, as we can plainly see, is the “battle of the painting”, to use a term popular in Sauresque discourse since the mid-fifties. A battle that begins anew each day in this paint-saturated studio. A passionate battle, the outcome of which, paradoxically, may be an enormous feeling of surrender, calm and stillness, a feeling which inevitably recalls Manuel Azaña’s memorable phrase: “Peace, pity, pardon”.
War Watcher. A painting which overwhelms by its mere presence, tempting one to compose not a critical text, but a poem, an action poem and a meditative poem at the same time, the textual, conspiratorial equivalent, Frank O´Hara style, of its sovereign presence. A painting which stands as a new milestone in the development of this nineties painter. An emblematic painting, a fixed star, to which I suspect we will return more than once, in memory.