Robert Shane. Madrid.
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Robert Shane. Madrid.

Robert Shane. Circulo Bellas Artes. Madrid.

Catálogo exposición “Ciria, Heads, Grids” Círculo de Bellas Artes de Madrid. Noviembre 2010.




Robert R. Shane


José Manuel Ciria has painted several images of dance, such as Bailarinas (“Dancers”) and Tres bailarinas (“Three Dancers”)(1). Some of his paintings, which do not necessarily contain “dance” in their titles, nevertheless seem to refer to dance. Vuelta a la locura (“Return to Madness”) appears to be a duet danced en pointe between two parts of one psyche; and paintings like Ritmo de transición (“Rhythm of Transition”), Rattrapante (Speedy), and Como llamas que se elevan (“As Flames that Rise”) evoke dance movements through their figurative imagery and suggestive titles. All of these works are from Ciria’s La Guardia Place series, 2007. However, I believe that an analysis of the role of dance in Ciria’s painting will illuminate themes that appear throughout his oeuvre: the figure, its abstraction, and its movement.


“Humanized Abstraction”


The movement of the human body is the medium of dance, and therefore dance always possesses an intrinsically human element. As the dance critic and historian Selma Jeanne Cohen observed, even abstract dances without plot or narrative still have movements that suggest qualities of human behavior(2). At the same time, however, the dancer’s specialized movements often abstract the body in a way that is not easy to empathize with. In fact, Cohen argued that it is the artificial skills of the dancer that are most interesting to us as viewers(3). A bodily, human element on the one hand, and artificial abstraction or stylization on the other, stand as two poles in between which dancers perform an infinite range of movement. This intertwined opposition has its analogue in art(4), and I believe that it is at that heart of much of Ciria’s oeuvre. The spirit of this dialectic is operative in Donald Kuspit’s characterization of the figure in Ciria’s work as a “figure simultaneously abstract and human”(5). This tension between the human and the abstract in Ciria’s painting is compelling for many of the same reasons that we find the dancer on stage compelling: we are simultaneously drawn to the naturalistic body with which we identify, and yet are held in spiritual awe by the abstract shapes with which we cannot.


In contrast to most modern abstraction since Cubism, Ciria’s La Guardia Place series is not about collapsing the distinction between figure and ground so that pictorial space mimics the flat surface of the canvas. On the contrary, Ciria’s abstraction is very much concerned with the figure in space. In Dominio del espacio (“Command of Space”), 2007 three overlapping circles, two long triangles, and vertical white streaks suggest the head of a figure and its appendages traveling through a space described by the single horizontal bar (perhaps a barre?) in the background. The space in the La Guardia Place series often resembles that of a stage, as in Tres bailarinas. The edges of the canvas are like the frame created by a proscenium wall. Looking through to the stage, we the audience observe a single horizontal interface between a backdrop above and a stage floor below. Similarly to the minimal spaces of Francis Bacon’s paintings (which act as stages for his painted dramaturgy), Ciria’s space oscillates between flatness and depth(6).


The same interface between backdrop and stage floor also appears in Bailarinas and establishes a fixed point of reference from which the dancers spring. From these visual cues, the viewer can orient herself and empathize with the human element within the painting. As in Matisse’s mural-sized canvases Dance I, 1909 (Museum of Modern Art, New York) and Dance II, 1910 (The Hermitage, St. Petersburg) we see Ciria’s figures breaking free of gravity and transgressing the line of the horizon. They are doomed, of course, to fall again; but they are boundless for that seemingly infinite moment described by modern choreographer, Doris Humphrey as “the arc between two deaths”(7). We the viewers feel the vital leaps of these figures in our own bodies. As dance critic, John Martin pointed out, it is because of our own consciousness of gravity that we applaud someone who defies it(8). (Ciria’s interest in gravity’s relationship to the human body is even more explicitly presented in Monociclista desequilibrado (“Unbalanced Unicyclist”), 2007.)


As has been stated, Ciria’s humanism is intertwined with abstraction. We feel the movement of Ciria’s dancers not only through the literal depiction of the body, but also through the pure plastic forms he creates. In fact, some of the most dynamic compositions by Ciria are ones in which the body is not easily recognized. As in Malevich’s work, which has played an important role in Ciria’s development(9), “the dynamic of movement has directed thought to produce the dynamic of plastic painting”(10). Malevich’s square in White Square on White, 1918 (Museum of Modern Art, New York) floats on the canvas because of his purely plastic manipulation. The vast expanse of negative space at the bottom of the composition elicits a feeling of weightlessness as the square edges nearer to the top. Off-kilter, the diagonally placed shape transmits to its viewers the feeling of rising upward. Likewise in Bailarinas, we feel Ciria’s figures move because the open space in the lower right, contrasted with the visual density of the forms breaking the horizon line, work in consort to produce the sensation that these forms are leaping. The burst of one dancer’s red against a destaturated and fairly monochromatic stage intensifies the dynamism of their form, much like the powerful color in Malevich’s Suprematist Painting: Eight Red Rectangles, 1915 (Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam). Thus we read Ciria’s “humanized abstraction” both through empathic identification with the bodies of the figures represented and “on the basis of weight, speed and the direction of movement”(11), as Malevich wrote regarding the purely plastic construction of painting.


Dionysian Dances


Dioynsian themes dominate a number of Ciria’s works. He has painted pieces about madness, such as Vuelta a la locura (“Return to Madness”), 2007; music; and sexual intercourse, as in Pareja copulando (“Copulating Pair”), 2007. So it is no wonder that dance plays such an important role, literally and metaphorically, in his painting. After all, in The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music, Nietzsche introduced his concept of the Dionysian by describing song and dance. The dancer, Nietzsche wrote:


…feels himself a god, he himself now walks about enchanted, in ecstasy, like the gods he saw walking in his dreams. He is no longer an artist, he has become a work of art: in these paroxysms of intoxication the artistic power of all nature reveals itself to the highest gratification of primordial unity(12).


Ciria’s painted dances likewise unite him with his medium. As he wrote: “The muses prod me around at their whim, I stopped being a person years ago to become painting and pictorial thought”(13).


Ciria’s abstract figures dance in Dionysian revelry. Dancing in his work is sometimes a component of a pagan ritual, perhaps a ritual in search of Nietzsche’s primordial unity. In Aparición de la diosa Ishtar (“Apparition of the Goddess Ishtar”), 2007, the Sumerian goddess of love, fertility and war whirls around and disorients the viewer with her mystical escape from the pull of gravity. In Ritmo de transición, 2007 there is the suggestion of a figure, arms spread wide and spinning. In contrast to the green aura around the figure, a bright red shape―perhaps a beating heart―emerges and is taking over. The transformation though rhythmic movement is like that of a shaman’s dance.


Painting as a Performance of the Self


In her book Towards Art and Dance: A Study of Relationships between Two Art Forms, Elizabeth Watts noted that a child’s first scribbles are kinesthetically motivated: it is the pleasure of movement sensations that inspire a child to first pick up a crayon and scribble on the walls(14). It is through scribbling continuous movement pathways that the child begins to define her relationship to her space (hence the warrant for Watts’s claim that dance and art originate from the same kinesthetic source)(15). This type of primal dance-drawing movement was emerging in Ciria’s work during the 1990s, well before the aforementioned La Guardia Place series.


The series of the 1990s, such as Cry Nude Europe, El uso de la palabara, Dibujos de París, or Máscaras de la Mirada, are often dark and amorphous. For example, the painting La chamber d’ecoute, 1992 from Cry Nude Europe is haunted by a sense of memory, loss, and absence. As Celia Montolío accurately described, the territory of the paintings from this time seems displaced and the viewer is left without any security as she tries to navigate through it(16). However, within those series, there were moments that would come to characterize Ciria’s work in the following decade. In bold contrast to the atmospheric images of the early 1990s, Red Field I and Red Field II, 1997 from Máscaras de la Mirada, are red expanses marked with the bold physicality of the artist’s gestures. The black and white marks of paint firmly establish his presence. The striking white spiral of Noche en Torrejón el Rubio I, 1999 is the emergence from within an abyss of a living body tracing its pathway. In that gesture, Ciria marks his location within an otherwise expansive and overwhelming space; he forces the painting to recognize his being.


The child’s kinesthetic motivation for drawing, Watts pointed out, is eventually subordinated to shape-making and representation as is generally encouraged by adults; primal movement is channeled into social forms such as handwriting(17). Ciria’s marks defiantly return to original movement. Here the primordial unity achieved by Nietzsche’s dancer is best understood as reunification with the original self. We can see what Ciria meant when he said he gave up being a person to become painting: his subjectivity is present in the living movement of his gesture, which eternally paints and repaints itself on the surface of the canvas(18).


The Mask


After the La Guardia Place series, Ciria felt tired of the demands and rigid structure that figurative imagery imposed and needed a break from it(19). However, even though the figure has become more residual in some of Ciria’s work after La Guardia Place, the dance impulse is still dominant, and is in fact most fully realized in his mask paintings, such those from the Desocupaciones series. Máscara cometa, 2008 and Desocupación con hachas, 2008 retain the pictorial structure of his Bailarinas and Tres Bailarinas. Now abstract forms, rather than abstract figures, leap above the horizon line of a stage-like setting familiar to the audience of the earlier works.


Additionally, at this time Ciria moved away from his previously theory-laden working processes, such as “Deconstructive Automatic Abstraction.” In an artist’s essay, he credits the mysterious muses with helping him to escape to a new instinctual mode(20). The muses about which he writes are thoroughly Dionysian in spirit (he even called them “gluttonous and alcoholic” because of the liquor missing from his cupboard each morning after their nightly visit!)(21). I would like to suggest that the inspiring muse who was most instrumental in leading Ciria to his artistic revelation must have been Terpsichore, the muse of dance. The new experience of painting that Ciria describes is one in which he felt compelled to move. New ideas were generated for him not by the eye or the mind, but by the moving body. Ciria recalls in his essay:


Suddenly, a drawing appears, a line, a painting, a little miracle in which the “muses” take control of your hands and guide them into making something relevant, something that gives you ideas, something you’re interested in exploring…(22)


In other passages Ciria describes the kinesthetic motivation and physicality of the new working process: “An extenuating situation changing brushes and ranges, sweat and speed…,”(23), it was “as if something had seized my hand and was guiding it….”(24). Sounding like a dancer after a rigorous performance, he recounts: “At the end of every session I feel exhausted, my arms and legs trembling. Barely able to close the tubes of paint and wash my brushes”(25). From his account, it is clear that his new process inspired by the muses―which I am contending was inspired by Terpsichore specifically―is an ecstatic ritual in which he is repossessed by the mode of dance-drawing that Watts observed in early childhood.


Often we think of masks as disguising one’s identity, but this is not true of the masks of the Desocupaciones series that Ciria paints in his Dionysian frenzy. Rather, they are masks which mask the false self and thus allow an unveiling of the instinct and consciousness of the true self. Such masks―which can be literal or metaphorical―are already familiar to dancers and performers, such as the modern dancer Mary Wigman. While donning a mask for her expressive Hexentanz, 1914 (Dresden) she frightened herself: latent emotions that she did not know existed within her suddenly erupted(26).


Ciria’s “humanized abstraction” is compelling because we the audience feel it dancing in ourselves as we view the work. Terpsichore showed herself explicitly in pieces such as Bailarinas and Tres Bailarinas, but she had already been quietly revealing herself in Ciria’s earlier works and has continued her activity in his paintings since. Ciria’s figures move through space and fight gravity. His abstract shapes and gestures join this Dioynsian dance. For the artist and his audience his painted dancing unmasks and awakens the self, which feels simultaneously primal and new.


1.The latter is based on Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s drawing Tänzerinnen, 1906. See comparison in Rare Paintings: Ciria, exhibition catalog (Madrid: Fundación Carlos Amberes; Santo Domingo: Museo de Arte Moderno, 2008), pp. 120-121.


2.Selma Jeanne Cohen, “A Prolegomena to an Aesthetics of Dance,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol, 21, no. 1 (Autumn, 1962): 23.


3.Cohen, 25.


4.For example, compare this opposition to Wilhelm Worringer’s Abstraktion und Einfühlung (Munich: R. Piper & Co. Verlag, 1908) in which he contrasted the crystalline forms of abstract art to the naturalistic forms with which we usually empathize.


5.Donald Kuspit, “Tragic Modernism: José Manuel Ciria’s La Guardia Place Paintings,” in Rare Paintings: Ciria, p. 170.


6.Ciria’s Crucifixión, 2007 and Creo que me duele, 2007 in particular recall Bacon’s figures who suffer in isolation.


7.See Doris Humphrey, “What a Dancer Thinks About” (1937), reprinted in The Vision of Modern Dance: In the Words of Its Creators, 2nd edition, edited by Jean Morrison Brown, Naomi Mindlin, and Chalres H. Woodford (Hightstown, New Jersey: Princeton Book Company, 1998), p. 60.


8.John Martin, The Modern Dance (1933), reprinted in What Is Dance?, edited by Roger Copeland and Marshall Cohen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), p. 24.


9.See Valerie Gladstone, “Diving into the Unknown,” José Manuel Ciria: Box of Mental States, exhibition catalogue (Miami, Florida: ArtRouge Gallery, 2008), p. 13.


10.Kasimir Malevich, From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism: The New Realism in Painting (1916), reprinted in Art in Theory 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, edited by Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (Oxford: Blackwell, 2003), p. 177.


11.Malevich, p. 175. Italics in the original.


12.Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy and The Case of Wagner, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Random House, 1967), reprinted in Art and Its Significance: An Anthology of Aesthetic Theory, 3rd edition, edited by Stephen David Ross, (Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1994), p. 165.


13.José Manuel Ciria, “The absent Hand,” José Manuel Ciria: Box of Mental States, p. 87.


14.Elizabeth Watts, Towards Dance and Art: A Study of Relationships Between Two Art Forms (London: Lepus Books, 1977), p. 10.


15.Watts, pp. 10-11.


16.Celia Montolío, “To the Limit, and Beyond,” Ciria: Las Formas del Silencio―Antología crítica (Los años noventa) (Madrid: Sotohenar, S.L., 2004), p. 31.


17.Watts, pp. 16-17.


18.Here I am recalling Merleau-Ponty’s thoughts on a scene from Sartre’s Nausea in which “the smile of a long dead monarch…keeps producing and reproducing itself on the surface of the canvas.” (Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “Eye and Mind” (1961), in The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader: Philosophy and Painting, edited and translated by Galen A. Johnson and Michael B. Smith. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1993, p. 130.)


19.Ciria, p. 81.


20.Ciria, pp. 83-84, 86.


21.Ciria, p. 82.


22.Ciria, p. 81.


23.Ciria, p. 83.


24.Ciria, p. 85.


25.Ciria, p. 83.


26.Cited by Susan Au, Ballet and Modern Dance (London: Thames and Hudson, 1988), p. 98