April 27, 2010
“La solitude organisative” is an exhibition which represents the fortunate encounter between a reputed artist that has reached the full maturity of his production and an institution whose existence significantly enriched Madrid’s cultural landscape. Benefiting from the financial support of the Iberian finance and insurance giant La Caixa, the Caixa Forum was designed by the architects of Herzog & de Meuron, who brilliantly used an old power station to create a spectacular space for displaying and discussing contemporary art. Only minutes away from both Prado and Reina Sofia, the two iconic art venues in the city, Caixa Forum opened in 2008 and already has become a place which attracts not only contemporary art lovers, but also people who are dazzled by the elegantly sort of postmodern, charmingly eclectic architectural romanticism deployed by Herzog & de Meuron.
Born in 1957 and quite a star of the art scene in Spain, Miquel Barceló has also been getting increased attention from the international art world during the last two decades, being especially appreciated in Europe (in France and the United Kingdom, for example), although still rather unacknowledged in the United States. He was involved in significant vanguard movements in the late seventies, while always engaged in fighting off the by then dominant belief in the unattainability of painting. Quite young, he made the acquaintance and gained the appreciation of renowned fellow artists such as the revered Juan Miró or the young and rebel star, Jean – Michel Basquiat. Among his most prominent public appearances, one can recount his shows at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, the Louvre Museum (the first living contemporary artist to ever have his works exhibited here) and the Centre George Pompidou in Paris, but also the grand, spectacular and quite controversial permanent installation he conceived for one of the rooms of the U. N.’ Palace of Nations in Geneva. Also, he represented in a quite poignant manner Spain at the Venice Biennale in 2009, where the Spanish Pavilion was taken over by his expressionistic, large and unctuous canvas.
“La solitude organisative” at the Caixa Forum in Madrid is a comprehensive and compelling retrospective, presenting the viewer with Barceló’s works which encompass a time span of roughly twenty-five years, namely dating from the early eighties until the very recent years. The media deployed by the artists are quite various, as he moved from painting to sculpture, from ceramics to aquarelle, from performance to drawing. Even before entering the exhibition space, one of the most impressive works ever realized by Barceló is awaiting the spectator on a platform in front of the Caixa Forum building: the seven meters high bronze cast titled Upright Elephant, an uncannily realistic rendering of a huge animal performing an impossible demonstration of equilibristic as it stands vertically on its trunk. Visually compelling and symbolically rich, the Elephant may well function as a manifesto of his art, coherently embedding some of its core values and characteristics: boldness, plasticity, formal attentiveness, a drive for monumentality.
Barceló is undoubtedly a gifted painter, who often uses the props of a dynamic neoexpressionism in order to realize mostly large size, mixed media paintings that in many cases allude to the artist’s personal experiences as he was travelling around Europe and Africa. His works from the eighties have visible similarities with the visual vocabulary used by the German generation of the Neue Wilde, especially with the works of Anselm Kiefer. Simultaneity it is not the only thing that makes the viewer refrain from the temptation of considering the Spaniard to be a mere epigone of the German art world stars. Thus, many formal traits reveal his works as strongly rooted in a Spanish artistic tradition, which includes artists as various as Velasquez or Tapies. Barceló’s Big Spanish Dinner or L’amour fou are only two of the paintings that make plain such a lineage, with their strong impasto combined with a refined chromatic and a solid, baroque inspired composition.
The late eighties and early nineties were years of significant development and turn over in the artist’s evolution. It is the time of his African journeys, which will have an important impact on his art. One of the most coherent sections of the exhibition is convincingly revealing this transformation. Barceló’s rich palette is almost drying out; white and washed up greys become predominant chromatic tools he deploys in order to relate to the hysterical, hypnotic Saharan landscapes. Powerful works such as Paysage pour aveugles sur fond vert II are results of this painterly approach, which tantalizingly near the topic of the zero degree of painting, while still maintaining a savoury, relief – like treatment of the surface of the canvas.
Drawing and especially aquarelle gradually became for Miquel Barceló the media par excellence used for recording memories, for pinning down feelings and sensations linked with various places and people encountered at one point or another in his life. The Spanish artist is undoubtedly one of the most valuable contemporary aquarellists, the freshness that this medium enables being fully and poignantly used by him. The hot, sunny, bright coloured African outdoors were the visual source for some of the most beautiful and delicately balanced of his endeavours in that medium. “La solitude organisative” also includes his series of aquarelle illustrations for Dante’s Divina Comedia, a challenge he took up with impressive results. Swirling pale silhouettes populate a dreamlike world, where the law of gravity is charmingly abolished, while rather elaborated compositions are matched with a refined, decadent palette.
The line separating the flatness of painting and the objecthood of sculpture is frequently blurred in Barceló’s works. Layers of thick paint often award his canvases sculptural qualities, as they become tactile and wildly sensuous. The vegetal and animal realms are often used by the artist as pretext for such painterly renderings: the fruits and the seeds, the fish and the imaginary traces of prehistorically living creatures are just some of the visual references contained in several of his most honestly delightful pieces on display at Caixa Forum. Also, a number of works in the exhibition forcefully demonstrate that Miquel Barceló is no stranger to sculpture as such. In this respect, bronze is his favourite material and animal morphology his main formal topic. The “seriousness” that a huge tradition gives bronze sculpture is aptly tuned with the slightly expressionistic casts proposed by the Spanish artist, though neither irony nor bitter, existentialist humour are excluded. Thus, the small and uncanny Pinocchio mort, a cast representing a human skull with an oversized nose successfully functions as eyebrow raising counterpart of the equally witty, giant elephant placed in the small plaza in front of the show’s venue.
The last work before exiting the exhibition is the one lending its title to the retrospective display. The strange, large sized pseudo self-portrait as an ape was one of the best works the artist exhibited in 2009 at the Spanish pavilion in Venice. To be interpreted as an ars poetica would probably be too much, but it certainly allows the spectator a glimpse into Barceló’s view, strongly influenced by classic modernist conceptual features, of the status of the artist. In his understanding, he/ she would be a lonely personality, scrutinizing the world in search of expressive opportunities, a reflexive nature which is still almost compulsively drawn to impetuous action. There is something both ironic and heroic in this work, just as a mix of irony and heroism, of energy and melancholy pervades the entire exhibition. In the end, perhaps the most important thing assuring Barceló‘s art poignancy and freshness is precisely his ability, which so vividly reminds one of the famous Spanish character of Don Quijote, to nonchalantly blend formalism and feeling, Gauguin-like escapism and expressionistic impetus, machismo and refinement, modernist bravado and postmodern allegorical drive, Spain and the wide world.
Note: for a brief video survey of the exhibition, go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QW8yjm73nC0