Two exhibitions in Bilbao

February 4, 2012

The Basque city of Bilbao is fascinating from more than one point of view. However, the cultural life is certainly one of this fascinating aspects, as the Guggenheim Bilbao really changed the life of this community in so many respects and, beyond any accusations of cultural imperialism, of corporate use of great art etc., remains a strong example of the way a cultural institution can function within a local context without overwhelming it, but rather elevating it, to some extent, to international attention. The recent show Brancusi – Serra and the fairly concomitant Antonio Lopez Garcia retrospective at the Bilbao Museum of Fine Arts prove these issues convincingly.
In a way, the Guggenheim show was as one would normally expect it to be. Bringing together, in the context of a prestigious venue, two famous artists seems an easily winning situation. However, the risk such an exhibition faces is to be dully monumental, uselessly glorifying and, in the end, meaningless. Brancusi – Serra was no not shielded from such a risk and more than just a few art professionals wondered if there is really something poignant connecting the two stars or if the show is really just a pretext for a Guggenheim show off.
As legitimate as the question is, the answer, I believe, is quite obvious: the exhibition was really more than a show off, as it was challenging and articulate, as well as enlightening for some major aspects of the artists’ productions and for some significant correspondences between them. It straightforwardly underlined the most obvious common denominator between the two, namely their fascination with metal, yet managed to stress that Brancusi’s passion for shiny metal is far from being an exclusive one. Also, the exhibition adequately stressed the inherent, core formalism residing within the artistic production of both the Romanian and the American artist. Still, it aptly managed to also suggest, if not plainly claim, that a certain conceptualism is not only present in, but rather crucial for both the oeuvres at hand. It is, if you want, a kind of avant la lettre conceptualism in the case of Brancusi and a downright conscious and, one could say, ambitious conceptualism in the case of Richard Serra. But, first and foremost, what brings the artists together and the Guggenheim show emphasizes it, what fundamentally underlies the work of both the fiercely vanguard, modernist one and the seemingly typical, yet, in fact, complicated to grasp contemporary other is hubris, is undeterred sturdiness deployed in order to say something essential about mankind and the world, about form and the physicality of special relations, is the strong and probably naïve belief that art / the artist can actually “speak out” something that can constitute an essence.
Now, Richard Serra is as iconic for the museum in Bilbao as it is its architect himself, Gehry. Serra’s huge steel pieces form an impressive (semi)permanent installation at the parterre of the building since the opening of the venue. Their sheer scale is humbling, their shapes are hypnotic and the aesthetic experience they can generate is downright overwhelming, as one can presume that the sculptures are, among other things, aiming to make a point about how “size matters”, in an Aristotelian understanding of the syntagm. They are also accompanied or, better said, enriched by video materials by, with or about the artist, including some essential video works by the American artist from the second part of the sixties, such as Catching Lead, a milestone of both video and conceptual art.
Thus, the overall impression is that of an artist who increasingly moved away from a conceptual standpoint towards an exaltation of physical monumentality, which is somewhat true, yet not all there is about the sculptor’s evolution. And the Brancusi – Serra show underlies precisely this, revealing, simply put, how good can the American be in smaller size works, such as Right Angle Prop, Circuit – Bilbao or The House of Cards. Here, monumentality is not absent, yet somehow muted. Speculation cohabits with formalist simplicity and precision, as the sculptures reveal themselves as complex and subtle metaphors of the fragility of balance and are alluding to danger and catastrophe in a non –  rhetorical manner. They can stand as visual epitomes for a theory of systems, while the images of some of them could function perfectly as logo for, let’s say, an environmentalist organization. Their inherent and calm beauty is seductive without dwarfing the viewer or the space around.
From the oeuvre of Constantin Brancusi, a good, relevant selection of sculptural pieces were chosen for the show. With a good part of his masterpieces present, with some intermediary pieces accompanying them, the viewer was thus able to attain a pretty well rounded and comprehensive image of his artistic endeavours. However, the display of the pieces was not always to the works’ advantage, nor facilitating a fully rewarding visual grasp of them. Some were rather bizarrely lit with spots of light directed onto the works surrounded by dimly lit areas, but this was the smaller problem. The bigger one was that, for security and / or conservation reasons, the spectator’s access in the vicinity of the pieces was limited, somewhat exaggeratedly, in my opinion. Now, I understand a Brancusi can be damaged far easier than a Serra (here’s an difference), still I maintain that in many cases the curators failed to keep the just balance between the need for art to be protected and the need for it to be experienced up close, taken in by the those perceiving it.
Nevertheless, the exhibition made it up, to me at least, for the above mentioned shortcomings with the room dedicated entirely to Brancusi. Here, several metal pieces, including two versions of the Maiastra, The Bird in Space and The Golden Bird,  were exhibited on ridiculously tall pedestals, all above 2,5 metres high. I was first struck by this display as arrogant: the sculptures looked like items to be worshiped. Little by little though, I came to grasp (hopefully) the deeper meaning of this metaphysical and ambitious, risky and almost religious – like arrangement of some of the sculptor’s best endeavours in his struggle for mastering concomitantly the form and the allusion to the absolute. It was staging taken to absurd and yet, after a while, you would realise it fits Brancusi’s ambitions and desires perfectly. The display was a telling reminder of that hubris I’ve spoken before, of the fact that the Romanian artist indeed envisioned his forms as vehicles towards an imprecise and elusive realm of absolute purity. The height of the pedestals was rightly emphasizing not just the essential, ascendant dynamics of the sculptures as such, but also the fact that the artist was aiming at generating a sort of particular dynamics of the soul, with all his mighty ambition and somehow tragic pride. It was Brancusi as I’ve never seen before, but the show convinced me that this is one very adequate way his art could be seen.
Moreover, compositionally (so to speak), as well as from a narrative standpoint, the Brancusi “worshiping room” was an efficient counterpart to Richard Serra’s massive and potentially overwhelming presence in the museum as a whole. It was, if not the only way, certainly a functional manner to give more weight to Brancusi in the context, to balance the heavy Serra parterre of the Guggenheim, which, although not part of the exhibition as such, inherently risked rendering Brancusi’s presence somewhat minor and even somehow accidental.
What Guggenheim showed was a pair of artists that share a lot, yet are, plain and simple, paradigms as such. We deal with two oeuvres that not simply take one’s breath away; more importantly, holding one’s breath, literally and / or figurately, can help taking in the full expressive force of the sculptures. And even the contrast / interplay between the shape of the museum in Bilbao, a building that appears so strangely collated within the urban framework of the city, the sharp edges and thoughts of Serra and the musical and sometimes hysterically sublime lines and utterly unattainable ambitions of Brancusi is in itself relevant for what happened in / to art during the last century.
At the Bilbao Museum of Fine Arts, there was a totally different, charming and puzzling story, with Antonio Lopez Garcia’s retrospective, literally too big a show for the spaces available at the parterre of the venue, where it was rather crammed. The Spanish artist is quite a legend in his native country, yet not necessarily widely known or recognized internationally; thus, he is somewhat a local hero who never truly made it global. However, he is one of the most prominent representatives of realism in the twentieth century, although his artistic persona, as well as his style and approach to art are highly peculiar and paradoxical in more than one way.
First and foremost, Lopez is a fabulous painter. His apparent (and even somewhat fundamental) lack of appetite for innovation in the medium of painting is stunning, somewhat comparable with Lucian Freud’s and equally deceiving. On the other hand, his paintings, as well as his drawings, are painstakingly produced, some of them taking years to be finished. Just like the old masters, the Spaniard labours relentlessly, on the mental level, first of all, leaving a work aside for some time, thinking and rethinking it and acting upon the canvas, apparently, only when he is convinced that his hand can perform so as to match both his mental expectations and what can be called the beauty of the world, which fascinates the artist in a very primal, unsophisticated way.
He generally approaches rather traditional genres of painting, without attempting to revolutionize them in any way: portrait (especially in his youth), still life, landscape, flowers (mainly during the last two years or so). In the sixties and the seventies, he was working within an art world that was largely dominated by conceptualist stances or by Pop art tendencies. His paintings seem to be untouched by the influences of such artistic proposals. When he paints the interior of a fridge, for example, there is nothing Pop or consumerist about it; rather, Lopez depicts it as an aggressively sensuous bodegon. Surrealism seems to have a more enduring influence upon his work, though, again, it is a fairly oblique one. Some floating figures in his interiors are visible traces of Surrealism, but more important is, from this perspective, his approach of the genre of urban landscape. He paints, repeatedly, Madrid’s Gran Via, for example, from various descending perspectives. He spends months, if not years, trying to figure out how to precisely evoke, using painterly matter, the exact colour tones and the significant compositional landmarks of the reality in front of him. Yet, he depletes –carefully, programmatically– that reality of any human presence: no characters, no cars. His realism turns bizarre, his “world” becomes haunting.
On the whole, his dialogue with art that is contemporary to him seems surprisingly limited. His portraits rather engage in a relationship with artists like Bonnard, his landscapes remind, albeit somewhat remotely, Balthus’s palette and the overall compositional schemes of El Greco’ s views of Toledo. Speaking of El Greco (and leaving aside a discussion about his Greek origins and their influence on his art), Antonio Lopez Garcia’s paintings almost always allude to the Spanish tradition of the medium, although he never actually uses visual quotations, nor stridently visible references. But none of the hereby written can describe the actual sensuality of the painterly surfaces he proposes in the end, a sensuality not completely devoid, sometimes, of a certain kind of enthusiasm and even naiveté. I was watching his recent flower paintings: they are masterfully realized, yet appear so historically obsolete that one can hardly avoid thinking about them as being an elderly master’s game or fun. And still, their sheer visual seductiveness is rapturous and renders irrelevant, once again, such psycho – historical considerations.
Lopez Garcia’ s sculpture poses new problems. Seduced by the smoothness and direct charm of his bidimensional works, one could actually miss the complexity and the awkwardness of his deceitfully straightforward sculptural works and view them as nothing more than mimetic demonstrations of skill. Comparisons with other instances of contemporary realism are also tempting, but somehow facile and not utterly relevant. Thus, his Man and Woman (1968 – 1994!)could be put in relation to the sculptures of Duane Hanson and mostly Segal. However, both these two artist represent characters related to particular contexts. Instead, the two characters of Lopez Garcia seem timeless. The man has the stance of a Greek classic athlete, the woman that of a hieratic Old Kingdom Egyptian sculptures, as their frontality is uncanny and eerily not engaging. They are not particularly beautiful, nor particularly ugly, they have nothing god – like, yet their plain, unadorned physical presence appears like attempting to epitomise banality and finitude as essence of the human condition.
Also, his large baby heads (such as the one titled Day and Night) and other works might somewhat evoke in one’s mind Mueck’s endeavours. But the latter’s works are uncanny by means of sizes and somehow misplaced mimetic accomplishments. Lopez Garcia’s three-dimensional works are bizarrely morbid and sinister, having something downright unsettling about them. These considerations are particularly true as far as these recurrent children figures are concerned, a topic that certainly obsessed him. They look as if the artist wanted, but never actually succeeded in representing them in an affectionate manner or in embeddeding innocence and tenderness into the variously sized sculptures. His children sculptures thus constitute a tough memento mori imagery, rather than a hymn to life and youth, as hardly graspable cruelty and menace are always looming around these “baby faces”.
Perhaps one of many more reasons Lopez never quite made it global is the fact that his art is so awkward and idiosyncratic (and the man looks so incredibly banal!); and that its gets more and more like this, while it also gets increasingly mesmerizing, too, as one scrutinizes it in more and more depth. I can’t stop myself thinking that he will always be a maverick. I mean, if Antonio Lopez Garcia would make into art history –assuming the highly doubtful presumption that such a thing as art history, at least as we know it, will exist in the not so distant future– he would probably fit in the gallery of splendid and uncomfortable marginals, alongside George de la Tour, Balthus and maybe even Bonnard.

For photos of Antonio Lopez Garcia’s exhibition, go to
For photos of Brancusi and Serra’s works, go to Google.