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CIRIA: New Paintings
August 26, 2009 - November 1, 2009
José Manuel Ciria was born in Manchester (UK) in 1960 but grew up in Spain. Ciria is one of the most active and internationally successful contemporary Spanish painters. His abstract work is featured in the collections of Spain’s most important museums, such as the Museo de Arte Reina Sofía and the Instituto Valenciano de Arte Moderno.
A conversation with the artist & curator
Ricardo Viera: LUAG/Museum operation is a visual laboratory of sorts. Our permanent collection as well as our temporary exhibitions in seven galleries on three campuses, as a university museum is a teaching tool – an alternative to the classroom. What should we be looking for when we see and study your work?
Ciria: First off, I find it extremely positive that the major American universities have their own museums, unfortunately something that is unthinkable in Spain. Bringing works to students is a vital step for the comprehension of art, in addition to expanding education, as you mention, and the possibilities this offers in classes. It functions as a laboratory of ideas and an in-situ tool to reflect on an artist or a specific work, besides making it possible to critically compare works of different geographical origins (despite globalization, which tends to homogenize us, and to saturate us with information) and with certain theoretical, conceptual and political interests which can be completely disparate. In terms of the question about the works which one can see and study in the exhibition, I think that I would need to provide two different answers. The show features a small selection mainly of the two series on which I am currently working: Doodles and Abstract Memory. The Doodles series includes a series of works which allude iconographically to moments of the CoBRA Group or to Miró, but decontextualizing them and eradicating any insinuation of a message outside the purely pictorial. It´s a kind of emptying of content in an effort to show in an inquisitive way the ambiguity and lack of thought today. The Abstract Memory series deals with exactly the same thing, but turning to the tradition of Abstract Expressionism. As it has been said that painting has died and is a cadaver, “no problem at all,” I say. Then let’s see how even when “dead” painting continues to offer infinite expressive possibilities for reflection. In terms of what one can study in my work, I think that consulting many of my catalogues and books, most of which have been translated into English, might be much more illuminating. This way one can understand the evolution of my work and my concerns during each period.
RV: Why do you pair geometric abstraction, gestural mark-making and the figure in your work? What is the relationship or triangulation of unifying these forms?
C: I have always been interested in the two major traditions of the historical vanguards: geometry and gesture. The Apollonian and the Dionysian, order and gesture. In my first abstract explorations in the early 90s I was struck by the tension generated by these two positions. It was like bringing together in a single space two completely antithetical developments, which offered the viewer a special intensity. Two antagonistic forces which exist alongside and fight each other. Later the geometric plane was established as a tensional element or as a simple background for the gestural event. There is no “triangulation;” it’s simply that the “representational plane” is sometimes resolved in a purely expressionistic way. In the others the stains, through structure, line, or drawing – whatever we want to call it – are transformed into a representational element or an element with a representative intention. I like this “intention;” when it comes up I like to call it “non-representation.” In many works of a series entitled LaGuardia Place I employed that “non-representational” space, that is, I didn´t elaborate anything “informalist,” but neither was it totally abstract. Rather, I was looking for an intermediate space halfway between said dimensions.
RV: It is evident in your work that there is a return to creating illusionist space and organizational abstraction. What do you see as the driving force of that new movement?
C: At the beginning it was nothing premeditated. It was simply that before painting abstraction for many years I was a representational painter. When you jump into abstraction you take your own memory with you, your “caligraphy,” your “mischief” and, of course, your tradition. Once you rationalize it, you see that you can achieve sensations of volume and depth through a plausible illumination of the pictorial plane, accentuating the deceptive effect of space when necessary through “texturization” and shadows. I like to see experts and collectors specialized in old paintings who, though they can´t explain what is going on, get interested because in a certain way they are able to “enter” and read my paintings, which are a kind of bridge between the most radical abstraction and the entire European tradition.
RV: Pablo Picasso was asked, “What is art?” and his answer was “What isn’t!” Now in the second decade of the 21st century I ask you the same question: What is art to you?
C: I think a lot of us believe that art is nothing more than thought. Thought fused in a certain way with spirituality, a thirst for transcendence and sublimation, along with the indispensable obligation to pick up a kind of identifying trait from each era or historical period. In other times the artist was an intellectual prepared for and involved in the effort to transform and improve society. Later it was seen that said transformation was impossible, and that this position was thus quite puerile and naive. Beginning at a certain moment, which is quite opaque and difficult to pin down, everything has been diluted. It is not hard to discover an infinity of artists who don´t have enough theoretical knowledge, or any type of conceptual development or training. This situation gives rise to the bleak situation today, in which any “figure” with enough connections and who has read 20 books or so can become the great darling of the moment. Yes, perhaps everything is art. But today we can say the opposite: nothing is art. 95% of the names we can see in the galleries o
f Chelsea these days will disappear without leaving a trace.
RV: Have you missed Madrid since you have moved your studio in 2005 to La Guardia Place, New York City? How does Ciria the painter fit into the Big Apple?Is this a case of creating an international headquarters, because of your recent shows in the Caribbean, Central and South America as well as other countries?
C: Ever since my first trip to New York in 1988 I wanted to work in this city. I may miss my children and my parents, but I am clear on the fact that the possibilities which New York offers are exponentially greater than those I had in Madrid. Madrid is a wonderful city to go and visit as a tourist, but working there is pointless. Manhattan offers not just the freedom and energy you can feel there, but it’s also a place where people from all over the world pass through. I had already planned the travelling exhibit through the main museums of Central and South America. In New York I’ve landed other international projects: Beijing, Tokyo, Tel Aviv, Prague, Bucharest…
RV: Is this the first time you have exhibited your work in a university museum setting?
C: Yes, and I am delighted with the venture. Along with other types of people, being around students is very exciting to me. In Spain I’ve participated in various “contemporary art workshops” and I love the involvement which they feature, and asking myself in what ways I can contribute something to those people who are “permeable” to my work.
RV: What is on the horizon for you? Meaning: new work? Moving to another continent, or whatever?
C: I continue on my own line. I like to think that all my work is experimental and seeks to investigate specific units and processes in painting in an analytical way. Right now I am focused on the definition of three basic combinations in every work: gravitational points or the concentration of weights; tensional lines and lines of compositive structuring; and the peripheral elements included. These are developed on three overlying planes: the background plane, the representational plane and the atmospheric plane. Something which appears to be really out there, but it´s quite simple. In terms of New York, many who know me think that it’s just a stay. But that´s not so. I´ve come to stay. There is nowhere on earth like Manhattan.