Deciphering Painting (for the definition of images)
Álvaro de los Ángeles
You can analyse the same sentence from different angles; you can analyse its nouns and verbs, conjunctions or adverbs within a syntactic-morphological analysis, or you can read it having in mind what the verbs and adverbs say, the reason for connectors, the need of these concrete nouns and not of others, to express a certain idea from a semantic perspective. Another way of analysing it would be to try to decipher it as a semi-cryptic message, where the slippery use of the subjective interpretation would act as a non-standard mechanism of analysis. In this case, the syntactical, morphological, significant characteristics would be then not more than the necessary tools to be able to tell what the message is saying now.
Form and content are areas every time more complex to define, more imprecise to go through. This descriptive difficulty, however, will never be able to hide completely their structural differences. Very frequently, in painting – like it happens a lot in contemporary art – one takes for granted that the medium is the message. That is to say, that the syntactical and morphological elements are enough to find their semantic correlative. It is almost useless to say that the latter third element, the interpretative, is used in various occasions as a substitute of the former, as if the significance could not be perceived from the interpretation derived of its subjective reading. These kind of tricks are not unaware of concrete interests. In general you cannot distinguish them from another kind of trap that is meant to give us something valid through a mere formula suitable for consumption. That is why we still need language to continue to go deeply into painting. And, consequently, into art.
As on other occasions, in a way that is now already an inseparable element in his work, the titles of the paintings, of the series and exhibitions by Chema López represent a concentration that one has to dilute through their concrete elements, which are also in precise contexts. It is not usual to find such a direct relationship between the visual narration of images and the narration suggested by their titles. Far from mimetic conventionalisms or serialized evasive nomenclatures, alien to the recurrent inter-textual quotations, the titles here are a declaration of principles and an excellent guide to grasping the message. Accordingly it doesn’t seem that Chema López – apart from the precise use of the medium and his enjoyment of using it– wants anything else than to communicate what he thinks and to exhibit what he feels towards it, understanding that among the different ways with which he could do it, painting is the one that best fits his needs.
El brillo del sapo. Historias, fábulas y canciones (The Brilliance of the Toad: Stories, fables and songs) is the ultimate clarifying example, the one that illuminates this exhibition of retrospective tones that exhibits the coherence of a constant evolution, sustained by interconnected elements from the last fifteen years. The title has an obvious quality: The Brilliance of the Toad refers itself to the wretchedness of the physical feel of the toad, as well as to the power of attraction of its shiny surface, to which one adds the difficulty of grasping it. The reference to the slipperiness of the animal in an unsettled field acts as an intermediate element between what produces attraction and the rejection of its environment. The marsh as a dark and dense space, as the ecosystem where survival is sold expensively, acts as a metaphor for a society that is functional and complete only apparently, as a glossy surface that hides its antagonist elements under its thick skin.
The epigraph Stories, fables and songs answers another logical point: three subtle different ways of undertaking narration. The story that follows a defined structure or a group of real or invented deeds; the fable culminating in a moralistic lesson or in a “practical teaching”; the song that acts as a message thrown to a [more or less] overcrowded audience, with the music as a big catalyst. Those who know the patient work of Chema López, his inquisitive and calm claim of the impossible through the images of the probable, will understand this new title within its context as a clear statement of the previous exhibited elements once again exhibited at the risk of what is yet to say, and to come.
Above other considerations, however, the work of the artist reflects on the decisive importance of the images and on the continuous revision of its definition. This is shown in the diptych Vanidad y banalidad (Vanity and banality), in which the double portrait of a woman raises several questions regarding representation. The original image exists as a photographic print that, now, painted on the canvas recovers an aura that dissolves itself with the second portrait like a symmetrical reflection. The duplicity of the image – without being the same, as there are some appreciable differences – evokes a reflection: the vain act that the model seems to distort, to neutralize, to convert it in a banal way. This analysis, or a similar one, could be achieved after a first reading in which no more data would be given, but what happens when we know the concrete references that are presented as anonymous data? The theoretician Johann Swinnen speaks about photography and its interpretations – the extra-photographic data as key elements to read images: without those elements photography remains in absolute silence . The double portrait of the woman, her shabby look, her expressive stiffness… we can understand it or see it in a different way if we know that she was a prison warder at a German concentration camp in Bergen-Belsen. It acquires even more importance if we are informed that it is an identification photograph taken by the allied army after the German surrender. The prison warder becomes the prisoner; the photograph, in its turn, becomes a double painting like a double positive that cancels or disables the classical photographic process to end up, finally, becoming an image. It is questioning representation and what is shown: that is to say, it is questioning vanity; the banality of the title is connected with the concept of “Banality of Evil” by Hannah Arendt: guilt rhetoric as inexorable execution of duty.
In other occasions, the black void, the total absence of visual references, the darkness has been used to question the omnipresence of images. The canvas becomes an object but also a hole or an opening on the wall, the transgression of the painting that feels itself incomplete to perform its task and, nevertheless, offers itself as a surface in negative: a blank slate whose origin would not be in the creation of primitive or renovated gestures, but in the elimination of references that complete the dark mass to arrive, in this way, to the structural. The way in which images appear on the canvas, that is to say the technique, carries a symbolic weight. The oil comes from the white until it reaches the greys and the black, activators of the illusion of the images; on the other side the acrylic steals whitish and ghostly gestures from the previously dark surface. The combination of both places us in a middle point between the precarious balance and the decided determination: a space where the representation is a case that awaits to be completed in successive and various interpretations.