Flash Art Int. (1999 - 2001) Anno 33 Numero 210 January-February
Painting today has moved away from the narrow format imposed by the traditional canvas invented in the 15th century as a means of satisfying the need for prestige of a bourgeoisie accustomed to adorning its homes with still-lifes, or domestic, religious, and mythological scenes celebrating the wealth and beliefs of the family concerned. Such canvases were beautiful pieces in their
own right and enjoyed a considerable exchange value as the capitalist economy took shape. Things have not changed a great deal, although more than five-hundred years of painting in a variety of scales and styles have, broadly speaking, been enough to appease the millennium brigade and the fetishists who bemoan the (relative) decline of painting as a discipline associated with its own set of features and materials: oils, canvas, frames, and so on.
Painting is more alive today than ever before, having broadened its operative field in terms of materials and supports. Since Piero Manzoni's Socle du monde, or since the creators of Land Art set about using the earth as a surface on which to draw out their signs and actions, the radical abstract act of painting a white square onto a white background (Malevich) has crept into new areas of investigation though, along the way, it may have lost something of its essential character, aura, and to a certain extent, its transcendency. Painters today do more than merely represent the world, its void, or its material fascination with colors: they now paint directly onto it.
What I have created is an imaginary triptych featuring the work of three different artists of whom I am particularly fond. Ghada Amer, a painter of Egyptian origin, is renowned for her abstract canvases depicting fragments of female bodies. The threads that she uses to reproduce these images - which hail from men-only porn magazines - fall onto the canvas like the spillage from some controlled dripping, creating gorgeous deliquescences and rhythms which are repeated in series.
Ghada Amer is responsible for the first "panel" of the triptych with her Cactus Painting. Unfinished, a piece produced in 1998 on an external terrace of the Sagunto Roman Theater (Valencia, Spain). The drawing created by the artist calls to mind early Stella, and uses cactus to fill the broader geometrical strips which are in turn separated from each other by narrow bands depicting flowers. The sexual connotations of the abstract expressionism - the paint brush as a phallus, the canvas as a passive support onto which the artist ejaculates (badly, more often than not) - are here reinterpreted by a female artist who is reclaiming the right and the pleasure of painting, ever mindful of the historical repression which, traditionally, has excluded women from this practice.
Consequently, this magnificent vegetal painting brims with the same reflections on love, sex, and art that inform the whole of Ghada Amer's output. However, Amer has been bold enough to step out from the comfort and privacy of her studio and into the public space.
The central panel of the triptych is a piece by Gregor Ziviç, a virtually unknown artist from Vienna. Dismayed by the lack of response to his repeated attempts to get his work exhibited, Ziviç set about creating an exhibition space in his own tiny home of approximately twenty square meters. Using the simplest of materials, Ziviç has erected a series of partition walls, adorning the minimal space with elements of childhood memories and a motley selection of objects including mannequins. He has even managed to create the semblance of a swimming pool using real water, as well as evoking the presence of a truck. Once the environment has been set up, the artist disguises himself in a variety of costumes, strikes a distinct attitude, and takes a highly precise, one-off photograph of each setting, though not before he has ensured that one of his paintings is hanging discretely but strategically somewhere in the room. While the latest medium in this complex process is photography, his work also embraces sculpture, architecture, and narration. Ziviç has a remarkable capacity for integrating painting into the space of life, delving into his own memory to construct new fictions. One standout amongst these is the imaginary exhibition in China, the poster for which has been distributed the world over. So far, Ziviç has realized no more than eight images in this series, and I was privileged enough to witness the most recent one in its Vienna setting. A boundless passion for art has led Ziviç to abandon the comfortable framework of canvas to create multiple worlds around it, an expanded field which the artist fills with personal projections, humor, and formal innovation. An outstandingly beautiful abstract monochrome painting makes up the third table of my triptych. The artist, the Swedish Michael von Hausswolff, uses red electric light in the darkness of night as his medium and Our Lady of Guadelupe Cemetery, Santa Fe, New Mexico, as his canvas. Before Hausswolff moved in, the cemetery was an unkempt wasteland, frequently used as a dumping ground despite being enclosed by a metal fence. The surface was cleared so as to prepare it to receive the color. Red was selected by the artist as it symbolizes passion, rebirth, and a return to life. Michael von Hausswolff reflects, in a positive key, on the ephemeral nature of existence, absence, and the inevitability of death, themes addressed by the works of Rothko too. More than just painter, Hausswolff also keeps his attention trained on the latest developments in science, art, music, political strategy, and warfare. Like some ironic and without complexes Leonardo da Vinci, his critical capacity, his taste for Dionysiac activity, and his radical behavior as a king without a kingdom have seen him invent a series of significant machines-against-the-enemy, record his own music, exploit new technology, and investigate the way in which invisible electromagnetic rays can affect our brains and emotions. His background as a linguist prevents him from restricting his creativity to a single discipline, aware as he is that language means representation and representation can take many forms.
The triptych strikes me as both baroque and postmodern - however much that term has been used. It deals with sex, representation, and death. It eschews the limits imposed both by traditional academia which would enclose all art within a frame, as well as those promoted by the new orthodoxies which aim to pigeonhole an artist's creative activity within predetermined genres (installations, performances, and its relative hybrids). Finally, it demonstrated that the underlying impulse that makes artist significant is the urge to create images and/or situations capable of giving form to their desires and fears. Artists are the social catalysts of the ethical and aesthetic thought of their times precisely because they feel intensely driven to transform such thought rather than repeat it ad infinitum in the form of convenient and decorative cliché.
(Translated from Spanish by Christopher Martin)
Rosa Martínez is a critic and independent curator based in Barcelona (Spain). Currently, she is curator of the 3rd International Site Santa Fe Biennial (New Mexico, USA).