Published in The Jackdaw June 2016
A crowd is gathered in front of a picture, there’s shuffling and whispering, angling for a better view. Several people are up close, peering at the surface plane as if cross-examining it. The buzz of conversation is rising as viewers shift their weight and linger in front of this picture. The timed entry to the exhibition means the crowd behind is building, waiting. Finally the noise, now approaching cocktail party level, is too much for the guard. She issues a loud, insistent shhhhhhhhhhh!
It’s not the Mona Lisa, and it’s neither porn nor politics. Cuarto de bano (Bathroom) is a picture of a decrepit toilet seen through a doorway. It’s large, over two metres tall and just over a metre wide. Tracey Emin’s Unmade Bed is the world’s most famous artwork on contemporary domesticity and this is just a rough guess, but I don’t think the crowd responded like this – with whispered awe, filling their vision up with peering, tearing themselves away. Judging by the usual curatorial yardsticks I would be grasping to justify this painting’s exhibition; it has no agenda of social improvement, no discourse of disdain. Yet the run of this show has been extended.
The Madrid Realists may be impervious to curatorial fads, but this exhibition is a mixed bag. In truth I came to see the work of Antonio Lopez Garcia and I was prepared to see it in the context of his peers. But the simple fact is this: he has none. Some of the other works are good and many are interesting, but it is clear that the show pivots on his work alone.
These artists have been working together all their adult lives, exhibiting as a group in London (at Marlborough) in 1973, Seville and Darmstadt in 1975 and Barcelona in 1984. The crucible of their student days at Escuela Superior de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Madrid in the 1950’s cemented these life-long creative and personal relationships. Francisco and Julio Lopez are brothers. Isabel Quintanilla is married to Francisco, Julio is married to Esperanza Parada. Maria Moreno is married to Antonio. Amalia Avia alone has no familial relationship within the group. Their talents are, like any group, various, but together they have done something remarkable. Slogging it out at their canvases and sculptures, applying themselves to an intense scrutiny of the perceptual process during the high seasons of modernist abstraction and conceptual art, the group has generated, in Lopez Garcia’s work, a truly authentic contemporary branch from the root of Spanish Realism. Intractable and ancient, this tradition – which includes Ribera, Zurbaran, Velasquez, and Goya – has fired their work with purpose and with belief. I get the feeling that Spanish painting would be harder to kill off than cockroaches.
The exhibition is arranged by genre, which makes it difficult to follow the development of any one of these artists – with the exception of Lopez Garcia, whose work passes through very distinct phases. A pairing of two of Maria Moreno’s paintings of her courtyard shows increasing feeling and freedom in both paint handling and composition, but this is a step, not a leap. The hang by genre, however, does throw into sharp relief the best and the worst, demonstrating that subject matter is merely a means, not an end in a painting. These juxtapositions are the most interesting thing about the group show format. They also show the fallacy of technique, as there are clear affinities between the group with vastly different results. This is very evident in the drawings: Francisco Lopez’s Estudio, hung next to Antonio Lopez Garcia’s Pasillo de Fernando Higueras, are both pictures of enclosed spaces similar in style and using the same materials, but while the former feels like a stifling dull space, the latter is alive with possibility. Shades of difference in mark, composition and emphasis, literally speak volumes. This experimentation with the same media and subject matter shows a coherence of thought, a road travelled together. But I am left with many questions. Did Lopez Garcia lead the way? Or is it a more collaborative relationship – were the successes and failures in the others’ work crucial in developing his own? The repetition of the same motifs and similar composition across the group suggest a very close affinity between them. There is a great deal of generosity in that; it is rare to see artists working so closely together, and especially over such a prolonged period. Did jealousies arise? A drawing by Isabel Quintanilla depicts her husband Francisco Lopez drawing Antonio Lopez Garcia. What were the conversations between them? Narrative film makers should form an orderly line – there are untold stories here.
As with all good paintings, it is impossible to grasp through photographs what Lopez Garcia’s pictures are like, and reproductions are misleading, showing the work far more ‘realist’ than it is and losing any sense of the dramatic texture in the work. His surfaces hint at Tapies. Above all, what lingers when you walk away from his pictures is an impression of a sensibility. This remains consistent through to the paintings from the last 10 years, when the mood changes. Like late Monet, the works become larger and more broadly worked. A confidence is present, unlike the earlier works which are marked with melancholy and uncertainty. To my mind, the earlier works shown here are more powerful. In these the artist seems to be working against the odds – the making of the work seems like an act of daily resistance, and the pictures are not so much painted as accrued. A welter of lacerations in paint, wax and pencil add up to the mirage of the subject. It is the polar opposite of the au premier coup approach and contains a great deal more humility. Against the stifling weight of certainty in our information age, these paintings are made from repeating the question, from not knowing. They exude a sense of wonder at the visual world, a quiet acceptance of the impossibility of the task of making art, and the impossibility of not attempting it. The transformation of the banal, even squalid subject matter, and the translation of small incident, mark and moment, into a shimmering unified whole, appeals to the longing in all of us. The longing that the incidents of our own prosaic days might aspire to a poetic unity, and our lives, like Lopez Garcia’s pictures, take on a meaning greater than the sum of their parts.
Alexandra Sassé ©
More information – Museo Thyssen Bornemisza microsite
Good quality reproductions of the show also here