16 Jun - 23 Jul 2009
"Las tres vidas"
June 16 - July 23, 2009
Tempering with paint
“Imagine that everybody suddenly stopped, in a given moment of time, and that everything remained exactly in the same place as it were and that everybody remained immobile, like statues, displaying the same attitude they had at that moment, and carrying out the same action... If this happened and if in spite of everything man was still able to think, and to remember and judge what he did and what he was doing, and he could examine everything that he had done from the moment of birth and meditate on what he wished to do before he died, imagine how much despair would burn under the tragic silence of a world come to an unexpected halt!”
El espejo que huye, (The mirror that flees). Giovanni Papini
I would like to start by confessing the profound impact that Jerónimo Elespe’s work had on me the first time I discovered it. The encounter took place inside his studio, that sacred temple. Almost immediately, his way of working minimum arguments provoked my curiosity to search for common, close referents, whilst being at the same time aware that his painting was radically different. His studio, abbreviated and restricted like his paintings, little by little revealed the keys, with the same composed relaxed approach with which the artist brought out his small paintings and placed them on top of the aluminium boxes in order to later hang them on the wall; always in a tense, patient, concentrated way.
Karen Rosenberg pointed this out in a clear way, whilst referring to his exhibition at John Connelly: the size of his paintings is less relevant than their weight, which is rather tremendous. There he exhibited a tie, naked and swaying, like a Philip Guston bulb, irradiating a sort of light, at the same temperature. It was as if time had stopped, but not enough to delimit its surroundings. The tie floated inside the painting like one of those images that remain in our memory, vague, as if in a dream which could easily be that represented by Elespe in The Untrained Eye. Perhaps that is it; painting is a kind of dream, until it becomes a reality. Because one never knows if the motifs of the works of Jerónimo Elespe are emerging or disappearing, and that is where the most attractive of his tensions lies.
Jerónimo Elespe’s small paintings appear to be naked, almost emaciated. Like small signs of uncertainty, they appear to be cut out of a drama, out of context. The titles show what or who they are about without leaving any clues. His grey, dense backgrounds are the definitive medium of that extreme temperature. So is his way of evading clichés, of making his own place inside art, like many others have done before. Deleuze observes the same thing in Cézanne’s painting and speaks to us about how in his fury against the cliché the comic element appears in his paintings. Because when Cézanne’s drawings were good according to the classic rules, the artist thought they were not up to scratch. That is when he hurled himself onto the cliché in order to extirpate the form and the content, ill-treating it to the point of exhaustion. Only this way, paradoxically, could he produce a faithful representation. And it is almost certainly, in the place where the cliché escapes, that the true underlying state of Jerónimo Elespe’s painting lies, when upon looking for a portrait he conveys a landscape or vice versa. The process of painting becomes in this way a dramatic one, a fight against the cliché that already occupies –in a virtual sense– the canvas before starting to paint. In Elespe that turbulent drift declines in a painting both as vibrant as severe, full of deforming registers. In stead of resorting to Picasso’s premise that in order to paint a table the first thing necessary is to measure it, in Jerónimo Elespe’s case I would even go as far as saying that it is necessary to try to forget it in order to recreate it again once deformed by memory.
Elespe’s works are entities contained in their own selves. His portraits always seem to obey to the same portrait, as if they belong to the same atmosphere. The strange and the familiar seem to conjugate together in a vision that appears to base itself in a kind of metamorphosis. The pictorial background is an impenetrable surface, like that emptied horizon capable, paradoxically, of filling in everything in Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings. In this sense, it comes as being rather curious that on viewing his well-known piece Monk by the sea, in 1809, the public complained because they could not see anything. The elements, like in Elespe’s small paintings, are scarce: the mist, the sea and the dune on which the monk thinks. The figure, vulnerable and solitary, floats in the immensity like Elespe’s figures do, even if these occupy almost the whole of the painting. As if they were tied, victims of an uncomfortable pose, they prevail over depth, a background without points of escape, like that mist that opened Friedrich’s imagination. Jerónimo Elespe’s backgrounds rarely allow for any encounter to take place, as if his very own image had disappeared.
In a certain way, his landscapes and portraits are a sort of no-man’s land, in so far as they are imaginary places –or deformed realities– that only exist in the artist’s mind. Something like a trip that occupies our own life. I am thinking of all the places imagined by a René Magritte who never once left his country. Or Morandi’s reluctance to travel. Or in how Kant’s line of thought saturated the world with a new philosophy without leaving Königsberg. The architectures and landscapes in Jerónimo Elespe’s work seem to vibrate whilst remaining motionless. Let us consider poetry in the form of dead nature from the hand of Giorgio Morandi, of whom De Chirico himself would say that his gaze reserved his deepest intimacy, the structure of these dead things that appear to us as being more comforting in their resistance to change. Because Morandi’s intimism is more a sort of simple elegance, produced from a calm, discrete gaze, rather than from surroundings charged with metaphysics or literary psychologies. The unknown aspect of Morandi’s dead nature has more to do with the serenity that comes from a Corot, a Vermeer or, above all, a Chardin since for Morandi art was not supposed to serve any other purpose than that implicit in the actual painting itself, that is a particular way of projecting his own reality. And in Elespe that reality emerges from a subtle, reduced plot, about to conclude but determining. It is as if thought and image had merged into one, a product of a synthesis. Because Jerónimo Elespe’s works are a product of his insistence, a slow process that takes place through a set of layers that makes the painting evolve. Marking upon marking, incision upon incision, scrape upon scrape, and dripping upon dripping; his small paintings become effective as if they were a sort of fresco painting.
Probably due to his subject matter, the size of his paintings and his attitude towards painting, Jerónimo Elespe could be considered as being “odd”, one of those solitary artists alien to fashions, difficult to classify. As if he were trapped by and inside his own painting, due to the quality of continuously looking at his own life from a pictorial angle, and in order to go beyond his thoughts Jerónimo Elespe unfolds reality by mirroring it into a motif or an image. His paintings show the tension of the studio gathered in a nervous line, an obsessive brush stroke. Like whoever wants to construct by eliminating, like in one of Giacometti’s sculptures, Elespe performs incisions in his painting in the same way as a sculptor moves his fingers, shading the limits and blending an atmosphere which is already unique, capable of defining a way of being, a style. And that is something very difficult to appreciate in artists with Jerónimo Elespe’s youth.
Elespe’s painting is like a dream made of stone. As if he exerted violence on himself. And that is where his secret lies. It is as if his characters were denied their speech, as if they were lost in their silence, in a sort of slow solitude, inside a frozen representation. One tends to loose their gaze, even when contemplated from the front. It is as if they were dedicated to measure, indifferent and inexpressive, the instant before moving a piece of chess. Like something that Foucault describes from Raymond Roussel’s scenes, similar to that mirror that Roussel offers his work in the moment of dieing and which he places in front of it. In a gesture barely defined of clarification and precaution, endowed with a strange type of magic he makes the central figure in the painting move towards the back, where the lines blur, distancing further away the place where the revelation takes place, but at the same time bringing closer, with a sort of strange myopia, what lies beyond the moment when the painting speaks. As the figure comes forward, the secret becomes more and more dense. Time is brought to a halt again, like in Mallarmé’s mime, capable of monumentalizing the present. For Mallarmé mime is a medium of pure fiction; there is no representation but rather a copy without any previous model. It is true that in Elespe’s case the model exists, but the relationship between the model and the copy is disturbed, as if obeying to a sort of reduplication without any origin, the same as that that Derrida bestows to Mallarmé’s mime.
The material that Elespe’s painting is made from is poetic material, pure mental experience, like the trap-painting that Matisse proposed to paint. Elespe reduces all the narrative meat in order to terminate his meaning in a sort of secret noise, a seizure of the enigmatic, where it is impossible to speak. In many cases the scene, like that recalled by Tadeusz Kantor, is like a cemetery. Because everything in Elespe appears to have the tendency to disappear, to crumble to pieces. His is a dispelled painting, with figures and phantom architectures, solitary like a figure in mime. Without identity and without any voice, there is only a name left, the titles lost in cartouches that give no clues to their enigmatic, uncomfortable location, adopting postures more in line with a straightjacket.
As Pasolini pointed out, by turning just a millimetre away from the angle from where one observes is sufficient for our vision of the world to be completely different. And this is what happens with Elespe’s works, subtly absorbed in a fine sense of humour – as Ken Johnson points out with relation to his first works. The vibrant quality of Jerónimo Elespe’s painting can be found in that of Giuseppe Abbati. And also in the strength of classical authors like Antonello da Messina and his minimum three quarter portraits, anonymous, androgynous and with a deep gaze, like Elespe’s figures. In a more obvious, more contemporary way, we could talk about Karem Kilimnik, or of how he has been compared with practically all of traditional Spanish painting that has followed American footsteps. Avoiding what could be deemed as exotic in this vision, there is of course truth in Elepse’s debt to Velázquez or Goya. For example one of Goya’s works comes to mind in this sense which transmits a larger uncertainty or sense of anxiety: that of Perro semihundido (The dog on the leash). The human gaze of the dog appears to be equally frightened, melancholic and reflexive. Goya’s pessimistic gaze does not allow us to decide whether the dog is sinking or being saved. The land appears as unstable and uncertain as our own thoughts, like in Elespe’s works. Nevertheless, I think that Philip Guston in particular is one of the pictorial atmospheres most present not only in his work, or in his way of painting but above all in the way of capturing the essence of his art, and reflecting it on canvas. The moment has passed and Guston’s swollen fingers are in Elespe faces that appear to disappear like the grey cigarette smoke in Guston. Deliberately awkward, in some of Guston’s works it is easy to deduce an interest for metaphysical artists like De Chirico. But it is also possible to think of Giotto, Piero della Francesca, or in Beckett’s absurd, in comics, in Kafka’s existential anxiety and Goya’s sense of unease. And all of these references are present in Jerónimo Elespe’s work. In both works time prevails over life; the starting point is the anecdote but the object of reflection is fundamental and universal: man, architecture and landscape... For this reason, as in poetry, his paintings are conformed of empty spaces and silences and from there radiates that sense of enigma. In that way, his painting, functions like those three lives that García Márquez described: a public life, a private life and a secret life.
On the other hand it is tempting to catalogue or classify Elespe’s work together with that of a series of artists that whilst working with a smaller format, try out a sort of social portrait, artists like Elisabeth Peyton that steal their images from magazines like People or from MTV. His is a type of realism, at times distorting, that can also be found in works like those of Kilimnik, that mix together stories born from every-day gossip together with a dosage of imagination in order to give meaning to a confused reality that reaches us through the media. Although, performing from the minimum, through small brush strokes, scrapes and incisions that render the painting into a physical object, Jerónimo Elespe reminds us more of the psychological simplicity and atmosphere of aforementioned artists like Antonello da Messina, painting what is trivial with a tension that could also take us to other “odd” artists, such as Balthus or John Currin.
But if something is fundamental in Jerónimo Elespe’s works it is the importance of light. Like in Máxime’s last landscapes, but even more violent and wounded. When I think of Turner and in how John Berger speaks to us about a violence expressed by means of water, wind and fire, which in occasions appears to be a quality that belongs only to the light. The light devours the visible world and makes each of Elespe’s brushstrokes vibrate and shine. Small brushstrokes, small, but accurate and refined. Because if there is something that Elespe can achieve it is to temper the painting, as if it were a piano.
Jerónimo Elespe’s painting is a result of an abysm of the gaze, like the descent to the Maelström narrated by Edgar Allan Poe: “At first I was too much confused to observe anything accurately. The general burst of terrific grandeur was all that I beheld”. My confusion and doubt lies in wondering whether they are too many words for something as overwhelmingly simple as Jerónimo Elespe’s work, always in search of tension, of a minimum argument, the different degrees of privacy and a certain magic of what is real capable of turning itself into a tone, or an atmosphere. Capable of tempering with paint.