Diving into the Unknown
The painter Jose Manuel Ciria arrived in New York in 2005, determined to change his life. Abandoning the security of Madrid where he had long enjoyed critical acclaim and commercial success, he wanted nothing less than to find a way to see differently and to create paintings with what he calls “more freshness and strength.” Fearing that he would become repetitious, he saw leaving home as the only way to break his patterns and enter into a new stage of creativity.
Looking at the magisterial and sensual works that he has produced over the past 25 years –many of them now in museums and private collections– it is hard to imagine that anyone would ever describe them as anything less than fresh and powerful. They touch the psyche with volcanic eruptions of red, black, white and gray paint, random splashes and drips, violent juxtapositions of anthropomorphic shapes, dancing calligraphy, fierce masks and catapulting atoms. But since he began painting as a child, first in Manchester, England, where his family lived until he was eight years old, and later in Madrid in high school and on his own, he has never stopped searching for more profound and effective ways to transfer his thoughts to canvas.
In New York, Ciria began from scratch, forcing himself to find another direction and a different way of being an artist. He soon felt freer and less encumbered by the weight of European artistic tradition. Today having achieved a new state, he produces highly emotional works that dramatically mesh figuration and abstraction, those two supposedly opposite poles of art. With the “Schandenmaske” (Carnival Masks) series, the line equals the gesture in importance. And instead of the entire canvas being fluid, now movement is largely contained within the framework of the masks or in the geometric shapes of the “Liquid Gloss”, “Compartments”, “The Dauphin Paintings”, “Masks of the Gaze”… series. In his new minimal drawings, he shows the complexity and depth of the oval geometric shape, which could be a head and often does take on human characteristics. These heads are sometimes split in two or seemingly wrapped in string. There are also flying shapes like birds, and others that could be shields or masks. But for all their control, these new works are among the wildest and most exhilarating paintings and drawings that he has ever done.
Naturally they share qualities with those of his past but they also radiate a different, more open spirit – just as he had hoped. He has often said that a painter always paints the same picture or that one always comes back to the same place. But the difference now is that he returns to the same place a more mature, sharper and experienced artist, which makes all the difference in the world.
It took time and resolution for Ciria to reinvent himself in New York. But he already understood the arduous process of being an artist. As a child, his parents encouraged his interest in art, supplying him with supplies and space to work. He received similar support from his teachers in England. One day he drew a tiger and an elephant in a tramp. His teacher liked the picture so much that she framed it in cardboard. He liked that sensation. Back in Spain, in a religion class, he was given the task of drawing scenes from the Bible in four different rooms. At first, he made them small but after awhile growing more confident, he drew them bigger and bigger. This compensated to some degree for his shyness.
In England, he was called the little Spaniard, and when the family moved back to Madrid, he got the nickname the little Englishman. One way or another, he had to adjust to being an outsider. His father, who managed a restaurant in Madrid, would ask his artist customers if they would invite him to their studios, and by his teens, he was already becoming familiar with Madrid’s art scene. As it turned out though, his parents only saw his painting as a hobby and wanted him to prepare for a profession, such as architecture.
Since Ciria’s parents didn’t approve of his studying fine arts at the university, he has to pay for himself. He began working in several jobs, renting small studios in which to paint. He recalls the philistine landlady who, finding his wet canvases drying in the hallway, ruined them by piling them up together, the apartment no bigger than one of his canvases and another where he had to remove paintings before taking a shower in order to bathe. Eventually, he found a suitable place, and until the mid-80s, he was relatively content creating figurative work that won an appreciative audience. But he really wanted to paint abstractly. He made experiments, many of which he now thinks were probably interesting, though at the time they didn’t lead him anywhere that he wanted to go. Always a severe critic of his own work, he destroyed them. He still does the same thing today when a painting doesn’t meet his standards.
For Ciria, the late ‘80s were a period of extreme self-doubt. He knew that though one can study to be an architect, a doctor, a lawyer, or a veterinarian, no one can show you how to be an artist. The classes at the university in Art History and Theory might be interesting but you have to become an artist entirely on your own.
At a friend’s suggestion, he began reading the writings of artists and distinguished art critics, like Wassily Kandinsky, Clement Greenberg, Arthur Danto and Walter Benjamin, as well as philosophy and semantic theory from Ludwig Wittgenstein to Noam Chomsky, and the aesthetic contributions of Kazimir Malevich and Joseph Beuys. Inspired by their ideas, he came to value historical knowledge and the assimilation of tradition.
Ciria opened more windows and started investigating painting from the inside. He compares his approach to that of a young medical student learning his discipline through dissecting a cadaver. His immersion in criticism and history taught him that to continue he would have to talk about something in his work; it would have to have meaning. Nonetheless, he remained stuck in aesthetic limbo for two years, finally emerging with a series called “Hombres, Manos, Formas orgánicas y Signos” (“Men, Hands, Organic forms and Signs”).
Two groups in the series showed an abstract leaning that he then only had to develop. He also had to construct an underpinning, a theoretical system for this new stage – what he calls a platform. In 1990, he began developing the foundations of his thinking in writings, which tied together the various interests that drove his painting during this period. He collected his thoughts in a notebook that he now always keeps with him. Enlightening in its revelations of his methods, it has been published in Spain.
After exhaustive analyses, Ciria chose time, memory and experience as his themes, referring to both their personal and universal interpretations. Throughout the following decade, he applied a variety of techniques, while bringing a wide array of elements into his paintings, among them words and photographs. He invented a work method for himself, which he named Automatic Deconstructive Abstraction (ADA), in an attempt to distance himself from the image of creative passivity transmitted by gestural artists, transformed into a pure act of creative nature.
A descendant of Andre Breton and Max Ernst’s surrealist theories, particularly the concept of abandonment, consciousness and performance as fundamental to creativity, ADA serves him as an approach to work. He has always had an affinity for surrealism and its search for the accidental, though art is always, to a greater or lesser extent, a controlled act. He balanced that spontaneity with gestural and geometric traditions.
During the 15 years that he based his work on ADA, Ciria says he did not have to think, as he knew he would always work with the same elements, though, of course, in different combinations and series each time. He says that ADA was “the engine, the machine” that drove him to transfer his theories to canvas. He also says that often once he has started on a painting, it starts to tell him certain things and he has to listen. Novelists say the same thing of their characters.
Tools are as crucial to him as his theories. In the series “Mnemosyne”, which he made in 1994, he used plastic canvas as a way of prolonging chance activity on the space. The choice of plastic canvas subjected his paintings to the circumstances of the terrain, which imposed its own discontinuities. Their impermeability and slipperiness allowed complete continuous freedom of the flow of the pictorial material that he painted on the horizontal canvas. This led to accidents, splashes, dots, smudges, stains and the running together of shapes. Before those experiments, he had used all kind of supports and surfaces.
These marks resemble the accidental things that occur and affect life. At one time or another, he has also incorporated a teddy bear, keys, and coins in his paintings, and applied paint with steel wire, in his “Constructed Dreams” series. He thrives on combining order and chaos and both figure prominently in his work, producing formidable tension and power.
A New Beginning
Ciria has compared painting to breathing, saying, “sometimes you have to breathe in and sometimes you have to breathe out – there are wild days and restrained days.” His first year in New York, many of his days were nothing but difficult. Until he got his visa, he had to leave the United States every three months. He would work in Madrid and then have to begin all over again every time he returned to New York. He felt lost and schizophrenic, frustrated in his ability to make a new start. In preparation for his move, he had been making sketches and drawings for two years, protecting them in a heavy metal box like a child does precious found objects.
On settling in the city, it took him several weeks to find good places to buy canvases, paints and other materials. He didn’t bring anything with him from Madrid, as part of the regimen he imposed of himself to leave everything behind. Finally, he had what he needed to work and was ready to start. After lunch one day, he returned to his first studio, which was located on 35th St. near Eighth Avenue in the midst of the bustling garment district, made himself a Scotch and opened the box with great anticipation. But much to dismay, the contents now meant nothing to him.
Ciria realized that the jottings had been good for the moment he made them but that months later, they were meaningless. He tried painting without them, soon depressed to see that he was working as he had in Madrid, quite a blow since he had taken such pains to see that he would not repeat himself. More than a little desperate, he confesses that he began leaving his window slightly open every night to let the muses come inside. He waited and waited, to no avail. Then he took a lesson from his past and turned to reading, this time choosing to thoroughly investigate Malevich, whose Suprematist movement had always attracted him. It wasn’t that much of a leap: they already shared a palette consisting mainly of red, white and black, and a liking for geometric shapes.
He admired the Russian painter because he had brought abstract art to a geometric simplicity more radical than anything previously seen, first by creating a picture that consisted of nothing more than a black square on a white field. In rebellion against the Soviet suppression of individuality, he painted figures with blank faces. These blank faces could also be seen as tabulae rasa, blank slates on which something new could be written. Using them as a historic springboard, he began a series of paintings in tribute to his last works, created in the mid-1920s. He applied primer and backgrounds to about 20, mostly large format, canvases, and with renewed energy, began playing with blots and lines and geometric shapes, in completely original ways.
He was more than a little surprised by the results. Before he started this series, he had said that he would let his painting cool down or freeze, and would avoid spilling, ripping and using gesture. Now he realized that what he was doing was going back to drawing as the framework for his compositions. Via Malevich, he returned to the figurative, loaded with spiritual ammunition. This return to figurative order implied an intermediate step to new horizons. The abstractions in the “La Guardia Place” series (2006-2008), which were painted with a reduced palette of blacks, grays, whites and occasional reds, could be “read” as figurative deformations, with their heads, torsos and enigmatic anatomical details. Malevich had led him away from his old way of working. He reveled in abandoning the formal nuances of European painting and becoming more at home with what he calls “North American rawness.”
After finishing the first paintings in “La Guardia Place” series, Ciria wanted to create freer works that would be more minimal and less complex. But this time he did not have to endure a long painful process before starting nor wonder whether European artistic values, like giving the most value to how a work was made, still had too much influence on him. He knew that all he had to do to reinvent himself was to take a pencil in hand and draw. He began with a small simple drawing of a head. When he painted it in oil, he found that it looked like an abstraction. When he put something inside the shape, it looked figurative. He liked that ambiguity, the impossibility of reading the drawing only in one particular way.
This led him to the concept behind the “Schandenmaske” series. He believes that we all wear masks, and that we are in actuality three people, not one: we are the person we think we are, the person we really are, and the person others see. Always keen on applying his philosophies, he took this one step further into his art. To his thinking, the painting of the mask, like a person, can be seen in three ways, then there is what an artist sets out to do, what the work really becomes and what the viewer sees in it. For example, from a distance, viewers might see an abstraction as only the structure and one or two lines, rather like a landscape, then from a medium distance where they might see more details and colors, and finally close up, see how all the colors work together and appear integrated. These thoughts became the underlying inspiration for these striking paintings, which do indeed demand both close and distant observation.
In Ciria’s newest paintings in the “La Guardia Place” series (2007-2008), he is motivated by the same philosophical theory, in electrifying works such as “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’ ”, named for the song, which bursts with huge, geometric shapes and Pollock-like splashes, dots and dribbles that have been a part of his paintings from the very beginning. These shapes also dominate “Look for the seven differences” and “Rattrapante (Speedy)”, appearing to be contiguous or evolving planets or molecules, while in “Flying pants (Version II)” and “Miracles in the anxiety”, they look like faceless bodies supporting one another in a kind of melodic interplay. Everywhere there is motion: in “Dark Rainbow,” swirling lines threaten to fly off the canvas, like a tornado.
Since obtaining his visa in 2006, he no longer has to leave New York on a regular basis. In any case, he is now so comfortable here that he does not feel any difference between working in the two cities. Before he goes to Madrid though, he has his assistants prepare canvases and begin working with the stretchers that will be the basis of his paintings. He recently began using thermic aslant there, a shiny, silvery surface that is customarily used in air conditioners installations.
To work on this supports, he uses epoxy acrylic paint instead of oil and varnish, which makes it even shinier. He says that his “La Guardia Place” series is indestructible, and probably will not change for 500 years. He felt it was time for him to do works that would slowly spoil, similar in one sense to the series “Mnemosyne”, which he painted in the ‘90s, which quickly disappeared because it was painted on plastic and with tested acid elements. It is a series that only would live in the memory of the viewers and in the photographs in the catalogues.
For quite some time, Ciria has thought about doing installations and videos, as he believes abstraction is not the best way to show the concrete. He recognizes that some of his ideas could be developed in a photograph or an installation rather than in a painting but painting is where he is at home. Never having gone with trends, he knows that through his studies and experiments that he can be as contemporary with brushes, oil colors and canvases as he might be with ostensibly more modern tools.
Searching for the Universal
Ciria would not be content without a new theory to spur him to greater depths of understanding. He tells of a recent realization that occurred in that period between deep sleep and awakening, when one can make dreams to his liking. Instead of putting the letters ADA in the order he has long used them, he changed the order to DAA. He decided they would stand for Dynamic of Alpha Alignments, prompting him to do nothing less challenging than to begin making connections between works of Western art over the last one thousand years. It is his way of more deeply investigating paintings’ structures.
He explains DAA by saying that, it would be great if we could make a program for computers that could trace resemblances between paintings over the centuries. For instance, he has been able to find similarities in structure, points of weight, lines of tension and peripheral traction elements between late 19th century Swiss symbolist painter Arnold Bocklin’s in his “The Centaurs” and Robert Motherwell’s masterful series, “Elegy to the Spanish Republic.” Apparently, he has also discovered a great resemblance between Anselm Kiefer’s “Palette with Wings” and Leonardo Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper”. He would like to discover if these transpire because of recurring psychological and artistic impulses or for other reasons. He is now compiling a list of paintings that fit these patterns in order to determine whether there are universal structures in painting, as there are in literature.
But that’s not Ciria’s only current area of research. Years ago, he also flirted with the idea of finding out how people look at art. Where does the glance begin? Where does it pause? What determines the choices? He jokes that he is as much as a scientist as an artist but he is dead serious. His constant need to question, investigate and develop hypotheses is one reason that his work has such incredible power and resonance, a challenge to the ephemeral nature of contemporary culture. Another reason is that he never stops working until he has created what for that particular moment is the best painting he has ever done.