Friday, November 8, 2013

Entry - 11.8.13

Kunisada - Scenes from Kabuki Plays - 1856

Mea culpa!  A few weeks ago, a friend brought to my attention that he had attempted to comment on my blog but wasn't permitted to.  Nothing frustrates me more than when I take the time to perform some lengthy function on an internet site only, upon nearing the end of the process, to discover that I don't have rights or that my credit card number is required.  I've adjusted my Blogger settings accordingly, tested the results and can state with a modicum of confidence that your comments will be posted. My apologies.

For the last month or so, I’ve been working on a project inspired by the fact that we ended up with a lot of recyclable bricks after having some work done on our property.  Ever thrifty, my wife and I tossed about some ideas of what we could make out of the old bricks, finally settling on a fire pit of my own design, a low half circle of brick backed by a wall of about hip height.  Nothing extravagant, just a warm place to sit at on cool evenings, enjoy a glass of wine and watch the sunset.

I’ve never done brickwork before, but, being ever the optimist when tackling some household project, I thought to myself: how hard can this be?  I mean you’re basically piling up a bunch of bricks and slapping some mortar in between.  So, while the masons were at the house, I spent about ten minutes watching them at work and attempted to glean a few tips from them on technique.  I learned that masons are not very talkative.  Undaunted, I performed the obligatory internet search and watched a couple of videos on the art of bricklaying, some of which were informative, a bit anally so, and some chaotic and slipshod.

I was ready to begin.

The first day, I worked eight hours straight and accomplished very little.  I put down my initial row of bricks and removed it twice before finally settling on my third attempt.  My guide line shifted with the slightest breeze.  The finicky bubble in my level verified that my ankle-high wall was already neither level nor plumb.  Mortar oozed out between bricks and ran down the face of the wall.  At the end of the day, I came into the house like a zombie, muscles I didn’t even know I had aching and throbbing painfully.  I forced myself to eat before hitting the carpet and falling asleep.  It was literally days before I could walk normally.

I had found a new respect for masons.

Over the next couple of weekends, I continued to work on the fire pit, never devoting an eight hour stretch to the job again.  With time and experience, I learned to keep my mortar at the right consistency, to control the amount of mortar that got placed between bricks and to make my wall a little more level and plumb.  I ended up spending about five times the hours that an experienced mason would have needed to complete the job, and, even then, the results were disappointing.  The outer rim of the pit dips noticeably on one side, and the rear wall wavers and juts in several places.  The finished product has an Antoni Gaudí feel to it, unfortunately, not deliberately so.

Lest someone with a kind heart should look at the preceding photo and assert consolingly that my creation looks pretty damn good, I include below documentation of the professionals’ labor.

And here’s my point: it takes years of education and practice to attain true craftsmanship.  Recently, there was a period in the art world when craftsmanship was disparaged and experimentation was promoted excessively, much to the profit of conservators and restorers.  I’m not disputing the value of innovation.  Experimentation is essential to art, both technically and intellectually.  It breathes life into stale tradition and opens up new means to address imagery and form.  It permits each generation to believe itself uniquely enlightened and at war with the canons established by the old guard.  But I believe it would be preferable to seek a balance between craftsmanship and experimentation.  For instance, if Leonardo da Vinci hadn’t employed experimental techniques when painting The Last Supper, the work would not have become compromised within just decades after its completion.  Albert Pinkham Ryder’s experimentation with pigments and binders led to his work’s rapid deterioration, pigments congealing and layers sloughing off with gravity, painting surfaces revealing severe cracking.  And, of course, aiming to make art less of a commodity, less precious, many modernists deliberately utilized materials and techniques that they knew would lead quickly to deterioration.  Hopefully, today, “craftsmanship” is no longer such a dirty word.  Craftsmanship permits an artist to control his results, to achieve desired effects consistently and efficiently, to create works that will endure for generations to come.
What better introduction could there be to the work of Antonio López García than an endorsement of craftsmanship?  I was unfamiliar with the work of this talented Spaniard until my wife bought me a monograph on him about a year ago.  Flipping through the plates in the book, I was immediately impressed with his skill and virtuosity, how his relatively loose and varied brushwork could impart a convincing illusion of visual reality and how he habitually tackled subject matter so complex and detailed that most artists would shy away from it.  Not only were his paintings magnificent, but his bas reliefs and sculpture were very accomplished as well.
I couldn’t find a lot of biographical information about López García.  It seems that his life has been fairly uneventful, no clashes with popes, no murders committed from which to flee, never cut off any body parts, never urinated in Peggy Guggenheim’s fireplace.  López García was born in Tomelloso, Cíudad Real in Spain on January 6, 1936.  In 1949, he moved to Madrid to prepare for his entrance examination to the Escuela de Bellas Artes de San Fernando.  He studied from 1950 to 1955, after which he traveled to Italy on a grant from the Spanish Minister of Education.  In 1961, he married fellow painter, Maria Moreno, with whom, today, he has two daughters.  The remainder of his biography is essentially a list of shows, commissions and awards.
López García is a founding member of a group of artists known as the “Madrid Realists”.  Unlike the American photorealists who generally copied photographs using a mechanized means of enlargement and painting with airbrushes, López García works from life employing traditional techniques.
López García’s technique is deceiving.  From a distance, his paintings give the impression that they are incredibly detailed and illusionistic, with transitions between pigments carefully blended.  In truth, his work is very painterly, immediate and intuitive, relying on the viewer’s eye to translate his markings into recognizable form.
López Garcia - Skinned Rabbit - 1972

López Garcia - Skinned Rabbit (detail) - 1972

The label “realist” has been applied to artists as diverse as Gustave Courbet, Otto Dix, Paul Cadmus, Richard Estes and Lucian Freud, artists whose means and goals vary greatly.  At this time, in the art world, the term “realism” has lost all meaning except to define work that results from a vague desire to represent form in an identifiable fashion.  Categorizing López García as a “realist” really does very little to help us better understand his work.  Let’s see what I can come up with.
I want to focus for the moment on López García’s series of bathroom paintings, the work I personally most admire in his oeuvre.  He repeatedly chose to depict this unusual subject matter from the mid-1960’s through the early 70’s.


López Garcia - Toilet - 1966

López Garcia - Sink and Mirror - 1967

López Garcia - Toilet and Window - 1968 to 71

I can’t help but wonder why López García became fixated on the bathroom.  Of course, for an artist seeking to accurately record external reality, the bathroom provides the ideal subject matter.  There are so many challenges to address there: mirrors, intricately patterned tiles, dully polished porcelain, gleaming chrome and translucent windows.  And opting to paint an interior space would permit López García to work continuously for months without being interrupted by inclement weather or having to address radically changing light.  But I believe López García’s interest in his subject matter had to go further.  Outside of the kitchen, there is probably no room in the home which is more utilitarian than the bathroom.  To perform its multiple functions, the bathroom relies on a number of technologies that have evolved over time: sinks, tubs, toilets, faucets, drains, lighting, waterproofing and heating.  Hidden from view, the walls and floors conceal working systems: plumbing, wiring, ventilation, heating pipes and ducts.  In many ways, the room resembles the human body with its vast array of organs and systems.  López García presents us with a functioning bathroom equipped with a host of grooming, medicinal and hygienic supplies.  And, lastly, the artist records the deterioration, the rust, the mildew and staining that inevitably results from habitual use.  In these works, López García is painstakingly documenting a microcosm, a terrarium of sorts, with its working systems, private dramas and cycles of growth and decay.
“Trying to understand the physical world was, to put it simply, what led many to modernity and abstraction.  It led me, specifically, to pursue a form of realism that made sense.”   -    Antonio López García
López García approaches all his subject matter with a similar objective, to attain a more comprehensive understanding of its functions and workings.  When painting a view of a city, he documents the street grid, the traffic signals, dividers and lane markings; private houses, apartment complexes, commercial buildings with cooling towers, advertising signs and tiers of windows; parks, squares and clusters of trees.  His skinned rabbit gives the appearance of having undergone dissection, muscles, sheathing, fatty deposits, veins, sinews and organs exposed for our examination.


López Garcia - Gran Via - 1974 to 81

López Garcia - Madrid visto desde Torres Blancas - 1976 to 82

López García is also a very accomplished sculptor.  As with his painting, his technique is deceptively utilitarian, the surfaces of his work being pitted, clotted and scored, reminiscent of the sculpture of Auguste Rodin and Aristide Maillol.  I say “deceptively” because the overall effect suggests careful examination and precise documentation.

López Garcia - Man and Woman - 1968 to 94

López García’s Man and Woman, contrary to its title, does not present us with prototypes of the male and female human form, does not idealize the features, figures and proportions of its two subjects.  López García depicts two specific individuals: the man bald and standing contrapposto; the woman poses soberly, her hairstyle dated, her body short and high-waisted, her toes pointing outward.  They are a strangely mismatched pairing, presenting precisely the kind of visual anomaly that results from real life couplings and groupings.  The sculptures, placed frontally side-by-side and separated by a few feet, establish an uncanny presence that the viewer cannot help but acknowledge.  By documenting these two figures so convincingly, López García plays the role of Pygmalion, bringing inert material to life.

López Garcia - Night - 2008

López Garcia - La Mujer de Coslada - 2010

López García has been commissioned to execute a number of public works, outdoor sculptures located throughout Madrid.  The two works I present here show subjects that have been greatly enlarged and presented fragmentally.  Initially, I was surprised that  López García chose to distort reality in this fashion and thought that these works related most closely to his early paintings and reliefs (not included here) that were anchored in surrealism.  Upon subsequent examination and consideration, I realize that I was wrong, that these public sculptures function very much like López García’s mature paintings.  The paintings, by exhibiting an almost superhuman effort of observation and documentation, confront the viewer with a subject matter and force him to reevaluate or reconsider his understanding of that subject matter.  López García uses size to similar purpose in his public work.  These colossal apparitions, placed seemingly in haphazard fashion in everyday active environments, cannot be ignored, cannot be walked past unawares.  The pedestrian must consider these forms, to note how the proportions of a child’s head differ from those of an adult’s, to take pleasure in the plump ripeness of the baby’s cheeks, to feel the weight of the woman’s hair gathered in a snood, to observe how the neck muscles support the upturned head, to appreciate her firm, youthful breasts, to study her navel situated a few feet above the pavement.
López García is not a young man.  He is an established artist, whose best known work was produced in the 1960’s and 70’s.  He is represented by the prestigious Marlborough Gallery, and, in 2008, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts presented a solo show of his work.  And yet, in this country his work is relatively unknown.  It’s about time that his work should enjoy wider consideration.  Besides the handful of images that I’ve presented here, you can find plenty of others on the internet.  Take a look.
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