Juan Genovés


Juan Genovés – Recent Work

Martin Coomer

See how they run. Charging across an unmodulated terrain dozens of tiny figures flee the ominous, circular form that threatens to consume everything in its path. It resembles a whirlwind, or perhaps a UFO. Either way, the abstract motif in Juan Genovés’ painting Rodamiento initially reads as a harbinger of doom. But look again. On closer inspection the form consists not of one circle but two, one floating across the other like a planet and its beautiful, benign moon. And not everyone appears to flee. Towards the bottom of the picture spectators stand, awestruck or simply unconcerned.Read less

Their stillness interrupts our reading of the image and causes us to question the nature of the event. The title of the painting, Rodamiento – meaning ball bearing – is suggestive but leads us only so far. We may think of humans as mere cogs in the machine – in control of our destiny to a degree and armed with strategies for engagement and avoidance, but subject in the end to the whims of fate, just part of the throng. Or, perhaps as the artist intends, we may think in a more abstract sense about dynamics and flows, earthly and celestial, enjoying from our lofty vantage point the painterly rhythms that activate the balletic scene below. And as we do so we may become explicitly aware of our own movement as we pace back and forth in front of the painting, trying to get a conceptual foothold on this mercurial image.

Frontera, 2009
Frontera, 2009

Rodamiento is typical of Genovés’ art in that it dramatises a contradiction. There is at once a sense of the group as a cohesive whole and a sense of separation, loneliness, even dread as experienced in the modern city – a feeling of man reduced to iron filings moved by an unseen magnet or dust motes floating on a capricious breeze. The unsettling condition of seeing mankind beautiful and distant from, one assumes, a position of power – not part of the throng but floating high above it – immediately challenges our understanding of ‘us’ and ‘them’. Part of the rabble or remote viewer: which side are we on?

Whether we come together in celebration or in protest, crowds and power are forever interlinked. Group psychologists would find acres of material in the ambiguities of movement and motivation that occur within Genovés’ paintings. Non-experts may prefer to begin with ostensibly simple works such as Barrera and Frontera, both monochrome canvases traversed, one horizontally, the other diagonally, by a pale line that sets up a striking division on the picture plane – a barrier to which hordes are drawn but dare not cross. Here, a repressive power structure and a sense of the forbidden are made explicit, and the obedience of the assembled crowd creates a sense of agitation in the viewer equal to the vibrations of colour that denote the figures on either side of the divide. These are beautiful, unsettling images. We wade into their simple, illusory spaces fully aware that somebody is pulling the strings.

Monolito is rather different and even more complex. Here we seem much closer to the action, watching figures assemble before a fringed oval form that reads as both positive and negative space, a solid – the monolith before the worshipping crowd – and a void, with all its attendant connotations of sex and death. Genovés plays with ideas of presence, absence and transcendence – the notion of losing oneself before an exulted object or image, or in the formlessness of the crowd. The painting brings to mind the Kantian idea of the sublime as being dangerous because to experience it one might fall into the abyss. Of course, Genovés keeps us on the brink, using his wry detachment to question the nature of the gathering. His strategy seems devised to point out the folly of worship.

Perhaps it is unhelpful to identify too strongly with the figures in Genovés’ paintings, since what the work lacks, pointedly so, is narrative. The figures painted by Genovés have wandered or run into these evocative arenas and become caught up in some kind of action only to find themselves if not frozen (the colourful swarms and strong directional shadows in Genovés paintings always denote a degree of animation) then paused. Certainly the paintings contain stories – the people have come from somewhere and are heading somewhere else – but they do not seek to illustrate specific events. And our own stories, the ones we inevitably conjure up around the paintings, always end as a kind of puzzle.

El abrazo, 1976
El abrazo, 1976

Yet we cannot fail to invent possibilities around the scenarios suggested by Genovés’ art. The paintings strike such a chord because the schematised places they describe are indelibly inscribed on our memory. There is no such thing as a blank, unambiguous space, Genovés’ paintings remind us and as the mind scrambles and scrolls back through time, we start to recall past mass gatherings on streets and in squares the world over. Looking at Barrera and Frontera, we inevitably conjure images of political and ideological boundaries, or think of crowd scenes immortalised by filmmakers such as Sergei Eisenstein, Fritz Lang or Cecil B De Mille. Everywhere in Genovés’ paintings are considerations of power, pursuit, resistance, displacement and dislocation. The echoes are inescapable.

Inescapable too are the biographical details that punctuate such an illustrious career. Born in Valencia in 1930, Genovés developed his artistic language during the repression of Franco’s regime. Influenced by modern cinema and photography, and adopting some of the tenets of Pop Art, Genovés arrived at an elegant, critical and deeply affecting means of expressing the anxiety and desperation experienced by many under the military dictatorship. Works such as Objectivo, 1968, a stampeding mass as seen through a long lens or a gun sight are now regarded as seminal images in the history of political art. Created near the end of Franco’s regime, El Abrazo (The Embrace), 1976, quickly became an icon of reconciliation. When posters of the image were printed and circulated, Genovés was detained and held in solitary confinement for seven days and some 25,000 posters were destroyed.

Power, pursuit, resistance, displacement… What makes these early works remarkable is the degree of objectivity that the young artist was able to bring to such charged subject matter, the cool intelligence at work. Early on in his career Genovés realised that a degree of detachment is necessary for a painting to achieve far-reaching relevance. Yet the manner in which Genovés produces his imagery is always more complex than first impressions imply. To be near to one of Genovés’ recent paintings is to experience time and movement occurring at a very different pace. Up close, the eye stumbles over a dissonant surface. At this proximity one notices that the bodies of Genovés’ figures are composed of excrescences of paint, and that the variously mottled and striated appearance of these forms bears a close relationship to the larger, free-flowing gestures, pours and drips that demarcate and activate each painting. Paint as flesh, paint as itself. The descriptive potential of the medium and its material presence spark to create yet another rhythm.

There is a playfulness about these recent paintings that suggests a celebratory basis for some of Genovés painted gatherings. Yet we do not need to be reminded that violence and oppression are no less prevalent in society than they were 50 years ago when Genovés began his artistic journey. In Britain, the nation most watched by CCTV, we can hardly fail to notice the Orwellian implications of Genovés’ art, or recognise the sort of herding that increasingly seems to denote contemporary work and leisure time. We might also ponder the ways in which art is caught up in this world of spectatorship and mass entertainment. Such considerations abound in Genovés quizzical paintings. He gives us no answers. Instead, painting becomes a site of transition. Ultimately, the world as painted by Genovés, the one we so keenly recognise, is revealed to be a kind of dance – unpredictable, disorientating, absurd, unstoppable. Humanity is spread before us, we identify with it and perhaps move a little differently as we dissolve into the crowd.

Martin Coomer

Text originally published in the catalogue for the show “Juan Genovés – Recent Paintings”, Marlborough Fine Art, London, 29th October – 28th November 2009.