Juan Genovés


The Glance And Power. An Introduction To The Painting Of Juan Genovés

Eduardo Subirats

The incorporation of technical resources, full of the understanding of reality, takes place in two fundamental ways in twentieth century art. The first of these is “positive”, constructive and could be said to be not at all in favour of the tendency towards technical, scientific progress in the field of audiovisual media: reproduction, production and broadcasting. The artist works with these new technical instruments as a means of creating a new linguistic reality and as such, as an experience of the world. These new instruments such as the camera, the video or the computer are integrated into the composition and creation of the piece of art which is musical or architectural etc. This is the case in installation art, for example.Read less

There is also a second way of incorporating the experience and the vision of the production and technical reproduction of images: a “negative” way that is distant, complex, contradictory and thoughtful. This consists of incorporating technically produced images by treating them and “reflecting” them through a completely different technical means. There is a classic example of pioneers of this method: the assimilation of a kinetic image from the cinema in futurist painting which is the beginning of “simultaneity”.

La espera, 1965
La espera, 1965

This preliminary summary is necessary as it is an aesthetic introduction to an elemental and fundamental aspect that defines all of the work of the contemporary painter Juan Genovés. It is an introduction that allows us to define the starting-point of his painting or perhaps more precisely his point of view. I refer specifically to a series of oil paintings painted in the sixties, such as ‘The Wait’, ‘The Escape’, ‘Point of View’, ‘Grouping’ etc, in which the artist reproduces through the technical medium of the canvas, the vision of human masses produced by the technical medium of a zoom lens.

Punto de mira II, 1966
Punto de mira II, 1966

Aesthetically, or to be more precise, formally speaking, these paintings ‘The Escape’ and ‘The Wait’ (1965), ‘Point of View’ and ‘Approximation’ (1966), ‘The Wedge’ (1967) etc, are reproductions of the image of human crowds through the technical instrument that is the zoom lens. You could even paraphrase Alberti who said that Genovés’ paintings were a peep through a zoom lens aimed at an anonymous mass of humans who are subject to a coercive order of terror.

Genovés describes, through these fundamental moments of his first paintings, a power structure: a simple, direct and repressive power that violently organises the crowd through death or distant and cold terror. A death that traces, through threat, the clear division of a limit of what is forbidden: “the Wait”, “Approximation”. And a death whose first expression is the visual image of the eyepiece of the rangefinder: the lethal target.

These paintings reflect, respond to and express a particular time: General Franco’s military dictatorship during the sixties; years in which the historical and archaic, despotic intolerance of this regime became a colossal display of suppressed, repressive violence. But these paintings at the same time define a more wide reaching reality. It is no surprise that they quickly became, and still are, a universal image for totalitarian regimes and the police violence that defines them.

In Genovés’ later paintings, painted during the sixties and seventies we find multiple variations of the same subject. These differences are in part formal. In some of these paintings Genovés uses bright colours, geometric rhythms and a great many artistic elements that give the paintings an atmospheric value, an ornamental expression, a personal value that makes them identifiable and also an affirmative and conciliatory meaning. But some of the new oil paintings substantially modify the previous point of view. The lethal target seems to suddenly get closer to its victim. The painting abandons its distant viewpoint through the range finder. It also abandons its position on high above the crowds, that is to say its position of the figure of power. It even abandons, at least partially, its anonymity.

This change is, for the present, of a linguistic nature. The series that I have mentioned earlier, and in particular ‘Point of View’, serves us as a paradigmatic example using minimalist language: a strictly two-dimensional composition with a monotone treatment of colour reducing it to a range of greys, especially in the most significant works, and also a geometric organisation of the chromatic densities of the dark “mass”. This “minimalism” wasn’t just a simple foregone linguistic decision, nor was it a simple stylistic option. The objectivity of his vision, the coldness of the composition, the monotone and the rigid geometric organisation of the painting are necessary to the artistic nature and the objective of the vision. These formal characteristics were also the linguistic characteristics of the already emphasized technical medium – the range finder.

El abrazo, 1976
El abrazo, 1976

On the contrary, in ‘The demonstrators’, ‘Six youths’ or ‘The Embrace’, paintings from 1975, the canvas has lost the minute precision of the range finder and comes closer, in a more immediate way, to the same reality which they define; that of the human masses. Now, however these masses are quite clearly defined as individuals although grouped in dense groups. At the same time the new “viewing point” from where to observe the scene is to be found nearby and on the same horizontal plane as the human figures. The artistic treatment of these is realism. As if to illustrate these changes one of the paintings was given the apt title ‘The window'(1975).

Genovés’ painting undergoes a new transformation from the end of the seventies and through the eighties, both in a formal and iconographic way. Certainly painting such as Genovés’ that is so concerned with the social aspect of society could not be indifferent to the changes occurring in Spain at this time. From the disintegration of the dictatorship to the present day, everything is happening very fast. Both the “minimalist” works and the “hyper-realistic” series of paintings respond to this very defined period and are very different in regards to his concerns and his political and social values, to the years of the so called “transition”.

These years posed a new power structure regarding social forms; the configuration of the new “masses” and new figures of violence and terror. The change that is manifest in this new series of works is in the first place, and once again, a modification of the “viewing point” of the painting and of its ethical and political perspective.

Seis jóvenes, 1975
Seis jóvenes, 1975

An urban landscape: ‘The binoculars’ is a work that was created in 1982. It is extremely eloquent regarding the new social point of view of Genovés’ work. Certainly nothing here reminds us of the earlier human masses fighting and being pursued across nameless, empty spaces. The work in question, painted in acrylic on canvas, shows a specific landscape. The space is realistically defined. Its three-dimensionality has gained an expressive and gloomy depth. This painting reproduces a perfectly recognisable time and space, with identifiable architecture from the Gran Via in Madrid.

However, the streets are empty, there seems to be no life on them and the contrast of the cold light from the sky makes the streets seem darkly sinister. Some paintings emphasise this rhetorically heightened vision of gloom such as ‘Urban landscape: lights off’ (1984). Others deal with the same subject but from the existential point of view of a person, such as ‘Urban landscape: man and woman’ (1983). There is a feeling or premonition of death in these dark, urban visions.

In a formal sense Genovés’ urban landscapes have, to give it a name, a traditional or antiquated meaning to them. They are narrative and illustrative oil paintings. There is even an allegorical dimension to them. Perhaps it is because of this that they have received less critical interest. Otherwise, Madrid in the eighties, wanted to celebrate, under the auspices of the economic boom of democracy, bland utopias of asphalt, more inclined to rowdy, colourful, hysterical and histrionic gestures than to the troubles and intrigues of this heartbreaking vision of a hard metropolis.

In his first paintings Genovés brings in a mechanical look through the zoom lens. However, unlike the Dadaists and the Futurists he does not do this to show off his painting abilities, but to emphasise his possibilities for play and his precise use of colour. Indeed, the similarities between Heartfield’s photo-montages has more to do with their respective political desires for direct social intervention in a work of art, than with their formal approach to composition. Genovés also doesn’t display an affirmative, glorifying attitude towards the baroque or mannerist abilities of the “deception” inherent in the new visual techniques that differentiate the painting of Magritte or Dalí. In contrast to these painters the vital tone of Genovés’ paintings is ascetic, cold, thoughtful and critical.

As I have already mentioned Genovés manages to illustrate brilliantly, through his reflections of the range finder of power, the constituent characteristics of this self same power.

Juan Genovés recuperates and reformulates his preoccupation with the spheres of power in the paintings of his next period: which I call the fourth stage. This period also coincides with the later works the artist has created in these years.

Familia, 1990
Familia, 1990

I refer to the paintings: ‘Definition’, ‘Illumination’, Rectangle’, ‘Spatial constructions’, all painted in 1990 and ‘Vital points’, ‘Detectors’, ‘Sub-sector’, ‘Operations theatre’, ‘Intermittencies’, ‘Unjustified elements’…, from last year in 1991. The format of these oil paintings is no longer “circular”, as in the first series of works, but rectangular. They are landscapes which show, however, a flattened spatial construction; a kind of “three-dimensional shot” comparable to his first paintings. The protagonists of these compositions continue to be human figures. They are the “masses”. But something has changed radically in their configuration. They no longer reproduce the mechanical gaze of the range finder, but the electronic vision of the video recorder. The new flattening, as well as the deformation and the abstraction of the visual space now adopt the rigour of a new technical medium, a new way of reproducing the way of looking at things. The artificial colours, the luminosity, the poor definition of the figures and the pictorial constructions and the chiaroscuro are all modified according to artistic values derived from the new systems of visual reproduction.

To contrast these oil paintings with the first series mentioned, of range finder paintings, is very illustrative. The starting point of both series is identical: a lethal objective that brings together, simultaneously, the dimensions of reproduction, of control and of destruction. The final result of both series of paintings is also comparable: an experience of space defined both technically and politically by power, in which it is evident that the modern systems of domination lead to signs of anguish.

In contrast to these similarities however there is also a major difference. In the oil paintings from the sixties and seventies we find a defined chiaroscuro. The masses are firmly disciplined by the structure created by geometrically closed spaces and there is an emphatic presence within the painting, even though it was represented “minimalistically”.

In the new vision there are no limits, no prohibitions, no firm organisation of space. The geometrical framework that forms the composition of some of these paintings proceeds from the video recorder, as in the case of ‘Rectangle’, or, it is produced by the high-speed movement of the television lens. They are not however intrinsic elements in the “order “of the city. The human masses are now “free”. Their movement obeys the apparent arbitrary nature of atomistic concentrations and disintegrations. It is precisely under this atomistic aspect that the new principle of domination is defined. The titles are also eloquent in this respect: ‘Transit’ (Cat. Nª 59), ‘Continuity’ (Cat. Nº 58),’Tendency to encounter’ (Cat. Nª66)…Finally the masses are dominated and first of all visually dominated through their most abstract definition: identifiable volumetrics, statistically determinable concentrations of the masses, movement detectors etc., etc..

It is necessary to consider a second aspect of this last stage in Genovés’ painting. The colour, the chiaroscuro, the texture, the “trompe l’oeil” and all that these factors confer to these paintings that are imbued with an immense vitality of metallic tones, artificial illuminations, and urban and industrial gloom. The landscapes become lived in, they become ornamental and they point to this last conciliating link to reality to which due to an interior necessity all true works of art must tend towards. Genovés restores to us, through his virtuosity of materials, textures and colours, a little comfort to this overly eloquent vision of our civilisation.

Text published in the catalogue of the show “Genovés” IVAM Centre Julio Gonzalez 26 November 1992/January 1993.