The Luminous Bars Of Beauty
Francisco Calvo Serraller
With his customary simplicity, Juan Genovés explains the euphoric creativity that radiates from his latest work, as a simple matter of organising his time well. Of course that may be, but not even the simplest strategy of everyday organisation of work is chance. Rather it is a result of experience and in the case of Juan he has been working constantly on his art for over half a century. However, whatever the reasons, or the trigger of creative process, what is important is to analyse the results and in this sense what is obvious is that Genovés’ work today unfurls like a sail full of dynamic prosperity, gathering up strength to sail in one direction. You could say that he is on a roll and that he is following his path but with a renewed sense of adventure. However where is he off to? The artistic, navigational map is marked by the wake you leave as you pass by and it can’t be set in advance. As Rimbaud would say it is a question of sailing the seas in a drunken boat that advances at an inebriated rhythm, which doesn’t mean that the voyage is simply a thoughtless meandering but that it is determined by passionate freedom. There is no predestined end in sight. It is a journey born from need and the pleasure of travelling.
At all costs, where does Juan Genovés’ work seem to be leading us? His surname already sounds like that of a sailor. Having started his artistic voyage over half a century ago, perhaps remembering, however briefly, some of the most important days in his long voyage would help us to answer this question. Perhaps this travelling with the wind in his sails is a question of his returning to where he started out. Without having to recall Ulysses this Odessy that has brought him home is without doubt the most complicated, eventful journey and the most difficult and it is still underway.
Born in Valencia in 1930 and trained at the Valencia San Carlos Art School Juan Genovés’ artistic activity began in the 1950s. This is very important because the international isolation that Franco’s Spain had been subject to since the Second World War was coming to an end. Even though the dictatorship would last for another quarter of a century there was more cultural communication going on and in art this meant above all the triumph of abstract art. During the second half of this decade Genovés showed clear signs of wanting to be a part of these vanguard movements and he was a member of the historic Grupo Parpalló, a group of young Valencian artists who between 1957 and 1961 were involved in the renovation of an artistic language according to a cosmopolitan model but with no other imperative. In this sense, although the main, initial tendency was towards informalism the members of Parapalló had very different leanings. Such was the case of Genovés whose first style was based on post-cubism and which very quickly developed into a progressively figurative and more material way of painting. During the second half of the sixties Genovés took an even more decisive step, forming the Grupo Hondo along with Jardiel, Orellana and Mignoni. They were all expressionist, figurative artists and they enriched their work using the technique of assembling material directly taken from reality very much like the Americans Johns and Rauschenberg and the Europeans who were painting in a style known as New Realism. As a direct consequence of these stages of the process and still during this revolutionary decade Genovés finally developed what would be become his personal style based on images clearly linked to film and photography with roots in pop art and with a strong critical streak. His social roots were such that due to the political events that were shaking Spanish society at the time he became a kind of icon for what would become the Spanish democratic transition.
The succinct summarising of these facts, although they are very well known is vital. Not however to brush up on the topical, historical memory so much as for everything that this signifies as part of the framework for the original, artistic, singularity of Juan Genovés who debated between a pictorial style of painting and the growing strength of the naked image. It was the images of the masses being pursued relentlessly and the anonymous and isolated figures in his work, almost looking as though they had been captured by the lens of a camera or seen through a telescope that made Genovés famous. His most deliberate, technically visual way of looking at things was never completely divested of a certain pictorial warmth. A way of looking at it would be not so much “photographs without painting” as “paintings without photography “. He tread an almost invisible, subtle line between photography and painting or you could say between the mechanical eye and the tactile eye. During the best part of a quarter of a century since the climatic, historical Spanish democratic transition and up to the present day, Juan Genovés has never been still. In both form and attitude, due to the peculiarities that I have just described, of being systematically on the stylistic edge of the abyss, and also having become an icon for political change, his maturity in his artistic undertaking has not been easy. Apart from that he is a selfless worker and has not let himself be influenced by the inconstancy of an ever more pressured art market. His career has been buoyed up by his iron will to carry on his personal experimentation at all costs. On maturing, his obstinacy has not only been necessary but has also yielded a splendour that is like an experience lived under the best lighting. In my opinion this is what has occurred to Juan Genovés’ work, and deservedly so. The reason his work is so original is because it is has been created from an original panoramic perspective of advancing and going into a subject deeply, going to the living root and then returning to the start.
Genoves’ recent work once again emphatically takes up the origins, in that he returns to his original territory of tensing the relations between the subject and the icon, not only giving his figures a three-dimensional feeling by using very thick paint but turning them into a sort of uneven chromatic excrescence almost as if the painting was a mottled painters palette, which by chance turns itself into a sort of unconventional painting. On the other hand, in this series of paintings to which I am now referring, the abrupt shiny points of paint, the atomisation of this colourful material takes on such a vigorous artistic presence, that it highlights the real physical shadows out on the bare canvas a bit like when pins with varicoloured heads are stuck onto an illuminated map. In this way, Genovés achieves that both the iconic and the pictorial elements are also resolved as a bas-relief of expressive plasticity. The movement of these small figures swarming around the flat surface streaked with dilutions of a soft yellow or orange or red is as if they were placed in a deserted infinity at different times of the day. They organise themselves in groups, sometimes marked by the conventional limit of a frontier line of arbitrary rectitude beyond any imaginary ideal, by the stifling dispersion of that which wanders aimlessly in all directions.
In another series of paintings Genoves raises the same tension, but by creating the illusion of three dimensions which is less eye-catching but more efficient when it comes to highlighting, through longer shadows, an almost ghostly doubling up of the small figures. All this leads to a subtle cinematic animation. This representative strategy transforms the whole into a kind of aerial ballet, like specks of dust floating in a weightless space with the corresponding effect of a flock of windswept birds glimpsed from an indefinite vertical peak. Even more; there are paintings in which it is the strips of colour which cross the surface horizontally or diagonally, which lay down the pattern for the alignments of the figures, which come and go simultaneously on both parallel lanes that we know lead to nowhere. Finally there are cases when the lens focuses close up which means that the figures are larger and seem to be imprisoned in a geometric space highlighting their sad precariousness.
Otherwise in each of the above situations Genoves alters his perspective, which can be vertical, diagonal or off centred, but which in all cases is always oppressively depersonalised as if distance or proximity never frees itself from the relentless pursuit of space. In some ways it as if we can just make out the ebb and flow of the crowds within a spatial jail of luminous barred windows in a world divided into a checkerboard of infinite regular cells whose possibilities for potential movement are finally constrained by the incomprehensible rules of a perverse game.
As you are perhaps beginning to understand by my necessarily limited and clumsy description of the paintings I have commented on up till now, all of Genoves is in the latest Genoves, except in the fact that now the, we shall call it “aestheticalisation” of the image paradoxically gives it a stronger moral sense because it dramatises better human helplessness. It represents more intensely the absurd and a sense of disorientation. Anyway, it makes fragility more urgent and more palpable. In all of this there is something of Passolini’s cruel vision, when in “Salo – the 120 days of Sodom”, the executioners observe through telescopes from their large rooms decorated with modern art, how their victims are tortured in the central courtyard below and how in this sinister vision we are reminded of the terrifying beauty of the cosmic visions of Altdorfer, where the elevated sky is the balcony of an infernal landscape of a dynamic battle which forms whirls like the pirouettes of a devastating tornado. And in this list of historic events we can also quote Hércules Seghers and Jacques Callot. But lets go back. Why not establish an original critical point at Parpallo’s cave itself and in other sanctuaries of the Levantine cave painting, where the figures are like a kind of fluttering calligraphy, as fleeting and substitutable as a shimmering shadow? As arbitrary as it could be, but ready to probe the root of these things, this is the common theme that runs from a high perspective time wise, through Juan Genovés’ work.
From the moral point of view, Genovés’ attitude is that there is no better way of getting close to what is real than by distancing yourself from it. To recede, so as to be able to embrace more and understand better, without having to take a cold stance. But the handling of distances by Genovés is not a theoretical formula or, in any case, at least only in the sense that theory signifies vision. What I mean to say is that the way in which he poses a moral dilemma and his technique of critical remoteness is a question of optics: his way of focusing the visible part of reality through different magnifications. But, put a human figure in his microscopic or telescopic sights, even on its own, and it never loses its associative quality, its condition of being the lowest part of a group or social network. In this sense the “depersonalization” of Genovés’ human figures is not the product of indifference, but a way of showing man as part of a community, which, examining it in depth, is not about man being at the centre of the universe but cosmic. Do we not see in his work, better than ever, simple, speckled particles forming whole or isolated silhouettes? His figures are part of the landscape, an infinitesimal proportion of nature.
So, without doubt all of Genovés is encapsulated in this latest Genovés, but of course not in the same way. Years do not pass by in vain, except with regard to an artist’s experience, whose ageing is always a sort of progress, but in the sense of going into things and oneself in a deeper way. It is true that physical decline causes a loss in visual perception and a steady hand, but these losses are more than compensated by the conquest of a growing, creative freedom and from a technical point of view more astuteness, which stemming as it does from desperation, is not capricious. Both dimensions come together in Genoves’ present maturity in which he has achieved more freedom in both the physical and moral sense. He says, as I pointed out at the beginning, that his present brilliant fluidity is based on having found a better way to benefit from organising his personal time, but call it what you will, it comes down to wisdom. He has succeeded in simultaneously multiplying his ways of exploring while at the same time demonstrating his capacity for synthesis in a way in which he has never managed before. Becoming apparently more formalist his “message” is more ambitious and far reaching. His critical perspective has grown so much that it is no longer just relevant locally. He is now flying so high that it is becoming more and more difficult for him to overlook anything. Not even beauty and its luminous bars. The beam of light and the wrong side of reality. What is visible and its long twinkling shadow.
Text published in the catalogue for the show “Genovés – recent works”. Marlborough Gallery, Madrid 8th February – 12th March, 2005.