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Essay by Chris Gilbert for Vicente Pascual "Círculos/Ciclos" exhibition catalogue
Palacio de Montemuzo, Zaragoza, Spain. 2000

A lot of contemporary painting is “trick” painting, employing the genres of the past but sneaking radically different content into established forms. Certainly this is true of artists like Byron Kim, Ingrid Calame, and Peter Halley (as well as Mike Bidlo and Sherrie Levine, if direct quotation counts.) Each presents works that resemble simple formal or informal compositions but, by appealing to pre-established color keys in the case of Kim, the source of the images in the case Calame, or recognizable prison and pipe imagery in the case of Halley, their canvases step outside of narrow formalism. Vicente Pascual’s paintings participate somewhat in this tendency. Since he gave up representational painting (first pop-inspired political paintings and then anti-transavantgardia landscapes), he has been working on abstract canvases that might be mere formal compositions but for their quiet appeal to the meaningful forms of traditional Medieval, Islamic, and Mongol art. Yet while functioning in this double way, on another level his art also constitutes a rather profound critique of such two-sided painting: the distinction between pure form and content-that-is-simply-applied-to-it is not left in place for his viewers.

When one looks at a painting by Pascual, like the acrylic and ink works of the Circles/Cycles series, one is confronted with a surprisingly well-crafted and often very tasteful object. This object presents a form, usually a very simplified one (like the centrally located circular shapes that predominate in the current series), which hooks up with the arts of traditional ornamentation. In its vastly reduced condition, however, the image slides so easily into cannon of modernism that the appeal to tradition is not obvious and can come as a kind of aftereffect. This is the duality of the painting: on the one hand a well-crafted composition that can pass as a modernist offspring (especially a child of its drive to reduction) and, on the other, an appeal to something that precedes modernism by centuries or exists alongside it but in a separate world like the art of today’s nomads. [1]

Of course, a survey of contemporary art (a walk through many of the galleries in Chelsea or Soho) reveals how easily this two-sided painting can become a manner. This is something that Pascual is awar of and resists much more than his peers. For the majority of postmodern painters, the hunt for meaning can become a second level of very light formalism; meanings are sought out and applied as simply another attribute, a feature that is arbitrary and almost decorative. (Hence the references in the canvases are usually the most superficial, like appeals to cosmetic ingredients or to whimsically chosen personal experiences). As against this easy method, Pascual’s painting offers the much more oppositional and on the surface anti-modern notion that a meaning might actually inhere in a form and that one meaningful form might be better than another.Of course, the prevailing doctrines of modern art have been against this, holding to the fundamental meaninglessness of form and the arbitrariness of any meaning applied to it. For example, mid-century formalist schools of painting such as abstract expressionism and color field lived dutifully under the separation of form and meaning by embracing a kind of pure opticality. The conceptual art of Joseph Kosuth, On Kawara, and others made its peace with this distinction by placing meanings, however elaborate and crucial to their projects, outside of visual form and on the side of language. Even today’s conceptual painting only brings form and meaning in close proximity, like oil and water, but still honors their insolubility. Nevertheless, an essentialist undercurrent has always existed in modernism, which continued fin de siecle symbolism’s beliefs about inherent meaning. This essentialist approach has surfaced periodically, appearing in Wassily Kandinsky’s beliefs about color (an essentialism emerges after a detour through his doctrines about synesthesia), in Kasimir Malevich and Joseph Albers’ theorizing, as well as in such unlike places as Yves Klein’s mystical associations with blueness and Agnes Martin’s “transcendent” grids. It is this underacknowledged tradition of modernist essentialism, call it the hegemonic version’s repressed other, that Pascual appeals to when he makes paintings in which circles do stand for centering, in which tiny points represent essences and origins, and large monochrome fields denote an embracing world or cosmos.

Aware of its contrariness, Pascual’s approach connects with, at the same time as it reverses, the interests of Roger Fry, Paul Guillaume, and Wilhelm Worringer. At the beginning of the modern movement, these writers saw connections between the forms chosen by primitive man and the abstractionist tendencies of the modern world. With hindsight, we can doubt whether their views were history or fantasy, to be understood more as a comment on the so-called primitive peoples than as a projection of the modern condition, but, in any case, an affinity was perceived and recorded: tribal patterns were seen as prototypes for the geometries of the machine age, while the arts of Africa and Oceania would henceforth be investigated with newfound rigor. To be modern, these theorists believed, was to be “primitive”, just as “primitiveness” was viewed as a kind of modernism.

The relationship was not, however, as symmetrical or as reflexive as one might have hoped. A residue remained insofar as there was an inevitable one-sidedness to the interpretation (actually the colonization) of the early beliefs that is all too evident today. Pascual goes back to this originary aspect of modernism, this perhaps Archimedean point at its theoretical origins, and applies the primitive to the contemporary rather than the contemporary to the primitive, by practically reversing the priorities between the interpreted and analyzing culture and its intellectually passive object. The significance of the our connection with so-called primitives is then seen not as a point of merely psychological affinity, as Fry and Warringer saw it, or as physically and mentally therapeutic, but as representing, as any primitive would have believed, a superhuman or spiritually objective affinity. When early moderns took over these shapes and interpreted them according to their own psychologizing contemporary tendencies, they left as a residue the objective spiritual beliefs of the creators. It is this set of beliefs, or at least the primitives’ interest in the objectivity of what is represented by their ornamentation, that Pascual addresses and in a large measure appropriates.

For Pascual the shapes –the circles, squares and other reduced glyphs– in his paintings are forms akin to the intersubjective schemas of the understanding that Plato, Kant, and Cassirer saw as preconditioning appearances. [2] As such they are about the realities of centering, harmony, and unity that precede the abstractions of everyday life. As templates, cognitive fundamentals, they point to the fact that our notions of pure abstraction and pure realism make little sense once one accepts that the furniture of the universe is richer that the visual color patches of positivism. The proof of this subject’s cogency is that it can force a rereading of the art of the past. Once one has looked at this work and accepted its premises, Mark Rothko or Adolf Gottlieb’s painting appears to be involved with inchoate and haphazard playing with forms that could actually be fruitfully researched and deliberately applied. The meanings that result in Pascual’s painting are thus humbler and more robust than those that usually circulate. By actively seeking out the significances of forms that are usually treated casually, Pascual’s painting is a kind of anti-humanist project: it is both an emptying out of modernism (of its subjectivity and myths of expressiveness) but at the same time an enriching and enlarging via the appeal to a larger, prior belief system.

Pascual’s work in Circles/Cycles series is stark: its palette consisting mostly of black sumi ink and Quinacridone, colors that we can associate with his origins in desert Aragon. Many of the pieces are visible fragments with frayed, torn edges that invoke, like the Schlegel brothers’ literary fragments, the wholes of which they might be a representative part. The geometry in these works is severely simplified and represents the latest and most stringent in a set of self-imposed rules that Pascual initiated when he abandoned representation. Within this highly restricted field, the artist sets out to find a liberty of discipline that is opposed to license. In his latest series, this program is inflected and perfected, with his art sounding its perennial note that invokes return and control as against innovation, and correction, repair, and refinement in lieu of unceasing chaotic cultural upheaval.

Pascual knows that austere paintings such as his require a special context in which their understated character can be read. To create this context he feels the need to exercise absolute control over the environment, the entire context of display, even his carefully designed catalogues. He mutes the wall color, dims the ambient light, and by the same token has avoided environments of display that might be too caught up in noisy commerce for his art to operate. Except for his concern to put the work first and not the environment and to eschew theatricality of all kind —and these are major reservations— Pascual could be compared to one of today’s many installation artists.

Pascual has said that the artistic gesture is for him a matter of the imposing order on chaotic nothingness. [3] This is a gesture that he desires to keep as evident as possible by not eliminating all empty spaces in the exhibition rooms and the paintings but instead keeping them present, even prominent in the finished work. His mentioning an original creative gesture may sound oddly close to unschooled primitivism of modernism (like that of action painters), but Pascual’s is as usual very far from it. His practice is informed by an awareness that “primitive art” is always the work of trained and highly skilled craftsman, hence more about order than expression; like geometry, it relies on impersonal primitives that are no less beautiful for their existing before and after human existence. The effect he aims at, and very often achieves, is one in which painter and tradition speak in the same voice, where the past and present are subsumed under the unifying framework of something permanent and objective. If this is a tall order, it is one that Pascual has been working on for most of his career and his self chosen masters, the artists architects and craftsmen to whom he has voluntarily apprenticed himself, have pursued for many more.

Chris Gilbert
Washington DC. June, 2000


1 The art of nomadic peoples became a special preoccupation of Pascual during the period 1993 to 1997.
2 The comparison is not exact, with Kant and Cassirer at least, since they were seeking exclusively epistemological fundamentals. By contrast, Pascual is interested also in existential or ontological fundamentals.
3 Conversation with the artist, May 26, 2000.

Chris Gilbert he has been curator of Contemporary Art at the Baltimore Museum and at the Berkeley Art Museum. Currently he lives and works in Caracas, Venezuela.
His writings have appeared in the New Art Examiner, Sculpture, and 64.

 

 




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