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Magazine

27 January 2016
Peter Halley, Contamination 2 (2002)
Arcimboldi according to ARCO

Eloy Fernández Porta

ARCO is mainly an art fair for painting, and amongst the numerous painterly and post-painterly modes exhibited at the stands, what overshadows the rest is abstraction. A journey through the halls of IFEMA makes it quite clear that the days of funereal black abstract painting are long gone, reserved nowadays for the auction houses. In their stead, more eye-catching, colourful modes of non-figuration win out. They take a cinematic form – in the pieces by Carlos Cruz Díez-, luminous ones -in the projections by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer- or video-graphic and as such as installations in those by Daniel Canogar. Geometric forms, the rectilinear line, and a formalism animated by kitsch predominate. In this panorama earlier painting no longer seems so stale; the acrylics by Broto, accompanied or framed by this repertory of abstractions, resemble a retrospective vision of the former. The conceptual spirit is related in a suspicious manner with decorative intent, the works of Sarah Morris, which inspired in op art have a whiff of the digital but aren’t, and despite declaring an analytical intent, they comply with the demands that Woody Allen character made of a tormented dauber: “that it goes with the ottoman”.

And, against this background, there are works that deal with bodies. Or rather allude to the impossibility of representing them in their entirety. Always scrutinised, rarely complete, never self-sufficient, and often recombined. Anatomical sections, isolated organs, busts without faces, prosthetics, studies of limbs, genitalia, eyes, eyes and recomposed visions. Traditionally these procedures have been described by means of an expressive figure: metonymy. The part can represent the whole: the intrinsic qualities of a limb embody the virtues of its owner. But in all these cases the metonymic movement is at once insufficient and excessive. Insufficient as the qualities of the limb are not comparable to those of the entire body. Excessive because the limb is articulated by way of an exterior organism, be it that of the judicial corpus, the social body, big data, or an ideological matrix, and only in a secondary instance with the remaining organs. Lets call it a Foucaultian metonymy and define it as the alienation of its own physicality that is coextensive with a postulation of the Norm.

Even when they are not exclusive to the Madrid art fair, these two elements of repertory constitute a very evident feature, in my opinion, the most notorious, of its iconographic landscape. Being at ARCO is to find oneself immersed in a cognitive dynamic between these two constants and their modulation. It would be hard to say that this polarity has been “overcome”. It’s clear that in our time, it’s not usually proposed as the privileged terrain of the struggles of artistic politics, but it flourishes in many of these debates, as for example in the projects that propose to bring out into the open the ideologies underlying the essentialist conception of abstraction, or in the historic-political machinations that made possible the international impact of the North American trend. Rather it could be said that the polarity between figuration and abstraction has been reformulated as a distinction between the material and the digital, in which the first presents a formal synthesis, while the latter is revealed as structural incompleteness. The organism and the organogram: the appearance of the body as a mutilated emergence corresponds to the deployment of the abstracted image as a techno-scientific absolute.

If one had to look for an image that synthesises this dynamic we’d choose this lithograph. Presented in the most recent edition of the fair by three galleries from as many countries, Halley is a regular at ARCO. And even though the image in question couldn’t be seen in Madrid, it’s a variant within his repertoire that sums up this polarity and its conceptual consequences. All of Halley’s production is the development of an analogy, as clear as it is effective: the cell of a prison is like the circuit of a microchip. This comparison, developed for the first time in his work at the end of the seventies, is an invariant that appears like the imaginary Prisons of Piranesi adapted to the societies of control. Like Piranesi’s purgatories, those of Halley are reiterative, insistent, and unpopulated; their serial nature is the current manifestation of the Panopticon. But unlike them, their flat representation of the control matrix is always animated by phosphorescent colour, the retinal impact of Day-Glo, and daring chromatic juxtapositions.

In this series of lithographs printed on zerktal paper, an element appears that for its unusualness ends up being that bit more significant: the body without a head, presented on the lower horizontal plane. To the reticulated diagram it confers a rich physicality, technical, decapitated, and imprisoned. With reference to the title of the series, it stems from one of the recurring sources for artistic theory of the author: the essay by Ortega on the dehumanisation of art. On various occasions Halley has mentioned the passage of Ortega’s text in which he describes, eulogistically, the decision of modern artists to avoid the influence of romantic conceptions of sentimentality that he describes as “contaminating”. This idea is expressed in the rejection of curved forms, which Ortega associated with the feminine, understood as the deposit of irrational passions – a perception the misogynistic traits of which are developed in other texts by the author, on which Halley has believed not necessary to elaborate. His lithographic version of this idea evidences an ambiguous contaminating process, an illness with two symptoms: the irruption of the physical in the minimalist circularity of the chips and the insertion of this body, barely curvilinear, and its calculated roundness into the plethora of circuits.

In Halley’s career, these Contaminations are inscribed within a recent drift that has led him to adapt his brand imagery, employing it as a background rather than as a totality, opening up the second plane in his visual device. This plane is usually occupied by psychedelic fragments that emerge from the circuit destabilising its order, as can be seen in the works made à deux with Yago Hortal, that are exhibited currently at Senda Gallery. This alternation can be seen unfolding in the panorama of ARCO, which through its successive variations offers the emotional developments that this polarity permits. The principal manifestations are; drama (of the bodies imprisoned by the architectures of control), effusion (in the works that propose a bio-political heroism or prison mutiny), cynicism (in the frequent discord between the mechanics of abstraction and its light colours), and, last but not least, fatalism: the construction of gender as the Eternal Femenine understood, in the constructionist mode, no longer as a biological essence so much as a trans-historical invariant.

PhD in Humanities from the University Pompeu Fabra, currently teaching Contemporary Art at the UPF Education Abroad Program, as well as on the Art module of the Master in Cultural Journalism, UPF Barcelona School of Management. He has published with Anagrama the essays Afterpop Homo Sampler, €®O$ (Anagrama Prize ) and Emociónese así (Barcelona Prize).

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