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17 June 2021
The famous pictorial question

Joaquín Jesús Sánchez

In his Velázquez, Ortega writes: “painting is something that some men take care of doing while some other men take care of watching it, copying it, criticising it or praising it, theorising about it, selling it, buying it […]. According to this, painting consists in a vast repertoire of human actions. Besides these […] it is nothing, for it is only the material which leads to those actions. Properly speaking, painting exists either in the actions that these materials finish, or in those […] which begin there. […] Painting does not spontaneously appear in the walls, like the leak or the lichen, and neither does it suddenly bloom on the canvases like a rash. Painting is therefore not the way of the walls or the way of the canvases, but a way of the man which men sometimes practise”.

Moved by my desire of some commotion (as prophylactic as it might be), I went to Valladolid to see “Pintura. Renovación permanente” (Painting. Permanent renovation). The exhibition takes up two floors of the Museo Patio Herreriano and it is curated by Mariano Navarro. The proposition of the exhibition is the following: there have been two major moments in Spanish painting on the last few years, what happened in the 70s and what happened in the 2000s. From this decisive and questionable premise, Navarro articulates his exhibition (and supposedly the Spanish painting) by means of a singular taxonomy: expanded, dematerialised (“more thought than seen”), in the studio, free-flowing painting, narrative imagination and unrepresentative imagination (“they do not have the need to ‘tell’ anything”). I assume that a job of this nature entails a titanic curatorial challenge, but the compartmentalisation by categories (as if we were, differences aside, in a nineteenth-century hall) has, in my opinion, two major errors. On the one hand, it does not respond to the way these works are produced. Fortunately, artists nowadays do not serve in a school or in a practice, so imposing artificial assignments to them and forcing relationships according to them seems like the wrong strategy. On the other hand, the visitor is offered a tour rather orthopaedic. I suspect that the forcefulness of the first approach, which we have not seen in other exhibitions that the same museum has dedicated to a discipline, like the sculptural ‘Una dimension ulterior’ (A subsequent dimension), harms the whole exhibition.

As it always happens in this kind of proposals, the salary of the artists gives people food for thought. Nobody thinks that there are all those who are or that they are all those who there are. I will not get started on this matter, because justifying my opinions would need more lines than I have and I would be running the risk of ending up describing the exhibition I would have done, and that is a hateful vice. I am surprised, nevertheless, by the coarse overrepresentation of some artists, especially because it is never justified. More so, when the exhibition is crammed with works, to the extent that, at times, they get into each other’s ways or badly coexist. This may be the other problem of this exhibition. Even if it offers us a praiseworthy, although failed, attempt of thinking about the Spanish painting of the last few decades, as well as a happy reunion of excellent works by artists from different generations, the clumsiness in which they are arranged hugely fades the result.


If Sisyphus worked in arts, his sentence would be defending painting. I do not know how many burials and resurrections we have done, how many covers of cultural supplements advertising the new batch of painters who are finally coming to revivify this dying and Carpetovetonic practice. If we look through the rear-view mirror, it does not seem that the threats were so bad: the dead persons you kill are in good health. Against the solemnity exuded by many of the (continuous) amends for this discipline, I prefer that Ortegan consideration with which the text began: painting is the trigger as well as the result of multiple human actions that have the pictorial object as their axis of coordinates. This more plastic meaning (that is, more free-flowing and malleable) gives us options that are less categorical and definitive; and, in my opinion, more profitable.

Coinciding in time with the Herreriano exhibition and in a much more modest way, two artists and two curators (Adrián Navarro, Vicky Uslé, Jordi Rigol and Luisa Fraile) have launched the project Atlas, “a space for reflection, debate and the meeting around Spanish painting”, materialized in something that is difficult to distinguish from an ephemeral gallery or a fair stand. Paintings, mostly by excellent artists, placed ungracefully against the wall and with no other discourse than that of “mapping the different views and similarities”. Oh, and the work, for sale. The proposal has a combative spirit that I cannot understand. In statements to the press and in the brochure of “Entornos y reflexiones” (Environments and reflections) (the chapter one, more chapters are expected), the promoters allude to the supposed marginalization of painting in the current exhibition context and the threat of digital consumption of art to the detriment to direct experience. Regarding the former, in the last few months I have seen, only in Madrid, exhibitions by Jorge Diezma, José Díaz, Gloria Martín, Jorge Galindo or André Butzer (mentioning the first ones that come to my mind). Regarding the latter, Instagram has been among us for a while for us getting scared now. Nothing replaces the face-to-face encounter with the work, and that is an evidence that does not need to be defended (and that, as much as possible, we should try not to romanticize it until it becomes despicable).

I know painters who are more similar to sculptors, musicians or writers than to other painters. For this reason, this desire of bottling and preserving the reservoir of Spanish pictorial essences seems totally out of place. Academic cataloguing and flimsy postulates that open at the seams as soon you scratch them. I cannot think of a better way to kill painting (if that is possible) than defenses like these ones which want to keep it pure and autonomous, as a taxidermist would do: in a jar with formaldehyde.

Joaquín Jesús Sánchez (Seville, 1990) is an art critic, writer and freelance curator. A graduate in Philosophy and holder of an MA in the History of Contemporary Art and Visual Culture, he contributes to prestigious publications, both in Spain and abroad, and in other lesser known sources. Besides researching compelling and complex subjects, he devotes much of his time to trying to memorise Borges’s oeuvre and is fascinated by gastronomic literature.


17 June 2021

The famous pictorial question

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