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EXTRACTS FROM A CONVERSATION WITH PABLO REY



Carles Lapuente – To open a door, in this passageway to the dialogue we are about to establish, I would like us both to accept a premise which rests on the profound belief that art can be a path towards wisdom. Starting from this point, do you believe, Pablo, that furthermore, this path can facilitate contact with a higher level of understanding? Or, to put it differently, is it possible to understand art as a kind of mysticism, as a parallel to the emotional and rational sensibilities?

Pablo Rey – Well, this is rather a sore point, I don’t particularly want to talk about it because I wouldn’t like people to think it was just a pose, on the other hand neither would I like that people didn’t understand given that in this situation we find ourselves before the kind of experience which has a very personal quality, almost not transferable. However I do believe that art, insofar as it is a tool, broadens the range of our field of perception and interpretation of the human being, of life and the phenomena which derive from it. In this sense, and intrinsically related to my own experience, there is an example in a series I produced “Campo Policrónico”. Well, there was a time when I was working very fast. I painted some extremely large pictures, even up to two metres, in sessions which rarely lasted longer than half an hour or an hour at most. I tell you this to illustrate in some way how my way of working in those pieces came close to a limit which went much further than the mere act of painting. Obviously if I was painting so fast it wasn’t just to increase output…

C.L. – What was it you were after?.

P.R. – What I was looking for was that the painting should flow without it being conditioned by previous ideas or rational decisions, which is to say, above all letting feelings go, and it was in this letting go that the work took form, that it showed, to put it this way, a reality which wasn’t as it appeared, new. I can tell you, that even if the sessions were short they were also very intense, so much so that after each one I felt completely exhausted and empty. Then I needed two or three days to recover, to fill me up again with experiences, images, visions, feelings, and sensations, which I would later pour out, like a storm onto the canvas. So that, going back to the question you asked, the only thing I can say is that in that moment I felt like a vehicle, an instrument for revealing the work that had already been conceived, a lightning conductor which attracted the runaway forces of nature. And the strange thing is, despite what I say sounding extremely irrational, that the pictures worked, when all is said and done they had density, there was an order in my work which organized chaos. (…/…)

 


Portrait of Inocent X, Diego Velazquez

 

C.L. – Until now we’ve almost been talking like art historians and I’d like us to come back to the present day. What painters who are currently working interest you, Pablo?.

P.R. – In Spain I’m especially attracted to the work of Juan Uslé. Also Gordillo for his approach to his creative work. There are many in other countries, but I would especially like to mention David Reed, Richard Tuttle o Jonathan Lasker. Among the figurative painters John Currin seems to me really exceptional. (…/…)

C.L. – Knowing about your passion for Pollock and the place he occupies in relation to your painting what you’ve never told me is how you came across his work.

P.R. – I first came into contact with Pollock at University, in a course on American abstract-expressionists, but where I really discovered Pollock, without a doubt, was in New York. I had seen his work in reproductions, books, and this we’ve already talked about in some depth, we live in a world where mechanical reproduction changes the original, we suffer in an age of mechanical mirages, of simulations and in the case of Pollock it’s essential to his work to see it as it really is. One of the pictures which made the greatest impression on me was by Pollock, an “action painting”, which dominates one of the rooms at the MOMA, it must have measured something like eight metres by four, and , on seeing it, was literally fascinated. It affected me quite a lot. I always disagree with those friends who see me as quite an “American” painter, but it’s inevitable. I was born in Europe, my academic background was in Europe, and also with my father, being that I learned to paint with him, who was a realist painter, from the open air school, and yet up to that point I was still not fully formed in the artistic sense, I hadn’t taken any decisions, I was simply absorbing. It wasn’t until I arrived in New York, got to know Pollock’s work and lived through a new set of experiences that I took my first step. The works of the American abstract-expressionists interested me a lot, De Kooning, Franz Kline, Arshile Gorki, Rothko, but without a doubt, for me Pollock stood out amongst them. (…/…)

 


Jackson Pollock, Reflection of the Big Dipper

 

C.L. – Since we’ve also talked about Velázquez and incidentally the excellent book by Ramón Gaya, “Velázquez, solitary bird”, which is one of your most treasured books, I’d like you to tell me how important his work has been for you.

P.R. – Well, to start with, what I’d like to emphasize is that I’m very interested in this book because it goes much further than Gaya. I think that Gaya was really inspired in this essay and even though he was for me a painter who was extremely orthodox in his views on painting, in this book he managed to propose an idea which goes further than art. In so doing he uses Velázquez as an excuse and manages to express a specific attitude towards life which is precisely what we admire in Velázquez. That’s to say that in making a comparison between Velázquez and the figure of the solitary bird, which is the bird in the poem of Saint John with the five attributes of mystical resonance, that it flies to the highest, that it wants no companionship, that it puts its beak up into the air, that it has no particular colour and that it sings softly, achieves the perfect synthesis to enable us to understand the figure of the painter as human being in relation to the artist.

C.L. – There is a recurring idea in Gaya’s book which I connect with your work where he refers to Velázquez in terms of being a painter not who, at certain times, has stopped painting, his famous laziness, but that he is actually aspiring to not paint.

P.R. – That’s quite a profound concept.

C.L. – Although on the surface it might appear meaningless.

P.R. – But no, it isn’t. There is one thing, which is present in Pollock and I’m referring to when he manages to create a distance between himself and the painting, which is to say when we stop allowing ourselves to be enslaved by the painting, when we’re not just trying to do something but actually doing it and this happens in exactly the same way as in Velázquez. It’s a very complex posture which involves building a distance from oneself as a painter, since what ends up restricting many painters is precisely this, that they are painters, that they were born painters and as they feel it in this way then, in the end, painting controls them. I always give as an example the contrasting cases of De Kooning and Pollock. De Kooning is still struggling on the surface of the canvas, with gestural brushstrokes, with substance, with light, with the paintbrush, in other words, he hasn’t stopped being a slave to painting, it’s in the struggle, also in a material sense, Pollock though, has already won this battle, he’s overcome it. Or let’s bring up, now that we’re talking about Velázquez, another archetypal case which is that of he and Rembrandt, seeing as the two are contemporary. Exactly the same thing is happening to Rembrandt, he’s at a dead end wrestling with painting while Velázquez has already gone beyond this, he’s already won this battle, he’s been able to distance himself from his natural instinct as a painter, from texture, from colour, from the brush mark, he’s already managed to avoid this stage, has transcended it and it’s then that we get the feeling that he has only passed by, and with a slight gesture has mastered painting, it’s as though he has passed through the canvas, his paint flows, it overcomes instinct and shows us the reciprocal objective of something which goes beyond the hand to hand struggle between the painter and his work, and this something is magic, imperceptible, but real.

C.L. – Gaya qualified this very precisely when he said that art is nothing more than a beautiful place to stay for a while, a state of passionate and feeble adolescence which the creative artist, the creator, knows all too well he has to leave behind. I like this concept of the work of art as a transitional space, like a door that is open at the limits of sensory perception towards another new vision.

P.R. – Yes, there are those who use art to improve their standing in the world, whose work relies on mere technique, on ingenuity, on dazzling effects, however painting is something else, art is something else, it’s not a question of ability or originality. There’s an additional element in the great painters which transcends this, as in the case of Velázquez, and we can also detect this aura in Pollock.

C.L. - And Duchamp too?

P.R. – Duchamp is fundamental for another reason. The merit of Duchamp, amongst other things, is that he puts painting in its place. He transcends theme, representation and in starting the conceptual movement he gives us back the principal which values content over form. And this is absolutely essential for the history of painting. Having said that it’s important to add that Duchamp wasn’t a painter in the strict sense of the word, of course he started out painting but immediately realized that he had other needs, that he felt the urge to find a new language and in the process, as a result, opened the door to conceptualism. In any case it would do well to remember that phrase by Duchamp, in the scathing tone which characterized him, in which he said, given the fact that we live in a period when a general in battle no longer dies on his horse that neither did it make any sense that a painter should die on his easel.

 


Marcel Duchamp, 'Nu descendant un escalier no 2

 

C.L. – It’s the same thing with Warhol, in my opinion.

P.R. – Of course, Warhol reveals a new, contemporary reality, which, whether you like it or not, whether you agree with it or not, forms a part, inescapably, of this tangled web we call the history of art. I would almost dare to say that nothing occurs in art by chance, Warhol had to happen, I refer to that network of phenomena, which we can call evolutionary, of restructuring, of exploration, which is what prevents painting from ever dying. It always makes me laugh whenever the death of painting is announced…

C.L. – But painting seems to be in a permanent state of crisis, moreover it should be, like any artistic manifestation, to survive, and not get tied down.

P.R. – This is fundamental. Only after a great crisis can everything be reconstructed and a new kind of work can appear.

C.L. – Anyway, do you believe that abstraction is being experienced as a kind of crisis which hasn’t yet been resolved? And I’m referring to the cliché, to the view that considers abstract art as a kind of chaos, eclecticism, a one-way street, an endless escape.

P.R. – This is putting it too strongly. There is a rationalist element in the way the average spectator contemplates art that cuts off any possibility of interaction with the work. But this is obvious, we’ve been born in the century of the image, in the cinema, on television, of a multitude of visual stimuli for which we haven’t been properly educated and looking, like any other sense, is susceptible to being taught, and refined.

C.L. – In the world of cinema, which figures have been most influential for you?

P.R. – There are three names which, for me, are indisputable, one Spanish, one Italian and one French, I’m referring to Buñuel, Antonioni and Godard. Three towering figures. Buñuel because of his fluent directing, which is not forced in any way, Antonioni for the revolutionary appearance of a completely new and refined language and Godard above all for his dialogues.

C.L. – I know about your great love of bullfighting and your admiration for the figure of José Tomás.

P.R. – Yes, for me bullfighting can be almost exclusively encapsulated in this name. With José Tomás I’ve felt excited and shaken, I’ve felt a profound empathy, an expressive beauty which is thrilling and alive, it’s a total experience in the broadest sense of the word, that completely overwhelms me, like art. It produces emotions and feelings that goes beyond the individual. It’s an art which is very much tied up with reality, but at the same time transcends the mundane, the earthly, a dance which carries us up to the divine. Because of all this I like José Tomás because he represents this transformation of the bullfight into art; the other side of bullfighting which is purely spectacle would be something else altogether.

C.L. – You establish a parallel between the bullfighter and the painter. As if they were both searching for the same thing. A search for something which goes beyond. Into mystery.

P.R. – Yes, because in some ways the struggle is the same. Well, to be realistic that should probably be rephrased in that the bullfighter risks his life, but the painting, like the ring and the bull, the bullfighter and his sword, are all part of the same framework, they are a means, a means to transcend, they are not the end in themselves. The path may well be the same, the only thing which is different is the form, but they both share the same end, this need, as I said before, for being uplifted, for purification, in pursuit of the absolute.

C.L. – Without leaving the subject of the pictorial, the other day we talked about that which in the picture is not evident at first glance, which is hidden. You said that art encloses that which can’t be seen, and I find this very profound as it brings us close to an assessment of the work of art which goes much further than exclusively aesthetic criteria. This might create a certain confusion, but I think we should admit that sometimes we act in a way which is purely instinctive, or in other words, that sometimes, in the creative act we take a stand which contravenes the purely rational and consequently it’s logical that we should create from this magma an unfamiliar landscape. I remember listening one day to Enric Cassasses who said that artists work with unknown forces.

 


Rembrandt, Le Boeuf écorché

 

P.R. – What I wanted to say was that sometimes when we are doing one thing we are at the same time saying what it is that we don’t want. That’s to say, doing certain things means that there are other things we are not doing. One always has to choose, one has to take a stand. We tend to concentrate on the final result of a piece of work, but the artist’s attitude, the way the artist confronts the piece is just as important. It’s this that determines the process of constructing the work, of defining what does and what doesn’t interest us, on a physical, spiritual, and mental level. Creation is as complex as life itself.

C.L. – It’s a process of selection.

P.R. – Yes, in which we’re constantly involved, which keep us away from some things and bring us closer to others. But for this it’s also necessary to have faith, not the faith understood in its religious sense, but the inner faith, the inner truth, being sure of oneself. And in this sense I’ve struggled a lot with myself. It’s because of this that art is a process of revelation. Now, what this revelation consists of, I don’t know. I always say that the picture is a single work of art, created by different painters. I can’t explain it but I just feel that’s how it is. I know that I live in the world of painting and I take care not to step outside it. I always say that I’m very orthodox when I’m painting because for me painting is something very simple but also complex at the same time, which consists basically of the canvas, of the pigment and the brush, which means, I never use, for example, a spatula, I’ve used other techniques when it’s suited my purpose, in the series “Correction”, for example, but that was during a period when I was still developing, at the moment however, I depend entirely on the use of the three elements previously mentioned.

C.L. – Following this line of reasoning, there is a danger which has always obsessed me which lies in the lure of the absolute, since in poetic discourse there is nothing more sterile than letting oneself get trapped in the nets of symbolic language; I mean to say that following this path leads to a dead end where, because of the multiplicity of meanings in words, one ends up saying nothing. It’s as if one allowed oneself to become chained to the idea. Do you think an analogy can be established with painting?

P.R. – It’s because of this that I’ve used graffiti, amongst other things, as a point of reference. Because I consider that the creative act should never be onanistic or eclectic; we have to be able to establish a communicative background. It’s not a question of whether graffiti has artistic, pictorial, or mystical value, however we do find ourselves before a free form of expression, not conditioned in any way, pure, initially used as a means of protest and besides it’s fast, spontaneous and unpretentious; on the other hand it’s a very recognizable image so it’s in this sense that graffiti interests me, as an excuse, as a key. However, what should be pointed out is that I’m not a graffiti artist nor have I ever produced any graffiti, even when I had the opportunity, especially in New York, which is its cradle. It’s just that I don’t come from this background, so it would be impossible for me to use this language in the strict sense of the word.

C.L. – In which case it would appear fraudulent.

P.R. – And yet it isn’t. It’s a pretext, in the same way that Warhol used the can of Campbell’s soup as a figure recognizable by the public at large. In a similar fashion, I use this concept which has arisen from popular culture to transform it and bring it back within the orbit of painting, because that is what I am after all, a painter.


Carles Lapuente, (Poet). Summer 2008.

 

 


With poet Carles Lapuente

 



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