Pilar Giró ― When did you first discover painting?
Pablo Rey ― Quite late, when I was about 18, my father was a painter and there was always paint, brushes and canvases around the house, I remember when I was 13 I took my first steps, and painted a picture, but this was more incidental than a sign of vocation, but as nobody is a prophet in their own land, I never really pursued it. Until, that was, the time came for me to do my military service. Having finished my secondary school studies, I was due to enlist in December, so I had the summer in front of me, but having to do my military service meant that no-one was likely to give me a job and neither could I enroll for the next course. So my mother suggested that I accompany my father and help him with the equipment while he was engaged in his summer project. At first I took a book with me and while he was involved with his painting, I would sit reading under a pine tree. But one day, I still don’t know why, I not only carried the materials but also started to paint, and I suddenly realized that this was what I wanted to do in life, from then on this is what I have done. The truth is that it was thanks to my mother that I found my true vocation; I sometimes think that if it hadn’t been for her I would still be wandering around without knowing what I wanted to do in life.
P.G. When you started painting, what was your relationship like with your father?
P.R. Well, I always say that my beginnings were rather old school, like an apprentice working in the master’s studio. The basic skills I learned from my father, either painting outside in the open or in the studio. Although one of the most important lessons I can remember was not technical, but about the honesty and integrity in the way he worked, being a man who could, if he’d wanted to, have produced work that was facile, though he never did, he was always engaged in a struggle with the canvas as if he were painting for the first time, as if he didn’t even know how to paint. I also remember that he insisted on the importance of drawing and pictorial structure, he made me draw daily from nature, I went every day for almost five years to the circle “Sant Lluc” to do life drawing , I liked most of all those where we only had 5 or 10 minutes. Later through my studies at University and after moving to New York I began to make my own way, in a more independent sense and disconnected from that of my father.
P.G. Now that you’ve mentioned New York, how much of its influence remains in your work?
P.R. All the experiences one has in life shape and influence us. That of living in New York was of course tremendously important to me, above all for two reasons: I was the son of a painter and needed, in psychoanalytic terms, to “kill” my own father, to create a distance which would enable me to create my own work. It was New York, although it could have been any other city, which allowed me to do this. Aside from this it’s always interesting to live in a city in which art plays such an important role, both for the number of galleries and museums, as for the many artists from all over the world who work there. What remains is the analysis of contrasting worlds. The weight of tradition is very heavy in Europe, while in the United States it’s the opposite, finding a balance has been fundamental to me. I think it was the United States which showed me the value of risk and experimentation, the importance of daring to try out new things. In this respect they are freer, even free to make mistakes. I think it’s very important to experience this atmosphere in order to learn to fly, even if you have to crash occasionally. In art, as Chillida once told me quoting Miró, one shouldn’t be afraid of walking in the dark. Art, for me, is associated with mystery and the only way to enter is by throwing oneself in and getting lost. Art has to be about taking risks.
P.G. Five years have passed between the first exhibition you made after returning from NY at the Carmen Tatché gallery, and the most recent which you showed this spring at the Km7 gallery. Time enough to have permitted developments in your artistic expression while maintaining links with the previous work. The spectator who has been following your work will see that there still remains a trace of New York, but there is a vast difference between the Correction series in that exhibition and the Espacio Regulador in the latest one.
P.R. Of course, although they appear formally different in fact they are really quite similar. One could think of my work as a kind of tree, with the artist being the trunk and from which grow different branches. What really interests me is painting and so what I try to do is paint and I believe that to accomplish this in the present day is a great achievement because both the tradition and the history of painting is very long. Even just picking up a paintbrush means having to be clear about what you are doing because it’s really quite a risky business. Perhaps the changes in my work are largely formal but I’m very interested in painting and have tried not to move away from it.
P.G. A spectator can also enter your work and get lost in it, being as they are pictorial surfaces with no particular centre. This structural decentralisation of your work seems in some way to be related to current philosophical ideas about the present time, being conscious that there is not just one truth, and that it’s possible to create one’s own personal reality. I don’t know if they can be read as being your opinion on the present.
P.R. In this sense, yes. Centralisation seems rather undemocratic. That there are different centres, also on an aesthetic level, I think is quite similar to the society in which we live, because one of the things I’m concerned with in my work is freedom, especially in the most recent pieces. These pictures don’t follow any fixed rules as to how they are made, they are fluid, self-organising and don’t obey any pre-established norms. Getting rid of the concept of a centre is also connected with my experience of being in the United States. The “all over” look of Pollock’s work interests me quite a lot and my work reflects this. I’m not interested in there being a fixed point around which everything revolves. I think of my paintings as universes with multiple galaxies in constant movement and transformation.
P.G. It’s quite surprising that on the one hand your work is absolutely contemporary, treating as it does themes as political as that of decentralisation while on the other hand dealing with such classical issues as that of recuperating painting itself, separated from the purely pictorial.
P.R. I think that the problem with many contemporary painters is that they have gone off on a tangent. Nothing comes from nothing and I can understand that daring to bring something new to the body of painting, using brushes and colour, is not easy. But this is precisely the challenge and is why I’m so interested in painting. Sometimes I see videos, photography, installations and feel some empathy toward these disciplines, even to the extent of wanting to try them out at some stage of my life; but the challenge in my case is painting. I suppose it’s because I feel I was born a painter and I can’t avoid it. Painting is the media in which I feel most comfortable expressing myself, as well as stimulating me.
P.G. This great interest in painting is the reason for such an abstract body of work?
P.R. I think that all good painting, going back to Velazquez or even the Venetians, has always been abstract. Therein lies its marvellous quality: that in reality it takes a great lie to create the illusion of truth. Already with Cézanne we can understand abstraction in more contemporary terms, through the course of the last century it evolved at such a frenetic pace and now even the field of virtual reality can be included in terms of abstraction. In trying to capture this other virtual reality which new technologies are providing communication, perhaps another advance in more modern terms will come about similar to that produced by the appearance of perspective in the renaissance period. Here space comes into play, the other great theme which fascinates me in painting, and which has been especially important in the development of my own work. How elements fit together in these paintings, how they organise themselves are questions which bring them close to similar problems also posed in quantum physics. Sometimes I feel my paintings are made before I even paint them, as if in some way all I have to do is uncover them.
P.G. Space is very important in your work, but time also features strongly.
P.R. In my paintings there is a time which grows out of a journey. I manage time as a concept: the lines and shapes arrange themselves and in their space each element develops its own slow tempo.
P.G., Do you think this space/time in your work is closer to an interior or exterior reality?
P.R. To both, but I’m interested in talking about the exterior. I always call myself a “realist” painter. What I paint isn’t anything I’ve invented, it already exists in nature and out in the street. In graffiti, for example. Graffiti is another of the fundamental aspects of my work. I’m not a graffiti artist nor is it a question of graffiti produced by a painter, it’s about using a resource from popular culture which I think connects with my expressive needs; in the same way that lights from a motorway at night or tangled electric power lines can also appear in my work. I’m keen to keep in touch with what’s going on around me.
P.G. Lets talk about what happens inside your paintings. In the series Estados Superpuestos there is a kind of unity within each canvas, the lines flow continuously as if they were a multitude of monologues all taking place at the same time, but in harmony; while in the series Campo Policrónico, Estados Complementarios or Espacio Regulador the lines and shapes are more like isolated words with which you invite the spectator to create their own dialogue.
P.R. Yes, I’m interested in the idea of the spectator participating in the work. Regarding the other, both the rational and the emotional sides of me are very strong, the ideal would be to balance them out, but this is not always easy to achieve. The paintings in Estados Superpuestos seem more rational, though I feel them as being more emotional; on the other hand, the others you mention give the feeling of being more emotional and yet are perhaps far more rational. At any rate both these sides will always exist within my work.
Sometimes, so as to continue painting, a period of silence is necessary for reflection and the preparation of another creation. Estados Superpuestos helped me, without this silence to arrive at the Complementarios.
P.G. Another constant feature of your work is the coming together of the microcosm and the macrocosm.
P.R. This is the way the world and the universe are. This is the mystery in life and also in my pictures. In the latest pieces there are even different levels of representation. Formally an element, in a picture, could as well be a patch of colour, an attitude, or a vibration, not just a specific thing, but something which joins together with other things to create a whole, which is where the micro joins the macro and vice versa. This, which interests me as an idea, also plays a functional role in that it makes the work rich in contrasts.
P.G. These contrasts provoke a constant movement across the surface of the canvases. The rich, bright colours, the lines floating on flat colour fields, delimit a space which is totally habitable for the senses.
P.R. I use line as form. My line is something corresponding to the idea that Da Vinci had of sfumatto, a place where drawing and painting come together. I see that the two are united in my paintings, what appears as line is also colour and light. This creates the density of space despite being on a flat surface. It isn’t matter that most interests me, painting already has its own matter and I don’t want to add to it. For some time there has been less and less physical matter in my work, even in the series Correction (1998-1999) what I was creating was an emptiness of matter, because I was taking paint off rather than putting it on.
P.G. Throughout your artistic development it seems you’ve been trying more and more to achieve the aim of painting in its “pure” state. Your colours are clean, the shapes don’t give rise to confusion, and neither does the palette.
P.R. My choice of colours is instinctive. As far as their application is concerned this relates to my philosophy of not contaminating the painting. I want my painting to be clean, in the sense that painting is already an interesting enough deception without adding more things which would later create confusion. I am trying to achieve a purity and directness in my painting, and in this latest body of work I feel I’m speaking very clearly, that I’m not tricking anyone and that there is just the right amount of alchemy needed. Without losing sight of the fact that painting is only a means and not an end in itself.
Pilar Giró ― Biographical interview with Pablo Rey, Summer 2008