‘Idea: Painting-Force’, at the Reina Sofia in Madrid, is a show that revolves around the paintings of five Spanish male artists between 1978 and 1984. The historical context is set both by the recently preceding experiments of conceptual art, as well as the attempt to posthumously address the precedents set by modernism in painting, particularly impressionism, cubism, pop art, and abstract expressionism. The paintings have been given a spacious hang in the Palazio de Valezqeuz, a pavilion in the centre of the Retiro Park, much to their benefit. Seeing the show in a single building, rather than a series of rooms, gives it a more holistic feeling, as the viewer is able to visually reference back and forth more easily and move around more freely.
The works display a simultaneous proximity to and defiance of tradition. They adopt styles, try them on, and discard them. In their non-committal outfitting they disavow the historical progression of modernism. And yet they are not as rigorous in this disavowal as the German postmoderns to whom they might owe a wink: Gerhard Richter, or Sigmar Polke, for instance. And that’s not a bad thing. A certain abandonment of technical excellence is shared by all five artists. You could say the medium is taken with a pinch of salt, but the broad, confident gestures also express a simple sincerity.
There are similarities in the way the paintings are executed, with quick, comical brushstrokes and thick slabs of colour. Never laboured, but occasionally intricate, the paintings are mostly big or very big, and they accomplish their effect with a swaggering verve. A refreshing lack of cleverness in the work is perhaps deceptive. The masks in Juan Navarro Baldeweg’s ‘Cabeza, negro y plata’ (Head, Black and Silver) 1983, or Ferran Garcia Sevilla’s ‘Adan i Eva’ (Adam and Eve), 1980, conceal more complex expressions. The exploration of colour is remarkable, especially in the work of Alfonso Albacete, with many layers of paint revealing and concealing a multiplicity of tones, generating shimmering impressionistic planes. Figures deteriorate into abstract logics, and square lemons are hashed together with two or three brushstrokes.
The paintings are masquerading, either literally wearing masks, or playfully adopting an outward appearance that conceals their true identity. Manolo Quejido employs a multitude of styles, from cubism and impressionism, to pop art, in paintings such as ‘El Beso’ (The Kiss), 1980; ‘Maquinando’ (Machinations), 1979; ‘El parto’ (The Birth), 1978; and ‘Correrias’ (Excursions), 1979. And Ferran Garcia Sevilla’s extravagantly named ‘Porque siempre pienso en ti o Ski o Lengua a lengua’ (Because I always think of you, or Ski, or Tongue to Tongue), 1980; and ‘Tagram o La tempesta o La paraula de la mona o Salts d’altura o Ulls de ningu o La vida dels altres’ (Tagram, or The Tempest, or The Word Monkey, or High Jump, or No One’s Eyes, or The Life of Others), 1980, recall motifs from African art. They are the intentional quotations of a generation that no longer identifies with a movement, misfits in a traditional art historical narrative. Miguel Ángel Campano’s ‘Omphalos I’, 1984, cruises the border between pictorial line and abstract gesture. The identification of Campano’s earlier paintings of the period with a neo-abstract expressionism is destabilised by the intervention of the illustrative ‘Shipwreck’, 1983; the smallest painting in the show.
This is painting dealing with its issues, mining the past to get to the present. But it’s ultimately affirmative, imbued with optimism and the desire to create something new.