Sunday, June 8, 2008

Present perfect

"View of Madrid from the Vallecas Fire Tower," as installed at the MFA; photo by Tim Lowly.

Those who despair of the contemporary art scene are in for a wonderful surprise at the new Antonio López García show at the MFA. For here is "realism" - a mode largely disdained today - with not only a few new tricks up its sleeve, but also something deep and moving to say about "reality." If you thought you'd never see another new picture you wanted to stare at for hours, or if you thought the long love affair between the painter and his brush was over, then you must see this show. After several seasons of blinking chandeliers, assemblages of junk, and the other empty technical displays that have filled both the MFA and ICA, López García may restore your faith in what was once a sine qua non of great art: its sense of spiritual mystery.

Indeed, it's hard to believe that López García was quietly amassing this extraordinary body of work while Warhol was mass-producing soup cans, and Lichtenstein apotheosizing comic books. Perhaps the artist's sequestration in Spain allowed the small miracle of his career to occur: for ever since the historic face-off between Velázquez and El Greco (currently being re-enacted right next door, in a brilliant programming coup), realism and mysticism have been the two rivers running through Spanish art. Yet in López García, the two great currents become one - or rather, one flows beneath the other.

In fact, you can see the artist getting his feet wet in the shallows of mysticism early in his career - works like "Boy with Slingshot," (1953) which feels like a forced marriage between Balthus and de Chirico, push at us a vague sense of surreal import; in another painted relief, what seems to be the "ghost" of a child floats eerily down an empty corridor. At the same time, polychromed reliefs like "The Clothes Rack" (1963-64) feel like paintings trying to reach out into space, to provide a physical presence as well as an image.

It's that sense of "presence" that, once folded back into the picture plane, finally provided López García with his great theme. Many critics have commented on the artist's luminous palette, and almost hyperreal attention to detail - indeed, López García re-acquaints you with just how sensual an encounter with a painting can be - but few have commented on how he differs from "photorealists" such as Richard Estes, who were just as persnickety about detail, and who led the last significant resurgence of realism. Like López García, Estes often painted empty urban landscapes - but he was all about surface, often literally about reflection for its own sake: the scenes were dazzling, but jazzily flat. López García, by way of contrast, conjures a palpable sense of space in his imagery - even in "Sink and Mirror" (1963, above left), where, if you look closely, you can see he re-jiggers the perspective halfway down: we feel not simply the physical presence of the subject, but its existence - the painting is opening up to us as an experience, like the artist's painted reliefs seemed to try to do. When López García offers a study of his empty studio or bathroom (note in that mirror at left that we're not reflected in it), he produces not merely an image of incomparable verisimilitude, but also conjures the room's independent atmosphere, its own memory, if you will, as part of its "reality."

How is this strangely radiant, Vermeer-like atmosphere, achieved? The answer probably lies in the way López García's paintings somehow feel pregnant with time. (Indeed, if an Estes is a snapshot, a López García is a time exposure.) Perhaps the best example of this quality is seen in "The Dinner" (1971-1980, below) - and yes, you read those dates right, he worked on this piece for nineteen years. Indeed, the painting's history has become its true subject - notice the piece of pork down center, its rawness rendered with stunningly moist precision, perhaps because it's the oldest patch of paint on the canvas, the rest of which seems in various stages of flux. Some spots look plastered, then painted over, like testaments of decisions withdrawn and forgotten; the young girl stares out at us with sweet, slightly troubled dissatisfaction at her unstable surroundings, while her mother has all but broken up into distracted shards of fragmented attention. These pictorial peculiarities could easily be gathered under the modernist obsession with the physical picture plane; yet curiously, in López García, they seem to ramify into metaphor as well.

His giant paintings of Madrid exhibit a similar obsession with time's passage - indeed, their very construction suggests the course of their development: all the big ones "accrete," as it were, from several panels, added as the pieces expanded in scope. The work process leaves other traces: perspective lines and dotted grids, and even little "notes-to-self," float through the images like ghosts. And it's no coincidence, I think, that these obsessive views of the city always include new construction at the edge of town, sometimes even taking construction sites as their point of view (as in "View of Madrid from the Vallecas Tower," at top). Once again, time pauses silently, without our noticing, as the city grows of itself, pushing out into a desert and sky which shine with something bright but unknowable.

There are other wonders in the show - such as an Adam and Eve made literally of earth, save for glittering glass eyes - but for me perhaps the most affecting piece was "Skinned Rabbit" (1972, at left) a quietly tragic work that harkens back to the dead hares of Chardin, but glows with a delicately harrowing intensity. The poor creature, dead, flayed, and soon to be eaten, is curled into a fetal position, ready for its final rebirth, its dead eye staring blindly into the space it once thought it knew. It's hard to describe the metaphysical and mortal import with which López García has freighted this little red question mark, all while draining it of any pretension, or even sentiment, save a certain unassuming sympathy. Or perhaps "identification" is the right word. This is what we all become, after all - we're all waiting to die and be eaten - at which point the mystery of presence, which López García has spent his life trying to reproduce, will be silenced for us all.

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