A Renewed Impulse in the Painting of José Manuel Ciria

This entry is a translation into English, by Justion Peterson, of my text originally written in Spanish on the occasion of the exhibition  Ciria. Territorios y Mapas, Mexico City, Ateneo Español.

A Renewed Impulse in the Painting of José Manuel Ciria

Julio César Abad Vidal[1]

Crows and Flamingos. 2017, oli on canvas, 200 x 200 cm

In recent years the pictorial work of José Manuel Ciria (Manchester, 1960) has been concentrated in two main bodies of work, to which should be added the development of installations – some of them still in the conceptualisation phase – with a frequency unprecedented hitherto in his career.[2] One of these large sets features monumental heads, expressionist in their tone, in a kind of mourning for the death of his father, Santiago. The second of these series is comprised of paintings, most often medium- or large-format, more orthodoxly abstract, arranged through reticular compositions and characterised by the prominence of gestural emanation; juxtapositions between the imposition of geometric order and unruly overflow characterises what is perhaps the most representative language of a Spanish artist whose exhibition activity has been very intense, and who has generated a bibliographic corpus probably unrivalled in its volume by any artist of his nationality and generation.[3]  Both are manifestations of his hyperactivity and of a creative agonism that renders his work what we sometimes describe as “overflowing”.[4]

The paintings that Ciria presents in this exhibition offer a thorough synthesis of the most significant characteristics of his pictorial language. In the first place, they all feature a quadrangular format, one also used by the creators behind some of the last century’s landmark works, like the Suprematist creations of one of the artists who has most influenced Ciria: Kazimir Malevich, the chromatic studies of Josef Albers, and the works of the minimalist painters.[5] It is a format that, due to its geometric neutrality, seems to prove apropos for pure formal investigation.

There is, however, one attribute that stands out in this array of works. If Ciria’s gestural expression has, at times, reached extremes that are at times overflowing, and even distressing, to the point that we could describe the geometric structure and the informal emission of his works created during the 90s as “castration” and “violation”,[6] respectively, these works are, instead, jubilant. This is facilitated, firstly, by the definition of their two fundamental phenomena: the silvery and effulgent surface on which they are displayed; and, secondly, by virtue of the chromatism of the different stains or spots occupying each of the reticular spaces in which these works are geometrically presented.

These works’ pleasing nature seems to reflect a period of consolidation, of stability, in which the artist apparently regained new strength after a long period of personal vicissitudes, addressed autobiographically in the form of a graphic comic entitled The Extraordinary Ciria,[7] which was published on the occasion of his recent exhibition, The Pendulum Movement, held between the months of May and July 2017 at the Baert Gallery in Los Angeles.[8]  This buoyant nature is also found in some of the initial works in the series, such as Escape, Lazos familiares (Family Ties) (2009, oil and aluminium on canvas, 152.5 x 122 cm each), and Confeti (2009, oil and aluminium on canvas, 200 x 200 cm), whose titles are illustrative.

Memoria Abstracta, which opened a decade ago, constitutes a kind of “reinvention”, in the words of the artist himself,[9] of his memorable Máscaras de la Mirada (Masks of the Gaze) series, a set of works that Ciria eloquently describes in this way:

The series addresses the social straitjackets in which we live, the scant room for manoeuvring that we have to change anything that happens around us, the barriers and differences imposed and emphasised among us by politicians, or our religious guides. Of loneliness and disconnection.[10]

Flowers (For MLK). 2008, oil on canvas, 200 x 200 cm

A large number of the works that make up the series are made up of checkerboards[11] with boxes featuring black and aluminium backgrounds, and with white and red spots, affected, in each case, by the presence of the colour black. These are works that take on monumental dimensions, such as that of three rows and fifteen columns entitled Encuentros de ira (Encounters of Rage) (2009, oil and aluminium on wood, 300 x 1500 cm). While the first of the characteristics that defines these works is their checkerboard layout, the second is the nature of the pigments’ gestural emission, through spots on each of these quadrangular fields. These spots, by virtue of the titles of some of the works making up Memoria Abstracta, may be identified as “flowers”, as in the painting initiating the series, Flowers (For MLK) (2008, oil and aluminium on canvas, 200 x 200 cm)[12], “alas” (“wings”) (Encuentro de alas. 2010, oil, graphite and aluminium on canvas, 200 x 200 cm), “luces” (“lights”) (Luces. 2010, oil and aluminium on canvas, 200 x 200 cm), and “Focus de luz” (“Spotlights”) (Focos de luz contradictorios. 2009, oil and aluminium on canvas, 200 x 200 cm), and in two works with the captions Versión New York and Versión Madrid, in what seem to be new references to the phenomenon of phosphenes, which the artist has dealt with on other occasions,[13] as in Formas flotando sobre trama geométrica. [Shapes Floating on a Geometric Pattern), 2009, oil and aluminium on canvas, 200 x 200 cm).

Similarly, Ciria has characterised the reticule as a window subjecting the category through which he pursued a modern approach to painting to a mise en abîme effect, in the canonical way in which the Renaissance writer and architect Leon Battista Alberti did in Book II of De Pictura: (On Painting) “I will describe what I do when I paint. First, I draw on the surface to be painted a quadrangle of right angles, as big as I like, which serves as an open window from which the story can be seen.” [14] This is the case, for example, in the titles of the following works: Ventanas experimentales (Experimental Windows; 2009, oil and aluminium on canvas, 200 x 200 cm), Ventana habitada (Inhabited Window; 2010, oil and aluminium on canvas, 200 x 200 cm), and Ventana poética para Elena y Rafa (Poetic Window for Elena and Rafa; 2010, oil and aluminium on canvas, 150 x 150 cm)[15].

The second of the series offered in this exhibition, “Procedimientos” (“Procedures”), is probably the most upbeat of all those that Ciria has produced over the course of a career usually characterised by a persistent dramatic tension. These works are characterised by turbulent backgrounds, a chromatic profusion of unprecedented richness in Ciria’s works, and a complete absence of reticular structures, although an attentive gaze can detect certain stripes on the surface.

Even the titles of these works are of an imaginative and playful nature, alluding to creatures in action, both real and imaginary, as in the footprints, for instance, of chickens (Chicken Footprints. 2017, oil and graphite on canvas, 200 x 200 cm), the presence of Crows and Flamingos (2017, oil on canvas, 200 x 200 cm), Crazy Unicorns (2017, oil on canvas, 200 x 200 cm), and even a Blind Cyclops (2017, oil on canvas, 200 x 200 cm). Other titles are also rich in imaginative phenomena, such as Jumping Leeks (2017, oil on canvas, 200 x 200 cm), and perceptual ones (I Only Saw Half, 2017, oil and graphite on canvas, 200 x 200 cm), in a more surprising way in references to colours, as in Clockwork Cerulean (2017, oil and graphite on canvas, 200 x 200 cm), and Dark White. (2017, oil on canvas, 175 x 175 cm).

Trembiling. 2017, oil on canvas, 200 x 200 cm

The spots sometimes resemble those found in some works from the 90s, like those that, featuring considerable dimensions, seem to present a sequential evolution,[16] as in Trembling (2017, oil and graphite on canvass, 200 x 200 cm). However, in a larger set of works, the spots appear to be separate, independent elements that, in the company of their corresponding components, seem to constitute a sort of illegible alphabet, which occurs with particular coherence in the aforementioned Jumping Leeks.

For the series “Procedimientos” (“Procedures”) Ciria returned to a format that he previously had employed for pictorial experimentation and that helped distinguish him as one of the most intense and hypnotic Spanish painters of the 90s: the plastic canvas. To this he adds a chromatic profuseness – with yellows, blues, oranges – that enriches the monastic austerity that had characterised a good part of his pictorial production from the last decade. In this way, the macular emanations engage in a game that evolves in the imagination of the enthralled viewer, forming fantastic and exuberant spaces, like those earnestly painted by children, who love them.

Fragmentado intersticios constitutes Ciria’s third exhibition project in Mexico. The first, Squares from 79 Richmond Grove, took him, a bit over a decade ago, to the Museo de Arte Abstracto Manuel Felguérez de Zacatecas,[17] the Museo Casa Redonda de Chihuahua, in 2005; as well as to the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo Ateneo de Yucatán (MACAY), in Mérida, in 2006.[18] The second of his exhibitions in Mexico, Miradas especulares, (Specular Gazes) was held at the Museo de Arte Raúl Anguiano, in Guadalajara, in 2012.[19] The exposition Fragmentado intersticios will later head to New York, a city that Ciria loves deeply and to which he moved his studio for almost a decade at the end of 2005.

Fragmentado intersticios represents for Ciria a reencounter with two bordering but very different countries, today more separated than ever by a border evoked by the reticular structures of most of the paintings. It is also suggested when we contemplate the vivacious, passionate, fluid spots that transcend them, which have never seemed more exuberant, luminous, festive and fantastic than in his recent works.


[1] Extraordinary Doctorate Award in Philosophy and Letters from the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid. PhD in Philosophy (Area of ​​Aesthetics and Art Theory), Bachelor’s in Art History, and Bachelor’s in East Asian Studies, also from the UAM.

[2] Installations such as Memoria Abstracta (presented at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Bucharest, 2012; and the Madrid exhibition space Tabacalera, in 2014) that, however, stand, in the problematization of their two-dimensional nature, and their materiality, as protagonists.

[3] A selection of essays dedicated to the artist in the catalogues published on the occasion of his various exhibitions over the last decade of the 20th century and the first of the 21st features two volumes: Ciria. Las Formas del Silencio (Madrid, Tf editores, 2005) and Ciria. Palabras Nómadas (Ciria: Nomadic Words) (Madrid, Fundacion Ciria, 2016), respectively.

[4] See “La pintura desbordada de José Manuel Ciria” (The Overflowing Painting of José Manuel Ciria), in Ciria. O Sonho de Lisboa. Lisbon, Galería António Prates, 2004, pp. 43-64.

[5] We have dealt extensively with the semantic relevance of this format in the essay “De las pinturas cuadradas de Ciria como los esfuerzos del prisionera contra las rejas,” [“On Ciria’s Square Paintings as the Struggling of a Prisoner Against the Bars”], published in the catalogue Ciria. Squares from 79 Richmond Grove. Madrid, Sociedad Estatal para la Acción Cultural Exterior, 2004, pp. 65-89

[6] Cfr. “La forja de lo informe” (“The Shaping of the Shapeless”) in Ciria. Glosa líquida. (Ciria. Liquid Gloss). Cáceres, Galería Bores & Mallo, 2000, pp. 7-69.

[7] The comic deals with the different stages that since 2005 led him, in chronological order, to New York – where he traveled in September of that year, directly from Zacatecas – and to Berlin, London and Madrid, where he is currently established. Travel has played a prominent role in the development of the artist’s personality and work, as we had the opportunity to highlight in our essay “De los años neoyorquinos de José Manuel Ciria” (“On José Manuel Ciria’s New York Years”), in Ciria. Box of Mental States. Miami, Art Rouge Gallery, 2008, pp. 63-75.

[8] The comic was originally published in English. It features a script by Ciria himself, while the illustrations are the work of Javier Remedios. The publication ran parallel to that of the exhibition’s catalogue. Cfr. Ciria. The Pendulum Movement. Los Angeles, Baert Gallery, 2017.

[9] As Kara Vander Weg states in a conversation published in the catalogue of the exhibition she curated, Ciria. Opposite concepts. Valencia, Instituto Valenciano de Arte Moderno, 2011, pp. 11-25. The quote is taken from p. 113.

[10] Ibíd., p. 23.

[11] Ciria has drawn upon, precisely, the noun damero (checkerboard) to entitle some of the works in the series, such as Gran damero (Large Checkerboard) (2009, oil and aluminum on canvas, 250 x 250 cm).

[12] And in Flowers II (2008, oil and aluminium on canvas, 200 x 200 cm).

[13] Phosphenes are the spots that one sees even with his eyes closed when they have recently been blinded by an intense light. Ciria wrote about this phenomenon in a story entitled “Pesadillla antes de Halloween. Incendiaro cuento otoñal”. (“Nightmare Before Halloween. An Incendiary Autumnal Tale)”, published in the catalogue of the José Manuel Ciria, Intersticios exhibition. Madrid, 1999. 11-36. He refers to the phosphenes in this way: “A large, solitary cloud, thin, like a spear, begins to cover the sun little by little, but its surface produces only a narrow line of eclipse and shadow. Suddenly there is a miracle and an ocular suicide. The blinding glare makes us squint, but the overwhelming light lingers. We struggle to open one eye first, and then the other. To our amazement, the sun begins to jump from one side of the gaseous mass to the other”.  Ibíd., p. 11.

[14] Alberti, Leon Battista: Sobre la pintura. (On Painting). Translation by Joaquim Dols Rusiñol. Valencia, Fernando Torres, 1976, pp. 104-105. It should be recalled that Alberti’s impact shaping the theory of Western Art was extraordinary. As the author of two texts dedicated to the arts of painting, architecture and sculpture, Alberti was the first authority to establish a comprehensive and unitary theory of art, in which he offers a clear manifestation of the premises of Renaissance Humanism. But Alberti is also crucial in forging a path towards the dignification of the artist, from a mere craftsman towards his identification as an intellectual creator, which he achieved by turning to both the geometric arts and poetry.

[15] However, these names are nothing new in the work of Ciria, who, for example, had entitled two works in his series “Máscaras de la Mirada” (“Masks of the Gaze”) by drawing on the same noun: Tres Ventanas (Three Windows) (2003, oil on plastic canvas, 200 x 200 cm), and Nueve ventanas (Nine Windows) (2004, oil on plastic canvas, 200 x 200 cm).

[16] We could also cite, to mention just one illustrative example, La parábola de los ciegos (The Parable of the Blind) (1997, oil and graphite on plastic canvas, 150 x 130 cm), which we consider one of the most memorable paintings of the last decade of the 20th century.

[17] An experience evoked in his text “Historias de Hoteles. Parte II. El hotel de Zacatecas” (“Hotel Stories. Part II. The Zacatecas Hotel”) in Ciria, Miradas especulares (Ciria, Specular Gazes). Guadalajara, Museo de Arte Raúl Anguiano, 2012, p. 103.

[18] This itinerant retrospective, which I had the pleasure to curate, was sponsored by the State Society for Cultural Action Abroad (SEACEX), an institution attached to Spain’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as part of the “Spanish Art for Abroad” programme. Prior to his three-part sojourn through Mexican lands, the show had been presented in Poland and in Switzerland, at the Królikarnia Palace of the National Museum of Warsaw, and at the Centre PasquArt, in Biel-Bienne, in 2004 and 2005, respectively.

[19] The show was curated by Sandra Carvajal Novoa, Rafael Sierra and J. Óscar Carrascosa.

Acerca de juliocesarabadvidal

Julio César Abad Vidal es Premio Extraordinario de Doctorado en Filosofía y Letras por la Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, es Doctor en Filosofía (Área de Estética y Teoría de las Artes), Licenciado en Historia del Arte y Licenciado en Estudios de Asia Oriental, asimismo por la UAM. Desde su primera publicación, en 2000 y, en sus proyectos como docente y comisario, se ha dedicado a la reflexión sobre la cultura contemporánea con tanta pasión como espíritu crítico. Crédito de la imagen: retrato realizado por Daniela Guglielmetti (colectivo Dibujo a Domicilio); más información en https://juliocesarabadvidal.wordpress.com/2015/07/29/dibujo-a-domicilio-un-cautivador-proyecto-colectivo-socio-artistico/


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