Space of Tensions (Knot, weft, and plot in the work of Julián Aragoneses)

Miguel Cereceda

Text Catalogue Individual Exhibition Madrid 2010

1.- Updated informalism Julián Aragoneses is an artist who works with his hands, building paintings and sculptures by means of knots. By this, we mean that he does not paint or sculpt in the usual sense of the word, but rather that, by taking the weft and fabric of sackcloth arranged on stretchers, which he ties and knots, he achieves complex formal structures. When they are displayed on walls, these structures resemble paintings, and when they are on the floor, they look like sculptures. However, far from leaving them inert or dead, like conventional paintings and sculptures, hanging from a wall or resting on the floor, the artist likes to give his works a second life, taking them out onto the street, displaying them on the snow, burying them and then unearthing them, in an attempt to observe the way they behave in relation to their surroundings, and the way they play and interact with the world. In an interview published in the magazine Tendencias in 2008, the artist said about this work: “The aim of what I do is to achieve abstraction through a variety of media and techniques. The knots and structures are just one way of arriving at chaos, an informalism whose colours, materials and forms have been updated. In the same way that a weaver ties knots in order to make a carpet, I tie knots to achieve a structure, a piece where the knots are not important in themselves. I like to create things with my hands, working with a certain level of roughness, to feel the material, using my strength and tiring myself out”. The synthetic precision with which the artist summarises his own work is striking: “The aim of my work is abstraction”, he tells us. He sees this abstraction as “an informalism whose colours, materials and forms have been updated”. An updated informalism, then. This means the artist conceives his work as belonging to a double tradition –abstraction and informalism–, a tradition which he nonetheless wants to present in a specific, more modern way. “Informalism” was a term coined by Juan Eduardo Cirlot to describe European abstract art from the 1950s, which was radically different, in terms of both procedures and size, from North American abstract expressionism. The new concept was particularly appropriate to describe the work of the artists from the “Dau al set” –particularly that of Antoni Tàpies–, as well as those from the El Paso group. With regard to this, in the exhibition catalogue for Julián Aragoneses’s 2009 show in Paris, Aurélie Didiers pointed out the influence of Tàpies’s work on his art.

 

2.- Knots and wefts As heir and continuer of this double tradition, our artist does not think of himself as a painter in the strict sense of the word, but, rather, as an artisan. “In the same way that a weaver ties knots in order to make a carpet –he tells us– I make knots to achieve a structure, which is a piece where the knots are not important in themselves”. We are therefore dealing with an artist who “makes knots”, or further, with someone who makes knots “in order to achieve a structure”. In this way, the knot and the weft seem to be the most important. The knot is not a mere tangle or flaw on a string. The knot, in fact, is the point of union of two tensions. It is the place where two cords or threads meet, making it possible to prolong their extension, but it is also what holds and ties, what stops something from coming undone. Producing a piece by using knots therefore constitutes a deliberate search for a space of tensions. Speaking about the weft, Rosalind Krauss has highlighted the importance of the grille and the structure in the emancipation of contemporary art. Furthermore, she has even identified an emblem of the modernity of geometric art in this characteristic, which “entrenches the visual arts in the sphere of pure visuality, defending them from the intrusion of words”[1]. It is true that the weft, which, surprisingly, stubbornly survives as an element in contemporary art, brought about the affirmation of the autonomy of painting and its emancipation from any linguistic reference. However, the wefts in the work by Aragoneses are not specifically connected to painting, but, as he himself points out, they are structures of knots and fabrics. The artist works with cords and sackcloth which have been cut, tied and knotted until they form a weft. In themselves, these wefts constitute the picture or the work, and are not limited to being its medium, or a stage for a new performance. This is another element where Aragoneses is continuing, if only partially, a tradition from the informalist school. Working with sackcloth and fabric instead of pigment and presenting the results as an artwork was the initial aim of Lucio Fontana, who used to make deep cuts into the canvas, in an attempt to see beyond what was conveyed by the material itself. This also characterised the work of Alberto Burri, who sewed sacks and sackcloth and fabrics of different shapes and colours, in order to simply create the canvas, on which he would not paint anything. More than Antoni Tàpies, it was possibly Millares and Rivera, the two artists in the El Paso group, who most influenced this side of the work of Julián Aragoneses. Particularly Millares, with his fascinating expressive sackcloths, which were tied, woven and knotted on the stretcher. However, the artist from Granada, Manolo Rivera, also produced works made from woven wire and cable, which has strong echoes in the work of our young artist. Therefore, when Aragoneses tells us that he likes to work with his hands, and that he enjoys experiencing the hardness, resilience and physicality of his works, as well as when he tells us, during our conversations in his studio, about his fascination for materials (“When I go to the Leroy Merlin DIY store I find it hugely exciting”), it is reminiscent of the fascination Manolo Rivera felt for ironmonger’s shop windows. “One afternoon, in Madrid, 1956 –Miguel Logroño said–, when the artist and his wife were on their way to the cinema: the window of an ironmonger’s shop, some rolls of wire, a pair of scissors and a few hammers hanging from hooks, as if in a deliberate arrangement. The money set aside for the film would be spent on the first metre of wire mesh”[2]. The fascination which ironmonger’s materials arouse in Aragoneses seems very similar. This manual and material relationship with the object is very important for him. Experiencing the body, the weight and the resilience of objects. It is there that he finds a direct contraposition between his work and his cold relationship with computer or digital photography work.

 

3.- The manual and the intellectual During that same interview, the artist said the following: “Art has evolved in a spectacular way in the 20th century, thanks to photography, cinema, radio, T.V., computers and, more recently, the Internet. All of this technology, pure technology, formats and media serve to create and give pleasure, as well as to receive pleasure when that is what is wanted. However, because I think about all this, in general my work is merely artisanal, and free from all this technology. I need to go to the other side, because the creative processes which use these technologies are too intellectual, and I can’t get my hands dirty with the computer or the camera …” “Too intellectual” he tells us. Therefore, in his work there is a return to the hands, to the material and physical nature of the object, perhaps trying to simultaneously liberate art from its intellectual super-determination. Undoubtedly, Julián Aragoneses is interested in this contemporary art trend. “I do not aim to convey ideas or feelings”– he repeated during the interview. “It is just an aesthetics proposal”. It is possible that contemporary art has become excessively intellectualised. Tom Wolfe mentioned, scathingly, the review by an art critic from the New York Times as an example of this excessive intellectualisation: “Nowadays –wrote the critic– without an accompanying theory, I cannot see a painting”[3]. And it seems that this has caused a certain limitation in our ability to enjoy contemporary art. It is possible that this is the reason why many people feel intimidated by galleries and museums. “People become suspicious when they realize something is art –claimed the artist Julian Opie in an interview–. Because of this I try to defuse this moment of suspiciousness, to give people the chance to visually face the work, rather than having to worry about whether or not it is art, or whether or not they should like it”[4]. It is also possible that this is the reason why many artists find themselves having to work specifically against that “intellectualisation” of art, to free it from countless cultural hindrances and humanist, symbolic and even religious demands. In a sense, this liberation effort underpinned the work conducted by art during the 1960s. On the one hand it was Pop Art which mockingly tried to distance itself from the old humanist prejudices surrounding art. Andy Warhol liked to say that “buying is much more American than thinking, and I am as American as they come”[5], transforming –as Estrella de Diego teaches us– the old role of the artist as producer into the new model of the artist as consumer[6]. However, his words openly scorned the entire intellectual and humanist tradition which, since Leonardo da Vinci, had been demanded of art in general and painting in particular. “Leonardo da Vinci used to persuade his patrons that his thinking time was very valuable, more valuable even than the time he devoted to painting. And perhaps this was true in his case,” said Andy Warhol. “But I know my thinking time is worth nothing. I simply hope I get paid for ‘making’ time”[7]. However, in the same way that Pop Art made progress in this offensive against the intellectualisation of art, so-called Minimal Art was also developed partially as a way of rejecting the excessive intellectualised tradition of art. When Frank Stella and Donald Judd spoke about the rigidly geometric character of their work, one of the reasons they gave to justify it was precisely that: to get rid of all the humanist content of European tradition which art was dragging along with it[8]. “I always argue,” said Frank Stella “with those who want to preserve the old values of painting, the humanist values they always manage to find on the canvas. If you pin them down, they always end up saying there is something more on the canvas, something beyond the paint. My painting is based on the idea that all there is is what you see”[9]. This is why they produced cold geometric art. An art without concepts, without expression, emotion or symbolism. Because of this it is surprising that, in his offensive against excessively intellectualised art, Andy Warhol took aim at Leonardo da Vinci. Although in a way it was Da Vinci who was the main engine behind this intellectual direction of art, with his insistence that “la pittura è cosa mentale”[10], this intellectual direction was the result of a significant effort towards redeeming painting from its purely artisanal condition and the way it was disparagingly referred to as “mechanical art”. He sought to redeem it of its manual character in order to defend its intellectual character. “If you accuse it of being mechanical, just because in first place it is manual –wrote Da Vinci– because the hands represent what they find in fantasy, you, writers, manually describe with your quills what is found in your ingenuity”[11]. In his time, this was undoubtedly a necessary defence for art, but nowadays it might be necessary to rescue art from the technical mediation which turns it into a cold practice, and in turn, it might now be necessary to defend its artisanal condition. This element is essential to the work of Julián Aragoneses. He insists that, in the face of the technological mediation of the computer, the screen and the digital, he is interested in working with his hands, in “getting them dirty.”

 

4.- Art and technique However, it is surprising that here the manual is set against the digital, as if they were two different things. And, in the same way that Leonardo advised us of the manual character of any intellectual work, as ultimately even writing is something we do by hand, in the same way it should be noted that it is not in vain that all that is digital comes from the fingers. Julián Aragoneses makes knots, wefts and nets with his hands, in the same way that digital technology builds nodes and network. By doing this, the artist also seeks to somehow escape the technical domination of contemporary artistic culture, which is entirely mediated by computers and digital technology. Because of this, what he most enjoys is experimenting with the physicality of objects: their weight, resilience, elasticity, hardness… “Now that we are living in increasingly virtual and binary environments, which materialise on our computer screens, I feel it is very necessary to have artworks where, if you stumbled into them, you would crack your head open”, continued the artist during the interview we have been recounting. Therefore, it is not only the lost manual and artisanal condition of creative work that interests Aragoneses, but also the chance to experiment with the physical and expressive possibilities of the object itself, the physical and material weight of the work. It is surprising, however, that, while his paintings are heavy, his sculptures are aerial and ethereal. It seems that what he is truly interested in is exploring the expressive qualities of things, staging their tensions and contradictions: the lightness of the serious, the weight of the light… Because of this his work also plays and dances, in a way. Far from leaving them inert in the workshop, or exhibiting them as static objects in a gallery, his pieces have, to a certain extent, their own life: they go out onto the street, they play in the snow and interact with their surroundings. It is there that they find other things, other relationships and other expressive possibilities. They are visually and formally enriched. We have described the knotted artworks of Julián Aragoneses as a “staging of tensions”. When we look at it this way, it is easy to observe the various tensions which exist in his work. In the first place, the tension between expressionism and formalism. The old informalism was very expressionist, very loquacious and literary, torn and Calderonian, too Spanish and serious; this was what the El Paso group wanted their art to be like[12]. In contraposition with this excessive intellectualisation, the work of Julián Aragoneses “does not aim to convey ideas or feelings,” as he himself points out, “it is simply an aesthetics proposal”. However, this brings about a new tension, that between intellectualism and anti-intellectualism, or rather, between objectualism and subjectivism, which runs through all contemporary art. Without a doubt, the works by Julián Aragoneses seek to liberate themselves from the expressive and literary elements of the old artwork model, but this does not mean they are reduced to mere objectualism. Although his works, like those by North American expressionists, are untitled, and, therefore, do not seek to say anything specific, this does not mean they are intended to be reduced to mere things, and it is because of this that they go onto the street and interact with their environment. However, they are surrounded by a third tension which defines them in a more crucial way: the contemporary tension between technique and the artisanal, and, further, the tension between the digital and the manual. Julián Aragoneses interprets this relationship as a return to manual work, or as a defence of the artisanal nature of artists’ work. We should not allow ourselves, however, to believe this entails his renunciation of photography and new computer technologies, which, in any case, are still elements in his work. In the same way, it does not mean he is returning to the old techniques of artisanal production. If his work expresses these contradictions in any way, it does so in the form of a field of tensions. Knots and wefts in tension. Formalism and expressiveness.

[1] Rosalind Krauss, "Grids", in The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, translated into Spanish by Adolfo Gómez Cedillo, Alianza Ed., Madrid, 1996, p. 23.

[2] Miguel Logroño, “Manuel Rivera. Los dos lados del espejo. 1956-1981”, in the catalogue of the exhibition Manuel Rivera, Ministry for Culture, Madrid, 1981.

[3] Wolfe, Tom, The Painted Word, 2ª ed., Anagrama, Barcelona, 1982, p. 8.

[4] Dominic Murphy, “Seeing is believing”, Guardian Online, 2003, in http://www.julianopie.com/#/texts/catalogue/371

[5] Andy Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again, translated by Marcelo Covián, Tusquets, Barcelona, 1981, republished in 1988, p. 253.

[6] Estrella de Diego, Tristísimo Warhol, Siruela, Madrid, 1999.

[7] Andy Warhol, loc. cit. p. 161.

[8] Donald Judd, in reply to a question by Bruce Glaser, said in 1966: ‘I wanted to get rid of any compositional effects’, and, when asked why, he answered: ‘Well, those effects tend to carry with them all the structures, values, feelings, of the whole European tradition’. Bruce Glaser, “Questions to Stella and Judd”, interview included in Gregory Battcock, Minimal Art. A Critical Anthology, University of California Press, 1995, pp. 150.

[9] Id. p. 157.

[10] Leonardo da Vinci, Trattato della pittura, Codex urbinas, 34b, translated by Ángel González García, Akal, Madrid, 1989, p. 69.

[11] Loc. cit. 8a, 9a, trans. p. 53

[12] “We are moving toward revolutionary plastic arts –which accounts for our dramatic tradition and our direct expression- that will historically respond to a universal activity. Aware as we are of the uselessness of debate regarding the terms abstraction-figurative art, constructive art-expressionist art, collective art-individuality, etc., we propose presenting free and genuine works which are open to boundless experimentation and research, and not subject to elitist or limiting canons. We defend deep and severe, grave and meaningful art.” Manifesto of the El Paso group, 1959; in Simón Marchán Fiz, Del arte objetual al arte de concepto, Akal, Madrid, 1994, p. 345.