catalog texts

LEET'S HAVE DINNER

the painter Santi Queralt interviewing at C. Gabarró
Barcelona, January 3, l998



Santi Queralt: We've known each other since the early 80s. The first time we met was in that little bar in Fine Arts, where you might say we drank and painted for five years, and that was the start of a pictorial friendship that is still flourishing today ...


Carles Gabarró: That tiny bar disappeared years ago, though we still drink wherever we can.


S.Q.: What does the act of painting mean to you? Knowing yourself?


C.G.: The creative act is more than a means of communication; it is a way of knowledge. I don't trust people who are constantly harping on the communicative as the crux of the problem. Artistic practice is based on introspection, which is a mental state through which you end up discovering something about what is around you and, by extension, about yourself. I believe that with time the artist moves from a more or less agnostic position to another, more cognitive one, which seems to open doors which were always ajar before. It is not a gnostic positivism, but a certain degree of internalisation. It is like in psychoanalysis: it is a question of understanding something. I have often heard Gordillo talking about all that.


S.Q..: You're in analysis.


C.G.: I was. A couple of years ago I took a holiday.


S.Q.. You referred to internalisation before. I see your painting as an inner landscape.


C.G.: Metaphorically, any painting is an inner landscape, though since 1987, the time of the Naufragium series until the 1994 'Jardins' exhibition at Maeght, I took the landscape as a reference, perhaps as a reaction against all the time I'd spent working on still life. I remember that at that time of change I was always talking about opening the picture, coming out of the enclosed space of the still life and plunging into more open spaces. I adored Anselm Kiefer's work ...


S.Q.: I remember the shipwreck series, very terrifying, very tragic.


C.G.: Yes, those pictures had a strong narrative and symbolic component: broken ships, life-saving lighthouses, hands waving for help, ... always the continuum of the sea, with no horizon ...


S.Q.: everything in an inner sea, everything sinking into an inner sea


C.G.: yes, at that time I was sinking.


S.Q.: Since then you have embarked on a much more sensual relationship with painting... the atmospheres are more lyrical, more romantic... We mustn't forget that you got those images out of an old German graveyard ...


C.G.: I was in Munich and quite by chance I went into a small graveyard called 'Alter Südfriedhof', the old south cemetery, and I was so captivated that I took over a hundred photos that I stuck on the wall in my studio, like a mosaic. That graveyard is fantastic, full of tombstones with ivy climbing all over them ... it looks like something out of a B movie; the only thing missing was the fog creeping over the ground and wrapping itself round the stones ... incredibly romantic. It's not surprising that romanticism and the spirit of the sublime are so German. There I thought I saw a reflection of the heroic struggle between man and nature, what the 'Sturm und Drang' movement reflected so well in their poetry. That didn't look like a graveyard, more like one of Caspar David Friedrich's paintings. Although I called my landscapes 'gardens', like a synthesis between nature and the hand of man—nature tamed—, they were mostly small cemeteries ...


S.Q.: ... but curiously black has disappeared from those pictures, though it was always present in all your work


C.G.: In spite of my morbid spirit, I wanted to lighten my palette, I wanted the landscape to be daytime ... The picture became a flat surface without excessive chromatic changes from one zone to another. As in 'Naufragium', those canvases had no skyline and there was only object repetition. I was very impressed by a photograph from the war in Bosnia of a football ground which had been turned into a Muslim cemetery full of wooden panels stuck in the ground like tombstones.


S.Q.: Without your being a naturalist, your work does not deny reality...


C.G.: No, no, not at all. I believe reality is emotion. Not even my painting today, which to a large extent is lacking in figurative referents, and which I like to call abstract, is devoid of any component of reality.


S.Q.: It seems that to some extent you are retrieving the formalism of the pictures I saw you painting in Fine Arts, I mean the still lifes ...


C.G.: Not altogether. I abandoned the subject matter of Jardins because for some time I had been wanting to make a break that would allow me to construct the picture in a more dynamic way, to recover something of the spirit I painted with ten or twelve years ago. I did that in the middle of 1995, during a two-month stay in Mallorca. I had been working very little and very badly for some time, and I had no idea how to get out of the predicament. That chance geographical change enabled me to make the break naturally, let us say. The exhibition I'm presenting at the Maeght now is a selection of works from 1996, 1997 and January 1998. I have left out the 1995 pictures because I find them excessively rigid, with a few exceptions, and I have preferred not to show them. It was not until 96 that the bruskstroke became supple and I started to feel comfortable in the studio. While I was doing the last pictures, I realised that I had rediscovered ways from long ago, from my student days: movements of the arm, the wrist, stepping forward and back ... Sometimes it is those simple things that are responsible for lucky discoveries. But to answer your question about formalism, I have observed that my pictures do not have the formal element that it would be natural to expect of them ...


S.Q.: ... it's true, there are no defined zones, it's something magmatic ...


C.G.: ... exactly. You made me a present of that word a couple of days ago when you came to the studio. There is a magma of painting which it is difficult to situate in words. In the background is the question of abstract representation, which is on the outer edges of representation proper: how to reveal what you don't know how to represent? That is why I have chosen 'magma' as the signifier for this exhibition, because in some way it shows a certain degree of lack of meaning.


S.Q.: You have moved from representation to magma ...


C.G.: It has been a long road. Many of my paintings or drawings are entitled return or starting point owing to that idea of having gone back that I am haunted by. But one always goes back in a different way ...


S.Q.: ... but you talk about return and I have always seen you painting figures ... and your present pictures are not excessively figurative ...


C.G.: I remember that when I painted those still lifes I would have liked to do without figuration: the table, the knife, the skull, etc., but I didn't dare to. Now it has happened involuntarily. It is like finding yourself in the same spot but with less baggage. Something has been lost along the way: the figure that names.


S.Q.: You don't want to put names ...


C.G.: ... of course I do, but you have to find the essentials and I don't know them. There are people who begin with stains and end up with skulls and knives ... Painting is a personal journey and I needed figuration to justify the picture's existence ...


S.Q.: ... your existence ...


C.G.: ... that too. I find it when I paint, though I would like not to need to justify my being in the world.


S.Q.: Becoming a creator ... Pessoa said that the great poets were great because they had appropriated the flashes of inspiration of some lesser poet before them.


C.G.: Surpassing a state of mediocrity has been a headache for most creators, including the ones who could have spared themselves. But Harold Bloom places the anguish of the creator in the problem he has with surpassing what he calls 'the poetic father'. Curiously the creator manages to surpass with attitudes as shocking as a bad interpretation of his predecessor or the demonisation of whatever you find impossible to surpass and, obviously, anything out of fashion.


S.Q.: Let's change the subject. Now we are in a period of revision, revision or novelty?


C.G.: In the excellent catalogue for Noves Abstraccions I read that Demetrio Paparoni places the present abstraction scene in a redefinition of painting, understanding it as 'a dialectical instrument between different forms and theories which in their day were considered incompatible and opposing'. I think this new spirit has made an enormous contribution to going beyond sterile controversies over the figuration/abstraction dichotomy and has enriched and revitalised the aesthetic scene with tasty helpings of pleasure and freedom. The new look at the avant-gardes allows for a broad sphere of action which is more aware than being hung up on invention for invention's sake, 'pour epater le bourgeois'. When Brice Marden revises Pollock, there is far more than a simple influence: he is redefining the gesture ...


S.Q.: ... thanks to the freedom of our time, so far from the old aesthetic dogmas. I adore the time I happen to be living in ...


C.G.: ... Greenberg and Rosenberg, each in his own way, gave a theoretical body to the work of those revolutionary painters who were contemporaries of theirs... but they also limited the field of action enormously... Look, you could see the same thing at the recent exhibition at the MACBA on painting in the 70s in this country ...


S.Q.: After attitudes and aesthetics as radical as those of Pollock or Newman, what is left for the abstracts of the 90s?


C.G.: Those painters you've just mentioned reached, through an ethical commitment, extreme situations, dead ends, cul-de-sacs, often anguishing enough to lead to suicide. Now we can see their whole work from a relative distance, both aesthetically and ethically, I mean, that those painters' aesthetic and social commitment is not ours. Our time is a time of unbelief and politicians' dogmas have faded away, with the exception of the enthronement of that liberal neocapitalism they want to impose on us at all costs ...


S.Q.: ... we live in a time out of reach of dogmas, of enormous freedom of thought ..., the turn of the century . ..


C.G.: The turn of the century acts symbolically. It seems that something has to change, as when you reach your thirtieth or fortieth birthday. You know it's a fallacy, but it works. I think there is an intelligent impasse...


S.Q.: Now that fools have realised that everything is painting, perhaps we have to distance ourselves a little and pose the question: painted painting?


C.G.: It is true that things have been all jumbled up and, especially, there has been a lot of vocationally antipictorial criticism, which has refused to see that painting is at the origin of most artistic expressions, I mean, that it is at a pre-verbal beginning... almost everything is painting ... why that determination to deny it?... Nevertheless, to turn the question round, I think the exercise of painting is an exercise in metalanguage. Painting itself is metapainting. Whenever we paint we are referring to what is painted, just as when Lacan said that any signifier inexorably refers back to another and is inseparable from the chain of words. What is a word if not something that refers to another word? We paint on what is painted, and in the order of obsessions, we find ourselves always painting the same picture.


S.Q.: Nowadays there is a lot of talk about irony in the new painting, a mixture of registers, a lack of prejudice... I observe that my own painting is being made of elements that interact magically, like drawings, stains, lines, figures, geometries, allusions to situations and experiences... it is revitalised... And above all I feel emotion, lightness,... humour... And yours?


C.G.: Obviously, in mine there is not an excessive amount of irony, it is more a serious painting that contains hints of tragedy. Earlier I referred to my romantic feeling for painting and how the idea of the sublime is to be found immersed in it... I have become interested again in many painters like Kline or Motherwell, who now we wouldn't hesitate to call grandiloquent and tragic. Humour and irony are also ways of getting over the paintings one loves. As Harold Bloom might have said, it is a fresh, pleasant way of demonisation. The small pieces I did in 97 and the pictures of 98 contain a certain playful spirit. Organic forms appear, like floral elements, which would then refer me to female sexes ... they are fragments of elements of the reality of experience.


S.Q.: A year ago, on a visit to your studio, I told you that we had already sufficiently proved our capacity for suffering and that we could stroll peacefully along the sunny side of the street ...


C.G.: ... yes, yes, I remember. I think some of my pictures, in spite of their opacity, produce a feeling of serenity and pleasure.


S.Q.: ... so let's go on painting.