DE LA TORRE, Alfonso. Sebastián Nicolau: The gaze at skate. Valencia: Bancaja Foundation, 2019. Text included in the exhibition catalogue “Land”.
SEBASTIÁN NICOLAU: THE GAZE AT SKATE
ALFONSO DE LA TORRE
A restless artist under the appearance of a mysterious serenity, a stillness about to break, the work of Sebastián Nicolau (Valencia, 1956) has been, throughout fifty years of experience , that of a constant artist. Subjected his gaze to the mysteries of watching, inquiring about what the image is, its construction or existence, and the displacement that the phenomena of the creation of these images entails towards the position of those who get overwhelmed contemplating them. Let us not forget that this restlessness has been reflected not only in his work as a plastic artist, but also his person has an air of a total artist revealed among the folds of his silent essence, where issues such as music, cinema, contemporary visual arts in general, but also literature, have allowed him to compose an extremely complex creative being and of rare comparison in our art. We had the opportunity to verify this by reading his extraordinary “Mercurio entre los dedos” , a recent collage-book with diarist air where he exhumed his desires around visual culture, a “project that talks about the passage of time, life and death (…) of the time that, like mercury between the fingers, slips from our hands after illuminating us for a moment and is left behind like a lightning bolt, nothing else” . We need a language for our ignorance, said the diarist Witold Gombrowicz, that is how we knew that Sebastian Nicolau was an artist with his head on fire, as we like to point out .
Having considered his intense artistic career, we have understood as logical in his work that his gaze on the world should fall on mysterious areas of existence at an early stage: the anxiety of the plant world, the landscape seen – I told him – as a travelling narrative: the sunset in the shadow of such a forest is reflected in one of the drawings present in this exhibition (“Contraluz I”, 2000) which I see so close to the stripped relief “Land-Forests” (2007/2019) or his praise of the horizon: “Land-Horizon (Come Back) ”(2018). And from there, the journey between horizons and forests continues to the vegetation that, hidden, grows in a bend (“Sin título”, 1984), representative work placed nearby, so perfectly connected, to its triad of “Workin’16-17-19-Hule”(2009). Something that reminded me of the freedom of Gerhard Richter’s walk along the landscape, its atlases, images moving between the representative and the most stripped abstraction, or the link between romanticism and the abstract, evoked again.“l’inconscient des romantiques, si proche parfois de l’inconscient des modernes (…) est tout entier spirituel puisque la nature et l’esprit, tous deux issus de l’absolu, ne font qu’une unité indissoluble. Il est synonyme d’un sens profond, universel ou interieur (…) qui permet à l`homme (…) de connaître parfaitement la Nature, de comprendre, par contact en quelque sorte magnétique (…) directement l’univers, d’établir une correspondence entre (…) le monde intérieur de l’homme et (…) l’âme du monde. L’extase mystique, l’inspiration poétique et artistique, le somnambulisme ou les rêves en sont les moyens privilégiés” . In the memory, a necessary mention of another still and dear painter, Francisco Nicolau , and, as in Andrei Tarkovsky’s films, Sebastián Nicolau looks closely but, frequently, he seems to explore the distantness of other mysterious parallel worlds or lives beyond this, as he enters and comes out with the thought of his laboratory of images that can be considered a concentration of multiple senses, art of metaphors and hieroglyphics rather than logos, a space populated by similarities and displacements.
The questions he asks us, have they only been asked? As he also tempts the representation of mild objects that make up and accompany the world. In this last sense, let us mention his crossed arms portraits (“Brazos (azul) I and II”, 1994), dialoguing in the exhibition with “Land-Come back” (2019), such “notes of memory”, will say the artist himself . The road is short in time, long in the space covered by our arms . Or the ceramic shirts (“Jersey I and II”, 1995) become mineral folds emulating fabrics that were left rusted in the saline, they are perfectly understood and inexorably related to their current work despite the temporal distances. This has often led both of us to discuss the definition of style. That is, how underlying the same way of understanding art does not have to materialize this in a single way of doing , something that once Fernando Zóbel explained in his unique text about Torner, avoids new reiterations: his doing is a consequence of his way of thinking . Or, in the very words of the artist from Cuenca: “a way of watching around and then think about what you see and communicate the result. With the doubts and anxieties that all this entails (…) underlies the same way of understanding art, which does not have to materialize in a single way of doing” .
Mineral forms, salt, but why not snow? Contemplating the work of Sebastián Nicolau came to my mind the still Balthus, looking absorbed out of the window the snow from La Rossinière, and the representation addressed by him with an air of glacial stillness , lethargy and narcosis presiding over the scenes but permeating his painting of a complex world, strange experiences populated by inner universes. Elevation of secrets after the appearances of the painting, in the work of Sebastián Nicolau there is the order of a certain careful and geometrical soul, a secret geometry , with a refined spirit, but also the expression of the experience of a multiple being capable of sliding from neatness to restlessness, the artist’s breath deliberately confused, as if the world were seen through a mirror, with the vain of appearances that populate the world. After all, Sebastián Nicolau will say, “there is no other reality than our perception”, quote from another restless, like him, Pessoa, who will unite a mysterious cryptic writing in one of his catalogues : “ah, unsuspecting I looked in the mirror and saw the abyss, I didn’t read anything, because it emulated paleo-writings or remembered the crazed texts of Michaux or Artaud, about which he will tell me not without irony (the gaze at skate)”: “that is what it was all about, the artist would write, that perception were stronger than reality itself (…) one more game” . It shows the real, but this reality is reconstituted in strange experiences, new visual forms erected in his work. As if he felt that, precisely, that game allowed him to say things that thought is unable of saying, Sebastián Nicolau is already, like that, himself.
FOLDS (OF THINKING)
Just as the hand cannot release the burning object on which its skin melts and sticks, the same way the image, the idea that drives us mad with pain cannot be torn from the soul, and all the efforts and detours of the spirit to get rid of them drag it with them . Paul Valéry.
Of course, we can say that his proposal of watching puts the very gaze at skate, as well as the inherited ideas about the images, including the evidence of the real. His proposals are displaced towards a territory not exempt from glimpses of truth, since Sebastián Nicolau perceives that the viewer is not a passive being, on the contrary, in such a weak state that can lead him to touch the truth, he must go back and forth on the images he has created , find them or abandon them. On the other hand, space is not a place of rest, a homogeneous point where images rise imperishable but rather abyss, the new images conceived by him establish their own autonomy, seeming to leave the precepts that, from the Renaissance, have guided the vision, and thus burning the real with images that turn the place into a space populated by a non-visible light, erected the energy it provides, being able to reverse the traditional visual processes proceeding to the transfiguration of space, meaning something else there that is not so much for the eye as for the spirit. Questioned the idea of painting, escaping the limits through which his story has passed, his task has been to articulate a slipped strategy between painting and sculpture. And, somehow, Sebastián Nicolau’s works are composed in the manner of secret signs, a fiery space in the sense of its tense calm, a place that, as a cut in the visible, elevates the time the artist lives in, but also other times. In this way, watching these folds, real or feigned by the ruse of painting (feigned?), I thought about the missing fabrics of the theatre curtains of Rubens conceived with Monteverdi in the court of Mantua , and not so much in their physicality, narratives and folds, as in the stories that populated them, in their ashes, other times permeated their absent being. And this mention also brings me back to the abstract world of Cimabue, blues and golds, to the clothes of the Dead Christ of Mantegna or to the Descent of Van der Weyden. And from here, obvious mention to the amazing spaces of Pontormo, praise of distortion, melancholy and restlessness, ostranenie that also upset Vasari trying, so in vain, to explain it.
An image is always equivocal and multi-lingual. Of course, images burn, also those of Sebastián Nicolau, for the mending accentuated by the bastings and signs, for the proposal of doubt that he establishes over the real or the feigned, for the memory that, such a permanent self-portrait, many of his works give us back from the past; because of the momentum they generate in the viewer to get closer, or the need to indulge in the contemplation of the image. They also burn for a certain character of elevation of images returned from an exile, excluded from the repertoire of the real. And withdrawn its possible readability, deprived the image of its attributes or conventions, the spectator is left to remain mute, to bewilderment, to dispossession, to a silence that drives those contemplating to the construction of a new way of thinking. Because of its movement its forms burn, or because of its resembling of a rhythmic movement towards an ascending extension, the feeling of growth in its contemplation, but also in its bold air. Naturally, if the image burns it is true, Rilke would write or, as Didi-Huberman also reminds us quoting Benjamin: “truth […] does not appear in the unveiling, but rather in a process that we could designate analogically as the burning of the veil […], the burning of the work, where form reaches its highest degree of light” .Or, now in the voice of the whithephile Blanchot: “I wanted to see something in full daylight; I was sated with the pleasure and comfort of the half-light; I had the same desire for the daylight as for water and air. And if seeing was fire, I required the plenitude of fire; and if seeing would infect me with madness, I madly wanted that madness” .
Yes, either in the sheets of metal or in fabrics, in his pictorial representation, our artist finds his land, his homeland, his particular flatland, evoking Edwin A. Abbott: “Imagine a vast sheet of paper in which straight Lines, Triangles , Squares, Pentagons, Hexagons and other figures, instead of remaining fixed in their places, move freely about, on or in the surface, but without the power of rising above or sinking below it, very much like shadows –only hard with luminous edges- and you will have then a pretty correct notion of my country and my countrymen. Alas, a few years ago, I should have said “my universe:” but now my mind has been opened to higher views of things” .
Interest in the annotations in the margins of the route, in his words ; in that country of his own, images burn, clamouring to his longing for meaning, slipped between the closed and what could be guessed, what remains hidden, what was folded with care and what looks like a breath of air that capriciously broke or waved the plane. Also by their appearance, sometimes flatter which, however, do not abandon their clear sculptural intention. In its composition, sometimes very light, they burn as elements folded with lightness (“Duplum. Rayas sobre metal”, 2015), the lightness of the curtain of water that reaches the sand, once gravitating forms, such as the beautiful “Land suspendido” (2018) now, whether from the ceiling or buckled on the wall, as it happens in “Land-Great Landscape” (2017/2019).
In this sense, as Juan Bautista Peiró pointed out properly in the text “Harmony (unfoldments)” that written for this exhibition, many of his creations seem to overflow the space, overcome it, and thus a capital work of this show is his “Land-Grey Landscape” (2019), a true exhibition totem rehearsing the real intervention in space when creating a piece that seems imprisoned, restraining between the walls, seeming to be calmed by the presence of a nigredo-grey square embedded, almost looking like a gravestone interposed on the road and that moves us towards an ascetic world, like a Japanese garden. Severe, like the impressive and stripped “Land-Black Twin (Come Back)” (2009/2018), or with an air of lightness, as if about to leave the wall, as in “Land-Stable” (2019). Corporeal elements or of a mysterious flatness, by their enunciation they burn, almost in the manifestation of their presence they do it, also because sometimes we wonder if they are composition, stitch, sign, seam, writing, wound or constellation. Stitches or traces that desperately looked for a way out, or a sky full of constellations populated by the anxiety of the questions to the vault (“Constellation”, 2017), perhaps bastings of singing or mystical meditation (“Duplum. Ciste I / Ult.”, 2016). Or others, distilled from its cycle of beautiful drawings made circa 2000 about Chinese restaurants and whose soul now reappears in works such as “Land-Chinoise”(2000) or in the beautiful, so classic and bright, almost last work of the “Land-Neon (Come Back)” (2019), which has given me back a contemporary feeling but that looks towards the painting of all time, always in brotherhood with his voice (“Land-Pressure (Come Back)”, 2007/2019). Here I would like to mention the magical compositions that Sebastian Nicolau frequents, his works under the title “Land-Neon” (2019), assemblages on the digital printing of an image and its variants in different colours built from a mysterious and conceptual support, self-referential abode as the image is a reflection of an unfolded living space from an industrial paint booth, on which a coloured rod is erected. At a distance the “neon” trick shines in purple, yellow, blue or green . And watching them I have ended up thinking about the drunkenness of some kinetic or constructive compositions, for instance by Soto, the artist who insisted on “that reality is not what, until now, they had taught us” . These chinoiseries, about which the artist himself points out that it is “not to deceive the eye but to help it see more” , necessarily lead us towards the film work “Ensembles RGB” (2017), or resemble the “Land-Neon”, the illusion of being returnees of this, a kind of journey filmed from the growth of the writings on the plane.
Oil-cloths or metal sheets that evoke the rest, the humble, but also revealing the ability to raise the creation from materials far away from the nobility of certain uses of the secular history of art. Art is able of allowing the stoppage in the course of knowledge, while taking us back to another space of reflection, other than the canonical, those Rothkian silence bags . We have referred, talking in the stillness of his study how Sebastián Nicolau exercises a patent act of letting the forms speak, since in this artist – remembering Henry James’s prose – speaking and silence are not opposite, but the same fertile language, because this mutism is as important as the voice, the shadow as relevant as the light that affects the work, once approaching just the edge of the light. Or, explained in art, there are artists whose resulting emptiness is relevant, think of the sculptures by Oteiza or, why not, by Henry Moore, in the gaps and in the spaces of energy grown between the volumes: “the central emptiness (…) is true madness” .
Being a work within the saga of that lineage that Palazuelo explained, that is, some forms become others that, distancing themselves from their original matrix, retain the memory of the origin, their lineage. But it is also the proposal of the enjoyment of the labyrinth, it burns on a new journey that, in expansion or metamorphic transformation, allows him to address his rigorous work, subject the resulting works to what he called “the processes of continuous transformation, their metamorphosis. It is, therefore, a living of fertile forms, since the development of their transformations implies the generation of linages and families of forms. The signs system (…) becomes then the vehicle and, at the same time, the appropriate instrument for the processing of information” .
AN ATELIER NIGREDO
Where does the frame take place. Does it takes place. Where does it begin. Where does it end. What is its internal limit. Its external limit. And its surface between the two limits.
Jacques Derrida .
Looking his work permanently towards the inside, a certain praise of hermetism and the tension of what is hidden or never revealed at all, that is how his works on “Ateliers” (2002-2006) can be understood, shady paintings of industrial structures substantiated in lines and planes, géométries noires in his own words, which distil an alchemical nigredo air, such is the case of the exposed “Taller XXXIV” (2003), which in turn relates to structures painted as “Interactions” (2013). This has been an artist who has combined linear expression with a stripped, almost sacral pictorial matter, almost sacral . And the representation of these self-absorbed structures and noires, such evoking something that was but is no longer there, reveals the air of human fatigue that, noisy, once populated a space that is now absent. Silence. Structures that seem to be represented in the dubious light that trembles in the sunset, I talked with the artist about how those industrial “ateliers” take us back, in their similarity, to the metallic structures as white rigging in his still studio in Valencia, once (and I think something remains still now) a scale factory. Some industrial echo slips in certain recent compositions with a constructive air that result from the pairing, he will say, of “Painting and volume”, works where metal and wood can be found, diverse forms and materials to make up the work and, in this way, reveal the various specificities of their eidos, the materials (“volume”), as for their frequent use and value in these constructions of the painting transport us to an essentially poetic narrative that allows him to relativize matter, reaching, thus, a border space where this matter and the painting can coexist in balance; at the same time we must remember that both ways of creating are essential in his unquenchable thirst as an artist.
An image-seeker in wasteland, sometimes praising stability, sometimes being able to join that which is fix with what appears to be imbalance, sustained one form and to be sustained the other (“Land-Zigzag”, 2018), rise or immaterialize (“Land-Unstable”, 2019 or “Land-Black (Come Back) ”, 2007/2019) and either floating or anchoring, the result is a self-referential reflection that seems to tend towards a new rethinking of both artistic concepts and the use of diverse languages and their properties, but it is also a shifted reflection, it was said, towards the poetic. These series use a support that, in addition to binding them to the wall, is an essential compositional element, offering to share the privacy of the creator. Painting and volume, many times of tiny formats, that evoke the careful assemblages of the cubist masters, other larger ones reminded me of the question of the support-painting relationship addressed by Donald Judd in the late fifties, conflicting wood and metal constructions , a strategy able of establishing itself in an intermediate realm between painting and sculpture. He assumes that painting is to establish an autonomous system of structural relations. Thus, Sebastián Nicolau seems to tend to raise what could be called an energy territory through constant research and interrogation on the various visual properties of the materials found in the same work until it slides to a bordering land, the space resulting from the encounter, or perhaps the interregnum among those materials of differentiated air that, combined in an essential way, establish diverse qualities in signs by introducing perceptual alterations in multiple directions, as the artist construct and deconstruct or perhaps it would be better to say that he constructs deconstructing.
Asked about the use of the term “Land”, the artist ended up concluding something already known, that “Landscape” is not so much the outside landscape, as “Land” his inner country, his world, his landscape. Before we mentioned “flatland”, and I remembered once more that country in no-man’s-land that Bonnefoy speaks about, “L’Arrière-pays” , the inland, the territory beyond, the intra-earth, the beyond-country , that inner “true place” in a chimeric intersection, crossroads between the real and the dreamed, the relative or the absolute. Or the magnificent territory of Raymond Roussel’s “Locus Solus”. And, in the words of Sebastián Nicolau, now folded words, “it is landscape, but the English term widens the field of perception making it more open and abstract. It defines a space that transcends what the gaze discovers (…) it makes reference to the territory, uncovered, to be discovered, that must be crossed and where the elements and forces are found to continue moving forward (…) It also wants to be the occupied territory, the one that once bounded only belongs to those setting its limits and remains differentiated by its boundaries from the rest of the spaces (…) to show the crossroads between several territories to which, from the last occupied, we go back to find something that we left in some sections of the path and that we find us in need, again, a few steps later (…) boundary mark and at the same time a journey around the spaces that make it up, a walk through the signs, with the signs and marks that have been left and explain the path, indicating where to stop, where to take a break, where to look back to see the tracks and verify if they have melted with the ground and erased or have become solidified” .
Thus, “Land”, the place, would be not so much a fixed point or stranded observation but, rather, an internalized experience bearing a certain supernatural lineage. In the secret space that constitutes the mystery of living, another country of darkness located between hardship and desire, a hope is reinvented, therefore a new “Land”. Sebastián Nicolau manifest there planes and volumes, formal exercises where he reflects on a capital issue, such is the question of the limits, after all, coming in its origin from painting, his proposal is displaced towards conceptual reflections that could touch, sometimes, minimalist thinking. But without getting far from the adventure of doing, the reflection on the process that affects the constitution of the aesthetic object and the formal problems thereof, leading that thought to pose the reflection on the structural interstices, around how in the image created there is a space interposed between it and the beholder. We already know that the result of this failure is the artistic image, a form that remains open to interpretation, unfinished in the world.
Transiting his work through the aforementioned land, these are also territories of crossroads, worlds full of permanent self-referential mentions because his work grows in dialogue with itself, removing possible associations, so that his creation seems to be subjected to a state of isolation that will lead the beholder to a non-becoming of that which is perceived, something mysterious affects his works, the unknown that exists in them is erected in the vision, escaping to it and at the same time lingering. Oppositions are created in the field of vision itself, a before and after alludes to the world around us, but also finding the difficulty of moving away from a certain lethargy of retinal effects. Installed beyond the limits of painting, his vision occurs in the whole, in the vibrant sensations caused by his compositions that, without hesitation, slide us towards the musical but also in the encounter with what is fragmentary. And, in a natural way his “Lands” dematerialize and escape from the wall to become folds that rest on the floor, true sculptures that remind me of certain Brancusian pieces, the free-thinking proposals of Lygia Clark or Max Bill’s sculptures, as it is the case of “Land -Sky Black and Yellow” or “Land-Pink and Blue Up” (2019). Or establish themselves as mysterious columns with immemorial air, such as “Duplum XI-Zig Zag negro” (2016).
[OR SIGN, STITCH, WRITING, WOUND OR CONSTELLATION].
Quel chemin parcouru depuis la forêt primitive. D’abord j’usais de mes pieds nus l’herbe vers la rivière. Ce fut une foulée, et une première idée que j’eus du souvenir. Puis, ma trace persistant, le spectre des sentiers se leve dans mon intelligence. Louis Aragon .
Being this artist tempted into the trip in the semi-darkness in multiple directions, his work distils a fullness of questions that make him resistant to categorization. Sewing, stitching, allude to reconstruction and repair, many of Sebastian Nicolau’s sewing are also ways of drawing, raised signs with thread or its simulation, as a design of paths or possible journeys; to live is to join the points. Some of them acquire a certain condition of true writing, hieroglyphics perhaps, small lines that seem to remain activated as ready to continue in their task of perforating the other side and, perhaps, appear again: the maze that can lead us to a centre. Sometimes they have reminded me of scores and I am surprised not to see him quoted in what has been read among the unredeemed Kleeians, since many of the compositions that emerged from the bastings or their representation acquire an air of poetic grids and structures. I have thought of the Klee of that “Fire in the evening” (1929) belonging to the New York MoMA, or the “Steps”, of the same year .
Evoking his family life, our artist seems to exercise a patient task and sew refers to the possibility of repairing, living and assembling the fragmented body. Sewing is a defence, said the sewing expert Bourgeois : manufacturing and repairing, we relieve pain, she said. Weaving is an emblem of magical power and, also, a metaphor for forgiveness. Louise repaired sexes cut in tapestries, for modesty, needle and thread of the patient work, such a conscientious surgeon suturing the wounds. Millares stabbed sackcloth and sewed them again, slowly. Artists have sewn secularly. An exponential value of the sign, Sebastian Nicolau sews on the surfaces, reconstructs the non-images, weaving disparate elements his writing touches time , sews time , as his bastings not only inquire into the work itself, but they seem to rise as well as be able to enter into contact with other signs in a process that is not without tension.
Closed planes in front of the eyes, sometimes seem planes that deny the gaze: first forms, impassive, hermetic powers, doors and guardians, abyss and arch stretched over the abyss . The painting, the work of art, Sebastián Nicolau seems to sentence, can be a mask, the gaze needs to be stimulated, to observe how the brain produces visual illusions, a part of which can be that of the world itself that we contemplate and that we think we understand. That is why our artist creates conducive works, it seems, to stimulate the vision, “Miraculous landing”, is the work of Klee that comes to mind, thinking of Sebastian Nicolau’s land. The viewer must find the relationships or fill in the gaps, expanding the questions, such a narrative that shows a truth or its denial, its possibility or its illusion and, why not, a loss. Image trying to be revealed, enigmas gravitate over the real, enigmatic forms populating space, some of his creations retain a certain air of effort in the struggle for their emergency, referring both to time and space, reflecting around the limit of virtual and real space, reaching a certain idea of dispossession. Many of his questions refer to the construction, almost the appearance and presence of the images in space, displaced we remain in the complex enigma of the visible. Image surpassing fragility, trying to be revealed, manifest glare and source of energy, the enigmas gravitate. At this point, we already know that Sebastián Nicolau enjoys the paradox, the games of representation, while raising the importance of metaphors. And he has not ceased to say that creative thinking and the attempt of its revelation is, in essence, an act of deep poetic content that could allow, in this usurped land, the second opportunity. On these secret signals let us build a new way of watching.
Yes, see, Sebastián Nicolau seems to sentence, forget to how to see.