“You could say that that gestures disappear when they appear (…). To be, without the willingness to be, does not mean being without any existence (…). Therefore, a poor gesture, neither happy, nor sad, nor talented, nor shy; almost invisible but which anticipates a little bit of forthcoming moral”.
Michel Parmentier, 1988 (1)What is a gesture? The result of an act? How can you define it when such a gesture is not intended for anything other than representing itself? And when, in that representation, its last meaning is not clear either. What part corresponds to verbal language and what part is the strict visual presence when what matters most is how it is invoked and not especially its specific result? These questions, like so many others, arise when today you try to explain what a simple grey stain of paint is on a barely prepared piece of canvas, following forty years of all kinds of deconstruction experiences of the act of painting. It catches our attention and stimulates a multitude of reflections, allowing us to see the painting and what is left to one side, beyond the painting.
One reflection that might help us would be to take into consideration that every gesture arises and exists in a particular context. This provides a specific meaning to it and makes it inseparable from whoever made it. The same gesture has different meanings according to whoever makes it and the context in which it is made. Therefore, such questions might find possible answers from the subjective particularity of each artist and in a historical and social environment, which by definition, is always different.
Berta Cáccamo always addresses abstraction as a language. This is possibly due to the influence of her semiology studies while she was at the Barcelona Fine Art Faculty. Perhaps it is also due to the great importance that poetry has in the constitution of the languages she has elaborated in her work. This element, evident since she started professionally in 1988, was reinforced by the time she spent in Paris and Rome and, finally synthesized once she retuned to Spain in 1994.
When placing the record of accomplishment of this creative artist in a historical context, in the transition period of Spain and when joining the European Economic Community, the generation she belongs to is characterized by an opening in international experiences and influences. Furthermore, from a sociological point of view, from the incorporation of an extensive number of female artists in the national scene.
If the presence and practice of painting were evident during her university years, since 1986 she started internationally to abandon painting in favour of other practices in a general movement within the paradigm of post-disciplines. There were multiple reasons, forming part of the arguments that still currently substantiate the distrust in the critical capacity of painting to express contemporary experience.
Let us analyse the two main reasons for a close relationship with what this text wants to provide for understanding the works of Berta Cáccamo and which are consubstantial with “returning to painting” that dominates the market during every decade of the eighties.The first lies in the image of artistic practice and the actual figure of the artist transmitting it, seated as a grandiloquent heroism – the heir of the romanticism of an operetta and comically exploited by artists such as Julian Schnabel, to mention a well-known example in our country – as well in a nostalgia of modern art that showed a worrying amnesia. Neo-expressionism, transavantgarde nouvelle figuration… accumulated poses, formats and citations in a multicoloured post-modern pastiche.
The second reason is simply how these creators personify the artistic, social and cultural hierarchies without any discordant notes and closely following the strategies of cultural domination, of a patriarchal paradigm, while simultaneously Euro-centric and Pro-Western.
During the eighties, the representation crisis of this model began to become evident and, in parallel, its exasperation as to how the market was working in which finances began to conquer much ground, currently outlining its dominant domain. Worldwide, the art world that arose following this transformation continued to geographically support intellectual and institutional validation centre as well as the Western market. However, it also gave rise to the debate on several issues: colonialism, cultural domination or gender perspectives, to cite three particularly relevant ones. At the same time, it questioned the values sustaining criticism and reception of the works of art.
The notes that Michel Parmentier (2) published to accompany the exhibition brochure, dedicated to the Centre National des Arts Plastiques (CNAP) in 1988, included the exact description heading this text. Parmentier defines repetitive gestures and « without any qualities », laconic and mute, with which the artist recaptured his work fifteen years after voluntary abandonment. An assumed abandonment not as an end, a depletion or the impossibility of development, but as « a continuation of work » (3); as a way of existing from painting, from the artist, without any production; as a logical consequence, in 1968, of his personal rejection of becoming an « avant-garde artist », one of the success models of the period, expressed at that time by way of the formula: “cessation is an irrecoverable subversion” (4).
The idealistic or romantic dimension of such an attitude, of such a gesture, might surprise us today, especially if we relate it to what our current area of the global art admits and intervenes publicly as a gesture. The negativity it involves is also an extension of the violent rejection of these artists towards emotions, to the expression of subjectivity, traditionally associated with the pictorial gesture and attaching special importance in the field of abstraction.
For Parmentier (with his 38 mm horizontal spray-painted bands on canvas, first folded and opened later on), Daniel Buren (with his vertical bands painted in white on the edges of the canvas, stamped with 7.8 cm bands), Niele Toroni (with his brushstrokes, at regular intervals, using the same paintbrush) or Olivier Mosset (with his black circles placed in the centre of the picture), the gesture is primary and it is also a critical reflection about the painting. It is a gesture and outline, at the same time neutral and vain. As already mentioned, it literally does not represent anything else. The intention of the gesture, objectively, is subversive and the reason for it was to abolish every image of paint, eliminating any knowledge associated with the trade, denying its expressive attributes. The folded method used, which was inherited from Simon Hantaï, was employed to make a vane and blind gesture and at the time a total one, creating in that same gesture, the picture, the painting, and the composition, alternating paint with unpainted canvas.The peculiar and very French relationship between gesture and negativity that characterizes the work of the BMPT group (and which radically distinguishes it from the Supports-Surfaces contemporary ones), is directed against everything that the market values and appreciates, in head-on opposition to everything that the market, the spectacle – if we use the terminology at the time – reduces to the condition of a thing, reifies it. Gesture was then considered to be like communication, forming a dialectical relationship between what is said and what is abstained from saying. Hence, it was seen as « a-communication », like something significant for its absence, for its scarcity, its denial. In this sense, it was also defined as an economy of gestures and attitudes, an economy that is political, after all. The morality to which this refers is that of the ethics of the gesture, a relationship that recaptures the attitude of several historical forefronts, specially that of constructivism: any artistic form is tied to and involves positioning, an attitude related to what is political, with regard to making it so that it is possible, to its faktura (5), with the materials and the handicraft with which it is made.
We therefore reach the first intuition of this text: the statute and the meaning of the gestures in Berta Cáccamo’s painting, in spite of being distant from the attitude of that time related to the said negativity. Many elements have things in common with her, such as the distancing of gestures and action or the conscience of the importance of this mentioned economy.
Another common and equally important aspect is that of abandoning the distinction between this shape and content. Gestures that create shapes greatly build part of the semantic content of such forms. This is particularly flagrant in the qualified series « Verquidos », since the simplicity of the protocol used (an x amount of paint that is poured onto the canvas and left to dry) lets you create a tension between what is visible, the result of doing so, and what is excluded from it, the stages of the process.
At a colloquium recently, the artist declared the following (6): « I am far less interested in what is done rather than how it is done ». It is not such a matter of shape in itself but a process that consists of giving shape, of putting it into shape. Therefore, there is no hypothetical interior of a work, of a painting. Everything is in its literality. A long time ago, his gesture adopted a certain measurement at the same time as a distance. It resulted in different forms of solving the tricky problem of how to deposit paint on the canvas, how to handle the paintbrush or brush, how to give protagonism to the materiality of its elements, including the canvas.
In this appropriation, the gesture, the act of painting, is concentrated, but certainly contrary to demonstration, on the pomposity, which is normally associated with it within informalist abstraction, although it is not incompatible with subjectivity either, with space for affections. This distinguishes it from the complex of historical practices, from a certain contemporary deconstruction, such as Bernard Frize or David Reed, for example, while relating it to the way artists like Lynda Benglis or Jo Baer have addressed formal problems concerning the act of painting.
The « Verquidos », pure flows of liquid paint, coexist with the « Verquidos modificados », in which stains of paint are manipulated, and with the « Verquidos reproducidos », in which the stain resulting from the process of pouring the paint, once dried, is carefully repainted with a paintbrush. If the first ones make you think of Morris Louis and his powerful series of « Veils » or, later on, in all the « Unfurled », the second ones evoke works such as those of Sigmar Polke (his dispersions) or, curiously, those of Joan Miró. The third ones are located within abstraction that turns into an image of itself, representing, manually and in a different way, a process started by Roy Lichtenstein and his “Brush strokes” or Andy Warhol and his “Rorschach Paintings”, “Shadows paintings” or “Oxidations paintings”.
Painting the image of the picture and, if the painting is abstract as opposed to the figurative, if it does not represent anything other than itself, at the same time it exists and constitutes a complex process of abstractions ranging from language to representation. To be abstract is « to emphasize a few particular aspects at the expense of others » (7), according to the artist’s statements. These abstractions circulate between the mental and the visual image, but they do not prevent the painting from becoming a representation, an image of the picture, even confirming that, sometimes, they can cause it.
A brushstroke or pencil outline used to reproduce it is manifest, present in its manual reality. They are equally opaque, concealing the stain, the stain that was initially the first puddle and that has created the shape on drying, the contour, and that the paintbrush is going to refill afterwards. The paint then covers what has been produced informally in a mimetic film where the hand recaptures what the randomly controlled pouring process has formed.
All this also coexists with the « Debuxos », with all the work on paper, a force and continuous laboratory of exploring outlines, and the liquidity of the pictorial matter, of questioning the brush and paintbrush. Spot and stain become confused on canvas and in the preparation and sedimentation process in the workshop. The preparation traces of the canvas are equally significant.
Such variety of offers is unified by a discontinuous line, possibly inside a general rejection to any categorization, to an argumentative system. This is the central idea of my second intuition about the works of Berta Cáccamo: her way of approaching them, of addressing the painting, as well as positioning herself as the artist. Finally, she has a lot to share with that of other female artists who have questioned the patriarchal masculine order and how this is demonstrated in articulating values and shapes of a work of art. Not with regard to choosing motives or contents associated with issues of gender, but with the diversity and heterogeneity of her proposals, which work like antidotes of the hierarchies and reasoning of the above-mentioned order.
The economy of gesture again receives relevant importance here, its inscription in an outstanding series of acts and actions related to a large number of different tasks. Therefore, binary categories such as background / figure, shaped / shapeless, illusion / fiction, allegory / tautology, horizontal / vertical, dirty / clean, etc., are inadequate for understanding and explaining what her paintings contribute. By pouring, distinction of the background and figure does not help to discern what she provides as a visual and intellectual experience.
Likewise, in the repainted pourings, consider them under the prism of an opposition between the tautology of the « being there » of the stain – paint and the allegory of what it represents in the repainted one. This does not clarify the similarities shared with other works, as the materiality of elements and the polysemy of the gestures used.
The different pictorial proposals, the already mentioned poured ones, the modified poured ones, the repainted ones, the traces, wall paintings, the collages (pièce unique 2013), the outlines … reject this, due to their variety, surrendering to deductive logic of a thought constructed in categories. On the other hand, they develop a type of thought based on associative logic that is not articulated in hierarchies. Therefore, the « Debuxos » are no less important than the « Verquidos » or the different stages of the processes that imply completing other works. The thought gradually combines and, from its association, creates the sense, the meaning, all of which is in an intelligence that we can define as divergent. Formerly, it used to be defined as an intuition when actually, it is an addition, a collaboration of different types of intelligence (spatial, associative, corporal, verbal, etc.) with a way of acting based on pragmatic association. Thus, they coexist as different experiences of the act of painting, of the relationship with the support material – whether this is a blanket, glass, wood, canvas or paper – in which paint is allowed to fall, spread, rub; it impregnates, absorbs, spreads, stretches. All this happens beyond the reason – effect relation and without any demonstrative ambition. Its presence is confirmed as visual objects to be contemplated and, simultaneously, as multiple acts that a haptic perception, mentally reconstructing the act of touching, a manual and corporal act that it made, exhibiting it over the extension of the canvas or paper.
The « Verquidos » series raises another problem related to the perception of space that is visually revealed and which directs us what is supposedly the third intuition of the text: the area shown is a space in tension between the horizontal gesture of pouring with the liquidity of the diluted paint and the visual barrier of the support material over which it spreads. The translucent mass of paint is in evident tension with the material and opaque presence of the canvas. The stain is perceived as elastic, printing a movement of traction – attraction with the fabric. A relationship is thus inverted, normally based on the visual opaqueness of the paint, which, layer upon layer, covers a support which previously acted as a window opened towards a space of representation, whether figurative or abstract.
Willem de Kooning said that “the subject of abstract painting is space » (8) and, if we go back to Morris Louis and the very particular space of the « Unfurled » series, the emptiness of the centre of the canvas and the side pourings, in different colours, create a formal tension in which the gesture, calculated and perfectly measured, is visual and conceptual in a plane that is different to that of the unprepared canvas.
However, the canvas in Berta Cáccamo’s pictures appears to us to be quite different. Here we have a canvas used as the support material for an impregnation of liquids that, when poured and distributed over the surface, then demonstrate the actual nature of the roughness and texture of the fabric it is made of. This tension is visible because of the opposing qualities of the paint and its support material, the opaqueness and the liquidity of diluted paint, but also because of the instilled movement given to the picture by the operative horizontality necessary for its completion and, simultaneously, by the verticality to which it aspires when affirmed as a picture.
I pause when thinking about these matters to prepare a snack for my son. On opening the refrigerator to take out a yoghurt, I find a reproduction of the famous Vermeer picture entitled The Milkmaid (9) on the carton. Forthwith, I ask Mr. Google about it and find that, in France, this image accompanies the package design of at least two brands of milk products from the 70s. Then I am beset by the vision of Parmentier or Hantaï contemplating this virginal dripping in the trivial environment of a supermarket or in the kitchen.
The action to pouring is the central motive of the picture, in which the quietude and placidity of the domestic scene and the fantastic work on the light contrast with the immediacy of the act of pouring into a bowl, with this almost photographic immobilization. The nudity of the area in which it registers evokes that of a painter’s hypothetical studio, in which the liquidity of the matter and the verticality of the gesture are represented by the doughy density of the oil paint. I then wonder about our way of seeing such a work of art today and in the clear difficulty of re-discovering the painting and forgetting the icon, printed on the yoghurt carton or on a box of chocolates. Maybe the three intuitions I have mentioned in these lines are part of the resistance of the « Verquidos » and of the other mentioned series, turning them into icons. Although concerns also arise about an artist who poses highly pictorial problems related to the two-dimensionality of paint and the dimension of gesture, the visual economy of means, as well as the different temporalities of completion, involves a conceptual depth that goes beyond the space of the picture.
Miquel Mont, Paris, 2014
1 “Dire, redire et bafouiller, me contredire, dévier en apparence, digresser, bref : rhizomer toujours. M’avouer », published in 1988 for the M.P. exhibition, at the Centre National des Arts Plastiques (CNAP), pages 57-75. Re-edited in Michel Parmentier : “textes et entretiens”, Blackjack Editions, 2014.
2 Michel Parmentier (1938-2000) was part of the ephemeral BMPT group together with Daniel Buren, Olivier Mosset and Niel Toroni. In 1968, « he stopped painting altogether » (according to his own words), an activity that he took up again 15 years later. That decision was preceding and almost announced that of another artist who greatly influenced the BMPT group, as well as all French painting at that time, Simon Hantaï, who, from 1982 to 2008, rejected any production and public exhibition of his work. Although encouraged by slightly different reasons, both decisions could have lead to a critical and interesting approach, compared to those of other artists such as Francesco Matarais who, in 1972, declared his « rejection of abstract creation ». See the volume entitled: Ne travaillez jamais !, La Tribune du Printemps, Les Laboratoires d’Aubervilliers, 2014, pages 63-68.
3 Letter to François Mathey, 1972, in Michel Parmentier: “textes et entretiens”, Blackjack Editions, 2014.
4 Letter to François Mathey, op. cit. An article dedicated to him and his work entitled “Michel Parmentier profession non-peintre”, by Jacques Vallet, initially published in 1981 in Le Fou Parle magazine and re-edited in Michel Parmentier: “textes et entretiens”, Blackjack Editions, 2014.
5 Faktura is a notion created by the Russian constructivists in the context of the Bolshevik revolution. Together with the tektonica, in other words, the construction, or dynamic beginnings of the work of art, is defined as the material base of its completion. Victor Shklovsky, the art critic, phrased it as the « visual demonstration of material-inherent properties”.
6 Jornadas Arte + Pintura, Consello da Cultura Galega, May 2014.
7 Jornadas Arte + Pintura, Consello da Cultura Galega, May 2014.
8 Willem de Kooning, Écrits et propos, 1998, ENSBA. Paris.
9 Johannes Vermeer, The Milkmaid, 46 x 41 cm, oil/canvas, 1658, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.