For Miquel Mont, the practice of painting takes on meaning in the context of a proposition, around which he can create his successive or simultaneous series. Each proposition determines the medium, the kind of object, its dimensions, the way the pigment is applied, how it is presented and how it is felt and perceived. We could call his projects theoretical objects, following the concept developed by Althusser and taken up by Buren and Supports/Surfaces in the 1970s. His work reinterprets the parameters that defined the path taken by painting in the second half of the 20th century, with particular emphasis on the work’s finish—the physicality of the medium as a vehicle for communication that takes shape in reality. His tireless questioning of pictorial forms in each clear, precisely defined proposition, with their meanings and repercussions, reveals his staunch ethical commitment. His many and diverse pieces belie a remarkable unity of meaning, something which holds not only for his work as a whole but also for the discourse it creates.
The fact that Miquel Mont has lived and worked in Paris since 1988 and has made very few public appearances in Spain—at least as far as most of his oeuvre is concerned—led us to start this conversation by going back in time to set his beginnings in context.
Genealogy and learning
Rosa Queralt: You belong to a generation who attended the Fine Art School in Barcelona in the mid 1980s at the height of Neo-expressionism and the Transavantgarde. And yet, paradoxically, you were drawn to abstract, sombre language and content, which, despite having some following in Catalonia, was running out of steam by the late 1970s. What factors led to you take this position?
Miquel Mont: Basically, it was a response to a certain kind of postmodernism that became the doxa of the time. I was taking a position against certain prevailing, essentially reactionary, hegemonic traits that I saw as going backwards. The increasingly authoritarian side to creative work, the voluntary loss of memory of how the avant-gardes had developed and the lack of critical spirit were the clearest aspects. This rejection was driven less by aesthetic questions—I liked artists like Clemente and Cucchi at the time—than by Bonito Oliva’s kind of discourse, which seemed like mere opportunism to me. That was what distanced me from official postmodernism because, in reality, given the very little information I had when I started at the school, I was drawn by early languages—from historic modernism—which was precisely and in part what was being promoted by both the Wild Youth and the Transavantgarde. I later discovered that there were other, less cynical, postmodernisms, albeit tinged with disillusionment with the modern project. In a certain sense, I’d had a close feel for the phenomenon of mass culture since adolescence, especially through music. My generation grew up with punk, which was an excellent education for understanding how the industry of culture worked. We saw how a former Situationist inspired by street codes could apply his techniques to create a provocative and plastically attractive image of a group of kids and turn them into rock stars. And the system, or the “spectacle” as we call it now, rapidly recycled and annulled subversion by turning it into a product. This brought together people from art schools who knew the Constructivists or who had been Art & Language students and used all this aesthetic and ideological background to create antirock, and in many cases antiestablishment, music.(2) Paradoxically, this particular relationship between highbrow (art) and lowbrow culture helped me to think, to reactivate abstraction in painting rather than seeing it as outdated, as just another sign, as the postmodern discourse would have it. It also showed me the ins and outs of the cultural industry, which had fully penetrated the art world in the 1980s. In addition, looking back, when I discovered the historical avant-gardes at school—Dadaists and Constructivists—I was struck by their ethical and political commitment linked to a radical aesthetic side to art work. They believed that any creative activity that didn’t take a critical stance with respect to the world would become mere decoration. And especially so once there was hardly any formal difference between art and decoration.
RQ: Is your early and ongoing interest in semiotics related to your interest in the way work is presented?
MM: Perhaps. We live in a world of signs. We exchange the signs themselves, regardless of their meaning. An exhibition is a particular way of presenting a proposition, of trying out different ways of relating a set of pieces, of getting spectators to reflect in more ways than merely one-to-one correspondences. That’s what I look for; I want painting to help me think about the world, as a tool for appropriating things for myself and letting things appropriate me, like a kind of feedback.
RQ: How would you describe your little-known early works?
MM: The first series I really felt responsible for, and which is related to the collages I did later, was called Desastres, a set of inner or mental landscapes whose titles alluded to international sociopolitical situations: the first Gulf war, South African apartheid, Honduras, the Prague spring… Burning issues in the media. They were fairly abstract paintings, although I did do a few more figurative ones, with pieces stuck on. They were densely coloured—although I later dropped these colours—with a very material finish.
RQ: Is there any aspect to these works that has remained unchanged over the years?
MM: The material/concept duality, which is intrinsic to painting. Painting is a physical and material act. You can’t paint without material. You can paint metaphorically—something we’ve seen a lot in recent years—but it works metaphorically precisely because we have the physical presence of painting at the back of our mind. This material quality of painting has always fascinated me and I can’t disassociate it from my experience with art. And the opposing side is the need for a mental territory, a field of work where this material can take shape and take on meaning. Those early paintings already contained that seed, an intuition that painting was material and needed to seek out mental spaces.
RQ: The question of formalism seems to be a subject for thought that runs in parallel to your art work.
MM: Since the postwar, formalism has had a profound impact on the practice and theory of painting—and not just American painting. Greenberg came up with an analysis of categories that we still use today, in part because we still find them highly pertinent: the flatness of the painting and the limits of this flatness, the trend towards the essence of the medium, to show its own characteristic properties… By the time I discovered it, though, his modernist teleology was already a great force for excluding otherness and difference. Let alone his inability to understand Poons, Stella, Warhol and the Conceptualists. I think what really interested me was the failure of his formalist discourse. It’s the paradox of the garden gnome in a sculpture garden. For Greenberg, it meant the end of all distinctions, judgement categories, the thundering arrival of mass culture, kitsch, which replaced all autonomous art, every attempt at transcendence. You only have to look at the work of Armleder, for instance, to realise the extent to which autonomous modernist art works under the same paradox today, the same relationship between highbrow culture and merchandise, the product. Buchloh, Krauss and Foster have dismantled several of these theories, but I sometimes think we’re not that far from what Kosuth meant when he wrote that formalist art was the “vanguard of decoration”. And despite all the critiques and deconstruction of the autonomy of the artistic object, I believe this autonomy still manifests itself and reactivates itself in the core of many works. We perceive and think in terms of forms, and in general what makes us judge a work as interesting is this tension between resolving form, material and assumptions, its conceptual framework—which might well have been the focus of our attention for some time.
RQ: Going back to your work, when did you start to exhibit in public?
MM: In Paris I met Carles Poy and we struck up a very cordial relationship. He had just opened a gallery in the Born neighbourhood in Barcelona and I had my first solo show there. But I think it was the second exhibition I did with him, in 1993, that marked the start of my professional career.
RQ: Let’s talk about those paintings.
MM: The first exhibition featured slightly different works. Monochrome pieces that worked like polyptychs, along with others made up of small oval canvases with vertical wooden pieces. Interestingly, some works from this period are linked to later works, like Plasmas. The second time, I presented Dispersiones, which already had a predefined protocol for creation. I selected the colours (one or two, plus white or black) and I poured the liquid paint over the medium (canvas or wooden panel) onto a background painted with one of the chosen colours, in successive layers until the surface was saturated. The controlled element of chance, the lack of a brush and the somewhat loud colours from the world of design (phosphorescent and pearly) were all ways in which I distanced myself from the practice of painting inherited from historical abstraction.
About some concepts applicable to your work
RQ: When you talk about preliminaries, is this term equivalent to proposition? How are they related to the idea of project inherent to the avant-gardes?
MM: In a text I wrote some time ago, I talked about liminary propositions, the aspects that define a field of work, painting’s area of action. This is reflected in the definitions of the different series: Emparedadas, Goteos, Vertidos, Pieles, Pinturas murales. The proposition acts as the main generator of work, it establishes the kind of object, the medium, etc, and tries to isolate or stress one of the aspects of painting, normally reduced to its minimal expression: the colour, stroke, material, medium, scale… The idea of a project comes more in the many different propositions, the production of objects that may be very different in form, which reflects the rich complexity of painting.
RQ: How does the proposition act when given the information provided by the work? Is there a dialogue with the components in the process or is there a later, colder analysis carried out at a distance? Is there a desire to glimpse something not yet visible, an intuition asking to be discovered?
MM: Propositions aren’t a blindly applied, closed programme; they are always set against the object where they are realised, the situation where they are embodied. The whole process involves toing and froing between the starting conditions, their interpretation and the reality of the work, with the leaps in meaning that happen when you give shape to statements, with chance playing a role in all areas, with all the twists and turns of painting. The different proposals might correspond to intuitions and might tend to reveal aspects of our pictorial experience of the moment. Painting reveals, or makes things visible, and this is how we can talk about a nonverbal, visual thought, which is largely essentially tactile. I think that in reality I try to get the materials and the process to create the meaning, the what and how. That’s why the distance created by the manual finish, the personal touch, is important to me. I set this against the notion of faktura used by the Constructivists, who saw the materiality and anonymity of the processes as creating and constituting the meaning of the work.
RQ: You’ve used a variety of different formats over the course of your career, but you apply a systematic and largely logical typology related to the hand, arm and body.
MM: This approach is linked to the body, and this has naturally shaped the formats. The small pieces follow the dimensions of the hand and represent a concentration of the stroke. Some Pieles, and above all most of the Pinturas ready-made, had to be done on this scale. The medium-sized pieces are more in keeping with the size of the arm and the urge to show its movement. The largest pieces are about my height and extend as far as my arms and legs. The large formats, like those used in Flicker and some Poros, also have a proportional relationship with the body and are designed as a space for projection.
RQ: The Autorretratos and Realismos de mercado series point towards an objectual dimension of painting. What intentions led you to leave the picture frame in this way?
MM: Although different, they both consider painting from a distance, through the shiny filter of Perspex, and neither of them has a fixed focal point for observing the piece. Realismos de mercado stems from the endeavour to question certain devices we see most objects through today: the windows of large department stores or supermarkets. The idea was to translate this phantasmagorical visuality of the product, the merchandise, the structure of selling desire, into a pictorial device. The industrial shelves mark out the space like a frame and at the same time separate the wall, painting and Perspex on different planes, as an invitation to movement. The painting is on the wall, behind the structure, and its thinness makes it incorporeal with respect to the other elements. In Autorretratos, the idea is to use paint as a mere material to handle, pouring it in successively, letting it evolve inside a transparent tube. The successive pourings are only visible when you look at the tube from the top or the bottom, since the Perspex shows the result of the first layer. The tubes themselves are a fold in space and there’s this somewhat absurd action of filling the tubes with paint over and over again.
RQ: The mural projects and on-site interventions have introduced spatial and architectural imperatives into your work. You seem comfortable with this. Besides questioning the whole independent nature of painting, what other stimuli does this focus on painting directly onto the wall provide?
MM: There are several reasons mixed up with the initial urge to break free of the picture as an object and bring painting face to face with the wall—historically, the very first medium—along with architecture and the physical, haptic relationship created in space. The space that houses an intervention always has lines of force, a built rhythm moulded by the light. It’s almost never a neutral space. By highlighting certain characteristics of spaces, you stress the painting’s here and now. Another major reason is the need to carry out work that leaves the pictorial language of fine art behind. All the projects and interventions are designed to be carried out using the vocabulary of building trades and make use of their tools—coloured cords, industrial paint, rollers, aluminium rulers, etc—and follow their rules of work. The project also exists as a text describing the intervention and the steps taken to carry it out, which means the piece can be easily dismantled and reactivated at another time or, in some cases, in another place. I’m a firm believer that the maxim “Anyone can do this” can help us understand what someone has made, armed with nothing more than a willingness to understand. Finally, there’s the decorative function, added to the reading of any architectural intervention to compete with the whole system of signs in a building or public space. This reveals the work to a greater or lesser extent depending on the interest, time or attention paid to it. And this discretion, verging on invisibility, seems to me like a good way to exist in the public space.
RQ: Your strategies for presenting work emerged as a way of calling or inviting spectators to take possession of devices that would let them reconstruct the process and would cognitively engage them. But at the same time, they have also become a hallmark of your work, a kind of stylistic feature. How do you feel about this?
MM: All these strategies aim to offer some resistance by becoming an image of all art work, of cultural production as a whole. It would be naive to imagine they’re solutions, because there’s no space outside what we call the “market”, where everything ends up repeating itself and circulating as a sign. The market isn’t just galleries and art fairs, but also museums, art centres, curators, critics, institutions and even the underground spaces that oppose the system. In reality, it comprises everything involved in the world of art, everything that plays a role in naming, describing and valuing a work. This is one of the many paradoxes it entails: all criticism of the system through the work helps distinguish it, right from the moment it circulates. It gives it a symbolic value and, after a period of time, adds an economic bonus that ends up rewarding how it works on the market. There are some cases, as with certain political works, where the mechanism is almost cynical because of the evidence and the speed with which it takes place. When we see what has happened with lots of the radical avant-gardes of the 1970s, there’s no end of examples. And yet there is also a physical confrontation with works through exhibitions every time we see them directly. And in the specific case of painting we can see what it’s doing, whether it’s there to boost its aura, its totality, the urge for autonomy. Or, quite the opposite, to question the fetishism of the aura, the phantasm of totality.
RQ: Shifting register, the fact that you’re still focusing almost exclusively on painting today, in a technologically hypercontextualised society, shows a firm commitment to the medium. The only exceptions are the Collages idéologiques and the Carnets, which not only feature photographs taken by you or press cuttings but also show a strong conceptual component and include quotes from literary, philosophical and political texts. What complementary relationship do these works have with the paintings?
MM: It’s true that I’ve made fewer forays into photography compared with painting, but this isn’t because of any ideological position. The answer might lie in the fact that photography is about l’autre, the negative of painting, a bit like film and video are l’autre of sculpture.(3) A painting is unique and a photograph is a mould. Digital photography has exacerbated the difference; there’s no longer any negative, for example. Photography also has that direct quality of a readymade of reality, an artefact. There’s plenty to be said about the special relationship that photography creates with painting. This is one of the main reasons why I started the Carnets, to build up a corpus of photographs as parts of a discourse in images whose meaning would lie in accumulation, like an impossible collection of indexes in relation to a work of painting.
However, although I use photography, the collages have a very manual finish, far removed from mechanised photography devices. They bring together painting, painted newspapers, collages and texts from different readings in the same plane. You could say they’re the intellectual background to all my production, a kind of thought diary expressing nonverbal thoughts on a key part of the creative process. For a long time this work was as confidential as a private diary, because it was very hard to give the exhibitions visibility, a similar problem to the Carnets. Both works resemble drawing, disegno as it is understood in Italian, ie everything that plays a role in thinking, projecting, defining, shaping a work, an object, an activity. Going back to the relationship with photography, you might say that my interest lies in the fact that I paint. And painting is immensely rich! And not only in history and tradition. It can be approached from so many different perspectives!
RQ: So you don’t share the fairly widespread comment that it’s impossible to relieve the subject of the burden of its historical weight?
MM: Quite the opposite. When I teach classes and workshops to 18- and 20-year-old students I usually share the following words of wisdom with them: “You know that when you pick up a paintbrush you’re holding 30,000 years of history in your hand. And over that time people have done practically everything there is to do in painting. Like any generation, you’re perfectly entitled to redo everything that’s already been done, but what you can’t do is ignore it. To give an extreme example, if you want to paint like the Pre-Raphaelites, then go right ahead; but think carefully about what it means to paint in that way today, even though you have every right to do it. This is how you make painting your own and give it a new meaning through your own experience. Because if you think you’re doing something new, you’re mistaken and you’ll ending up producing kitsch.” The past is a rich mine for helping us think about the present. Otherwise, it’s impossible to move forwards: we’d have to kill too many fathers and you can’t kill them all.
(1) This conversation was carried out for a project for a catalogue that was never produced. We decided to publish it in part because it throws light on Miquel Mont’s career, and his way of working on different series, and we thought it might be a useful way of introducing the pieces on display at the Fundació Suñol. We also felt it would be interesting to cite a number of works that don’t form part of the pieces on display as a counterweight, to stress his wide range of coexisting projects, which take shape outside a hierarchy or an evolving style.
(2) Gang of Four, for example, were students at the University of Leeds, home to historian and former Situationist T.J. Clark and Terry Atkinson, from Art & Language.
(3) Since we had this conversation, Miquel Mont has published two texts that explore his relationship with photography in greater detail: “Subexpuesto”, in Les autres œuvres : La peinture et ses images (Montreuil: Éditions du Provisoire, 2010) [a catalogue of a project by Miguel Ángel Molina] and “Creo porque es absurdo. Reflexiones sobre la fotografía en 2012”, Fluor, no. 3 (2012). Rosa Queralt Miquel Mont
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