Sunday, 20 September 2009
In one sense, Juam Escauriaza is an inheritor of an important aspect of the Spanish tradition. Since the 16th century, Spanish art has been rich in realist artists, though these artists have usually been painters of people, or alternatively of still life, rather than of architecture, which is Escauriaza’s specialty. In another sense, he is in rebellion against the accepted history of Spanish art.
For support in this rebellion, he has looked to the United States, and in particular to aspects of American realist painting that are very different from what is usually to be found in Spain. His two chief sources of inspiration as the work of Edward Hopper, a forerunner often mentioned when critics discuss Escauriaza’s work, and the Precisionists of the 1920s and 1930s, notably Charles Sheeler and Charles Demuth.
The link to Hopper is easy to understand. Vitamins and Natural Foods, one of the paintings included in the current show, has an obvious kinship with Hopper’s Early Sunday Morning, painted in 1930. Both paintings show a strip of banal shops, seen directly frontally. The sidewalk they face is unpeopled – these are paintings about human absence rather than human presence. The only small difference is that Hopper’s establishments are all closed, as the title suggests, while two of Escauriaza’s shops have signs in their windows that say ‘Open’.
Yet there are at the same time significant technical differences. Hopper’s brushwork is much rougher. There is greater emphasis on the identity of paint as paint – something which exists in its own right, and not simply as a vehicle for representation.
To find a closer parallel one has to turn to the work of the American Precisionists of the 1920s and 1930s. Unpeopled representations of architecture were a typical Precisionist theme, one that is taken up again and again by Charles Sheeler and Charles Demuth, who were leading members of the group.. Sheeler is particularly interested in the patterns made by windows, as rectangles within the larger rectangle of a façade. Demuth is interested in the patterns that kind be found in architectural structures that are completely without pretensions. A comparison can be made, for example3, between Escauriaza’s painting 18th Street, which shows a loading dock, and Demuth’s Modern Conveniences of 1921, which is organized around the pattern made by some external iron fire-escapes.
The work of the Precisionists was influenced by photography. Sheeler was himself a skilled photographer and many of his paintings, such as the famous Rolling Power . a close-up of a locomotive, were based on photographs he made himself. Paradoxically, however, one of the things that comes through most strongly in Precisionist work is the influence of the Cubists and Constructivists who flourished at the same epoch. Precisionist paintings often stroke one as being abstract compositions disguised as images of reality.
Precisionist art is generally seen at the progenitor of the Photo-Realist painting that flourished in the United States in the 1970s, and which indeed continues to flourish there today. There is certainly a kinship between some of Escauriaza’s paintings and those made by leading American Super Realists such as Ralph Goings and Richard Estes – a comparison can be made, for example, between Estes’s Downtown of 1978 and Escauriaza’s more recent painting NYC. One of the lessons to be learned here, however, is that photographic reality has in both cases been considerably re-arranged. In neither case are these New York views direct transcriptions of a photograph.
Yet one can also look in a different direction. The Irish-American painter Sean Scully is now recognized worldwide as one of the leading exponents of totally non-figurative art. A study of the photographs that he also makes nevertheless reveals that these paintings often have a visual structure that derives from the artist’s study of vernacular architecture. This once again suggests that supposedly realist impulses and supposedly abstractionist ones remain secretly and intimately allied. This alliance perhaps came about through photography, which revealed ways of divorcing observed reality from established habits of seeing.
When one thinks of the relationship between photography and painting, and the dialogue that has taken place between these two forms of visual expression since photography was invented in the third decade of the 19th century, one notes certain perhaps initially unexpected things. It was photography, for example, that taught us to extrapolate the appearance of the whole from the part.
In the early part of the 20th century, photographers connected with the Photo-Secession founded and led by Alfred Stieglitz began producing images radically different from the compositions people were then accustomed to find in paintings. These photographs – some of the most striking were made by Stieglitz’s disciple Paul Strand – concentrated on small visual incidents that had previously escaped notice.
The continuing importance of Strand’s visual discoveries appears clearly in some of Escauriaza’s most characteristic work – an example is the painting called Northern Boulevard X. This represents some kind of electrical junction attached to a pole. Apart from the pole, it appears without context of any kind – we are invited to look at it without a supporting narrative. Picasso once said “I do not seek, I find.” That seems to have been the case here. The clear, flat light that illuminates the object emphasizes its potential strangeness. It is alienated, not by distortion, like Dali’s soft watches, but by sheer literalness. ‘This is here,’ the painting seems to say, ‘make what you can of it.’
What Escauriaza’s paintings offer is a very particular sort of attentiveness. He enlarges our experience of the external world, first by teaching us to look at things we might never have noticed, and secondly by hinting that these visual incidents, often apparently trivial, offer a kind of transcendence. Zurbaran’s still life paintings, or those of Juan Sanchez Cotan, have the air of being sacred offerings. There is at least a little of that in Escauriaza’s very different form of art.
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