One of the most common misconceptions about painting is that it rejects the demands of contemporary art – theoretical discourse, social engagement, novelty – in favor of an archaic, naïve practice based on technical virtuosity and gestural expressionism. This is a myth partly based on its accessibility as a medium that is so well established historically as to be democratic in its sheer conventionality: painting fails to exclude those viewers not privy to the jargon of contemporary art discourse, in the way that other media (performance or installation, for example) often do. Like music, it aspires to independence from the constraints of narratives – the kind of external information that might make an otherwise boring visual art object seem more interesting than it actually is. Think of painting as the counterargument to a bad song with good lyrics.
“All art (after Duchamp) is conceptual (in nature) because art only exists conceptually.”
Like most art professionals who came of age following the so-called ‘death of painting’ in the ‘80s, I’m suspicious of painting because despite its mass appeal, it’s a medium that can easily degenerate into a practice of solipsism veiled behind conventions of formal legibility. And yet, on certain occasions I find that there are paintings I really like, because they’re nice to look at or playful, or weird – like all those songs I can’t remember the lyrics to or never bothered paying attention to in the first place. Perhaps the greatest advantage of painting is that when it moves beyond its mere decorative qualities, it becomes extremely difficult to read; it may very well be this tension between material transparency and conceptual opacity that makes it such a complex, viable and still very contemporary medium.
As an artist who has moved from a formal training in printmaking – a medium initially conceived as a method to reproduce important paintings but also heavily linked to political protest – to video and installation, before finally settling upon painting, José Luis Villablanca has mapped out a reverse trajectory that ends with a brave, or maybe masochistic, decision to return to the medium that most artists are trained to forget. His paintings are reminiscent of Gerhard Richter with their mixture of abstraction and figuration – although his more pictorial than photographic – and the layers upon layers of paint slowly and meticulously built up only to be stripped back down again to reveal the process of construction and the drips and splotches that attest to their formal imperfection and which, in turn, comprise their unique beauty. Like any respectable painter (and like Richter himself of course), Villablanca claims indifference toward his subject matter, but to the attentive observer the assorted objects – a wine bottle, a teacup, tetrapak containers, a guitar – that float in pools of water or hover just below airy smudges of paint, comprise the detritus of both his life and previous work.
Painting is a slow process, one that demands a great deal of mental and physical energy but is stingy in its rewards – this last point, of course, was not always the case but quite the opposite back in the days before the visual arts were forced to compete with the velocity of digitally generated images. Painting is a practice that is habitual and requires a daily activity that is perhaps less goal oriented than those carried out in front of computers or in social networks (both virtual and real). In a sense it’s a daily ritual that better approximates something like a normal lifestyle – modest, and with a quiet dignity, or at least that’s the image that comes to mind when looking at these melancholic objects, abandoned and stripped of their material function and exiled to a space of formal experimentation that is arguably more vital in its poetic and therapeutic qualities.
Therapeutic is perhaps a good description of this work – despite the negative connotations associated with the idea of something that makes you feel good by forgetting the heaviness of those real problems that can never be resolved. Perhaps it’s time to deflate some of the claims of contemporary art obsessed with its historically unprecedented proximity to mass culture (i.e. the real world) that presumably makes it more relevant or useful. Just like that conventional idea of history that reduces it to a stage set with monumental events –say social unrest produced by an earthquake or an inexplicable return to a repressive political order – in denial of all those mundane little incidents that had been producing gradual shifts all along, the idea of that one great work produced for a specific public in a flash of informed genius is renounced in favor of a more intimate system of effecting subtle changes in the perception of the objects that inhabit what is usually a rather unremarkable world.