A conversation with Alain Urrutia
A cursory glance might suggest that very little has changed in Alain Urrutia’s painting since he first burst onto the scene a decade ago, staking a place for himself in the complicated contemporary art world. His quests are apparently the same, but the process of coming up with answers or new questions is increasingly more intense or condensed. As I have argued elsewhere when speaking about this artist, his technical dexterity allows him to cultivate a kind of painting that is fast in process yet slow in reception. One thing for sure, however, in Alain Urrutia’s ongoing evolution is how he has learnt to tarry so that an image can deploy the full potential of its wealth. Gadamer calls this verweilen, a kind of unhurried waiting that eventually discloses the interiorities of the work. This is because -and this is increasingly so- Urrutia’s projects entail a profound prior reflection, detracting spontaneity from the idea though without,extirpating the intuitive inspiration that drives his practice. In other words, he has become more demanding, calling into question each and every step he takes and how to keep on painting. To put it more succinctly, I would say that, without ceasing to be a painter, he has managed to become even more of an artist.
Of course, these premises I am setting out could be seen as part of a natural evolution. However, I highlight them, it is because it is not easy to be always right about the many decisions to be taken: timing, scale, form, motifs and so on. Alain Urrutia is one of those painters in control of their craft—he always has been, technically speaking—but today he is in possession of better resources and time has bestowed him with greater technical skill. Furthermore, for some years now he construes his projects beforehand, without the pressure of the deadline of an exhibition opening. In this regard, he has also learnt to tarry, putting his works on hold. And all this has its effect on the reception of the beholder, who has to take this waiting, its rhythms, voids and disappearances into account. Urrutia continues to take his decisions fearlessly, from a limited spectrum of colours, though now he considers this second time: the time of the spectator, and of the encounter. You could say that, today, he is a less anxious artist; something which can be appreciated in the very finish of his works, or in his more carefully-conceived compositions, as well as in his way of presenting himself publicly. Alain Urrutia is a mature artist, much more than one would expect from someone of his generation.
For some people, this may suggest a more cryptic, less colourful, less spectacular painting, yet, for others, among whom I include myself, this concatenation of circumstances has prompted a brand of painting with capital P, where the format is less important than the intensity and the weight; in short, a painting for painters. This is largely owing to a demanding process that has consciously taken the artist out of his comfort zone or, if you will, his area of success. It is no accident that for his latest phase in London, there is no return ticket. For a foreign artist, arriving to a city like London is always a new beginning. And it is precisely when you are forced to have to explain your work from scratch, forced to completely rethink it, that you realise that you have to choose between continuing happily in the inertia of a well-executed work or asking yourself why, how, when and for what purpose you should continue painting. Urrutia wisely chose the more difficult path, the place for a slow, attentive, reflective and tarried gaze. Once again, painting as a coded message now expanded in space.
David Barro: I have followed your career for over a decade now. Our first contact was via email, discussing what kind of work was best suited to exhibit in the no longer existing Injuve Visual Arts Show which was to be held a few months later at Círculo de Bellas Artes in Madrid. At the time you said that even though the choice of images was not arbitrary you were unable to put it into words. Since then, I believe that your painting has become increasingly more complex. To a certain extent, I would say that the figuration of your earlier phase as a painter has now become more emotional, albeit paradoxically more concentrated, as if today images operated as a projection of abstract essence, and are increasingly more indefinite, more removed from the starting point. Memory dilutes the image, distorts it, though everything still rhymes.
Alain Urrutia: I’m not sure about speaking of painting in terms of complexity. I’d lean more towards speaking in terms of maturity. With the passing of time I am able to look back at my early work and it has taught me how to address new projects differently. All these changes have taken place naturally.
DB: The colour of your paintings is not the same unfocused black and white that produced such good results for those artists interested in the aging of the image and in representing the unrepresentable.
AU: The way I see it, it is directly related with the changes I just mentioned. We shouldn’t think that this evolution is restricted solely to formal concerns, because it also affects the conceptual part too. Either way, there is no rupture with my previous work, as I am still concerned with the idea of looking for new readings of pre-existing images; with the idea of fragmenting and reconstructing their reality and excising their very history through painting.
DB: You’ve called it desaturated painting. I like that. Of course, I am reminded of all those great painters who have also deliberately sought, from a technical viewpoint, “flawed technique” in order to separate the paint from any mimetic remit. And I am also reminded of when Deleuze said “paint the sensation”, though he said it when talking about Bacon, an artist who I believe you are closer to all the time in your way of foreshortening, of working with the idea of the threshold, the intermediary space, the in-between, with time itself. Bacon was a master in uneasy concealment and therein his idea of placing thick glass that would impede access to what he painted.
AU: With regards the idea to “paint the sensation” that Deleuze speaks about in his book The Logic of Sensation and in the way in which you relate it with the idea of “flawed technique”, I believe that it is important to clarify that I am not after flaws in technique. On the contrary, I try to ensure that the technique is imperceptible and that, putting it to one side, it is not a barrier between us and the image. I have never given much thought to unease as a result of concealment, but, at the end of the day, in my practice I repeat this idea of showing enough to let people understand that there are things that remain hidden. This is directly related with obstacles to hinder access to what is painted. Nor should you forget that some images are impenetrable. For me it is important to understand whether the image is impenetrable due to its formalization or simply because it is impenetrable in itself.
DB: Absolutely. I know that you are not after flawed technique, though I would disagree that the technique in your works is imperceptible, especially when you play with a palimpsest of varnishes, letting the skin of the painting surface smoothly as if it had the feel of an elegant piano. In addition, I believe that the idea of flawed technique in painters like Richter or Tuymans, insofar as methodology, has not so much to do with searching for flaws in technique, but with appropriating a process of impurity as a kind of painterly device to construct an image with meaning.
AU: If we were to understand it as an impure process to construct meaning, then I would agree with the idea of flawed technique. Ultimately, the construction of meaning is the groundbase of my whole practice. That’s not to say that, to start with, the existing images don’t already have one, but my intention is to give them new readings. The formalization doesn’t take place as a simple transposition of an existing image into painting. Painting not only makes what is painted more than a simple representation, but it also ensures that what is represented becomes real. In this way, I not only bestow meaning but I also construct the image itself.
DB: That agrees with Gerhard Richter’s premise: if reality becomes an image in photography, when it is turned into painting the image becomes reality. Indeed, in your work there is a kind of diversion that is somehow also redolent of a certain memory from a strange and disturbing corporality, in step with the dislocation proposed by artists like Bacon and Borremans. I don’t know whether grasping this distortion is what has led you to work recently with mirrored images. Almost certainly this is where we will come up most incisively against the paradox of the image, with motifs that are stretched and deformed, that shrink and expand; everything turns towards the unknown, towards an area of conflict.
AU: I am interested in mirrored images for several reasons. One is as basic as the attraction towards mirrors we have all had since childhood. I remember the first time I read Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, especially the part where, just before crossing through the mirror, Alice describes the room she sees reflected as different to the room where she is. Since then I have always thought that mirrors reflect fragments of this other world. When I moved to London, I found a mirror on the street and without knowing what I was going to do with it, I took it home with me. Every day when I arrived home, I emptied the contents of my pockets on it. After a while I started to photograph what was happening there. Later on I became conscious that by turning around the images of the reflected objects you got a very strange point of view. It was like being on the other side of the mirror. Then I started to work with this idea and I changed from looking for the reflection of objects to looking for the reflection of photographs. The necessary twofoldedness to reveal the reflected image created the distortions you mentioned.
DB: The mirror in art has always been a fantastic voyage for the gaze and this voyage is created by the dislocation of the body and of space. It is as if space never becomes fully definitive. The field of vision in your current works is expanded when the gaze is destabilised. This even further accentuates painting as a transitive space. The mirror is a challenge and a utopia because it is a place without place, but it is also a heterotopia, as theorised by Foucault.
AU: It’s obvious that the fragments we see of this other world through mirrors, these distortions of images or our relationship with the reflected image, speak to that other heterotopian place that Foucault talked about. I’m glad that you speak about mirrors as a place without place, as a challenge and a utopia. It is there, in its ability to contain a place within its two dimensions, where the magic lies. Working with mirrored images was just something natural in the process of my work and was a response to a question that had been bothering me for some time. I had been invited to prepare an exhibition for the DIDAC Foundation in Santiago de Compostela which would then travel to Appleton Square in Lisbon. I started wondering about how the exhibition would mutate on its tour. By creating images around their vertical axis, which would work in composition when turned around, I could create a project in which the paintings were shown in each of their two possible positions. In this way, the second exhibition would be a reflection of the first. Months later, when talking to you about a possible title for the exhibitions, we reached the conclusion that Mirror Rim would be perfect; the mirror-like palindrome would also make reference to the edge of the mirror, so present in this project.
DB: In the Baroque the artwork was looked on as an infinite operation and, in this sense, I see your work as leaning towards the Baroque. The mirror is presented to us as the end of objectivity. In contemporary art we have key examples, like Pistoletto’s Cuadri specchianti or Robert Smithson’s non sites; although my favourite example is when Giuseppe Penone made his self-portrait in 1970 wearing contact lenses with mirrored surfaces. The eyes reflect in the space the images they perceive in their usual observation, delaying in time the faculty of seeing, but also transmitting the information with the work before the artist himself sees it. The images in Mirror Rim are, like Penone’s contact lenses, instruments to begin the transition of constructing the gaze. To my way of thinking, paradoxically, your work now takes on greater abstract density.
AU: Now that you mention abstract density, I see it as something that has accentuated with the passing of time. There are still works in which I am interested in images and the stories they hide. At once I like painting’s capacity to tell stories, and in my more recent work the motif of the painting is an excuse to talk about other things. I suppose that is what you are referring to when you talk about the indecisiveness of images and, indeed, this is something that happens to a greater extent in my recent work. In Mirror Rim each image has its raison d’être within the overall whole, but the idea that encompasses the project—making turned-around images, like the second exhibition, that would operate as a reflection of the first—makes the particularity of what happens in each painting remain on a secondary level. Even still, this type of project comes with a conceptual map that affords keys to the relationship and origin of the images.
DB: The same thing happens in your 20 Minutes of Abstract Thinking.
AU: That’s right. The exhibition operates like a walk on which one comes across images that have no apparent connection with one another. There is a certain similarity between coming across these images on this exhibition walkthrough and Robert Walser’s The Walk. The tiny format of the paintings in both projects and the way in which they are arranged in large open spaces, creates the sensation of walking between them and coming across images in such a way that when you are in front of one of them the rest are blocked out. And this gives the walkthroughs a hypnagogic quality.
DB: It is not easy to achieve, because this alleged hypnagogic state you mention is only possible if the visitor to the exhibition is relaxed. In this state of contemporary acceleration we live in, where most people see exhibitions as if through a tracking radar, without time to tarry a while in front of any of the images or, in any case, to discriminate which images they are interested in and want to stop in front of, the enterprise and challenge you take on is huge. Of course, it is true that the small format means another kind of intensity because of the empty space it creates, paradoxically lending more visual weight to each individual work, in comparison with larger works. This subjective, ironic and ambiguous construction can be seen in the work you made for the exhibition I curated for Museo de Arte Contemporáneo Gas Natural Fenosa called 2014. Antes de irse. 40 ideas sobre pintura that is now part of the museum’s collection. The work Paraleloan (In Parallel) is made up of two images. On one hand, a large oil on canvas measuring 250 x 400 cm which depicts an apparently violent scene of hands holding open the mouth of a dog with fierce canines. On the other, a small, outwardly charming portrait of a beautiful woman whose face is held by a man’s hand. The former responds to a rough form of imaging; the latter to a smooth play of glazes and polyurethane varnish that softens the image even further. A more thorough or detained gaze suggests that only the owner or a vet would place their hands around a dog’s mouth in this way, and also that the hand which at first glance seems to caress the woman’s face is really a violent hand. Could you explain how you address and look for this ambivalence and whether the choice of format is part of this conceptual play rather than a purely formal decision.
AU: Here we could approach the issue of the format from two different levels, depending on what I am after: conceptual and formal. When I was working on Paraleloan, I felt the need to understand the way we have of reading or interpreting images, depending on the way I wish to formalise them. This can lead to a completely different reading. In this specific case, I wanted the initial interpretation to be false and for the correct reading, as you’ve just explained, to come with a more detained gaze. For some time now, I have been concerned with the way we visit exhibitions. These projects made up of small pictures demand more time. I am interested in understanding how one walks through an exhibition, how to make you stop in front of each picture and then, once we have seen them, to go back through the exhibition again trying to grasp the connections between the different motifs. The latest projects and the projects on which I am currently working are all formalised in the same way. They are all small paintings well-spaced out from one another in the exhibition space. The idea is to give my work a formal unity within which a whole range of highly disparate things can take place.
DB: I believe that it gives the conceptual reading much greater elasticity. I am thinking, for instance, of Helmut Dorner and his way of structuring space, the distance between paintings, like a form of writing, with pauses and punctuation signs. To a certain extent, you are closer and closer to poetic tension, in the how and in the why, allowing silence to enable resonance. As a result, painting becomes a more critical space, which is consumed much more slowly and more condensed. The small pictures are monumentalised and, similarly to what happens inside them, in the image, this kind of montage also induces a sense of unease. At bottom, in your painting one can see, more and more, a kind of romantic counter-world, sometimes nostalgic and somewhat suffocating, that sets us off on a strange journey, and takes us to landscapes able to join sky and sea, in more direct references to Friedrich, or in plays of baroque-like chiaroscuro. Do you believe that, somehow, a greater insight into history brings you to how Pier Paolo Pasolini defined his work: "I am a force from the Past”?
AU: Pasolini spoke about the search for the modern in past times and I have always agreed with the idea that “the classics are comforting”. I have always thought that I would like to be able to see what we are doing now from the future. Which reminds me of the scene where Alice (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) asks the White Queen what kind of things she remembered the best. The queen answered that the best memories are "things that happened the week after next." And this romantic counter-world you mentioned, this nostalgia for the future, trying to understand what will happen with the present in a dystopian future, is precisely the main theme of the exhibition “Tierra y Cemento (Sentarse y Esperar)”.
DB: That would fit in with the idea of nature where nothing is natural. I mean nature as a cultural construct of images. Everything has a cultural existence and painting also has a history, in recent years contaminated by the advent of other disciplines and movements. In terms of montage, for instance, I think about how minimalist premises changed our way of reading and consuming an exhibition. Because nature is not just what you see, but the same can be said for the art object too. This is the kind of writing I was referring to.
AU: You compare the spatial structure of a project with writing and I imagine art as system of graphic representation for the transmission of information. I prefer to equate spatiality and the rhythm created through mounting a project with music or, in my case, seeing as we are dealing with images, with cinematography. That is why I don’t believe a project is finished until it is mounted in the exhibition space. The way it is mounted determines the way in which the beholder walks through the exhibition and, as a result, conditions how he reads it. It is like applying the idea of the Kuleshov effect to disciplines outside cinema.
DB: I don’t think that we could talk about a Kuleshov effect here, although I do understand what you are getting at when mentioning it. It is true that the portrait of a lady in an art gallery is not the same as the same portrait on the cover of a fashion magazine or in a shampoo advert. Arthur C. Danto used Warhol’s Brillo Box to wonder about what it is that makes them artworks if they look exactly like the original object. But I am much more interested in focusing on this sensorial aspect you talk about, because you have looked for a tactile quality and you work with the visual, but you speak about music and film, which has found precisely in music a great ally for linking sequences together. To my way of thinking, implicit in Barnett Newman’s zips is a sound able to stretch time. Sound is always time making itself present. When I think of Clyfford Still’s painting I see it as containing the vibrant sound of a fissure, where the tension contracts the time that is broken. At the same time, in James Turrell this tension is tempered, and becomes unbearable in its abysmal quality. Many and very different painters, like Terry Winters and Alex Katz, associate their painting with jazz. For you, what would be the sound of your painting and what is your relationship with film, over and beyond purely formal questions?
AU: When citing it as a resource, I was referring to the changes in reading that take place during the montage, which is to say, with the order in which you show the works and the rhythm created by empty spaces within an exhibition.
DB: Many artists have taken this into account when they are ordering the works in a series. For instance, in her series of photographs, Tracey Moffatt only decides which ones are the first and the last, leaving the rest to the taste or intuition of the individual curator or other person in charge of installing the pieces.
AU: You can’t repeat this type of montage all the time. When you repeat a resource the magic is lost and it loses consistency. That’s why I would have loved to have seen the face of the abstract expressionist James Harvey when he visited Warhol’s exhibition at the Stable Gallery in New York back in 1964. There he would have seen the Brillo Boxes that he had designed transformed into works of art. Unlike Duchamp, who used objects he had not fabricated himself in his ready-mades, in Warhol’s work, and in mine, the image we use already exists. We not only add content, but the hand and technical skill also intervene. As far as sound and music is concerned in relation to my work, I would distinguish between two moments: first of all, the creative process, in which I always have music playing, and then the moment when the painting is finished, when the music functions like a soundtrack for the image. While making the project 20 minutes of abstract thinking I was listening to Beethoven in the studio and when I finished the series I decided to give the works the names of his compositions. I had to listen to Beethoven over and over again until I could decide which piece would work best conceptually and formally with each painting. This means that when reading the titles the beholder journeys mentally outside the exhibition space. If, on top of that, the spectator knew that this is the music I was listening to when I was painting the pictures, then that would also send him on a journey.
DB: This mental journey is increasingly more important for a proper understanding of your paintings. In his book The Eyes of the Skin, the Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa argued that we need to express the importance of the sense of touch for our understanding of the world, reflecting on the dominance of the sense of sight and the repression of the sense of touch. Pallasmaa advanced an idea which I believe is also fundamental for your work: focused vision confronts us with the world while peripheral vision envelops us.
AU: When conceiving a new project I usually start off from highly disparate and often abstract ideas. As I create images for each project, it is gradually delimited and starts to take form. This way of addressing projects is directly related with my way of reading the world, images and information. Therein the difficulty of grasping a reading of my work without formulating this mental journey. The information that goes with each project serves as a guideline to visualise the relationships between the images comprised in it. In any case, these keys are never a form of explanation nor do they limit the possible readings; their only function is to prepare this mental journey and to expand the possible readings of each project.
DB: If there is anything we can glean from exhibitions like Mirror Rim, then that is that the expansion of painting does not always make it bigger. What is important is how the context can be transformed into content with highly diverse gestures. I would insist that your montages are elastic, as if the works were joined together by very fine threads, imperceptible to simple sight. Like a sequence of slides that frames the spectator within an experience, rather than a static contemplation of each picture. They are fragmented sequences and, personally speaking, I don’t see them as being very far from the enormous deconstructive painting you presented at the SOS 4.8 Festival in Murcia, or from the fragmented sequences you showed at Guggenheim Bilbao, or when you paint directly on the wall, projecting an almost unembraceable sensation that is more redolent of a "situation" than an "installation". You like to keep the spectator doubting and to submerge him in a state of indecision, in a decision-taking process. I am also thinking of the proposal you presented for Kunsthalle Sao Paulo, where you showed paintings that seemed like pictures but were mural paintings. Although I am more and more convinced that there is less trickery and more truth in the recourses you use to get there. But that’s a whole other conversation... maybe in another five years.