Duncan Ballantyne-Way


The Immortal exhibition view. Galería Pelaires (Palma de Mallorca, 2023). 


Before Michelangelo chiselled his statue of David out of the marble slab, it had lain outside, abandoned for over quarter of a century. Numerous sculptors had begun work on it but each time the project had fallen through, and they had found excuses to give up. It wasn't until 1501, nearly 25 years after the marble slab had first been excavated, that the young 26-year-old sculptor from Caprese was commissioned to complete it. The story of the process by which Michelangelo managed to extract the figure of David from that block of stone has gone down in history. His achievement was considered so miraculous that the writer Giorgio Vasari would later come to describe it as “the bringing back to life of one who was dead.”


No one could have imagined that that discarded block of stone would one day be transformed into the world’s most revered work of art. It took the right sculptor to come along to carve it. This legendary story is the inspiration behind The Immortal, the latest series of intimate black and white paintings by Alain Urrutia. In his new exhibition, discarded wooden frames dating mainly from the 1900s, have become the painter’s own block of stone. Sometimes elaborate and gilded, at other times simple and austere, the artist has worked painstakingly to find the painting to fit each unique and distinctive frame – images to match the vistas each empty frame inspires.  


In some cases, it has taken the artist years to find the appropriate image and the empty frames have accompanied Urrutia as he’s moved from Bilbao to London and finally to his studio in Berlin. Jumping between the deeply personal and the dreamy and sentimental, each case of frame reappropriation is an act of renewal, an appeal for longevity. In the painting The Immortal, depicting the penultimate move in a famous game of chess from 1851, the reckless sacrifice of the White player allow him to checkmate his opponent with his minor pieces. In Urrutia’s painting, there is no human presence, no hand to move the figures. Just like the frame that houses the painting, the game that has mesmerised so many, lives outside of human lifespan. It existed before and will exist again; its intricacies studied; its moves recreated.


Komm, süßer Tod. The Immortal #1, 2021 - 2023. Oil on linen, 24,5x24 cm.


Chess has long fascinated artists, a violent ritual enacted against a background of pure logic. Its refined brutality, threads through these paintings like the fire engulfing the motionless car in Komm, süßer Tod (Come, sweet death). The cinematic scene does not put you in mind of life endangered but of powerlessness. The artist is all too aware of the conceit of immortality. No artist can predict what will endure. The frames he’s filled are encasements for paintings long forgotten or lost. Urrutia plays with the idea that one day his painting might too be appropriated for something new; the frames salvaged again and reused. Like the tipped over human skull (memento mori), it is a potent reminder of the inevitability of death. As precarious as the woman’s soft, textured flesh. We see her lying down, extending her neck; shadows crossing her face. 


These ethereal, intimate works, draw you in, forcing you to come right up close to scrutinise and perceive. Painting is “not so much a framed window opens on to the world as a safe let into the wall, a safe in which the visible has been deposited.” wrote John Berger in Ways of Seeing. In this series of paintings, sourced mainly from photographic documentation, the “framed window” is the work’s narrative thread and their formal extension. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the two small paintings of eyes in their sister frames. One wide open, staring back, the other closed, inscrutable. With these fragmented poetic scenes, disconnected yet saturated in unknown meaning, Urrutia is continuing his quest to reconfigure the image, forcing us to consider not just what we are looking at but how we see it. Are we looking, the artist appears to be asking, with our eyes open or shut? 


Intensified by his adept use of chiaroscuro (the extreme use of light and dark shading), the, monochromatic details of The Immortal create a heightened sense of emotionality, feelings that sit uneasily alongside many of the paintings’ impassivity. The images are static, like the classical dresses, with the flowing pleats in duplicate frames, intricately painted but still, as though to convey something uncommunicable. What that may be does not concern Urrutia, he is focused on the physical manifestation of the act of creation. The frames have been filled, windows have been opened and what was once thought dead has been brought back to life. 


 The Immortal exhibition view. Galería Pelaires (Palma de Mallorca, 2023). 


The Immortal #11a, 2022. Oil on linen, 8x8 cm. 


The Immortal #1, 2021 - 2023. Oil on linen, 24,5x24 cm.


The Immortal #4, 2022. Oil on linen, 29,5x24,5 cm.