Solo show at Museo Patio Herreiano, Valladolid (SP)
The Usefulness of Desire
“In olden times, when wishing still did some good...”
Jakob y Wilhelm Grimm, quoted by Juan Villoro
in La utilidad del deseo (The Usefulness of Desire), 2017
Paintung, the exhibition that Belén Rodríguez has prepared for the Museo Patio Herreriano, is about painting, but the pieces occupy the centre of the room rather than the walls. These paintings have been freed from their mural anchors and are constructed as bodies in space, bodies which, having abandoned the two-dimensionality of the wall, reveal their anatomy. In this sense, as pictorial bodies, rather than merely being exhibited, they inhabit the place and there await a warm encounter with the spectator. Supported by fragile structures—folding panels, frames, screens, etc.—the pictorial surface creases, dangles, folds, spreads across the floor and replicates itself in textile patterns or creeps like a stain, emulating chance. The bare gallery walls are neutral backgrounds that highlight the anatomy of these pictorial bodies. The artist has described the display of this show as a “parade”, alluding to their arrangement in consecutive single file, a processional linkage like words in a disjointed sentence, but to me it also has a festive air, a kind of celebration or victory parade of pictures released from their shackles and flexing their newfound freedom in the exhibition space.
Obviously, that parade of paintings is motionless. It is up to the audience to walk past and beside them, and not necessarily on a straight path, for they are also free to step into the queue of figures and mingle with them. Interrupting the pictorial line affords us the opportunity to see two-sided pictures, step inside the different screens some of them have, lurk behind the angles of the folding screens and crouch down to examine one lying on the floor. These paintings refuse to share a single surface and demand a real body, complete with elbows and armpits, forehead and profile, torso and limbs, face and sex. However, despite this spatial array, the reference and materiality of these works clearly and precisely denote a pictorial speculation, a reflection: the picture plane turns or overlaps, swoops or folds, but it is, more than ever, the definition of a pictorial pleasure, the desire to paint, the eroticism of painting as opposed to any principle of reality.
Deconstructing the picture-object at this juncture in modernity, after a century of experiences which have attempted it from various perspectives and methods, may seem like a kind of melancholy indulgence or return to the past, but in fact it is part of an ongoing debate about the fascination of the painting, its components and functionality. These deconstructive practices have actually been sporadic and short-lived, and always overshadowed by the triumphant return of the picture-picture. The debates and practice of deconstructing the pictorial object in the 1960s and 70s were violently buried in the following decade, forgotten in the wake of neo-expressionist fervour; but they were not properly digested and have ended up returning to haunt the present.
By stalking that corporeality of the picture—though not its corpulence, for Belén Rodríguez’s objects are fragile and lightweight—the artist summons her wish to paint, to do painting, to keep on doing so and to situate it in the realm of an unfinished debate. While fuelling that desire for light, airy painting, the painter carefully weighs emotions on a scale. They do not weigh much, because her paintings are loose canvases set in fragile frames and dominated by a decorative discipline—that is, a system of ornamentation that revels in an eternally recidivist crime, an inexhaustible seduction. And all the decorative power of her canvases is serenely predicated on that infringement of the law: the creases that disturb the surface, transparencies contrasted with saturated colour, the flat motifs we observe obliquely and frontally, free colour, the precarious architecture of the planes, the placid surprise of a picture transformed into a rug or a pool, repeated gestures, the synchronised rhythm of pleasure, the surprising, intoxicating contrast between the two sides of the pieces: it really is a parade, a festive public event.
We often forget that the picture is a very recent development in the general history of painting. It had a difficult birth in the Late Middle Ages, as it took people a while to accept the novel idea of portable images. The picture-object, framed and self-sufficient, represents only a tiny fraction of the history of painting and perhaps, if we take a sufficiently broad view, not even the most brilliant. Painting is a general activity, but the picture is a specific fact: the picture represents a homely, cosy world, where the act of painting is subject to the law of the device, whereas painting represents the infinity of language. To put it another way, perhaps the oft-proclaimed (and subsequently revoked) death of painting, if it ever actually transpires, is only the death of the picture. In this work by Belén Rodríguez I sense the hint of an eternal painting, a vast sky expanding in each piece: painting still, painting always, peindre toujours. Desire feeds desire in an unstoppable loop, and its allure is strong enough to inflame the desire of the passer-by. In Henry Miller’s To Paint Is To Love Again (1960), a book featuring reproductions of some of his paintings, we read this categorical aphorism: “What sustains the artist is the look of love in the eye of the beholder.”
In the deconstruction of the picture-object, introducing the pictorial plane to space, to folds, turns and double surfaces, like the page of a book or the zigzagging path around a folding screen, an analytical place is created, a pictorial concision that reflects on its practice. This laboratory is clean but not aseptic, open to the impurities of the real. Viewing painting as an analytical activity does not exclude but rather increases the desire to exhaust all hypotheses: even cold blood is red.
I imagine readers who peruse this text but have not yet seen the works in the exhibition: they read about the pleasure of painting and the urgent need to always begin that pleasure anew, like nostalgic longing for a wish that has already come true. I imagine readers imagining voluptuous images, “rich and triumphant”, as Baudelaire wrote, sumptuous, complex and brilliant, which keep painting supplied with an inexhaustible torrent of seduction and wisely wield the mechanisms that conjure desire, striving to return (if only for an instant) to the Baudelairean luxe, calme et volupté that Matisse captured so perfectly. But in fact, almost the exact opposite occurs: Belén’s decorative crime is reductionist and synthetic; it tends to suppress rather than accumulate, to concentrate rather than spread. Her work aims to seduce through subtraction, through the thinning of expression, and flaunts a body more alluring for what it insinuates than what it actually shows.
Speaking of suppression, Belén has also obviated the attachment to the wall, the preparation of the canvas and the structural unity of the picture plane. She has even eliminated the need to add paint to the support surface: she paints by subtraction, by friction, erosion, eroticism, giving rise to images with a negative concision related to slimming and the idea of remnants. But, of course, we find no asceticism or mortification over the richness of colour, not a shred of guilt over the ornamental crime: in this slimming process, painting seeks only original pleasure and once again extols the merits of decoration, of a diffuse, aerial pattern whose reiterative matrix is not conspicuous but visually quite effective. And that repetition contains an allusion to fabric and possibility of extending the surface to infinity, as well as the idea of the free support in space, inevitably bound to a body, simultaneously covering and showing it: the perennial pink of flesh, the artificial blue of the swimming pool.
Francisco Javier San Martín