Where have You hidden Yourself,
And abandoned me in my groaning, O my Beloved?
You have fled like the hart,
Having wounded me.
I ran after You, crying; but You were gone.
Return, My Dove!
The wounded hart
Looms on the hill
In the air of your flight and is refreshed.
It wouldn’t be exaggerated to relate this wounded hart of San Juan de la Cruz, wounded by love, always ready to “hide and show”, with the main reason of this exhibition on the Niemeyer Center of Avilés, to which it gives the title. On it, Javier Riera continues his research on the relations that exist between art, landscape and nature in order to formalize, throught light projections, videos, photographies and emulsions on paper, the hidden connections between sign and meaning that the prehistoric men already seized.
This way carries on that path to knowledge that could be called magical, mystical or simbolic but perhaps it should more precisely be called contemplative, to all of which he is not oblivious at all starting from his beginnings as an abstract painter, when he was classified by Santos Amestoy as end of century lyrical and also many commentarists assigned him, rightly so, a romantic filiation to the North, following the known genealogy of Robert Rosenblum.
Later on, when he jumped on to other colder expressive means, such as his first photographic series based on light projections on nightly woods exhibited in the National Reina Sofía Museum and Art Center in Madrid on 2008, it seemed as if Javier Riera was looking to fulfill the unaccomplished dream of suprematism, which pretended to build in space in an abstract way, without formal limits of any kind.
Just as Malevich and other great masters such as Kandinsky or Mondrian, who coated in spirituality their first abstract tryouts, Riera understands geometry as a “previous language to matter, able to stablish a sort of subtle and reavealing resonance of hidden dimensions” in the places where he works. Without the theosophical or esotheric connotations of his predecessors, but under the same dilema: how to find, in a secular world, a convincing means of expression for the repesentation, through inmaterial images, of trascendental experiences.
Because, just as the mystic from Ávila himself explained in the commentaries to his songs between the soul and bride’s groom, the flight of contemplation always has somewhat of a frustrated attempt, since the attribute of the deer is to “climb on to higher places” from where to loom and where the dove hardly reaches to. And this yearning for trascendent recognition, that is “alive flame of love”, never quenched, it is expressed in the case of Javier Riera and through so many estimates whose sequence can be reconstructed.
Landscape, nature and geometry
From a formal point of view, in the 90’s Riera switched from his spectacular large-format paintings and diverse splashings on which you would clearly differentiate the background from the foreground thanks to the use of crossed planes, to others on which the neutral backgrounds adquired shapes and turned into specific landscapes, seascapes, skyscapes or mountainscapes, partly hidden behind leakings that looked like lighting bolts.
In the next millenium, it was as if the vegetal cloaks that were covering some of those fallen leaves landcape backgrounds had been taking over the situation to the point of becoming, in his last few years as a painter, absolute protagonists of the composition, in an autonomous way.
At first, the step from landscape to nature took place in the rows painted over black background with a posible analogy of having so much of vegetal as of animal origin and simulate floating seaweed or traces of wood dwellers, braided in long sinuous tails. Further in time, those shapes, created patiently by pressing the not so heavily loaded of oil-paint brush onto the canvas, not by chance they started to adquire the appereance of feather fan colections or even the wings of a fallen angel, like the one of Wings of Desire of Wim Wenders.
Finally, they adopted the shape of colorful and microscopic snow crystals, optically modified and increasingly going the biggest to the tiniest. And, in a coherent way, that geometric linearity of a natural origin ended up jumping to reality thanks to light projections fixed on a photographic series that was presented for the first time at the fore mentioned exhibition at the Reina Sofía Art Center and Museum in Madrid. On 2010 he showed at the Barjola Museum of Gijón the first videographic sequence, made out of a sucession of photographies, and on 2012 his first direct intervention in a public space, after a previous try-out at El Retiro Park in Madrid, where he projected with a few spotlights his already recognizable luminous geometries on trees and bushes of the Paseo de la Alameda in Valencia.
We could say that, since then, his work has been developping an aesthethic proven according to the geometric order. His projected geometry reveals hidden nature relationships, but it doesen’t do it in a strict rational way, omniscient, since the patterns, the weaves, are not taken out from a conscious analysis of the real shapes on which he works, but they come from several fields and are applied directly, creating surprising effects. This arbitrary, to a certain point, association allows to discover unsuspected dimensions, volumes never seen before, shapes that vibe and stay unharmed in space, and at that low hour when the sun sets, and with which the most primitive mysteries and the most hypnotic mandalas are traced out, disrupting our sensitive perception and drag us to unexpected emotional states, like the ones provoked by the photographies and videos gathered here.
In the exhibition at the Niemeyer Center in Avilés, Javier Riera even gives a further step and, instead of opposing geometry to nature, he projects nature on geometry, through emptied images and rotoscoping animation of real deers, that walk around majestically on the curved and sloping walls of the dome conceived by the brasilean architect. This change had already happened before, although unfolded onto cascades and other natural screens, but only on the pristine semisphere of the Center of Avilés, understood as a celestial sphere and at the same time as cavern, it takes place a real enhancement, with the great deer peeking out from the horizon of light, when not in the exterior, and the herd gathered on the huge central lamp or walking calmly on the side walls.
The wounded light of this majestic and refined intervention serves, as well, to talk about the other aspect of the proposal, that deer in love that appears on the low hill for the benefit of the opportunist hunters, in one of the most outrageous hunting practices. The complaint is deduced, more than by being explicit, from the cosmogonic conception, almost animist and totemic, of Javier Riera’s work, whose latest progresses are captured on paper, in monocrome blueprints of animals and geometries that soon enough will offer further development.
But, if we had to frame Javier Riera in any particular tendency, that would be without doubt the one of the asthethics of the sublime, more in the sense of “overflowed religion” that Rosenblum understands, since the sublime has a lot to do with the sacred but is not confused with it, since shock, outburst and ecstasy, that surpass the normal experience of people, are not only provoked by religious phenomenoms but are also usually provoked, and with frequency, by some determined natural objects and art pieces.
If dreams and the use of allucinogen mushrooms are, most probably, the origin of the idea of soul, the asthethic experience of the sublime is, possibly, the origin of the idea of God. Surely when the primitive men started to be astonished at the beauty of the world –“the starry sky over me”, along with the inner moral law are, according to Kant, the things that “fulfill the spirit with an always renewed and increasing admiration and veneration, the more frequently and continuously we reflect upon them”– they started to ask themselves about the origins of the Universe, that they interpreted as the manifestation of an allmighty God, creator of all things.
Ethimologically sublime comes from the latin form sublimis, that means, very high, elevated, but it could also come from sub limes, under the limit, at the limit, at the borderline, at the edge, that could very well be translated freely as “at the edge of the abyss”, a definition whose best illustration could be without a doubt the famous painting by Caspar David Friedrich where a traveller seen from behind appears on a top staring at a magnificent perspective of mountains and clouds, looming like the deer of the dome at the Niemeyer Center.
A contemporary of his, the scottish philosopher Edmund Burke, would define the feeling of the sublime like the most profound emotion that the human spirit can experiment and would base his experience in ideas of danger related to the own preservation, such as astonishment, darkness, power, solitude, silence, vastness, magnificence or the infinite.
On their part, the romantic German aesthetes resolved the questions of beauty and the sublime precisely around the matter of the “never ending contradiction” between the concrete and the abstract, the spiritual and the natural. The unconscious activity allows a grandeur in the object that is imposible to admit in the conscious activity and from there is born the fight between the I with itself, a fight that can only be resolved by an aesthethic intuition, involuntary where the sublime yields and shatters all powers of the soul, leaving the powerless to solve the contradiction that threatens the entire intelectual existence. The romantic thinking, divided between the finite and the infinite, would soon enough lean towards religion and mythology, as finely recalls Paolo D’Angelo.
From a beginning, the sublime also made explicit reference to the relation between pleasure and pain, having as a starting point the aristotelic thesis about tragedy, that means, something that arises compassion and terror at the same time. As would write David Hume: “It seems strange the pleasure that the viewers of a well written tragedy receive from pain, terror, angish and other passions which, in themselves, areunpleasant and painful”. It could even be said that the sublime is that which provokes such an intense pleasure that it even causes pain, expressed by that furtive tear falling form our eyes.
At this regard it is arguable the appreciation of Kant that, while beauty can also be small, the sublime must always be huge. Kant even comes to define the sublime as that which is “absolutely big”, but the truth is that the sublime also can be found in the small things, which allows us to conceive, for example, that some short poems, the most modest films of autor, the restrained cubist dead nature paintings of Juan Gris or the tiny roses of Luis Fernández, can also be lookouts to the abyss, conceived in a reduced space and favorable to concentration and contemplative effort.
As long as it has to do with the emotion that is caused in the individual, it doesn’t make explicit reference to the qualities of the object, and even if it’s obvious that the greatness, the magnificence or the infinite are some of its atributes, it’s also true that other simpler ones can reach the same effect. It wouldn’t be then a matter of searching a hollow grandiloquence or false magnificence, but pure and simple humility, or, as the ancient rethoric teatrise writers said, instead of looking for the way to acheive an excellent and elevated form and content in the drama of a “remarkable simplicity”, what contrasts lively with the idea of the espectacular, is that in some artistic expressions it can be accetable the most common and sensationalist melodramatism, as Guy Debord already questioned once.
Because of his beginnings in abstract expressionism, Javier Riera can’t be far from the idea of “convulsive beauty”, which is nothing else than the way the surrealists called the sublime, aesthethic category that goes beyond beauty and that also interested other avant-garde movements such as expressionism, but accquired a greater spreading with surrealism after II World War, when the movement arrived, almost entirety, to the exile in New York, leaded by André Breton.
Northamerican abstract expressionism would be, in fact, a new edition of the surreal automatism, that would no longer search for espontaneity and objectivation of the artist in dreams, the rêverie or drugs, but in the uncontrolable violence of gesture; in the gesture where “we ourselves and the accident of our hands become nature”. This is what, naturalism the other way around, gesture achieves: that even the artist’s personality is not affirmed, but “fulfilled”, and that it shows to the outside as an objective phenomenom, as a “dangerous stain” with which soon enough, future younger generations of artists would start feeling uncomfortable.
To show the interest on the sublime and even on the inefable of the northamerican painters of the time it would sufice to remember the chapel that Mark Rothko created for the Menil family in Houston, an octogonal oratorio decorated with fourteen large-format paintings of his, with background music of Morton Feldman and on the outside a truncate obelisk of Barnett Newman. This last one was sure that “the myth is before the hunting” and that “the first man was, no doubt, an artist”, since his first manifestation, as his first dream, “was aesthethic” and “the first scream of a man was a song”. On his influential article The sublime is Now, published on 1948, he’d criticize the “complete denial” that would mean the “pure rethoric” carried out throught “geometric formalisms” and “abstract mathematical relations, trapped in the fight around what is beautiful, whether the beautyy may be in nature or outside of it”, and would reafirm “the natural desire of men for the exalted, for the worries about our relationships with the absolute emotions”, encouraging to make cathedrals “out of ourselves, of our own feelings”.
This quite grandiloquent artistic idea seemed to show signs of exhaustion around 1960, but even then it’s posible to track it on following movements such as land art, that has to do so much with the work of Javier Riera. Artists such as Walter de Maria or Richard Long went across that “edge of the abyss” feverishly and experimented it personally, such as the romantic authors demanded. For Javier Maderuelo, there’s no doubt that land art gathers several aspects of the sublime, “the desire of inmensity to overtake the physical limits of the work through the scale of the territory” or “the challenge of power, or respect, depending on the case, by the powers of nature” among others.
That’s why Joseph Kosuth affirmed that it was a terminological error to call the land art works conceptual, since they kept, according to him, “traditional aesthetic” connotations. But only the most known artist of the movement, Robert Smithson, would do all he could to chill the perception of his interventions and disassociate from any sentimental relation to landscape, regardless of the strength of works such as Spiral Jetty carried out on 1970.
One of the topics that most obsessively repeats itself in american land art would be the one of labyrinthine constructions, that responds to a cosmic culture, eyes fixed on the stars. The labyrinth, one of the oldest cultural archetypes, has the ability to evoke polymorphic spaces and overlapped times, or, what is the same, to symbolically depict the black holes and time travels. All of them felt drawn to the theories with which physics explain the diversity of time and space, although their knowledge was of scientific dissemination and based on the literary genre of sci-fi.
Just as Tonia Raquejo points, the most part of the land art artists had as well an intentional approach towards primitive and prehistoric cultures. In them, some artists saw models of behaviour, both aesthethic and human, loaded with a symbolism and a mythic attitute that they wanted to investigate according to new anthropologic researchs carried out by Claude Lévi-Strayss or Sigfried Giedion. What the new anthropology of the 70’s stirred up was, on one hand, the concept of cultural progress, and on the other the semantic explanation of the abstract signs of prehistoric art that had till then no meaning whatsoever. Some artists experienced with these meanings of the essential and, generally, with the anthropologic side of art.
A sensitive revolution
In any case, it seems clear that man’s aesthethic ability is a radical faculty, essential for him, and closely linked to magical thought and that probably favored logic thought. At least that was the french philospher Mikel Dufrenne’s certainty, to whom the aesthetic experience “is at the start point of all paths that human-kind walk, from science to action. And the reason is understandable, since it lays on the origin, on that point where men, still mixed up with things, experiences his familiarity with the world; nature reveals itself, and he can read the great images it has to offer. The coming of logos prepares itself for that encounter, before language, where it’s Nature who speaks. Naturante nature, that creates men and inspires him to access consciousness”.
Nontheless, the sublime for Kant would be something foreign to natural, since it was linked to the infinite, and as such it was purely subjective, and would be distinguished from beauty seeing it was not a simple game, but something actually serious. In both cases it would be a feeling that woud merge pleasure with dread, fear and reverence, merged with the sea’s vastness, the incommensurability of the starry sky or the enlargement of the soul reached by the fine use of reason, what could go through the limits of the sensitive experience and demand imagination what it was unable to do.
On the opposite, in his analysic of Kant, the postmodern philosopher, Jean-François Lyotard, considers that it is the “powerless of reason” what the experience of the sublime proves. For him, the work of the sublime, what he calles “immateriality” or “transformed matter to pure energy”, would consist of “getting close to the presence without the methods of representation”, as long as it is the “event of a passion”. Therefore he would get attached to strong avant-garde aesthethic theory that would give continuation to the modern tradition that carried the task of preserving the artistic novelty of all setback towards obsolete methods and of any commitment with the ways of commercial aesthethization.
As Jaques Rancière would interpret, Lyotard’s concept of the sublime follows the tradition of a marxism that, in specially in Adorno or Clement Greenberg, has linked art’s radical autonomy with the promise of a politic and social emancipation and responds to another idea of politization of art: art is political in the measure that it produces objects that radically differ, for their sensitive texture and their aprehensive mode, from the regulation of objects of consumption. What he suggests is “a completely new revolution: a revolution of the ways of sensitive existence instead of a simple trnsformation of the modes of Estate; a revolution that wouldn’t be a shift of power but a neutralization of the actual way in which powers are exercised, they knock down other powers and at the same time they allow themselves to be knocked down. The free aesthetic game –or its neutralization– defines an unknown mode of experience, bearer of a new way of sensitive universality and equality”.
Luis Feás Costilla