“Miquel Barceló, 1983-2009” is a tightly edited look at the subjects and tropes the 53-year-old Neo-Expressionist Spanish painter has embraced, twisted and upended throughout his prolific career. New pieces flank early endeavors; old paintings gain new relevance; and this compelling slice of Barceló’s varied, tactile oeuvre (which is far better known in Europe than in the U.S.) reads, more or less, as a cohesive body of work.
Barceló once said: “My life resembles the surface of my paintings.” Those textures careen between gritty and lyrical, ugly and beautiful, balanced and overworked. In both imagery and material, the canvases manage to evoke his coastal upbringing, his process-driven practice, and his considerable travels throughout Europe and Africa. But beyond their autobiographical qualities, these rich paintings are also Barceló’s most effective means of representation.
Organizing the exhibition into seven loosely thematic rooms, curator Catherine Lampert shows the ways in which the artist has always embraced his very particular surroundings—his treatment of sand and sea being the most compelling and surprisingly nuanced. He arrives at these subjects somewhat indirectly, by way of nostalgic renderings that recall his upbringing on the island of Majorca.
Dense, massive canvases fill the first gallery, and though most of the scenes are interiors, Barceló uses thick impasto and sand to hint at textures and terrain found only in the world outside. In The Little Silly Love (1984), fallen library books form wavelike crests and troughs. Big Spanish Dinner (1985) suggests a similar meeting of inside and out, with mussels scattered on a tile countertop next to four active skillets on a range. The painting’s grit recalls its subjects’ very origins, and the ways in which we can live both on and from the land and sea.
Beginning in the late 1980s, motivated by his travels through Africa, Barceló set out to find the most effective way to depict vast, remarkable landscapes. What look like quiet abstractions are, in fact, painstaking efforts to tease out the desert’s every hue, curve and surface. By contrast, in the roughly 8-by-9-foot Djoliba (Riu de Sang), 2009, a representation of the Niger River, blasts of paint create a sense of insurmountable momentum. His work, once so studied and deliberate, has in recent years grown both loud and more intuitive.
A selection of Barceló’s sculptures (melting and malformed bronze skulls, mainly) gets a darker, moodier presentation, but they don’t hold their own. Nor do his recent portrayals of friends, family and colleagues. (People, it seems, just aren’t his strong suit.) There is a payoff, however, in the pensive ape depicted in the painting La solitude organisative, first shown at the 2009 Venice Biennale. It’s cheeky but soulful (Barceló has likened his working methods to those of a quadruped: down and dirty, on all fours); the animal’s coat takes on a topographic feel, resembling one of Barceló’s heavily worked landscapes and bearing, perhaps, the specific markers of where this particular primate has been.
Photo: Miquel Barceló: La solitude organisative, 2008, mixed mediums on canvas, 93⁄4 by 13 feet; at CaixaForum Madrid.