Galería Distrito Cu4tro opens the season with Espacios Ocultos, a show of the most recent work by José Manuel Ballester (Madrid, 1960).
“There are, indeed, moments in which we cannot see the wood for the trees. This proverb does not just apply to the contemplation of nature, but also to its transformation into art: it is more than pure coincidence that nature has inspired an entire independent pictorial form — that of landscape painting. As backdrops, landscapes have a long history, but the genre was not able to shake off its subordinate role until well into the seventeenth century (and even then, it was only relatively successful in doing so). The problem lay in that nature itself — and consequently its artistic vision — provoked apprehension and suspicion if it was not humanized in some way. It was only when humanity’s horizons broadened to take on not just planetary but cosmic dimensions that we realized the need to clear our view of that which belittled it: our fears and their corresponding legacy of prejudices. In this sense, landscape painting as a genre has only been fully validated in recent times, when it has been possible to contemplate nature without, let’s say, being seen. This revelation continues to be a growing challenge even today, with no end in sight.
We must begin with these — tightly synthetic — considerations if we wish to take on the project presented to us by José Manuel Ballester . In the first instance, he seeks to “purge” all human anecdotes from historical landscape painting, but he also wants to alter the established visual order of things, inverting the hierarchy, giving priority to that which has traditionally been considered “background”.
…Both these cases imply “subversive” points of view on that which is considered the normal or normalized way of relating to a work of art or a museum. This is not merely to question their paralyzing inertia, but also, ultimately, to “re-make” them. This is the principle behind Ballester’s “clarifying” analyses of the Prado’s famous paintings; in each case his dominant strategy or the script of his investigation has been to clear the canvases of human figures and their impoverished and afflicted actions, leaving us with just the backdrops formed by their respective landscapes.
Ballester’s proposal is, therefore, a complex one — as has been his whole career. A few observations regarding the latter would not go amiss at this point, to illuminate the issues we are examining. Ballester’s first steps as an artist were along the path we know as realist art. He won particular critical appreciation in this field, which hailed a bright future. Nevertheless, he soon showed glimpses of challenging himself in the only way one can, that is, by looking for “complications”. This is best illustrated through the vast and dangerous world of graphic art in which an artist can become mired if he contents himself with mere artisan virtuosity. Ballester did not, but rather he set upon exploring other horizons, such as photography. Neither did he bat an eyelid when it came to confronting other physical and anthropological landscapes, like the now dizzyingly metamorphosing China. In brief, and without providing an exhaustive list of Ballester’s experiments and investigations, it is clear that he has never stopped questioning both his own personal potential and that of his art. In this sense, I don’t believe that Ballester’s career to date can be resumed as that of, for example, a painter’s transition to photographer, but rather as his determination to give free rein to his artistic concerns through the experiences, media, and techniques he has deemed necessary. In reality, Ballester has not and does not merely jump from one stage to the next, but has voluntarily woven together perspectives and papers in such a way that he thinks of painting via photography, and vice versa. And is there not something here that reminds us of the astute way in which Vermeer proposed his elegy to the art of painting via the subtle negation of that which was traditionally considered its ideal regulation?
… In any case, in the light of this clarification of principles, let us return to the “theme” of his current exhibition — the distillation of the Prado Museum’s collections, amongst which we find half a dozen famous landscape paintings that have been “interfered with”, that is, paintings which were not fully realized until Ballester transformed them. The selection of works he has made to this end is significant in itself; his incisive chronological notes centre on the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which were crucial periods precisely in the history of landscape painting as a genre. Neither can we overlook the fact that his artists are all from the Netherlands and Italy, responsible for the modernization of painting and of landscape painting as a genre.
But ultimately, how should we take on board this chronicle of the temporalization of both landscapes and painting via light, just as Ballester proposes it through his disfiguring manipulation of various historical masterpieces? I believe that we should see it as a meditation on art, whose reflections are still effective today, just as is revealed through Ballester’s vision, through the eyes of the man who prints the mysteries of light.
(From The Woods and the Trees, a foreword to the catalogue of the exhibition, by Francisco Calvo Serraller)