Óscar Alonso Molina
The Eye and The Gaze
Or how José Guerrero dwells inside and outside the images of the landscapes that he photographs
José Guerrero. Trabajos/Works 02-20 (Monography. Ed: UCO + RM, 2019)
Human absence in man.
-Giorgio De Chirico
The adventure of the gaze -the mutual demand to see and be seen- leads man to a disconcerting questioning of himself and the world, as one supports himself upon the other, the two annulling each other.
I remember how Ángel González used to recount, with a great sense of humour, that recurrent moment in the life of the university professor in which a student approaches him to ask him to supervise his doctoral thesis, proposing strange –let's say, obscure– subjects or authors, barely known topics on which scant literature existed. "When, warped with this prejudice or historiographic vice, doctoral students come to me with things like: "Well, there is a Valladolid painter from the last century who has still not been studied ... I think the family has some papers ...", I reply: "And a thesis on Velázquez ..., how about that ...?" Because, what the hell is this business about him already having been studied, and there being nothing left to say about Velázquez? Do they really believe that he is already depleted, and has ceased to be a source of satisfaction?”
I admit it: despite its biting nature, I love the anecdote, and I have repeated it often. It is true that, as the old professor knew, historians tend to be drawn by the fact that something has not yet been studied, documented or explained sufficiently. But outside their own profession, don't you also have the feeling that, artistic creation itself today often revels in and is fascinated by the cultivation of strangeness? That is why I am so surprised, in these times of permanent intellectual and aesthetic flight towards the peripheries, fractures and the weakest moments, by José Guerrero's insistence on constantly revisiting through photography many of our culture's best known places and most emblematic images, those that have been viewed and commented upon most over the course of history. I suspect that, in this case, this yen to look again and comment on the landscapes forming the archetypes of our contemporary collective imagination is not, ultimately, due to any logic of distrust, nor because the photographer intuits that, around them, precisely as a result of this accumulation of gazes and comments that build on each other, an enormous amalgamation is engendered that Art should reveal and showcase. Paraphrasing the professor once again, "passions for lesser themes are paltry". I am convinced that, in his case, his ambitious and direct contemplation of the great images, ones viewed countless times by everyone, seen in the world of cinema, to advertising, to tourism, to scholarly study, is due, in the end, to a weighty yearning: for images to narrate the world again. To narrate it, looking straight at it, and with ambition. And that is no small venture, right?
When asked about this, José answered the following: “My work is structured into series of a toponymic nature that I create in settings charged with iconographic significance. I am interested in the places that are part of our 'collective imagination', based on literary, pictorial and cinematographic references that I try to integrate, in some way, into my own discourse. I work on the icons and the concrete nature of the landscapes that I photograph, but always in search of a 'universal vision''. His interests in this regard, as well as his use of light and colour as fundamental elements of his work, are evident in his different series; in the fields and lines of the La Mancha skyline, in New York nights, and in the London mists near the River Thames, which, unexpectedly, evoke Turner and Dickens ... and of his most recent work on architectural and rigorously geometric abstractions in buildings by architect Luis Barragán. In all José Guerrero's series there is a "find"; an encounter or discovery of a plastic solution or aesthetic idea fruit of the sharpness of the photographic gaze.
Finds as encounters and discoveries simultaneously, but also as a triumph of observation, rather than preconceived ideas. His last Roman series, in 2015, in my opinion, constitute his fullest achievement to date, reflecting all the maturity of his gaze, and it was precisely then, with the artist residing as a fellow at the Spanish Academy in that city, that I came into direct contact with him for the first time. That period produced his works on the famous Carrara marble quarries, the buried cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, the Forum and the imperial ruins, and the great palatial villas. Underground, plutonic subjects (excavations and digs, caves and the bowels of the earth), once again the themes most characteristic of a physical or symbolic territory, their leitmotif or refrain, which Quevedo captured in his verses: “You search in Rome for Rome —oh, peregrine!—and Rome in Rome itself you cannot find / the walls she flaunted gape as corpses blind / its own sepulture is the Aventine. […] Rome! In your beauty, your magnificence / All that stood strong and firm has flown / and only the fugitive remains with permanence! ("To Rome sepulchred in her ruins"). Because how many times, dear reader, have images already taken you to the Villa of Livia's inexpressible garden? If you have actually visited the Palazzo Massimo in Rome and seen such frescoes, you will not have been able to easily forget the impression made by such a work, or the magnificent theatrical device that is set in motion when contemplating it from within. In addition, you will have appreciated, first-hand, that the visual and sensory experience utterly defies the plane of conventional representation. This is not only because the creation overwhelms the viewer with its detail and enveloping capacity, as a magnificent, all-encompassing scene that surrounds and almost swallows him when he penetrates it; or even because the iconographic exhaustion of that reproduced ad nauseum saps one's capacity for authentic “recognition”. Rather, it is, above all, because the photographic image, with its intrinsic tendency to present a “before and behind” the lens, can only magnify the effects of symmetry that, precisely, José's shot has spurned, as if by chance, despite the great care taken with its framing. How fine it all is, how discreet... because it is precisely here where the novelty lies, the small flash: in the loss of symmetry and concordance, but not of directness, which rouses us, for a fleeting moment, from our optical anaesthesia, from the numbing, narcotic effect instilled by the monotonous predictability (the umpteenth repetition of an identical image) spawned by their constant production and reproduction in the press, social media, and our mobile devices. Faced with this uninterrupted flow of the same thing, our photographer has achieved a minimal alteration, a subtle shift in perspective that refreshes the subject and renders it interesting to the eye again, if only for a moment. I would like to call this "a blink" ... A minimal twist that obscures, wrinkles and cuts in two the plane of the infinite –that of the technical reproduction of images– and thanks to which, in a way, the aura is represented anew. Neurology tells us how, in order to see, the brain and the eye are configured to produce a kind of imperceptible structural vibration of the image, so that it stands out in the neural network responsible for perception as new in each instant, even if one stares at the same scene, however static it may be. If this “vibration” did not occur, that slight nervousness that agitates, moves, and shakes the images, transporting them very delicately through the plane of representation, they would become invisible, almost immediately. We would not be able to see.
This is exactly what occurs in the photograph of the well-known Villa of Livia that José has taken. Although, instead of the idea of the pause, we could also arrive at the same destination via that other path that Flaubert pointed out when he observed that for something to become interesting, it suffices to look at it long enough. After a period of concentrated observation, even the most commonplace can become surprising, don't you think?
I will give you another example, if you like. Pompeian interiors, or the depths of the Carrara quarries, seen through his camera; dim places in which the eye needs some time to adapt. The pupils, dilating, end up adjusting to both the inside and the outside, as one's mood is affected, I would almost say dominated, by the “visual climate” of the settings. A photographic image can hardly provide an account of something so incomprehensible, almost always favouring what it can best capture directly: the iconographic motif, shapes, shadows, colours and volumes, scales, the variations in material texture, the most varied anecdotes and details at the iconographic level, and so on; or, on the contrary, aided by theoretical discourse and ideas, other abstract aspects transcending the model's pure presence: historical, political, socioeconomic, anthropological and philosophical elements underlying the motif. But here the photographer, adhering to the scene's most evident presences, such as the stucco panels that line Roman villas with their dense and muted colours, or the interior folds of the mountain and its marble masses, submits them to the rule of the senses, corporeal memory and the recuperation of sight, overcoming that semi-darkness that the eye experiences at the actual sites. Through his works, and in a really subtle and amazing way, all these sensations are induced for us in the showroom, museum or gallery.
José Guerrero's work still presupposes a human, and perhaps even humanistic, view of the territory of the great landmarks -natural or cultural- of the great feat of civilisation, in line with what was achieved by photographer Richard Misrach in his series Desert Cantos, whose exhibition so captivated the artist in his youth. Since then, those would be the motifs and materials preferred by the artist: universal enclaves that the globalised world systematises as communication and consumption products: homologating them, subjecting them to a minimum common denominator governed by evidence and surface, breaking them down into simple elements, flattening them... Against this marketing perspective, the artist approaches these places as inexhaustible to readings or usages, allowing himself to reinterpret them whenever the relevance of each new meaning warrants it. Thus, in the face of the voiding to which they are subjected by the endless circulation of conventional images in the contemporary iconosphere, the photographer still offers a complete look –one which above I describe as “direct and ambitious”, to which, perhaps “profound” should be added– at these nodal nuclei of what holds us together aesthetically as a community, salvaging them, if only for an instant, from their definitive commercial reification and their dissolution into dust, ash, the nothingness of banality.
The emblematic places of a culture, sites marked by history –from the educational trips that visit them, to the monuments that commemorate them– whether they are natural or metropolitan, end up as empty casings of content or pure form, due to the multiplying action of their advertising or marketing for tourism, and their media coverage, where the repetition of stereotypes framed by thresholds of minimum complexity prevails. The mists of London, the outskirts of big cities, Andalusia or La Mancha, as seen by José Guerrero, like his Rome or New York, nevertheless, crystallize in a deeper point of view, one that demands from the viewer at least a period of time, if he is to see them. That is, they invite one to discern between the concrete and the generic, which is, in the end, what everything I am discussing here is all about.
His series on the Sierra Nevada, is, in my opinion, that which typifies his gaze (that alluded to above) as a photographer, through a strange equilibrium between the abstract and the figurative. The truth is that it is precisely in this series where his analysis of the landscape verges on a pure immersion in unrecognisable forms, where the very near and the distant become indiscernible (a “micro” and “macro” gaze), and a set of textures, colours and spots, without the incarnation of a "figure", is what is imposed on the image; that is, pure formality. I think it was just then when José fully hit on the formula he was looking for, it being possible for him, as of that moment of his career, to apply it to much more problematic, or at least more complex, frameworks, from which we can expect even more. In fact, that is what he is doing now. His career has been extensive, but still not too long; he is at that point when he has already developed and mastered his faculties, resources, and registers, and is now able to draw on them towards multiple purposes.
Using the test that I almost always find the most effective, before any type of scene, we know that we are dealing with a landscape when, precisely, the eye remains “outside”. In this sense, the dichotomy of his work –where the documentary aspect overlaps with the formal-abstract nature of photography– is detected, above all in the study process itself, when the artist distances himself, concentrating the original nature of all his formats in miniatures of identical size that, on a flat surface, he replaces and combines in series or groups, in a search for tense relations between lines, and dialogues or contrasts between their components, by means of sets that never stop evolving and transforming. This is also the time of those "finds" of which he speaks: "Until they are printed - José says - what I have are ‘sketches’, isolated verses of a non-existent poem, dispersed pieces of a puzzle whose final image I do not fully know.”
Thus, if in this ambitious construction of the landscape the eye falls "outside", what is it that remains inside and emerges from the flow of images? I think that at this point I can only offer you a plausible hypothesis, which leads us to reflect on something that may have caught everyone's attention from the beginning: the complete absence of human figures in these works. As in the case of so much recent German photography, from the Dusseldorf School or the American New Topographics, which have both shaped our protagonist's generational aesthetics, such a metaphysical void around the body offers us the ultimate, definitive key, although placing us in a territory completely different from that of his predecessors. Because what remains “inside”, still trapped in those landscapes, always at the threshold of the archetypal image, is, of course, an indication, the minimum but insurmountable portion that separates the images of José Guerrero from ruin, in its finished and definitive sense, in its darkest one: the human gaze.
[Naz de Abaixo, Lugo/ Madrid/ Seixo-Pontevedra, Summer 2019]