A Painting for Catalunya

This is also a story of the only time I created a painting exactly as I had visualized it…. Enjoy:

I spent two weeks this past September lecturing in Barcelona for Smithsonian. This is something I do 3-4 times a year, however during this particular trip I pushed my lectures beyond my comfort zone.

I usually lecture on art and architecture, therefore my lectures in Catalonia usually focus on Gaudi and Catalan Modernism. I also present a lecture that reviews the urban expansion of the city of Barcelona from its first World Fair in 1888, to its second in 1929, and finally the expansion of the city as it prepared to host the Summer Olympics in 1992. In that lecture I also speak on some of its public art commissions and how it has moved from its Modernism history to become the contemporary mecca of art, design and architecture that it is today.

For this past trip, I needed to divide my lectures with a local art historian. I decided to let him do the Gaudi introduction, and instead, I would cover the History of Barcelona and Catalonia lecture. I’m pretty sharp on European history, particularly in Iberia. I also keep an extensive archive of notes from museum visits and guided tours I accompany with Smithsonian so I had a 5-year archive to rummage through. I however, had never previously laid out an official outline that ran through thousands of years of history specifically in Iberia with a focus on Catalonia. This assignment allowed me to finally prioritize that academic organization for myself.

It is important for me to curate my lectures to each Smithsonian trip. So that no lecture is ever the same even though I can recycle the same templates of information. For this circumstance, I knew that the last lecture of this trip (just after my history lecture) would be ‘Contemporary Catalonia’ with a focus on the current political situation. Therefore, my goal was to create a lecture that:

1) provided a factual historiography of Iberia with a focus on Catalonia,

2) include factual historical moments of Aragonese/Catalan culture that are part of today’s political argument for independence in their appropriate context,

3) provide an unbiased review of the points of interest for different levels of independence (cultural, fiscal, and full separation), so that my audience would leave with full historical information to be able to have an open-minded conversation about the current political situation.

I am proud to say this was much easier for me to compile together in a PowerPoint than I anticipated: those years of taking notes and organizing/archiving them well paid off. I can comfortably report I checked all of the goals I gave to myself except for one…

As I was creating this lecture, I became emotional due to what I know about the historical facts but also due to how I feel personally about the situation and what I have experienced. There are always going to be two sides to every story. And in politics, there are always going to be key points that are argued on both side with complete overlap and inability to understand the other side. As a visitor to this culture (I am not Catalan, nor Spanish), I at one point was neutral in my opinion on this topic. However, as an academic and someone who has lived in Barcelona and returns regularly, I admit I have grown to fall towards the side of independence for cultural and fiscal independence (this is very different from complete separation). For this reason, I can provide a historically factual summary of events, but I do have a bias that naturally comes forward.

I embraced my bias. Why? Well, first, I remember in my first art history classes thinking: Are we learning about Botticelli because he’s my professor’s favorite artist? Is it because his work has become a commercial icon for Florence and Italy so it’s historiography is more important now because its popular to tourism and contemporary “art culture”? Or is it because he was a favorite by the Medici family, and their opinion was one of the few that mattered? Either way, at some point, we introject our biases and opinions. I’d much rather learn from a professor who can clearly explain their interests with factual backing than just be taught the bare boned facts. I believe that allows for critical thinking: the biased lecturer is setting the stage for debate. It’s an open discussion field, rather than this one-sided exchange that’s more like input of information.

Second, I am an artist. I wear my heart on my sleeve and am rather transparent. I like deep conversation and not surface level exchange. Am I truly using myself as a vessel to serve if I hold back? Who am I as an artist and who am I communicating to? And how raw should I be in that communication? A receiver of information can always choose not to receive or to filter incoming information. That is their responsibility as the receiver. However, if I am placed in the position to give, and I have factual information that supports my dialogue, then I believe it’s my responsibility to release what I know.

I find this dialogue with myself so similar to what I contemplate as an artist on a regular basis. When I’m creating a painting, there is always a dialogue in my head that exchanges how I feel about my immediate, impulsive action onto the canvas in that moment versus predetermined ideas of how a composition should end up looking. There is an analytical process in my creative brainstorming. I see paintings, and sketch them. I then try to create them in the flesh when I’m back in the studio. Many times, there is a transformation process of the piece in that step: it never looks quite like the sketch or at some point I go off course and let the painting choose its own path. How much do I control as the artist versus let go and act purely as a vessel of some other communication? Am I entering this exchange with rules and predetermined outlines or am I allowing myself to interject and become a vessel not just of information and analytical sketches, but also of emotion?

I’m not sure I know a precise answer to any of these questions, but what I do know is that I am comfortable with my opinions as long as they are supported by fact and as long as I continue to commit as a scholar to learn more about those facts I rely on as well as remain open-minded to the next person’s point of view. Same concept as an artist, I have become comfortable with where myself as a vessel takes the direction of a creative project whether it be the curation for an exhibition or the completion of a particular painting or series of artworks. I need to trust other inner guides rather than just intellect and analytical practices. Or rather, I need to keep my chakras balanced to give each a turn in all of my aspects of life – as an artist and even as an academic.

After returning to DC from this trip, I saw a painting for Catalunya one night when I was lying in bed unable to sleep. I actually saw a series of paintings very vividly and challenged myself not to get out of bed to sketch them. I wanted to let go of any pressure (from myself) to document things to “get back to it later”. Rather, just let the visualization go and have its own existence…

This piece was the only painting that was still vividly depicted and at the front of my mind the next morning. A few elements were stirring on the forefront for me when I went into the studio the next day to create the painting:

- Still quite a bit of emotion about Catalonia fresh on my heart chakra from being there and stirring up these feelings in conversations about the political situation.

- I have been playing a lot with texture and wanted to push back on that element a bit to have a rather minimalistic piece that focused on the four red stripes of the Catalan flag.

- I wanted to paint those red stripes in a blood-like color that also came from the deep copper color palette I was using. Therefore, I mixed the copper to arrive at a similar rusty-blood red that Antoni Tàpies also uses in his artworks.

- I was interested in a simple and subtle but equally also powerful piece.

There are four red stripes on the Catalan flag which have been referred to regularly in the work of Antoni Tàpies as well as Catalan modernist architect Luís Domènech i Montaner. I will speak on my general interest in these Catalan nationalistic artists in another post.

The Catalan flag or the   Senyera

The Catalan flag or the Senyera

Different versions of the Senyera displayed in Barcelona during the 2017 independence referendum campaign

Different versions of the Senyera displayed in Barcelona during the 2017 independence referendum campaign

It is interesting to me that this is the only painting that manifested exactly how I initially visualized. It came to me as effortlessly during its conception as did its conceptual and visual mind map the night before. What you see is four separate fields:



6x4 ft.

On display: The Byrne Gallery

1) A blank and minimalistic background that is rather untouched,

2) A plain of texture that could be either water or terra– that is up to the viewer as I have used my signature bronze wash with elements of oxidized metal that appear turquoise therefore this field could be either element,

3) A texturized dark, grey cloud that hovers over this plain that appears to be lifting: it’s currently heavy, but there is a suggestion of positivity as it floats upward off of the canvas. An inspiration here is the nuvolsculpture Antoni Tàpies created for the roof of his foundation.

4) Four red columns that represent the four red stripes on the Catalan flag. These columns stand strong and soar into the sky. They’re painted in a very harsh, expressionistic manner in tribute to Antoni Tàpies. For this last element that connects the piece and is the focal conceptual element, I challenged myself to serve as a vessel for Antoni Tàpies to continue to vocalize his emotion in these visually deconstructed but yet powerful nationalistic representations.

I believe this to be one of the strongest pieces I’ve created thus far, and my first (kind of) political piece. I intend it to bring attention to its viewers about the current situation without my bias coming across as too harsh or heavy on the work. I do not believe it can stand without such dialogue attached to it, however, the interpretation of positivity moving through the piece I hope will encourage progressive change and dialogue across multiple political, cultural, and social conflicts currenting occupying the world.