Arancha Goyeneche. The Legibility of Landscape

Arancha Goyeneche. The Legibility of Landscape

Javier Hontoria

At a recent art fair, standing in front of the work of some illustrious veteran artist, whose name escapes me right now, a friend said “whenever I hear about the death and resurrection of painting it makes me livid. The very fact of still talking and writing about it makes it sound like some sort of resistance struggle, like trying to survive in the dictatorship of the market.” Without giving it much thought, I fired back, “don’t you think you’re exaggerating. You rarely hear anything about it any more. It’s something everyone takes for granted.” Though it wasn’t my intention, my comeback foreclosed any possible dialogue and we resumed wandering around the unsettling wide and uncrowded aisles from which hundreds of other images, mostly unbearable it has to be said, leaped out at us. Back home, I picked up some texts (with titles like Painting without Painting; Painting without Paint; Painting Outside the Frame; Painting Without Limits…) that I was using as sources for the essay on Arancha Goyeneche’s work you are now reading. I wondered whether painting’s flagrant exhibitionism of spatial resources would be like a buoy to help stay afloat in the choppy waters of the art market, but I soon realised that, if that were indeed the case, it might now be an worn out resource that had succumbed to the implacable steamroller of the market with its constant new demands for a medium that has been eternally stuck in the spotlight of the art community.

I realised that to get a proper grasp of Arancha Goyeneche’s work I would need to study the larger context of the mid 1990s when she began to open up a path for herself here in Spain with a brand of painting contaminated by models culled from the field of photography and, more especially, by the acceptance of the readymade as a primordial structural element. Transformed into a complex and slippery affair, painting transcended its usual field of action by following the path opened by artists like Jessica Stockholder at the end of the 1980s and, a little later, Michel Majerus, Katharina Grosse, Paul Morrison, Franz Ackermann, Adrian Schiess, Daniel Verbis and Ángela de la Cruz. These artists cast their attentive gaze on what had been done decades before by artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, a key precursor of what we now generally know as expanded painting. At the centre of their concerns was the need to rethink a spatial context which is no longer a simple container but instead, as Liam Gillick would have it, is contained in itself. As we are aware, many of the painterly strategies applied in this new space are grounded in the consequent dissemination of painting, its forcibly deconstructed nature, with its shattered pieces scattered around a space that is a stage setting and no longer the classical window through which we had looked for such a long time.

That said, this is not a context that she consciously decided on or one that she simply stumbled across. Goyeneche spent her formative years studying at the School of Fine Arts at the University of the Basque Country, where she was obsessed with breaking the rules and reinventing conventions, dogmas and accepted codes. Her early works, deliberately and decidedly fragmentary, already suggested the interiorisation of these principles, as they broke with formal unity and were defined as a system of tonal and also physical gradations, with a stratified structure of unequal volumes and rhythms. As an artist she has remained faithful to these premises, already to the fore in the Muestra de Arte Joven exhibition in 1997, with horizontal surfaces of apparently flat colours though imbued with a tremulous musical profile, which had their continuation over time in the stripes that so playfully interfere with the cold emphatic planes and buttresses of the chapel in Museo Barjola in Gijón. Structurally close, those at the former MEAC of Madrid almost 15 years ago and these recent ones in Gijón differ in their conceptual grounding given that, similarly to other painters working in the field of expanded painting over recent years, the artist has gradually moved away from the actual act of painting, introducing materials and strategies that end up closer to formal asepsis that to the physical and processual act of painting. It is a form of proceeding scarcely requiring intervention, almost without dirtying one’s hands. The culmination of this way of working can be seen here at the exhibition halls of Caja Cantabria’s Cultural and Social Action Centre, in a show titled A vista de pájaro [A bird’s-eye view], where there is not one single brushstroke of paint but nevertheless that is all it speaks of.

It is not easy to ascertain the validity of the guidelines that defined the transgressive and edifying context of the 1990s in the painting now practised by Arancha Goyeneche. Much has been said of the counterproductive effect of the surplus of images projected by the media today and the scepticism that these induce in anyone exposed to them. Confronted with this disconcerting and Baudrillardian quality of our time, one can only place one’s feet firmly on the ground and look attentively, examining and placating the viruses that pervert the real and our tools for understanding the environment in which we live. As such, it is possible that we are now witnessing a recomposition of the initial ideals of painting or, at least, that we are returning to a kind of unidirectionality of the gaze in search of a greater sense of composure based on containment and, perhaps, silence. One gets the impression that many painters today do not invest so much in this brand of grandiose and ambitious, categorical and often intrusive pictorial deconstruction but instead opt for a dropping of anchors in the midst of the diffuse and enervating magma that surrounds us. Reflection asserts itself over the excessive, and the conceptual over the petulance of the Baroque. Meditation on space today is of another kind. Whoever has received the invitation to this exhibition will find in it revealing clues. An empty space, delimited by simple bands of colour here and there, geometric and clean, prepared to be intervened, activated, by a subtle encounter of ideas.

This does not mean to say that Arancha Goyeneche has made a radical break with a certain way of operating in the context of contemporary painting. The expansive reach of her work is reasonable, contained. One of the first works the visitor meets when entering this one-person show in Santander is a large wall on which an abundance of small brightly-coloured plastic pieces are accumulated. Though it is indeed an accumulation, it seems more as if the group of plastic pieces were coming out of the wall, projecting outwards, almost as if in a process of organic growth, like a climbing plant more than the premeditated action of a painter. Despite being carefully arranged, they creep up the wall as if randomly, suggesting a strange, formless syntax. Goyeneche brings to the wall a series of apparently contradictory and disparate references. In its free flow, the painting evokes a certain automatism, the kind of “let it be” previously insinuated that, nonetheless, leaves scant room for chance because the artist works each outbreak manually, examining the possible directions it could take, in a proposal that is closer to objecthood than to purely pictorial posits. And it is here where the paradox lies because what these vinyls actually resemble is abstract painting of a dense, opaque and hermetic informalist kind that slowly moves over the surface plane as if under its own weight pop over to these guys.

And yet this is not extensible to the rest of the exhibition and, in fact, it is later perceived as a single isolated moment in the overall group of works on view. Perhaps influenced by the brand of scepticism mentioned earlier, or perhaps motivated by the artist’s introspective desire to isolate herself with her painting, some of these recent works seem to be looking for a return to order from which to explore concepts belonging to the heritage of traditional painting, a brand of classicism that is again approached from a paradox—an element that takes on an unprecedented importance in these works. Arancha Goyeneche makes use of the potential offered by technology to cast her gaze backwards to the postulates of classical painting, demanding from the beholder a frontal position, isolated from the noise of the street, that does not respond to the spatial ambition of previous works.

Without the need to use traditional materials and supports, the artist focuses her discourse on two core themes in the classical imaginary that might well be conflated into one: illusion and depth. Goyeneche uses small pieces of industrial shatterproof sheets and arranges them into a support on which, in turn, images are projected. These images come from the computerised modulation of a combinatorial language and, as such, respond to the whims of chance. In this way, the support and what is projected on it are two well-differentiated planes and the resulting three-dimensional unit underlines the sense of depth of the work. Through a succession of projected—not moving—images, Goyeneche introduces the time factor and, as a result, presents the spectator with the possibility of a narration which, as we shall see, addresses the very impossibility of narrating. The succession of images produces a movement that is merely as illusory as its depth is fictitious. Grounded in trompe l’oeil, these works straddle reality and artifice in the purest Baroque tradition. Another work, following similar formal parameters, reveals a kind of constellation in which it is hard to grasp what is actually tangible and what is projected image. Comprising small circular pieces of self-adhesive vinyl arranged randomly here and there, they are screens for the projection of images in a similar format. Together they reinforce this dynamic universe that varies according to a regular rhythm that is nevertheless lost in the fuzzy realm where the real and the constructed meet.

In a similar set-up, the piece located at the back of the exhibition hall further accentuates this impression. Conceived as an installation, it demands a comfortable space for the spectator, as if we were talking about a church nave. Here Goyeneche inverts the formal elements and, over the plane of light composed by fluorescent neons at the back of the hall, she layers a play of horizontal forms that obstructs the spectator’s gaze. We see light but we do not see its source. The artist does not like to speak of negation but I find it hard not to think that she is being playfully disingenuous, presenting the gaze only with a residual spark, like the light that creeps under a door at night. Underlying the communion between formal reality and another one we only intuit, briefly glimpsed through interstices, is a duality that serves to structure the whole.

At the outset of this essay we broached the idea of the ultimate direction taken by Arancha Goyeneche’s work, which now seems to be concerned with other issues gradually moving away from those exclusively addressing space. In her exhibition at the Museo Barjola one could already see a piece that was at once a work in its own right as well as an invitation or title of the exhibition, a colourful text reading “Flying to the moon” made of various coloured vinyls. The work fitted in seamlessly with the overall tone of the exhibition, an intervention in the columns and some of the walls of the chapel in which she seemed to want to negate all architectural singularity by means of colour vinyls. The title itself, “Flying to the moon”, could only be read with difficulty—if it could be read at all—and the whole could be understood as a sublimation of colour as opposed to language, whether this be an architectural or purely textual image. In A vista de pájaro there is also a textual work occupying a key—when not absolutely central—position. This is a set of independent sentences thrown together, thus problematising any straightforward interpretation. Their common denominator is that they are all connected with the action of contemplating, with a gaze on nature, more or less ecstatic and somehow self-absorbed. There is an undisputed connection with romantic landscape painting and with the wake which, according to Robert Rosenblum, it left behind in American colour field painting. The idea of unfathomability so inextricably associated with romanticism is central in this piece as it demands from the spectator an effort to understand a reality which is difficult to gain access to. Hovering over it is a cloud of subjective observations that make up a polyhedral melting-pot where the possibility of finding two equal readings is nothing but a mirage. The work is in line with new approximations to romantic landscape which have been more in evidence in recent years, ever since conceptualism, in a renewed version of the genre enjoying enviable health.

The twist proposed by Goyeneche here has considerable transcendence as it involves a step forward with respect to the arguments sustaining the much-trumpeted expanded painting. This work expands in space, there is no question about it, but it is not predicated so much on visual adulation as much as on the conceptual structure underpinned by ideas. You will recall the creeping plant-like piece described earlier, with its colour vinyls extending randomly on the wall, a formally categorical, profound and tangible work. Between it and this other textual landscape—an opaque signifier with an equally ungraspable signified—there is a gaping chasm. And despite touching very different bases, Goyeneche does not shift from the formal spirit that characterised her works for many years, which is none other than stratification, the modular and fragmentary rhythm of the painterly surface, the arrangement in stripes, like pentagrams that would have to be read from left to right like in books, and not from the inside outwards, as if looking through a window. And, like in many of the works on view here, it turned out that depth was elsewhere. It was just an illusion.