THE MYSTERIOUS BEAUTY OF THE REAL

CONSIDERATIONS ABOUT THE MAGICAL ART OF RÓMULO CELDRÁN

“Let us not forget that behind the simulation of the real is the reality of the painting of the painting, that never escapes its shadow.”¹.

“I have seen wonderful abstractions on a cement wall, on the rusty bodywork of a car in a scrap yard and a dirty plastic bag at the end of a rainy day. I have seen lovely shapes in fantastic abstract works, like someone one who sees concrete forms in a cloud or in Hermann Rorschach’s ink stains. (Celdrán)” ².

Beyond the funeral or literally reactionary speeches -or rather notarial discourses (anchored in an “originality” of a certain artistic practice)- it is worth remembering John Berger’s idea that painting is an affirmation of the visible that surrounds us and “which continually appears and disappears. Without the disappearing, there would perhaps be no impulse to paint, for then the visible itself would possess the surety (the permanence) which painting strives to find. More directly than any other art, painting is an affirmation of the existant, of the physical world into which mankind has been thrown” (John Berger). The corporeality of painting has an incomparable potential, for expression, just as a network of representations maintains its capacity to persuade, in a world that is sadly drugged by the literality of the reality show. One of the artistic-stylistic domains that, initially, poses most problems to critical attitudes is realism, which current aesthetics appear incapable of confronting. The often pre-theoretic impressionistic and apologetic discourse that tends to accompany realism and the diatribes launched from multiple positions convert those manifestations into an almost forbidden terrain of which suitable conceptual maps have barely been drawn up.

This is precisely the post historic situation, i.e. the moment at which the major narratives have gone into crisis, the condition for drawing realism out of its strange “marginalisation”. Curiously, in the last chapter of his book After the end of art: contemporary art and the pale of history, Arthur C. Danto mentions a letter he had received that was very important in terms of the modality of history in painting and also of the resolution of contemporary art of comedy: the writer [of the letter] alludes to the fact that he saw some of Rembrandt’s works at a particular time of his life, and that these works inspired him profoundly. He said that the self-portraits and the Rabbi reflect a dignified noble humanity that transcends our era and humanity, manifested from within a rich matrix of paint applied with the maximum intelligence. He resolved, based on this “epiphany”, to dedicate himself to the study of painting and Danto infers that he was successful in “painting like Rembrandt” at least to the extent that that work could, from his point of view, resist any reasonable test of quality. Despite this, a contemporary art curator of a major museum said that his painting “wasn’t of our time”. The artist was genuinely confused by this, particularly bearing in mind the fact that the art world is supposed to be so open. And having read Danto’s writings, he appealed to him to answer his question: “Will the only thing forbidden be art appreciated for its traditional criteria, in other words, the type of art that in fact most people still prefer?” This question made such a strong impression on Danto that he tried to answer it as best he could…. Truth to tell, Danto describes the impact of the question that led to this answer better when he ends up saying that that “art of the past” only works when it is mentioned (in Wittgenstein’s terminology) and not when it is used. We have to start to think in a way that is different from the usual, the link of new realism to an extremely complex era, without a vision of reality like the one that everyone and anyone recognises, bearing in mind that the real world, fabled since Nietzsche, is subject to the incessant labour of interpretation or that, in psychoanalytical terms, the real is that which escapes any type of symbolisation. For Gombrich, illusion is a process that operates not only in visual representation, but in any sensorial perception as a crucial process in the survival of any organism. The object of a vision is built by paying deliberate attention to a selective set of indications that may come together in perceptions endowed with meaning. In short, the similarity of the images (the objects represented) to the real objects, the centre of all theories of pictorial realism, is transferred from the representation to the viewer’s judgement, a circular argument that requires, as Joel Snyder has already indicated, (culturally defined) “truth patterns” that would entail accepting a pictorial theory of vision, as Alberti did in his classic work Della pittura [On Painting]. The idea of truth is inscribed in what Gadamer calls the prejudicial structure of understanding, a game of interpretations in which “ways of life” are built.

In a very lucid text, Rómulo Celdran warns that realism is a kind of misunderstanding, given that what we understand to be real is the physical-chemical mental process that enables us to perceive the external as we do. However, even that decodification of the vibration of light is subject to “interpretation”. This creator considers that all thought, including artistic thought, is based, one way or another, on what we understand to be real: “Everything we imagine, dream or invent has a real referent that is deformed to a greater or lesser extent depending on the whim of creative thought. Even those forms that appear to be most abstract and incomprehensible flow from a brain full of real references and memories, natural or artificial textures and forms, but even the latter are inspired in the former. I think that the human creative-imaginative universe is built by absorbing real images, understood In their broadest sense. The way in which each artist transforms them into a work of art is what we call artistic language and this is, just like the human being, multiple and diverse. Therein lies its grandeur.” (Celdrán).

It is significant that Rómulo Celdrán feels obliged, in the face of the self-satisfied mannerism of certain “realisms”, to defend a new concept of this practice that, without losing sight of referential realism, produces a thing that represents another sphere of the Real. Manuel Ojeda talks explicitly of how the works of this extraordinary artist disconcert the viewer: “I suddenly started to doubt whether some slippers were the model or a sculpture in stone, if that object were “real” or reproduced. If, on touching an egg carton, I might sully a sculpture or if I was going to break a fragile egg-shell …. In the end, I wasn’t sure if I could distinguish between the work and the packing boxes”. I am sure that this gallery owner has had to explain on numerous occasions that what the viewer had before his eyes was not a fragment “appropriated” from the world, i.e. it was not something ready-made but rather it was totally built, subjected to the most demanding rules of art. The patience and virtuosity with which Rómulo Celdrán works capture those who view his works to the same extent as his particular focalisation of the world.

“The disintegration of the sign – that seems indeed modernity’s grand affair – is of course present in the realistic enterprise, but in a somewhat regressive manner, since it occurs in the name of referential plenitude, whereas the goal today is to empty the sign and infinitely to postpone its object so as to challenge, in a radical fashion, the age-old aesthetic of ‘representation’” (Barthes). We must bear in mind that description, understood in a contemporary situation, represents a copy of what has already been copied, a crossing or journey between simulacrums and the dizzy expansion of a photographic cartography, of that drive to “capture the moment”. According to Barthes, every literary description is a view. It could be said that the speaker, before describing, stands at the window, not so much to see, but to establish what he sees by its very frame: the window frame creates the scene. To describe is thus to place the empty frame which the realistic author always carries with him (more important than his easel) before a collection or continuum of objects which cannot be put into words without this obsessive operation (which could be as laughable as a “gag”); in order to speak about it, the writer, by means of this initital rite, first transforms the “real” into a depicted (framed) object; having done this, he can take down this object, remove it from his picture: in short: de-pict it (to depict is to unroll the carpet of the codes, to refer not from a language to a referent but from one code to another). Thus, realism […] consists not in copying the real but in copying a (depicted) copy of the real: that famous real, as if it were labouring under the effect of a fear to touch it directly, that sent further away, delayed or at least apprehended by means of a pictorial bargain with which to cover it before submitting it to the word: code upon code, says realism (Barthes). In a possibly marginal passage of his reflections on realism, Pedro Alberto Cruz says that “the real is not metaphysical or logical in nature, but rhetorical”, which would allow for the elaboration in subsequent research, of a map, or even better, a tropology of contemporary painting, including realism, taking the aesthetic function of description as its starting point. Of course it is necessary to be aware of the simulacric paradigm (which is consciously or unconsciously present in Rómulo Celdrán’s work), without it becoming, as per the thematizations of Baudrillard, a starting from the sign as a reversal or elimination of all references, i.e. the arrival at a moment at which image no longer has anything to do with any type of reality, it is now its own pure simulacrum. In many cases, realism resorts to trompe-l´oeil not in order to be confused with the real, but in order to produce a simulacrum that is fully aware of the game and artifice: to go beyond the effect of the real in order to sow doubts. The trompe-l’oeil takes us both to the pleasure of the likeness and to the awareness that the identifical has multiple differences, i.e. that the logic of the gaze discovers, in the space of the desire, the disymmetric: “From the outset, in the dialectic of the eye and the gaze, see that there is no coincidence whatsoever, but rather a lure. When in love, solicit a look, it is something that is intrinsically unsatisfactory and that always fails because – You never look at me from the place from which I see you. The other way round, what I look at is never what I wish to see. And, whatever we say, the relationship between the painter and the spectator […] is a play, a play of trompe-l´oeil: a game for deceiving something”, (Jacques Lacan). A strategy of deception or seduction, art keeps its distance from “the real”, it is the glass that Ortega spoke of in the dehumanisation of art that allows us to activate the irrealization. If, as I have just mentioned, we have to bear the simulacrum in mind, it is also vital to realise that the deconstructive drive is a characteristic of post-modern art in general and must be distinguished, as Craig Owens warned, from modernism’s self-criticism; the modernist theory assumes that mimesis, the adaptation of an image to its referent, can be bracketed or suspended, and that the object of art in itself can be (metaphorically) replaced by its referent. Postmodernism neither brackets nor suspends the referent but works instead to problematize the activity of reference, to theatricalize the representation. “Today all representation codes are shattered to make room for a multiple space no longer based on painting (the ‘picture’) but rather on the theater (the stage) ” (Barthes), as Mallarmé foresaw, or at least wished for. For example, the practice of appropriation (a characteristic of North American art of the end of the 1980s) consciously or unconsciously adopts positions that are close to scenography, but also, in comparison with the formal topographic descriptions of modern art, an interest in the stratigraphic arises: “Those procedures of quoting, extracting, setting and staging […] demand the discovering of strata of representation. There is no need to state that we are not seeking sources or origins, but structures of meaning: beneath each image there is always another image”, (Crimp).

If the works of Rómulo Celdrán refer indubitably to the human need to sublimate what happens to us, they also reveal a singular perverse tonality. We have to learn to see again because we are blinded by the glow of the television, subjected to the tremendous Ludovico treatment (over-exposure to horror that leads us to a catatonic state). Kracauer stated that there has never been an era with so much information about itself, thanks to photography, although this avalanche of hyper realistic photos and images destroys the dykes of memory and thus “there has never been a period that has known so little about itself”, (Kracauer). We live in a time of atrophy of experiences (with a spreading empire of amnesia), and consequently we suffer from a kind of epidermic rending in which everything is reduced to nothing. In Beyond the pleasure principle, Freud warns that consciousness emerges from the trace of a memory, i.e. from the tanatic impulse and the degradation of the experience of living, something that photography sustains as the duplication of the real but also as a theatre of death. In the era of the ruining of memory (where cathode vertigo has cast its spell), time is dismembered “from that dismembering emerges the presence of reminiscences” (Eugenio Trías ). Without a doubt, photography (that is so important as a problematic mirror in which some forms of “realism” are reflected) has ended up being the land of sedimentation of all kinds of experiences, although it has also managed to free itself of a referential determination, as if it were just a mere testimonial, a trace of something that has been. We have witnessed, over the last decade, an intense phenomenon of theatricalization or pictorial evolution of photography that has been interpreted as a phenomenon of production of reality. As Lyotard says, “Photography, always placed between fine art and the media, is the privileged tool of a demand for realism that cannot be satisfied by the production of autonomous objects, or by the reproduction, however distant and critical it may be, of pre-existing images. Through the re-updating of the reproduction model, as an artistic norm of a so-called “realistic” description, the question of “the real” is what has been updated and restored to the experience of the viewer”. The drawings of Rómulo Celdrán that look like photographs although they are not really photos, simultaneously represent an activation of experiential memory as they put into practice the living of a vision; their particular figurative realism is related to that “atemporal happiness of the vision” that Aldous Huxley spoke of, as the opening up of a place of subjective contemplation in which both daydreams and the recognition of shapes intervene. Going back to Gombrich we could recall that for him, painting is a controversy entered into with the world and thus the artist will rather see what he paints than painting what he sees. Once again, the artist imposes his laws, viewing reality as painting.

One of Italo Calvino’s six proposals for the next millennium is exactitude, a term that comes to the mind of anyone viewing Rómulo Celdrán’s work. We should remember that for this writer, exactitude means three things above all: a well-defined, calculated design of the work in question, the evocation of clear, incisive, memorable images and the most accurate language possible as its lexicon and the means of expressing the nuances of thought and imagination. This artist from the Canary Islands clearly fits this description of exactitude perfectly. But we should also bear in mind that exactitude is related, although it might appear paradoxical, to a lack of determination, but also to that mystical conviction that “the good god is in the details”. An understanding of exactitude might perhaps oblige us to talk of the infinite and cosmos, deriving towards a Flaubertian delirium. Calvino indicates that exactitude is a game of order and disorder, a crystallisation that can be determined by what Piaget calls order of noise: “the universe disintegrates into a cloud of heat, it falls inevitably into a vortex of entropy, but within this irreversible process there may be areas of order, portions of the existent that tend toward a form, privileged points in which we seem to discern a design or perspective” (Calvino). To a considerable extent, exactitude places profoundness on the surface, it makes the structure visible, turning the work’s outer skin into a mirror that confronts itself. In some considerations on his work of art Recycling Avenue (2003-2004), Rómulo Celdrán himself says that chaos is the first image of a state of order that as a result of its complex diversification, flees from any hasty attempt to understand it. From the shapeless, from the block of stone, the “real” emerges, or rather, at the heart of the raw material the work of art can be found, but that which has been ordered is the beginning of the chaotic drift of interpretations, it could be said, of the desire that the gaze of the other activates new “perversions”.

Rómulo Celdrán is, despite his “realism”, a master of the function of the veil or, to use considerations that do not inexorably lead us towards Lacanian rhetoric, his superb sculptures and prodigious drawings produce the spell that Roland Barthes felt when faced by the Japanese parcels in which the really important thing is the luxury of the outside appearances, while what is inside is irrelevant. Something similar could be said of the oft-cited ready-made of Duchamp entitled With hidden noise in which some people have perceived hermetism and indivisibility when, in fact, it is the concretion of fact that the enigma is superficial. In an essay published in 1970 in Cahiers du cinéma, Roland Barthes develops, based on some photograms of Eisenstein, a theory about what he calls “the third sense”: Here he proposes the obvious sense as closed evidence (that which precedes and comes to meet me) and the obtuse sense, which is that which is added, a kind of supplement that cannot be completely absorbed. This brilliant speculative exercise does not conceal the fact that he is trying to say something different because, in their common meaning, these two terms designate the blunt and even the laughable. Barthes himself jokes about the decorative emphasis of the Russian director and even characterises the features of a character as a “sorry disguise”. It may be that what he was postulating was a strategy to get the best out of ready-mades or, rather, to imbue pastiche with a deconstructive power. In fact, in the last footnote of the text, he confesses that some photoromances move him thanks to their complete stupidity: “”there would be then a future truth (or of a former past) in these derisory, vulgar, silly forms, dialogical of the subculture of consumption”. Rómulo Celdrán does not stoop, in any way at all, to either the obvious or the obtuse, rather, on the contrary, what he generates is an extraordinary power of vision by constructing with incredible patience things that, in their blunt everydayness or in their strict abandonment, appear to be jewels. If, on the one hand, the work of this artist is purely superficial, it nonetheless promises a mysterious interior. That secret treasure could be related to desire, with the jewel that glows in the dark and seduces us dizzily, like the agalma that guarantees a minimum of phantasmatic consistency of the being of the subject: the object as an object of fantasy that is something more than myself, thanks to which I can envisage myself as “worthy of the desire of the Other”. The original question of desire is not that which really wants to know what you want to say, but that which hopes to know what others want of me: what do they see in me? What am I for others? I think that all of Rómulo Celdrán’s work tends towards that view of the other or seeks another vision of the real in order to escape from the stagnation of banalisation.

I have spoken too often of the scatological face of contemporary art. The shit, the vomit, disgusting things are everywhere. Although it is true that these excremental signs are in the void that is “created” based on Malevich’s Black Square and Duchamp’s ready-mades, to use two canonical examples. In fact, what we are seeing is “anything” and an empty frame, i.e. what appears to be out of place is in fact ubicuouus, it is really a masking of the Real, or, in other words, of a strictly fetishist phenomenon. Perhaps we should put irony in quarantine and, driven by controversy, use sarcasm, without lapsing into slang. Because if, as Baudrillard likes to say, art has become a “crime of the initiated”, marked by the rhetoric of quotationism, it is also still capable of being a seismogramme of what is happening. In an era marked by demolition, with a voyeuristic compulsion that has fostered the strange “pleasure of the catastrophe”, culture cannot merely constitute a game of “freedom” but, acknowledging the dogmatic tone, we demand that it address conflicts and produce what is necessary, And, despite everything, the critical-theoretical process cannot “give in”, the dissatisfaction with what there is drives us to continue the creative process that is not so much that which produces “works” as that which triggers a dialogue in search of a future community in which communication is something more than identification with one of the antagonists.

We may have to close our eyes in order to see. This could mean that what we need is to touch the real either to check that there is a wall in front of us or to see, in another way, the void that looks at us. “Disappointed, with open skies, the contemporary universe is divided into weariness (increasingly anguished as consumption resources are lost), abjection and shrill laughter (when the flare of the symbolic survives and annihilates the desire for words” (Kristeva). A kind of “metaphysics of absence” still prevails. A reality that would consist of the hidden that escapes. Infinity affects everything: desire, discourse, dialogue and even the sublime. And yet, what spellbinds us is just bluntness, i.e. we are drugged by the abyss of banality. Bearing all of this in mind, what Rómulo Celdrán wants is that we contemplate the wonder of the artistic, of that “other reality” that he has constructed. Although this artist declares that “reality doesn’t exist”, and he tries to go beyond the antagonisms between the concrete and the abstract, the real and unreal, the fact is that the powerful, poetic presence of his work captures us. Manuel Ojeda uses the world “magic” when referring to the “surprising drawings and incredible paintings” of Rómulo Celdrán. We can see the photographs of the working process for his sculptures and they leave us, literally, gaping: things, as I have said, seem to be inside the blocks of stone, awaiting his art. “Sometimes,” writes Rómulo Celdrán, “a work of art can achieve what the fragment of reality that acted as its model never could. This is the magic moment in which the spectator stops in front of a heap of rubble and runs his eyes over it, delighting in its mysterious beauty. It may be that, from that moment on, that empty sack that we really are, takes place.” That “magic moment” happens, Rómulo Celdrán’s prodigious present is related, as he himself points out, to a mysterious form of beauty, a term that, to a degree, was anathemized by modernity.

The writer Vladimir Nabokov was once asked if he was surprised by anything in life, to which he replied that the wonder of consciousness, “that sudden window swinging open on a sunlit landscape amidst the night of non-being”. Romulo Celdrán, beyond any delight in the disgusting, imposes, without gesticulations or abruptness, his compositions, his fascinating constructions of the real, recreates things and creates spaces when the encounter finds us, marking allegorical paths that lead us into what saves us: poetry. But what is poetry? Luckily, as Adam Zagajewski says, we don’t really know and we don’t need to know analytically what it is. No definition (of which there are so many) can really formalize this element of nature. Zagajewski himself does not aim to define it but recognises that it is attractive to comtemplate the image of poetry in its movement “between”: poetry as one of the most important vehicles that transport us upwards to discover that its fervour preceeds irony. The fervour, the arduous song of a bird that we respond to with our own singing, full of imperfections. We need poetry just as we need beauty (although it is said that in Europe there are countries where beauty is totally forbidden). Beauty is not for aesthetes, beauty is for all those who look for a serious path; it is a call, a promise, perhaps not of happiness – as Stendhal yearned for – but definitely one of a major eternal pilgrimage. Beauty appears in a barrel and a can, or in half a dozen eggs in a carton, in a bagful of rubbish or a desolate rabbit. All these things are still subjected to the block of stone or piece of wood from which they emerged, i.e. they hide neither their process nor their former “reality”. We gaze at beauty while dreams continue unabated and we long for something different from the usual. We know that magic is a form of art in which success consists of hiding the difficult and, at the same time, it is an interrogation about the gaze and its mysteries. Rómulo Celdrán’s memorable work makes us aware that real magic is the illusion that something called real magic could exist.

Fernando Castro Flórez


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