Retrospective, Fundació Vila Casas, Barcelona – Del 05 de octubre de 2017 al 27 de mayo de 2018
“… in everything that is ugly, find that point of beauty. Because it is there, always it is there, in the most horrible things that may happen to you. I always say: if you have not stepped on the tapestry of anguish, you can not kiss life.”
“… a todo lo que es feo, encontrarle ese punto bonito. Porque lo hay, siempre lo hay, en cosas más horribles que te pasan. Yo siempre digo: si no has pisado el tapiz de las angustias, no puedes besar la vida.”
– Lita Cabellut
Uncomfortable Art : Insistent Existence
Two floors of enormous canvases, head after head emerging from disrupted space or poised, static and clean, cut from a violence of abstracted shapes. It is wonderful to see such a great expanse of uncomfortable work. Work that is challenging, raw, dark and morbid, by which I do not mean un-beautiful, for there is much beauty and compositional elegance, rather that it is not looked on to ease the mind. Each piece is a wrestling thing, to encounter it is to be met by that struggle, the tension that makes the best of Cabellut’s psychological portraits forceful and captivating.
Even the size of these works denies that they be taken lightly. Regularly spanning two or three meters they are made to engulf the vision, looking back at you with eyes the size of your skull. Each work is a character that insists on its existence, dominating space and assuming as great a right to reality as the viewer. They are not made to fit into our little lives or living rooms, they have lives of their own.
Intimacy & Texture : Eye to Eye
Beginning in the first room of Fundació Vila Casas with Cabellut’s early work from 2009/10 I found a vulgarity, a fragility and a vulnerability to her figures. The portraits of Meril and Bosava are exaggerated to almost a comic effect. The expanding jowls and hollow blue eye sockets could perfectly fit a satirical illustration, but the cracking, blotching and sliding of their skin through layers of mixed media and the subtlety of their sad eyes and down-turned expressions are too full of sympathy, empathy and humanity to be cold caricature. Any sense of flippancy is again broken by the scale of these works, which is intimidating and dominating but also intimate; you are right up to the eye sockets and stained lips of these sagging strangers, seeing the cracks opening their skin, and so there is a vulnerability, something intimately personal.
Cabellut has developed mixed media techniques that allow both the materials and the subject to be powerfully expressed. You have a direct sense of how she, physically, has dragged paint over the canvas and so the work’s identity is not subsumed entirely by its subject. The materials jostle and shout out their part in the collaboration. But there is also a subtle and mysterious alchemy of textures that echos the sensation of skin. Something like layers of latex or varnish, yellowing like tobacco stains with textures that feel thick as flesh and yet translucent and pale as ageing skin. The intentional cracks and pockmarks in the surface break out from spray painted smoothness and between all these effects and materials there is a very bodily presence through which the subject comes to life. The kind of life where someone stands close to you on the underground and you can smell them and see every open pore on their balding pate.
“The scars are really like the veins of the canvas. My greatest obsession is to give a skin to the characters I portray, then I apply brushstrokes”
– Lita Cabellut
Colour & Decomposition : Flowers & Rot
The colours of these early works have similar sense of murky and overpowering sensuality. The soft, dark, grey, brown-blacks, broken by the bold eruption of bright colours like garish cut-flowers flung down in a winter garden. There is a sense of putrefaction, an overflow as of fruit, overripe, fermenting and turning with a burst of softness to rot and mould. This sticky flowing wetness added to by the expression of the her paintwork contrasts with the cracked lines, hard, glazed, pot marked texture.
In later works the colours become cleaner, the planes more graphic, with strong dark shapes cutting up the space, but still there is a most often dark or dusky palette broken by splashes of bright and violent colour. Cabellut’s use of colour and forceful abstractions of space are formidable and, to me, greater strengths than her facility for realism and beautifully rendered hand, faces, fabrics and flowers. The particular style she has developed is their skillful combination at which she is adept.
Hands vs Eyes : Sculptural vs Photographic
Moving into the second room there is a shift between the earlier and later works that makes me consider our tools of perception and which senses an artist chooses to follow in their search for visual truth, or visual storytelling.
In Cabellut’s earlier works there is a sculptural nature to the subjects, a sense of handled space. You can feel the hollow of an eye socket as something that has been thumbed, has been felt, and the anatomical distortions add to the sense of physical moulding. This shifts to a much more photographic, seen-space, with later works like Sarah Blansjarr 2014. There is more realism to the faces and a convincing use of light impression. The backgrounds and sometimes clothes are still abstracted, but the figures are largely lifted out of that distorted world and held more rigidly by the single, fixed eye of photographic reality.
The change seems to be partly in method, initially taking reference from life or from maquettes such as the ceramic heads use for “Installation of 15 Paintings”, 2010, and moving to photographic reference or painting directly onto blown up photographic prints that can be partially glimpsed beneath the multitude of media.
Ceramic Heads, 2010
My first and lasting instinct is that something is lost in the photographic likeness. The previous portraits seemed to search, to physically grasp for something beneath the surface, turning inward to reveal the invisible. They gave the sense that she had dragged her hand around the sagging jawline of her subject, thumbed their eye sockets as out of clay, and dashed the colour on their lips with the hasty and heavy daubing of vaudeville face-paint. The gaps in anatomic reality made the construction and deconstruction visible and outright, embedded in the skin of her subjects.
The later portraits use more direct visual reference in combination with symbolism and abstraction that turns outward to be read. The compositions are strong, becoming more punchy, clean and graphic, the techniques impressive and the portraits beautiful and haunting, but I had a greater sensation of being physically hooked into the world of the earlier works. The photographic style pushes me back to receive the images, flattened to the retina, where the sculptural work pull me in as if I could reach forward and wrap my arm around the subject to feel the back side of their skull.
Sadly, it seems I’m in the minority with where I place my favour. In the thousands of online photographs I cannot trace one of my favourite works in the exhibition – the 15 heads painted from the ceramic maquettes in 2010. I suspect the early works translate less well into digital media than the later more graphic compositions which are well suited to screen and magazine reproduction. In an age of digital sharing, this factor may guide many an artist style over time, as the largest audience, and so too the largest success, is almost always online. However, I think Cabellut’s work has strong stylistic and thematic roots in these early sculptural paintings and their presence in the first room of the exhibition confirms their role in the origins and foundation of her practice as well as showing clear traces of her early influences from artists such as Francis Bacon.
Restless Evolution : Multitudinous Media
There was much besides the painting in this exhibition and although I found myself most drawn to the painting and early work it is clear that the examples of installation, photography, videography, stage design and costume all relate and contribute to Cabellut’s painting. There are common threads running through each medium and they document her rich and complex methods. Combined they attest to the processes of a fascinating artist who, not content to sit within a static mould or medium, has folded a variety of ideas, materials and multidisciplinary techniques into her established, original and very painterly language. It is an incredibly strong body of work bearing a broad scope of human emotion, a deep and diverse inquiry into identity and a skillful, inventive and rigorous exploration of traditional and contemporary craftsmanship in portraiture.
The show runs until the 27th of May, I recommend a visit.
Other projects, artwork & texts:
Burn art. Why?
Drawing is a dance. I search for the flow movement and of gesture and the structures from which they overflow.
Etchings of musicians and other strange familiars.
After a long while of looking I felt very attached to this painting, not it’s miniature reproduction on screen, but the vibrating body of the canvas itself.
Interview about my art and music with the lovely Nastasia at the LondonY
A portrait of the artist, through allegory of the Duck Headed Man.
Two floors of enormous canvases, head after head emerging from disrupted space or poised, static and clean, cut from a violence of abstracted shapes. It is wonderful to see such a great expanse of uncomfortable artwork.
A mythological story world of strange people and creatures in which the drawings came first and the words follow…
Falling light and rising colour. The lines and traces left by life and state of mind on the material matter of our being.