by Steve Rockwell
The exhibition A Beautiful Day with a Small Storm at the Christopher Cutts Gallery is a unique one. A month before its opening in June, the paintings by Madrid artist José Manuel Ciria were a mere glimmer in the artist’s eye. The works were in fact created in a studio directly above the exhibition space. In that sense, what is on display has descended from above, their generation a touch miraculous in the speed of their execution.
José Manuel Ciria in studio at Christopher Cutts Gallery, 2019
Ciria exudes the personable confidence of someone who is at ease in his own skin. This is a way of saying that Ciria inhabits his work, and that the life and breath of his canvases are closely woven into the artist’s own persona. The bright explosions of paint on the walls of the gallery are the visible traces of the artist’s lived experience. The work is proof of his stay in Toronto. If we want to ask, “Who is José Manuel Ciria?” – the artist might reply, “Look at my work.” Since Ciria believes that we all wear masks, it makes the question a bit more complicated. “We are three people: the person we think we are, the person we really are, and the person others see.” In artistic terms, this translates into: “What an artist sets out to do, what the work really becomes and what the viewer sees in it.”
South Gallery installation
A clue to unlocking Ciria’s layered creative self lies in a closer examination of the individual paintings in his A Beautiful Day with a Small Storm. First of all, any notion that the paintings are casually “dashed off” ought to be expunged immediately. Ciria is disciplined and organized. There is a reason for each painting having either a grid, horizon, or some static basis point. His spontaneity is firmly grounded in a method. He can be wild, yet controls his passions. The drying time of splashes, their thinning out, and the reaction of pigment with gesso and painted ground have been carefully considered. To achieve maximum impact, he employs a strategy of dark to light and neutral to bright colours. Viewed with a squint, the paintings become amazingly 3D. The gridded It’s Getting Better is a good example of the effect.
It’s Getting better, 2019, oil and mixed media on canvas, 78.75 x 78.75 inches
Beauty Puzzle is a virtuoso painting that showcases all of the artist’s gifts. His rockets are exploded into a single fireworks display: the chemistry of liquidity and drying with an arabesque of colour and splash into the sky above a strip of red and white carnival tent.
The Bridge attempts to span a fractured horizon. Things don’t quite line up, as they must not. Difficulty is the point. After all, a leap of faith may only be actualized in the effort.
The Bridge, 2019, oil and mixed media on canvas, 51.25 x 51.25 inches
Ciria hits the piano keys hard in The Concert. The bursts of colour at the centre are laid over pulses and beats in pounding staccato. In this, Ciria makes sound visible. The Party, on the other hand, is cool and measured. A wide band of light grey in the foreground distances the observer from the tidy row of splattered blots near the top like beads on an abacus. An accountant would be pleased that there are enough splashes for each day of the week.
The Concert, 2019, oil and mixed media on canvas, 51.25 x 51.25 inches
Ciria gave me a tour of his exhibition the day before it opened. The exchange that stuck with me occurred before Scarecrow. It seemed that the image of the scarecrow had emerged in the course of the painting’s creation like a phantom. The moment had somehow been startling to the artist. In an exhibition of abstract paintings, a figure is the guest you didn’t invite to the party, but introduce to everyone anyway. It’s the guest you end up talking about the next day.