Around Juan Becú’s Painting

Roberto Amigo

Juan Becú’s work retreats in pictorial variants foretold by a prior moment. Though seemingly distant on the level of form, this self-enclosure gives the work unity even as it undergoes constant alterations. While this insularity might be expected to preclude interpretation, explanations must be found for this need to retreat, which always ensues within the realm of painting (the expansion in the space of an imaginary that, due to its negation of naturalism, constitutes pure material is, in this case, pictorial). In his last exhibition, Becú calls this retreat “resistance.” Thus, Becú’s work enacts the withdrawal of the avant-gardes: Becú, like all artists, puts together his own more or less explicit genealogies, product of formal concerns and of an acquired visual repertoire. The traditional mechanism of influence and instruction was in effect until undermined by technology, which has heightened the crisis of the visual repertoire such that it no longer seems to be confined to the archive of art history. Becú’s first retreat is that he has stuck with the formal repertoire and the support of the painting tradition in steadfast adherence to old definitions and limits of art.
The voluntary nature of all tradition has been replaced by the imperative of fashion, whose importance to the development of styles has always been subjected to the convention of languages. As norms subsided, the possibility of a collective artistic agenda gave way to passive acceptance of personal imaginaries and aesthetic trends. Nonetheless, if the interpretation of images is still likely, it is only possible in terms of the specificity of the local context. Identification with the artist-painter figure becomes a matter of aristocratic distinction before new technologies and site-specific works, as well as the spectacle of large installations. To embrace painting as artistic technique and practice means accepting a certain relationship with time: the references of painting necessarily extend into the past with no credible project for the future. This is all the more true when the teleological power of content has surrendered to pure form. In an exercise of sympathies, Becú’s painting can still be conceived in terms of its affinities.

Due to mandatory circulation on the contemporary grand tour of art fairs and biennials, artists must take part in competition for quick prestige and consumption. Artwork is no longer legitimized on a national level, but rather must be viable for international consumption. Hence, aesthetic retreat, evolutory within one’s own work and affiliated with local history, constitutes a critical instance. Of course, only a few local artists take the leap into the international market, sometimes stopping over at peripheral art fairs and biennials as they move to the center stages of cultural consumerism. Most find legitimacy amongst their peers; affective clusters form, ones that are not necessarily based on a common aesthetic or even a shared understanding of what art is. On our periphery—and what determines the center is a relation to capital rather than to territory—the endurance of modernism allows for the fallacy of autonomy which, though invalid, is not lacking in a subtle discursive charm.

Personal affinity has taken the place of the shared agenda that once defined a collective whose aesthetic immediately placed it in a clearly established political universe. Friendship mitigates the uncertainty of real competition and makes it possible to accept the fact of being an artist, a role that still marks a difference from the rest of society. This recognition between peers is key as the market has hurled art criticism into its cesspit and cultural institutions either enact an ideological resistance to local contemporary art or are limited by tiny budgets. Artists, then, have taken charge not only of their own exhibition venues—which is only natural given the exponential increase in the number of “artists”—but also spaces of instruction and even of social solidarity. Product of an individual practice, all painting must be understood as retreat or resistance, but also as hope for a change in the tides.

It has, of course, always been easy to engage in the sport of comparing the work of a local artist to what’s happening on an international level. Yet, such comparison is as utterly unimportant as associating 19th-century Argentine artists who made still lifes and luminous landscapes with their European counterparts. It entails accepting the bourgeois concept of originality as the sole criterion for allocating value. Like the end of the 19th century, this is a key moment in capitalist globalization of the image, this time heighten by technology. If, at that time, the issue was how the local could leave its mark, how to consider and conceive the image in terms of a concept of nationhood and allow an Argentine school to be invented, artistic practice today is no longer so concerned with emancipation and, hence, all it can do is accept the inevitable dissolution of a collective identity. This has given new relevance to the idea of originality, by means of which the artist can make a place for him- or herself individually on the basis of “brilliant works.” Hence, retreat into painting is also a tactic for personal preservation.

If artists do not set out to convey any message to humanity, the task of the historian is patently diminished to, in a way, simply recounting life stories, explicating inner worlds, attempting to share sensations. Painting that is no more than the fruit of pleasure—whether on the part of the artist who makes it or of the viewer who beholds it—limits interpretation to common sensibility. Should, then, the notion of intuition be radicalized as the only possible experience of art?
Furthermore, in Argentine society, active political debate finds no correlate in the visual arts beyond personal allegiances external to the work. The politicalization pursuant to the 2001 crisis would not, then, seem to have provided any tool to go beyond the hegemony of the market in artistic debate, which has taken the place of interpretation and criticism. Today, and in this the present differs from other historical moments, the fine arts do not have the ability to respond to nationalism and populism, to form a constituent part of, or to refute, their discourse. Artists have agreed to become part of show business without even putting up a fight, and even expressions of social and political violence have been absorbed by biennials and art fairs. Simply painting, placing pigment on a canvas, is today an residual aesthetic act, one that will inevitably end up being consumed at art fairs and, to a lesser extent, the more spectacular biennials. We have the sense that we are living in an age with no artistic glory, where high art has little future.

In this sense, Becú’s painting accepts the modernist autonomy of visual values. The unlikelihood of discovering new expressive means in no way annihilates concern with producing emotion by means of invention in composition. Changes in style, a certain nomadic quality, are a defense of individualism, whose privileged modality has always been easel painting. The conceptual unity of Becu´s work lies in its reliance on local references in order to be understood. Becú the viewer emphasizes this situation: he is just a spectator. Even in his early narrative painting, the stages and scenes, and the look in the figures’ eyes, clearly separate the space of the representation from the space of the viewer; in his non-figurative work, the act of reading the representation is cancelled out, reduced to the perceptive effect of chromatic variations that keep the viewer at a distance. The operation of his sculpture, extension of the pictorial form, is similar.
Although Juan Becú has taken part in exhibitions with other painters, he has never formed part of a group with a coherent agenda. The shows have, at most, brought together three or four individuals with a marked interest in well-executed figurative painting, in the reemergence of narrative and of a superficial reading of the local “artistic tradition” more as resource with which to construct an image than as critical reflection. The exhibition in question was a single experience, nothing more, as that was the extent of an agenda shared by Becú, Alejandro Bonzo, Max Gómez Canle, and Nahuel Vecino. While these painters did not constitute a group with a distinct identity, they did share a way of composing on the basis of the figurative reference. Their approach produced a sense of representing the human experience as estrangement or melancholy—the old fishmonger gutting a fish with landscape in the background—an experience that entailed a neighborhood literature and the return to a Surrealist visual logic.

Significantly, Becú’s style has subsequently veered away from his work at that stage, hindering the facile coupling of image and artist required by the market. He has, to a certain extent, chosen to be identified with other visual elements, such as an approach to production tied to the Informalist abstract tradition and the New Figuration of the sixties.

In a unique and condensed fashion, Becú passes through Modern painting, from the depiction of daily scenes to painting laden with material and Abstract Expressionism. In seemingly eclectic succession, his production makes current the Modern crisis, the end of artistic resources, the corsi e ricorsi between image and concept. The humanist archive has been emptied out by the postmodern pastiche, and hence all that painting today can do is embrace its superficiality, the lack of anything greater than expressiveness and pleasure in form. In this sense, the wandering of Becú’s style ultimately tends towards the notion of painting as organization of visual elements, as obvious understanding of what painting is. The now classic breaking apart of the figure into abstract combinations is simply the recognition of the impossibility of painting as symbol. It is, then, the mere surface of signs with no need for exegesis. The sole source of validity for the image—regardless of whether it is externalization of the artist’s feelings or expression of his or her musical sensibility (the topic of abstract painting since Kandinsky)—is its materiality, its existence as object to be enjoyed by vision.

 

Argentine artists of the nineties grasped the fact that the only polarity admissible was between concept and ornament. The 2001 crisis—which marked Becú’s generation, whether or not it is narrated in their work—meant the end to the artistic processes of the nineties insofar as it brought about political participation or withdrawal into the individual as creative safeguard against destruction. That is why Becú’s individualism is a radical liberalism that disputes, contradictorily, market imperative. Becú decides to make landscape painting or, rather, he decides to keep calling “landscape” a form of painting that banishes any human presence with a sense of loss and the end of history. Nature is the vestige of the human specie’s passage: ruin and cavern. In Becú’s drawing, the uncanny lurks in the sublime; it is the childhood fear we have forgotten, the beloved’s cadaver in the bathtub. It is that which should have stayed hidden coming out.

Thus, the iconographic landscapes Becú started making in 2001 signal another retreat: a return to the archive of Argentine painting, the construction of a school where the image of the local was the unique result of the implantation of pictorial genres. In response to a society in crisis that exploded on the streets, Becú did not get involved in public life or attempt to emulate works on the international circuit. What he did, rather, was aspire to another way of conceiving art as political position by looking from Cándido López to Víctor Cunsolo, from Raymond Q. de Monvoisin to Fortunato Lacámera. That practice did not yield historical reference, but rather a mix of the local visual archive and reproductions of the masters of Western art, until both sources—these and those—combined in intuitive painting that hopes to activate the dormant echoes of the common past deemed lost in the collective. Wandering through styles with no intellectual consequences is one of the characteristics of postmodern cultural logic. Here, though, it is a political alternative, a stance assumed on the periphery that takes shape in the narrative exhibition Acerca de Idilios, sueños y construcciones.
All painting today, though, is a painting of ruins, a denied romanticism. Insofar as forcibly reduced to repetition and variation, the pictorial form is the product of an unconscious archaism. All painting is inevitably a “defense” of historicism, but without the critical power of a revision of the past.

In late capitalism, painting—if it uses the methods specific to that discipline—is not a way to further the critical Modern tradition, but rather an affirmation that very recent painting is no longer capable of providing any unique experience. It is, in other words, always liable to be replaced by another technique or by observation of painting of the past. There is no imperative for painting whatsoever; not even reflection on painting constitutes its imperative.

Unlike artists from the final two decades of the last century, in Argentina, painters—those who accept painting as their way of making art with all the conservatism that that implies—no longer have to confront the polarity implicit in an allegiance. The “joint” exhibition of Juan Becú and Juan José Cambre formulated a few questions: first, the possibility of establishing cross-generational associations not based on shared agendas. The absence of discursive radicality differentiates this operation from somewhat similar ones undertaken at other times where the project of establishing a genealogy was a tactic for adherence to the visual arts scene. The comparison with Cambre’s work mostly serves to indicate a common approach to the creative process, one significant in visual terms: mainly, the elimination of anecdote.

For Becú, the first step in the process of eliminating the narrative was the amplification of a fragment taken from Dutch and Flemish still lifes. This non-linear process allowed the pictorial to seize control so that the entire surface displays a baroque quality that acts with the temporality of the fragment. The dissolution of the mimetic through the color and material of the fragment does not, in a large format, mean wholesale elimination of the perception of painted flowers as a hybrid variant on the landscape genre. This is explicit in the exhibition Enterrado en el cielo, where three large-format works with flowers (hung on a blue wall) face a painting depicting erupting volcanoes where the pictorial material acts as magma. The representation of tree trunks—the hemmed observation of a forest—turns the exhibition into a stage set that generates a sense of restlessness, a threshold of that which could possibly ensue. A perfect world, not exhibited on that occasion, entails the idea—perhaps derived from science fiction—of post-human nature formulated time and again by titles like “Universos quemados” [Charred Universe]. A work from as early as 2008, Vaciar el cuarto [Empty the Room], presented the tension of the constructed in nature and the power of nature evidenced in both the forest and the erupting volcano in the distance. The theatrical quality of this painting is heightened by the red curtain that brings to bear a sequence in time, the premonition of an act. The phosphorescent colors in some of these landscapes enhance the sense that, though not mimetic or empathetic representation of nature, Becú’s landscape painting is a fictional construction that continues to use that genre’a name.

Becú is well versed in the efficacy of pictorial effects that ensue between representation and abstraction He knows, therefore, how to handle the sensuality of color, applying thick material emphatically. Despite the impression made by how the work is produced, the process that has led Becú towards abstraction is rational, not vitalist. This is also the case of Kenneth Kemble, who like Becú considered the position of the fragment in the creative process. In Becú’s work, the emotional is subsumed by the intellectual. He attempts to distance himself from well-crafted painting and from an iconography recognizable to the informed viewer—the dead-end street of his narrative painting. His most recent production moves towards abstraction as it eliminates the anecdote in hybrid painting. The final remain—the “sense of abundance” that, through the application of material, offsets the lack of narrative—is banished from this recent work. It is tempting to claim that this compensatory mechanism of visuality is a simile for expanding consumerism amongst the middle classes and, hence, subject to the fragility of the next crisis. To his credit, Becú does not use the past of his work as a shield but rather—once he has generated the conditions necessary for the next phase—he dissolves that past gradually until it is forgotten (an attitude similar to the one that led him to erase the figures in his landscapes from 2001). The logical conclusion of this process is painting based on minor variation in lighter tones within the monochrome that Becú has started to explore by means of light in color, an exploration that has not displaced the density of pigment characteristic of his previous work. Here, even application of pigment mitigates the gestural brushstroke so prevalent in his abstractions, including variations in white and black, exercises in tone mitigated by the circumstantial application of color in keeping with pictorial rhetoric.

Becú—and this is, of course, a generational issue—has no need for theory. This is not due to the elimination of textuality but to the playfulness with which he engages in the act of painting. It is in this sense that his is a self-enclosed painting;the possible relationship with the viewer is based on the premise that the viewer can in fact approach Becú’s inner world with all its fantasies, his universe of readings and artistic inclinations marked by consumption of a shared culture. Of course, Becú can turn to the past as a reservoir of forms to be fragmented. This is why he was doomed to failure when—in keeping with the “historical” atmosphere surrounding the country’s bicentennial—he undertook a series of portraits of Argentine presidents: it is impossible to give the image political density. Nonetheless, that production—read as experience—leads to an understanding of the complete lack of content, its wholesale elimination for the sake of color. The series fails, then, on the level of content, but not in terms of the aforementioned individual visual experience. It signals the discontinuity of historical experience in relation to both “style” and to the image’s ability to act politically. Hence, the partial dissolution of figuration takes on greater visual power in works like the one dedicated to Kurt Cobain or Padre e hijo [Father and Son], with its intersecting echoes of the desolation of Anselm Kiefer and of Roberto Aizenberg. In the two portraits of Oscar Wilde, abstraction is allowed to take precedent over the still-recognizable figure. The same holds true in Hombre cruzando el río [Man Crossing the River] and the two versions of Bestia con billuterí [Beast with Costume Jewelry] (the beast bears the trace of Goya’s Aquelarre at the Museo Lázaro Galdiano). Abstraction is a parasite of figuration: the former feeds off of the latter.

Narcissism—a state somewhere between self-eroticism and love of the object—is a determining cultural force in art today. Indeed, narcissistic neurosis seems to be the basis for recent Argentine painting. While Becu´s painting of a throbbing guitarist is a consummate example of this, that narcissism can take on still more obvious forms: autobiographical stories, private worlds, the depiction of the most limited immediate setting, and the culturalist self-portrait have come to replace the body as topic of artwork. (In the eighties and, to a certain extent, the nineties, the body was an important—perhaps even central—topic in artistic discourse.)
One possible way into Becú’s painting, understood as an emerging body of work, is the pursuit of visual sensuality through color and density of the material. Due to the use of a larger format in his more recent paintings, his work can be observed in a less static manner as a result of the simple physical relationship between the painted surface, space, and what hits the viewer’s eye. This larger format modifies internal questions as well: it does away with horror vacui as portions of the surface are not covered by material or are covered, but in a uniform fashion. There are in these works, then, negative relations that interrupt the composition’s continuity. This change also has an impact on improvisation. In some paintings, a premeditated division of the surface leaves less room for abstract illusionism.

Painting, ultimately, takes root in the immediacy of the gaze and, hence, it is paradoxical that its value lies in the fact that it is resistance.