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Basque Art

Painting by Ramon Zuriarrain   /  Photo: Dean Burton

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“Four Painters, Four Visions”  –
Essay from the exhibit catalog

by Joseba Zulaika

These four painters – José Luis Goenaga, Ramón Zuriarrain, Javier Balda and Eduardo López – provide a sample, even a cross-section, of contemporary pictorial art in the Basque city of San Sebastian, home of, among many other artists, Eduardo Chillida, Marta Cárdenas, Andrés Nagel, José Luis Zumeta, Vicente Ameztoy, and Cristina Iglesias. Each expresses a distinct personal vision of a shared landscape, as well as its social and political background.

Goenaga’s work resonates with essential archeological memories that go back to Paleolithic cave paintings. Have you ever seen those haunting rupestral images – horses, bison, deer, human hands – dimly sketched on dark prehistoric walls? Paintings that are almost a part of the cavern’s very geology, so natural that millennia later they seem to be in denial that they are “mere” paintings. That’s Goenaga. I once lived with him for a month on his mountain farm. He worked at night and his paintings were shamanic trips. Bathed by the moon’s magical light and with Goenaga in a near trance-like state, our rare conversations were about long buried artifacts and the cultural unconscious that he was trying to both access and recover. Painting was his only world and the only way he knew how to live. As of Cézanne, it could be said of him that he “submerged his painting in ignorance and his mind in shadows.” He was later forced to go down to the city, to experience its chaos and transience. He spent long periods in other parts of Europe. But the earlier shadows of his mountain caves and his primordial colors never left him.

Surreal fantasy and the reinvention of a world also pervade Zuriarrain’s vision. He manipulates combinations of the scenic and the fictional to create a world of dreams, depicted in spiraling iconography, a fabulous architecture of symbols which points to a newly invented mythology. His landscapes condense chromatic echoes gathered from trips as nearby as San Sebastián and as far away as Naples and Finland. Constellations of blues, yellows and grays dominate the various stages of his trajectory. But it is his collection of greens that stands out, the reverberating enigma of the humid greens of his Basque landscape. We can perceive the liquefying figure of the artist moving through these several territories, landscapes, colors, textures, walking the line between the visible and the invisible. Zuriarrain’s expressive forms don’t become explicit images, with the exception of occasional human figures. Mimesis, naturalism, or impressionism are not part of his representational world. His landscapes become abstractions. Whether in the overall painting or in one of its fragments, there is a tension that emanates from the emancipation of color and stroke, as well as from the expressionism that concludes in an abstraction inhabited by an outburst of events.

It is this return to the root of all forms beneath the imposed order of history and art that one finds in painters such as Zuriarrain and Goenaga, as if the difficult task before them was first to forget all they have learned from experience in order to recapture a primordial order. It is as if the world of nature, of animals, of landscape would themselves think by virtue of the work of the painter that has become their consciousness. It is as if they had to see and paint as the first painter saw and painted by assimilating the culture down to its very foundations.

Such is the depth and recovery in the ochres, blues and blacks of Goenaga and the greens and yellows of Zuriarrain. There is power and mystery in this world full of vestiges and archeological remains. There is also love of life and expression, the wisdom of facing the unknown, while tracing the basic, instinctive, almost archeological, forms of humanity.

But “no archeologist could rationally reconstruct the maps” of the original world, as Balda reminds us. He admits to his “fascination with geometry… fascination with the simplicity of the visual impact and for the brilliant, constructive possibilities of a line or a circle.” He knows, however, that what he will end up constructing is “a labyrinth in which the builder can hardly orient himself. Still, he can rest in his maze’s corridors.”

Architectural and urbanistic obsessions characterize Balda. His fascination with squares and circles, and the labyrinthine combinations derived from them are simultaneously a statement about the autonomous power of aesthetic expression as well as a message about confronting and overcoming chaos. As pointed out by the art critic Fernando Francés, Balda’s work implies commitment to formulating a world of ideas and conceptual consequences. His “innocent logic” (title of his 1994 exhibit) deconstructs chaos, establishes a method, inserts conviction, control and freedom. This is a complex battle among compositional forces, one in which pressure on the form and the limited use of color turn the painting into a meditative space. Such equilibrium is the result of a process of construction and deconstruction brought about by the essential tension. The labyrinth ceases to be a disconcerting maze and gives way to an ordered and conquered space. This is similar to the process of urban reordering and renewal. Thus, Balda’s paintings appear to be filled with streets, plazas, town centers – that is, in his own words, “geometries, lines that frame spaces, limits of contained forms, encompassing spaces, aleatory structures, labyrinths, places designed in the manner of architectural traces.” It is work reminiscent (as Artemis Olaizola notes) of Malevich’s absent blacks and white voids, of Rauschenberg’s white paintings and Reinhart’s black ones, and, in general, of the formal economy of the minimalists.

Similar formal concerns, but in an altogether different pictorial world, can be found in López, one of whose latest exhibits was entitled “The Impossible Equation.” His comments regarding the painting The Perfect Way Out illustrate the thinking behind his artistic modus operandi: “There was a door. Next to the wall there was a door, not very big, not small either, nor very wide. It was a rather narrow door, a narrow half door. Something unmistakable was coming out of it, something you cannot forget and that can be recognized in the very quality of an uproar, of a mix-up that you are mired in, and that is nothing but the recognition of it… A something that poses for you an enigma and then moves away laughing while you are left alone, lost in the attempt to solve it… It is then that the door fulfils its function and that something flees.”

The result of López’s art, his proposed solution, is, as pointed out by Fernando Golvano, a display of pleasures, unsuspected surprises, plays, paradoxes, circus characters, creative artifacts, enigmas, drawings of impossible maps, visual aphorisms, suggested architectures, quotations, notes of his fictional travels, critical allusions, and similarly disturbing traces of whatever the artist has experienced, read or imagined. Moving from figuration to abstraction, and vice versa, his pictorial expressions are ubiquitously involved with various forms of interrogation. His mosaic of fragments, on the one hand, directs the viewer to look obliquely at the artist’s creative universe, but simultaneously plots the viewer’s complicity. The ironic and playful nature of his small paintings recalls Duchamp’s demystifying tone. López’s mosaic points us toward the texts of Raymond Russel, Alfred Jarry and Guillaume Apollinaire, as well as the images of the dadaists and the surrealists.

Joseba Zulaika

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Copyright © 2000 the Center for Basque Studies, University of Nevada, Reno. All rights reserved. Updated 7 February 2001. E-mail: