Conversations with José Ibarrola
This introduction to the work of José Ibarrola is written from observation of his work and conversations with him and with the people who have formed his backdrop. They are brief notes from nature, moments and places that have marked his biography and his work.
Madrid, April 2013. I think I’m going to paint Van der Weyden’s Descent
Burgos, April 1963. What’s Josetxu painting? It’s a giant bird. So it can get Dad out of prison.
Bilbao, May 1967. There is room for the whole universe in the reflection of a marble.
Gametxo, May 1975. Paradise Lost
Bilbao, 1983. Myths and Taboo
The frontiers of Artrain, 1985.The sleeping stone
On the wagon of Thespis since 1980. Where does that stairway lead?
Bilbao, 1988. Correr fuera de la pista
Silenia, May 1997. José Ibarrola looks and is moved to pity and describes the wasteland of his generation.
Oma-Bilbao 2000. I also paint to cure the wounds that I don’t want to forget.
Summer of 2013. The mother of the muses is memory.
Madrid, April 2013.
I think I’m going to paint the Descent, by Van der Weyden, he told me as I was driving towards Bilbao. We were coming back from Madrid, Holy Week 2013 was on its way out, and I thought the impulse for such a project was the feverish state in which we had both spent the past few days owing to an untimely bout of flu.
Every time we visited the Prado, we roamed the halls of the Museum on the lookout for the dozen pictures we always returned to see. The Descent was one of them. This time, while we were looking at the painting, such a moving dramatized representation of grief at a dead son, we remarked that the classical masters tend to be right: when they take him down from the cross, next to the tortured man, the victim, are only the mother and four friends, even if you are the son of God.
Next to the victims of terror the same thing would happen. The murdered, the tortured, are always an awkward presence. Society wants to forget, only their nearest are there, those who have directly received the hurt, as if the grief produced by the suffering of the son, the brother, the friend, were a shock wave that damages an internal organ, invisible to the human eye, which cannot heal.
Burgos, April 1963
What’s Josetxu painting? It’s a giant bird. So it can get Dad out of prison.
Black eyes, a gaze, a boy who plays and observes, different accents, different languages, but images have no language; movement, gestures, expressions are the same in places where sound changes. Adaptation to changes, journeys. Adults who talk while the children play on their own. Some children don’t ask, some children observe.
He had almost been born in Formentera, where his parents, according to José the adult, had been a pair of poor romantics on a very cheap island, not even knowing that they’d been hippying it. Since the 2nd of September 1955, the day he was born in his grandmother’s house on the sunny side of the hills surrounding Bilbao, his first decade had been pretty hectic. From Paris to Basauri, taking in Cordoba and Denmark on the way. From his grandparents’ house in Basauri: Grandad José and Grandma Juliana and his uncles and aunts Josu and Miren, to Bilbao and the house in Arabella, belonging to grandparents Josefa and Pedro, the seafarer. From the chambre de bonne or maid’s room in Paris to an enforced sojourn in the attic in Burgos, while his father was in prison in that city.
Change of language and customs, but the lad adapts. Josetxu, as he was popularly known, entertains himself in the garden of the Tuileries where other children play with yachts on the pond, while he skips stones off the surface of the water, putting the fragile vessels in danger. The stone skips five, six, seven times in the midst of the outcry from the French grown-ups who brand as a savage the boy who learnt his first games from his Uncle Josu, who recalls that the kid was not afraid and did not hesitate to follow him in his sporting feats. From him he learnt the rites of passage of a working class world that had just left the farmhouse and country culture behind: swimming, shooting with a compressed air rifle, frog fishing, catching fish with your hands…, good training for the boy with a mission to be a castaway, but too uncouth for French politesse. When he returns to Grandad and Grandma’s home in Basauri, the neighbourhood yard in the workers’ district will serve the same purpose as the Tuileries gardens had. Places provide support for the set designs that his imagination had been manufacturing since he was very small. The narrow conduits for the storm water in the yard became a turbulent river that, when it had released the water retained by dams of branches and mud, carried away the small paper boats that were tossed on a rough sea… The greatest treasure, a marble. And iturri bottle tops, too.
He has always had a singular ability to express distress without exaggerating, as if it were an everyday matter. It tends to appear, often, on the faces of some of his characters.
The family situation echoed the history of resistance to Francoism: the arrests, the dreaded BPS (Franco’s secret police), the states of exception, the fear, distress, the Spain of gloom that stayed mute, the resistance, the historical optimism of the Basque communists who imagined the masses who would change history and fought for the utopia of paradise on Earth. After the arrest of his father Agustín and uncle Josu, Burgos prison became a sadly familiar setting, but so too did the solidarity among women, the presence of the other Spain that lost the war and was imprisoned, visits to the prison every week, with no physical contact, always with bars, a corridor and a prison officer for company, the woman and the boy on the other side.
The cold of Burgos in winter marked his games in the street and in the attic where he lived with his mother. But he soon learnt that there were other worse situations, like that of the grieving woman who would come from Andalusia, just once a year, with the money she’d managed to scrape together, to see her husband behind bars.
Nestor Basterretxea told me, at the end of the 1970s, how impressed he had been with the drawings Josetxu drew when he was 6. Apparently, they were giant birds and flies with strange mechanisms to get his father out of the prison in Burgos.
Bilbao, May 1967.
There is room for the whole universe in the reflection of a marble.
Dictatorships have the same characteristics as the secondary worlds of Tolkien, except they unfold as a nightmare. They create invisible parallel universes where tortures and disappearances take place whilst an appearance of normality is preserved. Junot Díaz.
The children lived in the grown-ups’ atmosphere of clandestinity. There was no talking, and apparently there was nothing untoward. Sometimes, from his bed, when the grown-ups thought the lad was sleeping, he would listen to arguments that did not exist the next day. But children detect tension and anxiety. A small nervous tic which had begun when they arrested his father would not go away. The doctor assured them that it would disappear when he grew up. Carlos Fuertes, the paediatrician, was perhaps calculating the age the dictator might die at. In 1960 Franco had been in power for over 20 years and fifteen remained for him to pass away, but the optimism of the communist left repeated like a mantra that the struggle of the labouring classes and their cultural allies would bring down the Francoist dictatorship and attain freedom. The twitch actually vanished when democracy was consolidated in the 1980s.
What still put him on his guard were uniforms and particular kinds of sounds: the noise of the lift at night and the insistent ringing of the doorbell announced the arrival of the police to search the house when his father was arrested. Tales of tortures and the impossibility of talking with those under arrest developed his attitude of resistance to the forces of order.
In early May 1967, Josetxu was playing in his room wrapped up in his own world, as the adults around him would say. Someone knocked at the door, shouts were heard, and intruders violently broke into the house, disordering books and cupboards. Among the papers reproductions of Goya engravings were found and taken away because they were deemed subversive. In the face of protests from his mother and his aunt, they all ended up down the police station: his mother Mari Luz, his aunt Miren, his brother Irrintzi, who was just a baby, his 5-year old girl cousin Idoia, and Josetxu, who was eleven. They had arrested Agustín and his uncle Josu once more, this time to put a stop to the strike at Bandas a cold strip mill in their locality. They had come out of prison just over a year before, having spent over four years there, and had only managed to enjoy what seemed just a few months on the outside. Josetxu was prepared to resist. Before leaving the house, on the way to the police station, he collected his weapons: a notebook, a pencil, his iturri bottle-tops and his marbles, in case he had to be in prison as many years as his dad and uncle had.
After six months of general stoppage, the strike was called off on 20 May1967. The Ibarrola brothers stayed in prison for over two years.
The 1960s in Spain were not like they were in France. The Franco dictatorship had lasted 20 years and those who put up opposition faced arrests, the political police, fear and anguish. In that context, reality struck suddenly, with no warning. Since they returned from Paris, his father had spent more time in than out of prison. In the midst of that reality one had to be ready to respond, keeping quiet would not do, resistance was called for. Against the dictatorship’s tortuous reality, the boy created parallel worlds to seek refuge in. Josetxu would escape from that world that he knew existed but could not be talked about, while he built his paradises of liberty and defence against anxiety and fear.
Gametxo, May 1975
He began to read Jules Verne and Salgari, and the ideal spot for acting out his adventures was Anzorape beach. His parents had rented out an old farmhouse in Gametxo, without water, light, or minimum services. Over the next years it would become his new paradise. From the dense oawood forest of San Pedro de Atxerre to the coast between Laida and Laga stretched a free territory, where he escaped whenever there were too many people in the farmhouse or the tensions among the adults recommended withdrawal to quieter settings.
Come hell or high water, summer was a territory of freedom which I was not ready to relinquish and, within my child’s world, of all my countries the beach was my favourite.
When I perched on a rock or made a dam with the sand, I already knew that my destiny was to crave to be a castaway.
I always used to head for a group of stones that the low tide left uncovered. What formed my little archipelago was a collection of rocks and sand that was large enough for me to play at getting lost in. The pools that got captured among the rocks reflected the not always blue sky that enveloped me, placing a ceiling upon my dreams; limpets, winkles, shrimps, sea crabs, anemones or starfish were my fauna and the crevices among the stones my sanctuary. Like a small Robinson I organized the tasks and objectives that would allow me to survive on my island. And I played, played at being a castaway. Isolated from the ghosts that stalk a child’s tranquillity, with the remains of the tides I constructed my emotional architecture.
José Ibarrola. De memoria el mar. 1998 [The sea as memory. 1998]
But you’re never prepared for them to destroy your little paradise. It didn’t happen in childhood but in his youth. The first warning, in November 1974, was the closure, by governmental order, of the exhibition José and Agustín Ibarrola in the Aritza Gallery in Bilbao. The second, detention at the police station, when he had been walking leisurely down the street. They arrested him, according to the police, because he was a Jesus Christ look-alike and when they searched his backpack they found sheets with signatures supporting an amnesty, which left-wing groups were going to deliver to Cardinal Tarancon. He spent two nights in the police station and they released him after threatening him and confiscating the amnesty petition sheets.
The disaster occurred during one of the last states of exception, in May 1975. Plain clothed civil guards set fire to the farmhouse-cum-studio that the family had in Gametxo. Agustín and Mari Luz were in hiding, as always when a state of exception was declared. We went there with the father of a friend who had a really smart car, to see what had happened. The spectacle was devastating. Everything was destroyed, pictures, books, mementos…
The family had just bought the farmhouse in Oma and José was going to organize his studio in Gametxo. The first works built with timber and remains found on the beach went up in the fire. The farmhouse disappeared almost completely. In its place were heaps of stones, the only thing left standing was the fireplace and, among the rubble, a strange twisted iron object. It was his harpoon for underwater fishing. We went as far as the hillock where you could see the sea from, at the end of the island of Izaro. We didn’t go back for many years.
Myths and Taboo
A castaway is a feral spirit and in those days the mission of Fine Arts studies was to train teachers of drawing or give idle youth a cultural veneer, so he decided to opt for self-education and began his profession as a press illustrator and as a set designer in the burgeoning theatre movement that developed in the Basque Country in the 1980s.
In 1983 at the Bilbao International Trade Fair, Arteder 83 was held, an artistic display in which galleries and artists participated, and where everyone, with their own stand, showed their works, while most of the public were asking for brochures as occurred at the usual fairs exhibiting agricultural or industrial machinery. What am I doing, what and who for? Why, what is the point of it?… It was his big crisis.
From that point on, and in the light of his later work, the taboo that there is no room in modern art either for figuration, communication, or artists who narrate was broken for him.
He was born into a time of big ideologies, both in Politics and in Art. And the big ideologies always mark their limits and their path. The final aim in politics of overthrowing dictatorship and winning freedom combined with loyalty to the party and the sacrifice of communists like his father Agustín and his uncle Josu, who kept alive the dignity and flame of opposition to Francoism. Meanwhile, the majority kept quiet and improved their professional situation in the years of economic bonanza that were experienced in the Basque Country in the decade of the sixties.
In Art, historical vanguards, honouring the military term, were the driving force behind militant artists who negated other options, belligerently establishing what was and was not significant art. The vanguards, in their striving to destroy previous Art, established their doctrine without abandoning the Museum, the Institution (the Academy), which thereby became the only authority that could revalidate Art.
With the nascent democracy came new winds from Europe and the USA. The artistic currents of the last few decades came rushing in, without young artists having time to digest the different processes. Along with the new plastic currents the golden age of the comic also arrived and José decided to leave painting and sculpture to one side and throw himself into a discipline that brought figuration and narrative together. A stage began in which illustration and set design occupied the bulk of his activity.
The ideological crisis in politics was influenced by his thoughtful and observant spirit. He is not a man to join clubs, or parties, the castaway spirit is what rules him, although he will never forget the lessons learnt in the tough years of resistance to Francoism: solidarity, commitment and dignity against power or intimidation.
The frontiers of Artrain, 1985
The sleeping stone
A story to tell, emotions to transmit and sensations to spread. Ways of telling, an almost nuclear fusion, a universal language, a personal focus, a paper film, the one-man band, all the colour in the world even if it’s in black and white, an orgy of onomatopoeias, an engineer’s planning, knowing that everything is possible, an animated novel and thousands of kilometres of lines. Other eyes that watch, a mute song and a hidden poem, disorientated cartoons, crumbles sandwiches, camouflaged blemishes on impassive faces, anonymous biographies, enunciated laughter and tears, ellipsis flush with the skin and a form of understanding, questions without answers, primary schools for advantaged pupils and right where it hurts, a way of saying.
Some of this is the comic. José Ibarrola
For 10 years now he had been using illustrations and comics in different publications. In 1985, the album La piedra dormida [The sleeping stone] was issued and published weekly in the newspaper El País.
That was when we happened to meet Jorge Oteiza and his wife Itziar in the Iruña cafeteria in Bilbao; they were both really friendly, saying what a great artist Josetxu was, while Oteiza was bent on buying the title of his comic The sleeping stone from him, and even gave him a poem as a present, in advance payment. When they left, José said to me: she’s sound, but don’t trust him, he’s a snake charmer…
In those years Oteiza was a myth in Basque art: he had introduced and was the forerunner of the new aesthetic trends that developed internationally in the 1950s and 60s. José, since he was a boy, had known the atmosphere inhabited by the artists, writers and characters from the world of culture in that period, both during exile in Paris and in Bilbao and Burgos in the final decades of Francoism. He was an observant kid and was alert to the positive and negative points of those around him. Gotzone Etxebarria, director of the Mikeldi gallery, always used to say, in a humorous tone: when Josetxu was small, we never used to know whether to address him using the familiar tú form, or usted, employed more for one’s seniors or those in authority.
Anyway, Blas de Otero was the magician uncle who played games with matches in Paris; it was the job of Pepe Duarte, Juan Cuenca, Juan Serrano and Angel Duarte, the members of Equipo 57, to entertain him with their games and stories, while they developed theories about plastic space or conspired with Jorge Semprún. Gabriel Aresti was the friend who got angry with the world and made up poems about his father and his uncle when they were in prison… The child always observed them without putting them on a pedestal, perceiving their weaknesses but their greatness too. This apprenticeship explains a good deal of his attitude toward art and culture, the way he assessed artistic work without subordinating himself to the ephemeral prestige of fame, the power of courtly cliques or fashion.
Painting was a natural circumstance, for him to paint was a normal undertaking. Once he was 18 years old he decided he was going to devote himself to artistic activity, and took a path marked, at its inception, by the historical avant-gardes. But his immersion since childhood in artistic and political circles served as a great vaccine against sectarianism, Manicheism and absolute truths. It also provided him with direct training in resistance and dignity in the face of totalitarianism and, above all, an awareness of the need not to surrender individual freedom.
On the wagon of Thespis since 1980
¿Where does that stairway lead?
From the first he diversified his activity: painting, sculpture, illustration, theatre… His vision of the world and society was marked by his work in the field of Culture, where we naturally tend to join forces with others, and it was in the Theatre where he found the stimulus of collective work. He began in 1980 and to date he has produced more than 100 set designs.
He recognizes that as a painter, sculptor or illustrator he is lord and master of his artistic territory, but as a set designer he needs to compare ideas because the theatre is a concurrence of diverse disciplines. Work proceeds through the pooling of ideas and concerns.
The theatre tradition in the West has a strong focus on words. Indeed, in his “Poetics” Aristoteles considered Drama as an element of Poetry, thereby setting the use of the Word as the fundamental central foundation of the Stage. This tradition perhaps makes us still link what is Written or oral with concepts such as sincerity and profundity and, in contrast, hold Image, the visual, to be a synonym of superficiality and insignificance.
In other cultures, in Africa or the East –for instance- it doesn’t exactly happen like that and music, movement, ritual characters, dances or masks are what make up the vertebral axis of theatrical performances. However, what we can say is that, in all cultures, scenic space is the authentic ritual space where what we call Theatre takes place.
Of course, from the famous Wagon of Thespis in the 6th century BC to current virtual reality, that space has materialized in multiple ways.
José Ibarrola. 1997
What I like most is to see the spaces he designs inhabited. He points out that they are spaces to be lived in not just by people but by emotions too. Set designs, for him, are spaces that emotion must flow through without any clutter.
Correr fuera de la pista
In 1988, he published his last comic album, Cuando canta la serpiente (When the serpent sings),with a script by Jon Juaristi and Mario Onaindía, a medieval tale of myths and confrontations, situated on the coast of Bizkaia, opposite the island of Izaro. José Ibarrola, Jon Juaristi and Mario Onaindia created a story in which a Cainite curse appears that even at the time of writing has not yet been lifted.
In 1990, he projected the enclosure for the metro construction site, in Moyua Square in Bilbao, as a big set design: a golden colonnade that framed a metro entrance that opened onto a Venetian Universe of moons, planets and stars.
He took up painting again, we had bought the ruins of a farmhouse in Oma, but as we didn’t have the money to rebuild it we made a 15 metre-square cabin with a porch. He painted outdoors and covered the canvases with plastic to protect them from the rain. Our son Naiel had just been born. The big splashes of colour and firm spray strokes described an almost foetal underwater figuration, where from time to time little marbles appeared with a strange clarity like drops of water, bright eyes or odd references from a submerged architecture. Perhaps it was the old childhood treasure, the magic sphere in which all possible universes were imagined.
Large format paintings appeared once again. His crisis was over but it had left him one clear idea: from that point on he would turn his back on taboos. In the end the great religious, political or artistic ideologies always end up resembling one another, they have their prophets, their priests and their own Inquisition. He was aware of the price he was going to have to pay. He would make his way through the searching and solitude that accompanies every creative process.
He told me: I know I’m shall be running off the beaten track.
Silenia, May 1997
José Ibarrola looks and is moved to pity and describes the wasteland of his generation.
There are bridge places, spaces where it is possible to rearrange the elements in the real world, and they tend to lie at the roots of much artistic creation. Observation of little details of daily life comes back in his work in the shape of small or simple objects. A little paper boat, an umbrella, a shell or other objects of no apparent importance become activators of memory. Utilizing these objects, he composes images that sometimes recall dreamlike or surrealistic situations, but they emotionally connect with the person who is observing the work.
In this phase, he paints a world of aqueous plasticity, of shadows and centaurs, as metaphors of an instinctive unconscious, in which he learns to see old forms with new eyes. He looks at the classics and imbibes from them. They are his masters. He pays homage to Rembrandt’s light or the atmosphere created by Velazquez in the equestrian portrait of Isabel of France, to Caravaggio in his torment or the melancholy of Hopper.
In this process of learning to look, he leaves the underwater world behind and rises to the surface where solitude is represented in the feminine. His figures resemble modern Sibyls who possess the key to a secret knowledge that demands solitude if it is to be taken in.
In 1992 our second son, Martin, had been born and we had rebuilt part of the Oma farmhouse. At last he had a proper studio. In this space he managed to create a special atmosphere. Perhaps it is the same atmosphere that he often produces in his set designs: a space to develop artistic creation, where emotion flows uncluttered.
In 1997, at the Caja Vital Foundation in Vitoria, he held an exhibition entitled Silenia. For the pictures, sculptures and installations in that show, Jon Juaristi wrote the poem Molino de Oma (Oma Mill).
José Ibarrola paints and creates the world
in the image of a sinister carousel,
but there is much mercy in his gaze,
maybe because at the landscape’s end he makes out
nummulite shells or foreheads
of ancestral rams, or perhaps
centaurs pursued by factory sirens.
Tell me what you would do scolder of sorrows,
an Ionic capital bearing down on your neck,
onto your cranial box, if not hide yourself
in the thickets of the crowd
(each passing face
seems an undaunted leaf that will die in autumn).
We knew days of tribulation
and hours of torment await us.
José Ibarrola guards the white hot shrapnel
of a world that has exploded;
furious grenade, it blew up in silence.
Its deflagration was so mute, so discreet
like that of a bloody rose when it opens
in the indecisive pleat of night and dawn.
I am grateful to fate that I have walked a stretch
next to the custodian of the tenacious signs
of our apocalypse, mineral traces
(lighthouses, walls, cisterns, frozen tears)
of a senseless past that time is erasing
as in the shady hollow the river grinds
the stone of this thrice centenary watermill,
before it too is erased in the sinkhole.
José Ibarrola looks and is moved to pity and describes
the wasteland of my generation
Jon Juaristi May 1997
I also paint to cure the wounds that I don’t want to forget.
He is fundamentally a painter, but he does not restrict himself to seeing the world as a flat canvas. From his works in the field of set design, he has incorporated a three-dimensional view through his installations, which fill out what is suggested in the paintings.
Thematically, there are two lines that constantly interweave in his latest pictorial production. One that draws us to the world of memory, to the mirror of recollections and to reencounter with almost forgotten gazes, and another that examines the present. One with childhood beaches, solitary and barren for castaway games, impassive witness of recently acquired dreams; and the other restless and troubled, prowling the folds of hopelessness. One goes diving in the deep sea or seeking in each wave a sign to find the way; and another that trace traces of hidden things. Each of them on the blade of nostalgia, on the skyline.
The horizon is a convention that allows us to face the anxiety of emptiness with some tranquillity. A fiction we invent so as not to be blinded at its immensity. It is a line that penetrates our gaze, que dilutes our sense of measure. A horizontal line that divides space into two and invites us to follow its course, explore its boundaries; it is the frontier territory of reverie.
The horizon lies where glides the unattainable.
José Ibarrola, 2010
The 21st century began, for him, with the terrorist attacks on his parents’ farmhouse in Oma and with the destruction wrought in The painted forest. Agustín Ibarrola, who was one of the key figures in the fight for freedom in the tough years of Francoism, had become a target of ETA’s attacks. In May 2000, ETA killed José Luis Lopez de la Calle, a journalist and friend de la family, who had been jailed in the 1960s in Avila prison with his uncle Josu. The image of the murdered man, lying in the street protected by an open umbrella, rakes up fears of old for him. The attacks on the painted forest and the death threats continued and his father had to accept the constant company provided by two bodyguards in order to protect his life.
Sometimes an image traps us like a spider’s web. Its presence imperceptibly accompanies us in the labyrinth of our recollections. And, one day, with no prior warning, it insists on coming to the fore. It is a curious mechanism that always surprises me. It seems that memories need slow maceration before claiming their own identity and, only then, with sufficient digestion time, can they exercise their specific function in our mind’s eye.
An event: a real picture of a real friend. It is the image of a man and his umbrella who remained together, orphans, at the edge of a thick red puddle. The umbrella lying open on the ground, rocking at the mercy of an implacable wind, heralds the definitive absence of the man stretched out beside it. It looks with its round face and points its single finger at all who dare to look. The drops appear to trickle down the canvas like tears.
And later, one day, I paint an open umbrella by an empty chair to speak of that absence. I discover that it is a metaphor and it is homage.
José Ibarrola, 2000
Summer of 2013
The mother of the muses is memory.
I like the way chance intervenes upon found objects. In fact, I like the role of chance, which is why I’m an expressionist in my manner of painting. I use industrial paintbrushes, it pleases me that the motion of the arm, the random stroke, can be detected… I also employ cloths, and rub at what’s painted until only the trace is left. I work on layers (as if they were sound textures) until I attain what I’m after. I’m less drawn to the way the Flemish or the hyperrealists paint, with small brush strokes, as if they were painting pixel by pixel.
José Ibarrola 2014
The new phase began in April 2013, just at the point when he was looking at van der Weyden’s painting, observed so many times, of the Descent. He decided to paint it. He had been trying to fuse sculpture and painting for some time, disciplines that had been progressing in his work along parallel paths over recent years.
Sculpture marked the start of his artistic activity. The first works made with pieces of wood and remnants found on the beach were destroyed in the fire that ravaged his farmhouse-studio in Gametxo, provoked by extreme right-wing groups during the state of exception declared in May 1975. Francoism was in its last throes and he was 20 years old. He decided to start over from scratch; he was not about to reproduce the works burnt in the fire, but would instead focus on painting. Since then, in most of his shows he has created installations from painted elements in his pictures: centauresses, bathers, paper boats, umbrella… In 2003 an exhibition entitled Exlibris marked the beginning of the utilization of books as raw material for his sculptures, in combination with a diversity of materials. Ten years after, he started a reverse process in the relation he establishes between sculpture and painting. His sculptural world entered his pictures.
The selection of “found or recycled objects” is due to an aesthetic choice, in which the traces left by time, chance and natural forces. Indeed, from Duchamp’s ready-mades to surrealist objects or the sculptures of Arte povera, the derivation and relations between signifier and signified have provided a ready filling for analyses of contemporary art.
His aesthetic experience combines reflection, intuition and chance in a constant search. If the function of an object is changed, the object –modelled by time, chance and the hand or intention of the artist– becomes the raw material of his sculptures, but without losing the echo of the object it was. The old function, therefore, tinges the new sculpture. A book forms the skeleton of Ella (She) or of Él (He), and warns us that we are genetics but also culture. The symbolic dimension that the book as object has taken on throughout History is eventually added to the new work created through the manipulation of its form. In the same way, when he constructs works buoys discovered on the beach or old umbrellas, he finds a surprise concealed in the routine of looking.
Objects, those that surround us and with which we cohabit, prove not to be unchanging, they happen to vary depending on how we link them up together and with us or, perhaps, with the memory we have of them and of ourselves. We constantly act in accordance with these relations. Daily objects that, having been used so much, lose any meaning beyond their actual function, suddenly become strange items packed with new readings. An umbrella, for example, or a paper boat, filtered by our memory’s gaze develop a singular personality that we end up incorporating within our emotional heritage. They cease to be commonplace and become a personal symbol. And sometimes they disturb us. Just like people and their settings or, to put it better, the encounters and disencounters of individuals, of their emotions, of their landscapes and their gazes.
José Ibarrola. La inquietud de las cosas 2007 [Things and their unrest 2007]
In the list of categories in the Surrealist Exhibition of Objects in 1936, where a complete sub-classification was carried out including found, ready-made, perturbed, mathematical, natural, natural interpreted, natural incorporated, oceanic, North American and surrealist objects, José Ibarrola’s might be described as intertidal objects. It can be said that sculpture comes from his obsession with shipwrecks, with debris brought by the tide.
Built with a variety of materials, much of it recycled, my sculptural works are not epic monuments. The emptying of their hollows or the precision of their geometry possibly doesn’t interest me enough, but I am drawn by their capacity to tell and to move. They come from times when the play of objects found on the beach was an apprenticeship in manipulating space, to transcend landscape and time. That’s why I don’t conceive them as pieces isolated within themselves, but as part of a universe that reconstructs parcels of a time I still recall.
José Ibarrola. Things and their unrest 2007
He is a self-taught artist who learnt by observing the classical masters. He has always been aware that memory is the mother of the muses, and indeed, although Art often uses breaks with the past, it also returns to it for inspiration. That human tendency remembers that we are also memory, that we need to look at the old ways with new eyes to find new roads, to know where we are heading, recognizing where we are coming from. So his take on the circumstance of painting is a reflection, from today, as to what the individual is in these times and what the role of Art and of the artist is.
We stand at a point of media babble in the field of Art: fashions, banality-superficiality, liquid thought, and the alliance of the communication and market media, transformed into the new Academy, which sanction what Art is, condemning to ostracism whatever does not interest them. In this context, José explores the role of the artist in contemporary society. He is not an autistic painter, enclosed in his ivory tower, but reflects upon the responsibility and commitment of the author, upon what he does and what for.
He looks at the Renaissance, not as a critic, a historian or spectator, but as an artist. He checks out the works and picks up on the message some of them transmit, as if the painters of the Quattrocento had tossed a bottle into the Ocean of Time, to be collected five hundred years later by an author with a castaway calling who, on reading that message, decides to share it with others. Thereby, he reinterprets subjects with an extremely powerful iconic content, looking at them with new eyes.
Unlike appropriationists, who impose an aggressive and sometimes parodic gaze on a work, the series is a tribute to a time and its people that helped to change the perception of Art History. It constitutes a study where not only composition, rhythm, colours, movement or the new perception of the subjects come into play, but the very way of relating with one’s own environment. If Art until that moment was subjected to the iron discipline of the Middle Ages, Quattrocento painting reflects as if in a mirror the start of a freer path in which the artist recognizes himself.
He holds that the periods that have left their mark are a road already taken but that can be travelled again. He echoes the words of Hans Georg Gadamer: “a subject becomes dormant at the point when it ceases to be interpreted, only when someone addresses it does it continue to function”. So it is that the eternal echo of key questions keeps producing new responses. José examines how the passing of time strips down the anecdotal elements of each period, whilst it maintains the essence that endures over the centuries. He does not speak of the passion of Christ or the kindness of angels, but of grief, solitude and the desolation of the tortured and murdered man. He does not paint the God Venus, but the flashes of harmony and balance that forged the classical concept of beauty…
Thus, the concrete meaning of the symbols of an age, distilled by time and the vision of a contemporary artist, changes and expands in a play of representations that construct, upon historical interpretation, a reflection divested of mythical and religious connotations. In this process the metaphorical role of early symbols shows through, because the new vision captures in the work of origin emotions that transcend different periods and places.
In this dialogue with the past, culture appears as the sum of different times and places that converge on the same level. The result contributes a new view, charged sometimes with mystery and on occasion with irony, which also involves an aesthetic reflection upon the work of the artist himself.
Translations, David Passingham
Maite Nájera Burón.
Bilbao. Noviembre de 2014