The Active Art of Miquel Barcelo

The paintings and drawings of Spanish artist Miquel Barcelo come out of a dramatic urgency to defy the space - the gap - between art and its subject-matter, to abolish that distancing.

For example: He has used river mud to draw with in Mali and white and gray kaolin found in stones and used by Africans for body-painting. He has incorporated volcanic ash in paintings he made in Naples, in the vicinity of Vesuvius.

Drawing an omelette in Paris in 1984, he made it out of beaten egg and eggshell mixed with varnish and vinyl. And recently he wrote: ``...I need to have what I am painting beside me, on the painting, smelling it, handling it. And then eating it. Using melon rinds as spatulas when I am painting melons, and so mixing their juice with the paint. It smells of melon and so, for a few minutes on what may be a small area of a picture, we have melonism....''

There is undeniably an element of theater about this, of performance. A different artist might end there, however, with the performance being the work. All that might be left is a video or a documentation of some sort in photographs and words, some remote record.

But Barcelo, as a painter and sculptor, is anti-remote; he seems utterly bent on making works of art that surge with a brute vitality, that do not refer to some now-finished experience, but instead embody it, perpetuate its essence in the very welter and inescapability of the work's substance.

His work is unashamedly sensuous and has a rawness that charges like a herd of wild beasts through the glamorizing niceties and euphemisms that are the general run of Western imagery seen on TV, in glossy magazines, and in advertising.

``Fum de Cuina'' (``Kitchen Smoke'') of 1985 is one of the earlier paintings in an exhibition of Barcels work seen at London's Whitechapel Art Gallery this autumn and to be staged in Valencia, Spain, Jan. 26 to April 23 next year. Using mixed media rather than the acceptable familiarity of oil paint alone, Barcelo somehow instills the act of painting with the heat, spattering, fume, and smell of cooking. The picture does not depict, or recall, a process so much as epitomize and reinvent it.

In later paintings on show, Barcelo demonstrates an astonishing capacity to re-present desolate landscapes: deluging rain that slices down the picture space and splashes up as it hits the drowning earth; interiors in which a wildly chaotic dream-world invades or is confronted by the teeming culture of endless books, paintings, and sculptures.

Elementally, in other works, he envisions man and animal in some kind of primeval symbiosis. And he produces drawings (on paper that he has allowed to be ravaged by termites) of silhouetted creatures not unlike the darkly suggestive images of African rock paintings or those found deep in Paleolithic caves like Lascaux in France and Altamira in Spain.

Barcels work is disturbing. It is impolite. It is like a giant cauldron of image soup pushed to a fierce boiling with no sign of abatement.

This is an artist who transmutes painting into something more rudely alive than balancings of color, tone, and composition.

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