Miquel Barcelo is an artist who seems to be constantly evolving, and who does it all; from paintings to sculptures to installations and paintings that become installations, his artistic technique changes every several years or so, resulting in different effects. The themes however, which revolve around the places his lives in, the culture that he is a part of and childhood experiences, more or less stay the same.
With such high profile commissions as the controversial, multi-colored, ‘dripping ceiling’ of the United Nations Room XX in Geneva, where up to 100 tons of paint (perhaps paint and underlying metal structures) were reportedly used, Barcelo’s low profile modus operandi has kept him as one of the art world’s best kept secret.
Aside from the engineering marvel involved with making the ceiling hold up that much weight, putting a multi-colored Stalactite formation on it looks chaotic at first, but upon closer inspection there appears to be more depth behind the concept of it.
Barcelo himself has stated that vision behind this piece had come from time spent in his African home, when he saw the whole world ‘dripping towards the sky’ and translated it to this painting on the ceiling ‘dripping towards the United Nations’. In any case, it is undeniable that the vision for this piece comes from stalactite rock formations in nature, which sometimes looks nice and sometimes doesn’t. But compared to flowers which are widely used as a design or artistic inspiration, stalactite rock formations have not, and thus at least deserves recognition for treading unchartered waters.
The Cathedral of Santa Maria de Palma (2007) is another installation that at first looks rather disorderly and unconscionable, but upon deeper reflection might have some more to it, given the context of ancient Spanish cave paintings and Antoni Gaudi’s organic designs which has become synonymous with Catalonian / Spanish eastern coastal identity.
The installation which was to commemorate Jesus’ miracle of the feeding of 5000 people with 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish, seems like an attempt to encapsulate the whole scene, of what it might have been like there, with skulls, drawn hungry faces and earthy topography, mixed together with shoals of fish and rolling waves; a ‘reminder that the chapel stands beside the Mediterranean Sea’ as he said in an interview. The ‘bread-like’ cracked dough which contains these depictions, rises up and fades as it get to the top.
It is no secret that Miquel Barcelo’s style has been influenced by whats known as the Art Brut style, which has come to encompass many unconventional art forms but Barcelo’s case it literally means ‘raw art’ or ‘rough art’ and can be found in Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia Cathedral’s exterior facade finish, which also is a good representation of the surface of those Stalactite and Stalagmite rock formations.
In Mobili (2001) the skull of an animal, somewhat of a cross between a dog, goat and monkey, is fixed with wheels, turned into a car and burnt to a bluish grey. The charred remains seems to be saying something about mass produced, automobiles destroying wildlife, both in the destruction of habitats through sub-urban development and directly by off-road all terrain vehicles, tearing up the earth.
The subject of animals being killed, displaced or mistreated by humans is something that occurs again and again in his works; Les Bal Des Pendus (1992) which literally means ‘the ball of the hanged’, or the hanged are going to a ball, and Male And Female Goats (1992) both show animals, dogs and goats, being slaughtered for sale in Somalia. In La Cuadrilla (1990) which means ‘the gang’, depicts a bull-fight, a Spanish national pastime, in a stadium which looks like its spinning and exploding outward in a sea of faded blood color. I can only surmise that ‘the gang’ in this case refers to the whole system of slaughtering bulls for sport.
In La Solitude Organisative (2008) a lone ape sits pensively in blurry, uncertain surroundings and Gran Elefant Dret (2009), a huge, larger than life sculpture of an elephant standing upright on its trunk, is reminiscent of elephants in circuses being made to do extraordinary, unnatural things for our amusement. Personally I think Barcelo has had some what of a change of heart, for he has stated in an interview, with regret, that he used to spear fish everyday as a youth, that he might have killed ‘thousands of fish, large and small’ and these works might be an atonement that episode.
Curiously we see Barcelo’s paintings of the 1980’s and 1990’s being influenced by Jackson Pollock’s early works, with heavy, rough brush work, dark contrasting colors and iconography, but subsequent works have shown that he has freed himself and found other ways of expression.
In the new millenium there is evidence of a shift away from Pollock’s heavy brushwork in favor of more subtle expressions. In Encephalogramme De La Mer (2005), which means ‘brain-wave of the sea’, sea creatures are depicted in such a light, transparent manner, blending into the background that they look fossil-like. In Dogon I (2008) people and animals are depicted in cave painting like figurines, with the background having harmonious warm tones as opposed to the nightmarish scenes of Pollock’s early works.
Since 2010 Miquel Barcelo has been experimenting with a new technique for painting portraits with bleach and chalk on a black canvas, which seems to be a commentary on the work of Rembrandt and Diego Velaquez, Baroque masters whom he greatly admired, who painted with dark backgrounds to emphasize the light delicately falling on the subject’s face or hands. I guess in those days, this is a very radical concept. And Velaquez’s painting of Juan De Pareja (1599), his black slave, bordered on heresy.
In Barcelo’s technique, the light would not just be invisible rays that illuminate, but begin to materialize and take its own form, to represent another aspect altogether, usually an aspect that relates to the life of the subject. It is also a technique that is the ‘opposite’ of painting; one is taking paint away, rather than adding paint, with the element of chance thrown in where the results cannot be erased or painted over and in any event cannot be seen until the next day.