A studied realist and sophisticated connoisseur of his craft, Larraz brings an uncanny precision to his engagement with the still life tradition. Larraz has "done some of his most important work in the field of still life," Edward Sullivan has observed, and undoubtedly his still-life tableaux rank among his most impressive bodies of work. "His still lifes reflect the range of styles of still-life painting in the history of art," Sullivan has further noted, and in Jupiter and Europa Larraz demonstrates an awareness of his own place within that history.(1) Here, on a monumental scale, a pearly onion overshadows a plucky red tomato--proxies, we are told, for Jupiter and Europa. Larraz presents them as an open metaphor: their relationship may be a celestial one, in reference to the planet and its revolving moon, or it could trace its source to Greek mythology, to the legendary story of the rape of Europa by the god Jupiter, who transformed himself into a white bull and seduced the young maiden and made her queen. The conceptual convergence of the cosmic and the erotic, in deceptively simple organic forms, adds a contemporary edge to both the still life and the classical traditions, here interpreted in a radically abstracted and only conditionally "realist" form.
Indeed, Sullivan has remarked that "his art goes so far beyond mere verisimilitude that the label 'realism' seems an uncomfortable word to use in defining it."(2) The presumptive truth of his representation lies in the details: the filmy skin of the onion, wrinkled and translucent, and the dimpled flesh of the shiny, ripe tomato are strangely and disconcertingly life-like. This attention to naturalistic detail may reflect Larraz's close study of the history of art. When asked about artists of the past that he most admired, Larraz surprisingly favored the technical mastery of Netherlandish art over the Spanish classical tradition, a more conventional and expected source, stating, "The first that I'd have to mention would be Pieter Bruegel the Elder--both for the brilliance of his technique and for the meanings in his paintings."(3)
Yet in Jupiter and Europa, Larraz's display of technical virtuosity works against realism, amplifying the improbability of legumes scaled to superhuman proportions and calling our attention to the second-order reality of his representation. Sullivan has remarked that in the still lifes, "objects are usually monumentalized, made physically and psychologically larger than in real life. They take on an importance and grandeur that are often surprising and sometimes even disturbing, forcing the viewer into the realm of the surreal to find an explanation for these juxtapositions. . . . Like de Chirico and other Surrealists such as Meret Oppenheim, René Magritte, and Max Ernst, Larraz can take the least frightening objects and endow them with a strong suggestion of dread. . . . It is more akin to the agonizingly unsettling feeling produced by a displaced recognition of objects used for purposes or ends for which we rationally know they were not intended."(4)
Here, in the odd and outsized juxtaposition of the onion and tomato that overwhelm the space of the canvas, there is the unmistakable, quasi--Surrealist aura of the uncanny, or even of the sinister. Eerily lit and set against an indeterminate background--the immeasurable vastness of outer space, perhaps, or the tabletop of a domestic interior--the objects obtain a psychological bearing, their relationship to each other left finally unresolved. Larraz permits us, Sullivan has suggested, "to intuit relationships and emotional interchanges without ever actually showing us clear-cut confrontations between individuals."(5) It is a testament to the power of his still lifes that we perceive these objects as living bodies, possessed with an almost human gravitas and a monumentality that belies their external forms.
1) E. J. Sullivan, Julio Larraz, New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1989, 26.
2) Ibid., 10.
3) Quoted in Sullivan, "A Conversation with Larraz," in Julio Larraz, 168.
4) Sullivan, Julio Larraz, 12, 45.
5) Ibid., 164.