The transfiguration of the commonplace has taken on new meaning in Claudio Bravo's remarkable studies of wrapped packages, a series begun in the mid-1960s and more recently reprised, to critically self-conscious and fascinating ends. Both a riff on the still-life tradition and a critique of contemporary formalism, the packages epitomize a career that has expertly bridged representation and abstraction, classicism and modernism, with finesse and painterly erudition. Though firmly grounded within the Western tradition of painting, the packages first emerged, at least anecdotally, from a perhaps surprisingly pedestrian source. In the early 1960s Bravo lived in New York, and when his sisters visited they brought shopping bags of myriad shapes and sizes filled with their purchases. Fascinated by the amorphous dimensions and tactile surfaces of the packaging, he began his experiments in wrapping in cloth and paper, embarking on what Edward Sullivan has called a "life-long passion with substances that can change and transform their shapes through human manipulation." For Sullivan, the series of studies started in the later 1990s, to which A Couple belongs, is "far more ambitious and complex than any of those done earlier and, within the history of his artistic career, they are far more transcendent in their meanings."(1)
The earlier packages mark Bravo's first serious preoccupation with abstraction and strike a balance between mimetic realism, with a nod to the Spanish still-life tradition, and the essentialist monochromes of color-field painting and their progeny that dominated the artistic landscape of the 1960s. "I think that I was originally inspired to do these pictures after looking at some works by Antoni Tàpies, whom I greatly admired," Bravo later reflected. "He'd done paintings with string that resembled wrapped objects. Rothko's work was also instrumental, but in a more indirect way."(2) More precisionist than Rothko but still far removed from hard-edged geometries, Bravo brokered an intermediate position, drawing on the vocabulary of color-field abstraction to give visual clarity to his own, startlingly veristic paintings of packaging and string. He reiterated his dual engagement with the languages of classical realism and contemporary abstraction in 2005, explaining of his recent work, "I'm now creating paintings that combine realism with a tendency toward abstract minimalism."(3)
Technically sophisticated, with marvelously obsessive attention to detail and convincing trompe-l'oeil, the most recent packages also instill a canny sense of mystery and intrigue into their mundane subjects. In a series of paintings from the early 2000s, Bravo began to stage the packages in group compositions, introducing a relational and often anthropomorphic character to his wrapped subjects. A Couple may be understood in this regard as a virtual double portrait, its life-sized protagonists an open metaphor for both the oneness and the duality of human partnership. Dressed in near-complementary shades of periwinkle-violet and yellow-orange, the couple express subtle differences: the one stands completely covered, bound by painted twine on all sides, while its partner reveals a darker interior, a lone vertical thread accentuating its greater height. Bravo shows here his masterful fluency in the languages of realism and abstraction: layered into A Couple is the artifice of painterly illusion, the mysteries of identity and concealment and, finally, the human intimacies of portraiture and couplehood.
Abby McEwen, Assistant Professor, University of Maryland, College Park.
1) E. J. Sullivan, "Obsession and Meditation: A Decade of Work by Claudio Bravo," in Claudio Bravo: Paintings and Drawings (1964/2004), New York: Rizzoli, 2005, 254.
2) Bravo, quoted in E. J. Sullivan, Claudio Bravo, New York: Rizzoli, 1985, 36.
3) "A Conversation with Claudio Bravo," Claudio Bravo, Naples, FL: Naples Museum of Art, 2006, 8.