'The paintings are not decadent; they are charged with energy, questions and suggestions. They exude an overwhelming physicality, with absolute narrative and expressive economy, but at the same time they serve as panoramas of the reflective spirit, open-ended critical questions'
(P. Subirós, 'Miquel Barceló: Return from Africa', Miquel Barceló: 1987-1997, exh. cat., Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona, 1998, p. 19)
'Spain could be seen in perspective from a dovecot, and everything was white as if covered in pigeon droppings... It was a miniature world, just like my pictures at that time'
(Miquel Barceló quoted in Miquel Barceló: Obra Sobre Papel 1979 - 1999, exh. cat., Madrid, 1999, p. iv)
Painted in April 1990, España Económica is a rugged, richly textured, sculptural map of Miquel Barceló's native Spain. Executed in 1990, the same year as Barceló's series of bullfighting paintings, it was conceived as a meditation on the nature of his country, its landscape, climate and culture. Rendered with thick impastoed paint and mixed media on canvas, Spain's undulating terrain seems almost tangible, the peaks of the Pyrenees standing proud in the fictive north of the painting. Cerulean blue encroaches upon the sun-bleached interior, the Mediterranean Sea appearing to break against the shores of the country's winding eastern coastline. It is an evocative composition that suggests arid heat and dazzling light, the white canvas shining as if from a desert. At over two meters in height and almost three meters in length, the painting invites you to travel across its landscape, visiting each territory with the eye. This fascination with the qualities of the land arose from the artist's extensive travels to Africa and in España Económica, the visual debt to Mali with its south Saharan, dust-laden plains is strikingly evident.
Barceló first travelled to Africa in 1988, extending his stay for over six months to travel through Mali, Senegal and Burkina Faso. Working largely on paper, he experimented with the properties of local pigments and river sediments, developing the attachment to texture that has remained his enduring mainstay. For Barceló, his departure from Paris, Barcelona and New York was essential, breaking his pattern of urban living and western conventions. As the artist himself confessed, the destination could have been anywhere so long as it prompted a new technical approach: '(Africa represents) a kind of overall cleansing. The first reaction I always have when I arrive in Mali is to realise the uselessness of things. One paints out of pure necessity there. In Paris or here (in Mallorca), by always painting in the same studio, you come to forget the essence of the affair. In Mali I get back in touch with the essence of the act of painting' (Miquel Barceló interview with M. F. Sánchez, La Esfera, no. 10, March 1992, Miquel Barceló: 1987-1997, exh. cat., Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona, 1998, p. 19). This new found and creative spontaneity is evident in the rich surface of España Económica.
The territory of the painting appears flat, reminiscent of the Saharan desert, yet it is filled with the personal reference points of the artist. Across the imagined Iberian Peninsula, the artist has arranged his own visual motifs: small living creatures and landmarks, recounting his own experiences of the country rather than bearing faith with formal geography. Early in 1990, Barceló had become involved with the design and creation of an opera set for a production of El Retablo de Maese Pedro el Organista in Paris. This experience had a lasting impact on him, as he later explained, watching from the stalls 'Spain could be seen in perspective from a dovecot, and everything was white as if covered in pigeon droppings... It was a miniature world, just like my pictures at that time' (Miquel Barceló quoted in Miquel Barceló: Obra Sobre Papel 1979 - 1999, exh. cat., Madrid, 1999, p. iv). In España Económica, Barceló expands this concept, creating a large unstructured canvas with the cartography of Spain detailed across its surface. Open to touch and exploration, Barceló walked around and over the picture, traversing the deserted interior, the protruding mountain peaks and uneven shores. It is a deeply organic work, born out of the creative reflexivity of the artist and devoted to the materiality of painting.
This physical process, which culminated so successfully in España Económica, is reminiscent of the glacier paintings Barcel completed in Switzerland the same year. These paintings were noteworthy for their use of poured and dripped paint, covering the surface of the canvas in a process that mimics the creep of a glacier. Although dramatically different in climate and character, Barcel saw both the desert and alpine landscape as a conduit for expressing his own history and identity. As he explained, 'though they're opposites... they have the memory of time that I've always liked: it unites millions of years to now. In the tongue of the glacier someone had been marking its movement each year, for the last hundred years... I found the year off my birth, 1957. I advanced some 200 meters and in them, ran the space of my life. Inside the ice was my future life, to my death, probably behind the mountain. I began to paint with this idea, mixing it with that of Africa: enormous, slow-moving masses, the extremes of cold and hot, the repositories of time and memory' (Miquel Barceló interview with M. Fernández-Cid, Dia 16 de Baleares, Palma, 18 February 1990, quoted in Miquel Barceló: 1987-1997, exh. cat., Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona, 1998, p. 22).
For Barceló, the course of his life and the traces of his existence are embedded in the surfaces of his paintings. As Pep Subirós has observed, 'the paintings are not decadent; they are charged with energy, questions and suggestions. They exude an overwhelming physicality, with absolute narrative and expressive economy, but at the same time they serve as panoramas of the reflective spirit, open-ended critical questions' (P. Subirós, 'Miquel Barceló: Return from Africa', Miquel Barceló: 1987-1997, exh. cat., Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona, 1998, p. 19). This is perhaps nowhere more true than in España Económica, where the essence of the artist is articulated in the white, rugged terrain of his native country, Spain. KA