The transfiguration of the commonplace takes on new meaning in Claudio Bravo's studies of wrapped packages. The packages have recently reemerged in his work, some fifty-odd years after their first appearance, and today represent the culmination of a career that has bridged representation and abstraction, classicism and modernism, with great finesse and painterly erudition. Deeply grounded within the Western tradition of painting, the packages emerged, at least anecdotally, from a perhaps surprisingly pedestrian source. In the early 1960s, while Bravo was living in New York, his sisters visited him and every day brought home shopping bags of myriad shape and size filled with their purchases. Fascinated by the enigmatic 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 White and Yellow Package 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) "I'm now creating paintings that combine realism with a tendency toward abstract minimalism," Bravo explained in 2005, and the recent packages reflect his career-long, dual engagement with the languages of classical realism and twentieth-century abstraction.(2)
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 its progeny that dominated the pictorial landscape of the 1960s. "I think that I was originally inspired to do these pictures after looking at some works by Antoni Tápies, 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."(3) Bravo first showed the packages in 1970 in New York, and their genesis within the contemporary American context suggests a productive dialogue with the Modernist tradition then reaching its climax in the paintings of Barnett Newman, Jules Olitski and Ellsworth Kelly. The packages, in the luster of their chromatic contrasts and optical play with texture and surface, resonate with the formal concerns of post-painterly American abstraction. More hard-edged than Rothko but less geometric than Kelly, Bravo's packages broker an intermediate position that draws on the vocabulary of the color-field artists to give new and precise clarity to his own, strikingly veristic paintings of packaging and string.
Sullivan notes that the packages may further suggest Bravo's awareness of "a fairly large number of nineteenth-century American depictions of wrapped or partially wrapped packages by artists like John Haberle, John F. Peto and William Harnet, who themselves continue the Renaissance-Baroque European tradition of trompe-l'oeil painting."(4) Bravo has consistently acknowledged his connection to the same European past, from Greco-Roman antiquity to seventeenth-century Spain, and to its venerable still-life tradition, to which his packages belong. Their curiosity rests less in the objects they conceal, Bravo has suggested, than in the means of the concealment itself: "What I really wanted to paint was the wrapping. I wanted to give a sense of trompe-l'oeil tactility. I'm constantly realistic."(5)
The technical sophistication and marvelously obsessive attention to detail in White and Yellow Package is indeed astonishing. Almost hyper-real, the wrinkled saffron skin and pale underside of the wrapping paper has a crispness that shows off the artist's facility in modulating light and shadow. Bravo's fascination with the luminescence of the material, its polish and high-fidelity form and color, creates here a deeply illusionistic surface perfectly persuasive in its artifice. The painted twine bisects the package, neatly preserving the folds of the paper and giving an implicit depth and shape to the object it envelops.
This convincing trompe-l'oeil effect is amplified by the ambiguity and mystery of the very thing that the paper conceals. Bravo is careful to distance himself from Surrealist psychology, but he admits, "I am very much interested in the unusual, the unexpected, the strange. I like to make pictures based on the things that we generally see around us in daily life, but then take them in unexpected directions."(6) Here, Bravo monumentalizes his package, almost implausibly inspired by a shopping bag, yet suggests that his true subject rests far from the object itself. Exquisitely rendered in precisionist detail, White and Yellow Package turns illusionism on its head: everything about the package is manifest and knowable except its contents themselves, undisclosed and ultimately unknowable.
(1) E. J. Sullivan, "Obsession and Meditation: A Decade of Work by Claudio Bravo," Claudio Bravo: Paintings and Drawings, 1964/2004, New York: Rizzoli, 2005, 254.
(2) "A Conversation with Claudio Bravo," Claudio Bravo, Naples, FL: Naples Museum of Art, 2006, 8.
(3) Quoted in E. J. Sullivan, Claudio Bravo, New York: Rizzoli, 1985, 36.
(4) Ibid., 37.
(6) "Conversation with Edward Sullivan," Claudio Bravo: Paintings and Drawings, 1964/2004, 144.