A scattered landscape of still life objects appears like indelible stains against the dazzling, pale background of Barceló's Bodegón amb 3 Peres, painted in 1988. Amongst them, the pears of the title appear in oils and in the flesh, the artist incorporating objects from the real world, a wide variety of mixed media bridging the gap between the reality of the viewer's world, and the reality of the canvas.
Increasingly during the late 1980s, Barceló found himself painting still life and landscape paintings on a pale background, the objects highlighted in an extreme relief. During his early years, Barceló had been steeped in culture and in the Old Master tradition, but now sought to shed some of the baroque fullness that had dominated so many of his pictures. Now, instead of paintings of libraries and the Louvre came the desolate interior and exterior landscapes of the artist's own world.
Of course, Bodegón amb 3 Peres continues a different Baroque tradition, that of the still life painting. Indeed, the intense way in which he renders his subjects, made all the more real by their occasional actual presence on the canvas, smacks intensely of the Baroque tradition, taking the trompe l'oeil to new extremes. Barceló even compared his still life paintings from this period to those of his esteemed compatriot, Cotàn, implying that he was still linked to the Western artistic canon, despite the increasing desertification of his paintings.
In January 1988, Barceló made the break with the past masters physical, and traveled to Africa. There, the desert enchanted him. The white that had been slowly coming to dominate his paintings now made sense in the light of the Sahara: 'The light in the desert is so intense that things disappear, and the shadows are more intense than the things themselves' (Barceló, Miquel Barceló: Obra sobre papel 1979-1999, exh. cat., Madrid 1999, p. iv). In Bodegón amb 3 Peres, the pears and the other scattered objects are lit up like the stray objects on a vast desert landscape, their existence vouchsafed for, in the case of the pears, as much by the shade that they cast as by the objects' physical presence: 'The theme of shadows is sort of like that. What isn't has more intensity than what is. Because in Africa, light isn't colour. Light is much stronger than colour. Colour is almost corroded by the light' (Barceló, quoted in ibid., p. iv). Under Mali's glaring sun, the non-essential has been dissolved by the combination of heat and light. Barceló retained this interest in the extreme contrast between the objects and their desert-like background even in his still life paintings. The stranded objects are thrown into almost existential relief in Bodegón amb 3 Peres, the canvas still saturated in the relentless glare of Africa: 'At a temperature of 50°C and with the sandwind one sees everything much clearer, that is to say, one ceases to see anything at all' (Barceló, 1988, quoted in Miquel Barceló 1987 1997, exh. cat., Barcelona 1998, p. 86).
Existence itself in Mali had a huge impact on Barceló, not just the light. The necessary focus on the essentials, the daily struggle for survival, put the entire role of painting into a new and extreme perspective for the artist, sharpening the existential edge that already flavoured his art. He now saw the Western tradition that had formed him and that he had fought to escape in a new light, as a strange and decadent luxury in comparison with the physical dedication and sacrifice needed to create art in Segou:
'[Africa represents] a kind of overall cleansing. The first reaction I always have when I arrive in Mali is to realize 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. There, either you do nothing or you work things through to the end. It's all so difficult, so much heat, so much dust... the bugs eat the canvases and it's difficult to get materials... In those circumstances picking up the brush is a gesture made through absolute necessity' (Barceló, interview with Mariano F. Sánchez, 1992, quoted in op. cit., 1998, p. 18).
Even Barceló's art was cleansed by this experience, and Bodegón amb 3 Peres has the sublime, dazzling intensity of a pure vision. Barceló at last had escaped the fetters of his culture, and could focus on the day to day business of living. Bodegón amb 3 Peres is about sustenance, about life, and its purity allows us to focus on how fundamentally vital these are. Even when he was painting in Spain, his experiences in Mali continued to flavour his art, filling it with a metaphysical quality that had hitherto been absent. From this period onwards, the act of painting became an act of will, defiance, and even need against the harsh conditions of African life. And this act of defiance became an affirmation of the artist's own existence.
Continuing this existential theme, the organic surface of the canvas, created through the almost geographical accumulation of paint and objects, is a banner that celebrates the intervention of the artist, and the gradual evolution of the canvas itself. This existential content in Bodegón amb 3 Peres is accentuated by the incorporation of the mixed media elements: 'For the white pictures I used anything from grains of rice to almonds, beans and chickpeas in order to cause irregularities in the surface. Later they were simply lumps of paint' (Barceló, quoted in Miquel Barceló 1984-1994, exh. cat., London 1994, p. 94). In Bodegón amb 3 Peres, the picture is three-dimensional, filled with organic matter, still alive, still evolving on the wall, bursting with impasto and fruit into our world: 'This ties in with the concept of the picture as cosmogony, as a type of world with a special phenomenology running parallel to the phenomenology of the world' (Barceló, quoted in op.cit., 1999, p. iv). By condensing life and reality onto the canvas of Bodegón amb 3 Peres, Barceló has created a painting that represents and contains reality, that places the fundamental truths under the spotlight, on a monumental scale, on the canvas before the viewer. Just as his picture of pears is more vivid because of the incorporation of pears, so he has harnessed the raw essence of existence itself on the canvas.