Combining great painterly physicality with the delicacy of a line drawing, Des Coquilles Vides (Empty Shells), is Miquel Barceló's powerful tribute to his fellow countryman, Eduardo Chillida. With careful precision, Barceló has created a space with concavities and crevices upon which a resplendent variety of shells float, which for him are visual manifestations of Bach's music, beloved by Chillida. A radically reductive palette provides an overall silvery effect that recalls transience of the ocean bed; the seashell is also an elegant symbol to link the two Spanish artists. The sea was important to both: Chillida was born and lived in the seaside town of San Sebastian; while Majorcan born Barceló spent much of his youth sailing, swimming and fishing. Like Chillida, Barceló's work was rooted in Spanish culture and inspired by the landscape. It is not just the subject matter that pertains to the natural world; the richly worked surface adds another layer of complexity to the image. Seeing himself as an heir to the tradition of Catalan art like Tàpies and Miró, Barceló seeks to evoke the physical landscape of Spain in the application of the medium itself.
The stormy, black and white palette is redolent of Basque Country skies that would have been so familiar to Chillida, while Barceló has directly compared the vertical and horizontal forces of his brush strokes to stalactites, stalagmites and natural fissures born of the high calcification of the water around where he was brought up.
Around the time Des Coquilles Vides, was made, Barceló was increasingly using motifs that evoked his seaside upbringing. 'As a teenager,' Barceló has written, 'I did a lot of underwater fishing. During a certain phase, I found myself spending more time underwater than on earth. The sandy bottoms of the sea striated by the waves, as the reflections of the ocean's surface seemed deserted, nothingwe only observe blue-green sand as far as the eye can see. Only when we really know how to look can we spot the sole hiding under the sand, the cuttlefish, metamorphosed with stripes on its back, skates, spider crabs, sand octopuses, as pale as a sheet, white eels at dusk'( M. Barceló, quoted in Miquel Barceló, exh. cat., Ben Brown Fine Arts, Ben Brown Fine Arts, 2011, p. 10). Des Coquilles Vides represents this experience. Encouraging eye to rove across the canvas, Barceló has created an evocative image in which any sense of depth and spatial orientation remains elusive, as if we too are underwater. With its vivid shadows and subtly variegated tones, there is also a dream-like quality to Des Coquilles Vides, a quietness that emphasises the idea of emptiness and of the shells that are now no longer inhabited. Barceló has in the past observed that often shadows have more presence than the objects themselves; indeed, the beautifully detailed, vacant forms are a poignant reminder of Chillida's absence.