NATURAL GEOMETRY, MATERIAL VOID: Choosing the body of the painting

Carlos Vidal

After his very extensive and indispensable (heterodox, even!) retrospective, Todos os Títulos estão Errados [All Titles Are Wrong], at Cordoaria Nacional, Paulo Quintas has recently brought to Galeria Presença (until 11 January), in Porto, a number of new works that developed the usual assumptions; these works, other works, all perhaps a little more than paintings, also spaces or geographies of images, unpredictable or discovered “sea routes”; I would summarize them as follows: there is always very little to see, or to “feed” the vision, in this artist’s painting. Let’s say it differently: I believe, and I am indeed quite sure, that there is only one subject in Paulo Quintas’ painting: the display or revelation of its process. And, at the same time, only one subject is neither shown nor revealed in this painting: precisely, the display or revelation of its process.

All that is solid

The compositional structures of these paintings, their geometric shapes, central crosses, visible or demarcating fields, semicircles, their “false” symbolism in bizarre patterns (the artist is at play here; at times, it even seems we are looking at secret society codes), their matter and the body of the void they appear to contain (another paradox, among others: the void here always has a body), all of this is very present and evident here, incised or traced by brush or knife. Sometimes still, a certain decorativism appears to emerge: there are patterns, pattern designs, symmetries, repeated shapes. But what imposes itself is, when “screamed” (in colour or in form), silence, sometimes the monochrome, the absence, because, as we know, all that is solid melts into air. And this air, which is not exactly the air we breathe in an exhibition room, or on the street, is here a “pictorial air”; an air sublimated by the author’s will that is obviously one of the defining subjects of his painting.

        “All that is Solid Melts into Air” is, as it is well known, the title of a remarkable philosophical and political study by Marshall Berman (publ. 1982). Berman begins, quite rightly, by talking to us about Rousseau within the context of a most compelling critique of the solidity of market, enlightenment and rational knowledge societies, which are, at heart, hubs of “self-enlargement and self-derangement”; in other words, they are the modern sensibility. His agitation: “I see only phantoms that strike my eye, but disappear as soon as I try to grasp them”. This painting (whose method and starting-point lies in the most luminous shades, its base, which seeks solidity via an incised central cross) also seeks solidity – and what do we feel here? As Marx (Berman’s next topic) would say, “the atmosphere in which we live weighs upon everyone with a 20,000-pound force, but do you feel it?”, asks the writer of Das Kapital. He, like this painting, aims to make himself understood through such intense images as sea-currents (or the return of the “wide sea”, the compositional core of these works), abysses, earthquakes or gravitational forces. All this threatens the solidity of time, of the State or of the state of painting (the “excess of state” of painting, Alain Badiou would say).

        Therefore, Paulo Quintas is interested in giving the process an important role in his painting, but at the same time, that disclosure is destroyed by blows or by the release of liquids made the medium of something that is built on loss, a formless or unforeseen liquefaction, a self-destructive Faustian power (still Berman). This painting is quite rarefied, but not akin to the exercises in restraint of Ad Reinhardt or Agnes Martin. Most certainly not, as there is even an “operatic” tendency (but not in the same sense our old Bonito Oliva applied to the Transvanguardia) in these vibrant, or extremely visual (retinal) works.
        What happens, I think, is that this work, so focused on revealing and erasing, or revealing and obscuring (sometimes a canvas is replicated over another canvas, revealing itself and erasing both of them), develops a body that is neither restrained nor exuberant, displaying instead both realities at the same time. But in an uncertain way. That is why all his titles “are wrong”. In other words, this painting is always anachronistic, but it evokes a future without a code, and what matters is that it is not here, present, as on the return from the “wide sea”: it and its author know of a current that will take them away…………..


Vera Cruz (do fragor dos ventos e das águas, primeiras paisagens) [True Cross (concerning the noise of the winds and the waters, the first landscapes)] was the title of the Porto exhibition, a procedural title, again, referring to painting as a work close to the work of winds and rough waters, all leading, unexpectedly, to quite peaceful landscapes or matter-based monochromes, like I said.

        Let us now move on to a first conclusion or  (inside-out) observation: it would be somewhat short-sighted if the title, the titles of the works and exhibitions, were of a procedural, informative, metaphorical nature, that they were a metaphorical definition of what we see. Short-sighted and unsophisticated, which is never the case here. The paintings could be an echo of the materials of the winds and the troubled waters (the artist’s reading consists often of historical, anonymous tenebrist journeys, now Melville, now biographies of figures that appear bizarre in this context, such as Hitler or Wagner…), but is instead, and differently, do not doubt it, an abandoned echo of yourself, an echo of nothingness, “pictorial air”.
        We do not see here paintings that depict winds, storms or stormy seascapes, but the reverse of that: the paintings will silence all that,  a series of canvas without colour (however, we suspect their layers, basic, simple and effective though they may be –because they erase one another) and compositionally identical but, in the end, always very different.
        Imagination is, therefore, kept “inside” the painting, while outside (on the painting’s skin) everything appears calm. However, here we have another achievement of these works: there is neither inside nor outside, nor skin; instead, there are surfaces that seem thick and material, but move away from matter – they are forced to do that because the artist, using spatulas, knives (which create and remove textures), piercers and compasses, flattens and smooths everything. To erase is to produce, to make. Palimpsest. I erase and conceal, and thus the image is born. But here there are no images, only a making-image (no “image”, therefore). I could say that Paulo Quintas has invented a very coherent and inexplicable type of image: the pictorial image. As if the winds and tides were aspiring to the painting into which they basically transform themselves. The painting does not echo the turbulence of the waters, the revenge of the white whale, the ghosts of Rousseau (see above) or of the first navigators. Nonetheless, all that passes through this painting: it is not present in it, but it also never disappears from it.
        I quote, elsewhere, Deleuze. His Logique du Sens contains a chapter dedicated to the schizophrenic and the “child”, to Artaud and his disdain for surfaces as a means to appease the intellect, whether in literature or in the arts in general. What is really interesting in this painting is that, in spite of the thickness of its primers and materials (and sometimes chromatic luminosity), it is always a surface, but a pictorial surface, in other words, a surface of invisible layers (from the lightest to the darkest), and that is what gives it major discursive (pictorial) relevance: the layers of a painting must therefore exist in our mind and will be built by us, the painter is not supposed to give them (or us) a “guided tour” of the painting he has discovered. The painter’s task is to deceive the viewer.
        The painter makes a painting that appears to make itself. He makes it make itself. So, he does (a little bit of) everything, and the simpler the process is, the less the painting is “made” – and Paulo Quintas enjoys “doing little” and using basic procedures. In fact, if the painting is made like the return from the “wide sea”, the painter does practically nothing. Right and wrong.         Caravaggio was perhaps more adept at concealing (if we now consider the marks or incisions Quintas has made with a compass). The Lombard’s abozzo, that first white layer (a first layer that is also everywhere in Paulo Quintas’ work), was then subject to incisions (like these paintings), the incisions being Caravaggio’s drawing process, the guidelines for his compositions.
        In Paulo Quintas, on the other hand, compass drawing (usually simple geometric figures) incorporates the pictorial matter as much as oil or colour, and therefore is a structural element of his language. This painting becomes individualized via unusual “games”: sometimes, the image results from the contact between canvases that have lain abandoned on the outside (street) for extended times (years, in fact: they grow there). In other cases, it is the last palette knife-applied layer that reveals the final image by erasing the one underneath. In other words: I can only see what the bottom layer is if I cover it. Paradox, again.
        The oil paint’s long drying time ensures that nothing is lost: one layer exists on top of another, and over all a liquid medium can appear, generating the formless. The formless thus generated is then subjected to a compass drawing that directs the palette knife’s actions: sometimes a circle appears, but no form is used here in its entirety: that circle is broken up in a few pieces (becoming a semicircle); in fact, it announces itself present, even if in a small portion. It exists, but as a fragment.

        The circle, without beginning or end, has a peculiar shape, and therefore makes this painting circulate around itself. And, in the end, it reveals itself as an unprecedented, unpredictable layer. But an unpredictability that is drawn from many, many possibilities. The painter chooses a particular sort of unpredictability. The right choice: to choose the ways in which loss occurs. Each canvas is a “right canvas” with a “wrong” title. It is a solid statement that is undone by the painter’s will. The material is erased. The form remains. Precisely. In the end, hesitation disappears. There is never hesitation.