Agustí Puig: Into the Cosmos
NOVEMBER - DECEMBER 2017
New York Exhibition / December 2, 2017 / Camera: Victor Lazaro / Editing: Scott Saraceno
Agustí Puig has left terra firma for the cosmos. Puig’s palette has long revolved around ochres, umbers, and terra-cottas, and while those earth tones have not abated, his recent works are electrified with a vibrant red. The paintings emit an astral glow, an interpretation underscored by the artist’s repeated titular references to the sun, or the occasional flower that thrives in its light. However, Puig’s work is a study in contrasts. The red that blazes celestial also evokes a corporeal and even violent sensuality, particularly when it pools and coagulates on the painted surface, conjuring associations with flesh and viscera.
Puig has long made reference to myth in his rotating cast of characters, and true to form, in the recent work we find Venus and the Three Graces, as well as a nod to ancient Egypt. But specific identities are more often supplanted by archetypes, of which there are two main categories. First, there are bodies without faces. With only rapid circular brushwork to insinuate heads, they remain emotionally inscrutable, and yet they are resolutely human. In Different Figures Together, for example, Puig overlays the bodies with concentric circles, reminiscent of traditional figure drawing techniques to calculate bodily proportions. The modeled contrast between light and shadow conveys a sense of mass that makes them relatable as human bodies occupying space. The second category inverts the first: the “transparent figures,” as the artist sometimes refers to them in titles, are disembodied faces, rendered schematically and in profile. Often monumental relative to their surroundings, they float in space like all-seeing heads, or in some cases they perch precariously atop blunt bodily fragments. When they appear in groups, they are like a cabal of metaphysical beings—not gods per se, but emissaries from another dimension.
Born in 1957 in Sabadell (near Barcelona), Puig came of age as an artist in the 1980s, a decade of multiple returns. Foremost was the resurgence of painting’s status as a progressive medium in both the United States and in Europe: as a corrective to the cool austerity of conceptual art and the ephemerality of performance, there was a palpable desire among artists and viewers alike to interact with sensuous objects. The mechanistic aesthetic of Photorealism gave way to a renewal of the expressive gesture, which had fallen out of fashion since the heyday of Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s. But expressionism in the 1980s did not necessarily appear in tandem with abstraction, as figurative painting made a decisive comeback as well. Along with the return of the figure came content, narrative, myth, and symbolism, all of which were previously decried by Modernist critics as retrograde. As with the Neo-Expressionists in Germany and the Transavantguardia in Italy, Puig was among the artists who began again to grapple with the ability of painting to picture ineffable sensations that lay beyond the contours of the ordinary sensible world.
Puig’s career may have emerged in the 1980s, but he is heir to an artistic legacy rooted in the postwar European movements of Tachisme and Informel, exemplified by the work of Jean Dubuffet, Jean Fautrier, Alberto Giacometti, and Puig’s fellow Catalan, Antoni Tápies. The hallmark of both styles was an emphasis on materiality, which resulted in paintings that communicated with both visual and tactile means. Heavily worked surfaces and thick impastos evoked the primordial, whether cave walls or simply inchoate matter (it is no coincidence that Lascaux, with contains some of the oldest and best-preserved cave paintings, was discovered in 1940). Like the Informel and Tachiste artists before him, Puig uses unconventional tools to create varied textures and marks. Aside from brushes he deploys spatulas, pens, brush handles, and small iron bars. While he typically approaches the canvas with an image in mind, his method of working is both intuitive and visceral: he often pours paint directly onto canvas on the studio floor. He works quickly but with control; all the while he remains attentive to chance material accidents, allowing them to push the composition in unforeseen directions.
The predominant themes in Puig’s work can also be understood in relation to the historical lens of Informel, which was typically both humanistic and anthropomorphic. Highlighting the courage and terror inherent to basic human action, for instance, Giacometti’s featureless, attenuated figures simply point or stride forward, simple yet powerful actions that are echoed in many of Puig’s compositions. Jean Fautrier’s Les Otages (“Hostages,” 1943-44) are decomposing heads, once witness to the unspeakable horrors of war, on the verge of disintegrating into the built-up surface of the canvas. While Puig’s work is not laden with the same trauma, the relationship between his disembodied “transparent figures” and Fautrier’s Otages—often outlined in profile—is unmistakable. Broadly, the duality within Informel of the iconicity of the image and the materiality of the surface is one of the tensions animating Puig’s work, which hovers somewhere between abstraction and figuration. This is particularly evident in his recent paintings of dancers, which are nothing more than skeins of thickly poured paint. Not unlike trying to see the pictorial constellations in the night sky, once we read the titles, graceful arcs of pigment cohere into raised limbs, curvilinear drips suggest the centrifugal force of motion itself.
Movement abounds in Puig’s work, in which bodies are rarely stationary—but walk, dance, float, undress, perform. In some cases they are even agitated by a mysterious breath: in Blowing to Venus, a large head, similar to those labeled transparent figures, appears to blow life into a sinuous Venus figure. Perhaps this is a birth of sorts: the disanimated body imbued with life by an otherworldly spirit. But in Painter Blowing, Puig identifies that numinous being as the artist. A meta-commentary on the process of art making, Puig’s surrogate artist does not merely emulate, but like Pygmalion, it conjures life.
Given the primeval quality of Puig’s surfaces, it is tempting to read these paintings as echoes of the earliest creative impulses. Shallow spaces and saturated, unmodulated colors foster an indeterminacy in the compositions; as a result time and place remain unfixed. Consequently we find ourselves just as readily in a post-apocalyptic future as in the distant past. Roughly hewn grounds shot through with radioactive red anticipate the aftermath of an unnamed catastrophe. This interpretation is not as dark as it sounds: the very existence of these entities—the sun, dancers, the transparent figures, and most importantly, the artist—suggests, following disaster, the possibility of not just survival, but renewal. Whenever we are in time, a theme insinuated in the repetition of clocks in Puig’s work, these figures exist, which signals the capacity of art to prevail.
~ Paula Burleigh, Art Historian, New York