“We can no longer be sure of what we’re seeing”

Vicenç Viaplana

Retrat de Vicenç Viaplana. © Mariona Gil

Never had so much work been exhibited and so much at the same time by the artist Vicenç Viaplana (Granollers, 1955). A truly free soul, advocate and researcher of painting, this spring has let a rare Viaplana tour in Catalonia take place: from the retrospective in the Espais Volart at the Fundació Vila Casas in Barcelona, to the impressive and magnetic large-scale painting on display at the Granollers Museum; from the exhibition at the La Mercè Cultural Centre in Gerona to the one at the Marc Domènech Gallery in Barcelona, which can be seen until 4 June. This tour affords an exceptional perspective on Viaplana’s life and artistic journey, forever spurred by restlessness and the desire to transcend borders and to explore limits: accompanied by the artist, we stroll together through the realm of the less obvious and the more hidden, and we discover clarity and vibrations therein.

With an artistic career spanning more than 40 years under his belt, Viaplana has exhibited in Catalonia’s most important galleries, including Ciento, G, Metrònom, the Bruno Facchetti Gallery, Fernando Alcolea, Antoni de Barnola, Carles Taché… And, nevertheless, he has not at all been coveted by museums or public institutions. Hugely influenced by dream interpretations and psychoanalysis, his painting seems splattered by the liquid society proclaimed by Zygmunt Bauman and by the contrasts between the urban showcase and the hinterland and the natural explosion. Perseverance and resistance explain an artistic path that has become established in painting, but that has also left room for conceptual considerations, at the beginning, and collaborations with Carles Hac Mor, with video art, the book Fracassart [Failure of Art movement][Lt1]  and Jordi Benito’s made-up biography.

 [Lt1]Explicació afegida per la traductora.

You said somewhere that you thought you would never have an exhibition with as many pieces as that in Espais Volart, Els llocs de la pintura [The Places of Painting]. That went on to be complemented by other exhibitions, with the special culmination at the Marc Domènech Gallery, Visions i cadències [Visions and Cadences]. How have you experienced all this?

This exhibition at the Marc Domènech Gallery is the oddest one because I did something that isn’t usually done, at least in life. I found a folder of drawings and paintings from when I hadn’t even yet turned twenty, from 1974, which had never been exhibited. I said to Marc, “How about we display them alongside current pieces?” In other words, take a 40-year leap back in time, from an artist just starting out, practically just out of adolescence, to pieces that are already much more complete. It was an enormous gamble.

Are they all drawings from the 1970s?

From 1974 to 1976. There are some paintings that are more psychedelic. Some Catalan art has been a bit submerged, like psychedelia that was done a lot at that time. Informalism promptly took it all away. In those days there were many people who drew in this way, in part inherited from Joan Ponç and also influenced by the psychedelia of the time.

Why was this psychedelia buried?

That’s an interesting question. I have always sustained that there is a great deal of ideological hierarchy in the interpretation that has been made of contemporary Catalan art. There have been major schools of thought somewhat imposed by official criteria that have hidden or obscured other co-existing schools of thought that were just as or even more powerful. For instance, the whole thing of informalism, which came into being with Tàpies, created a predominant trend that swept away much of this psychedelia. Or very interesting kinetic art movements too. Even if it doesn’t look that way, the art world is very hierarchical. We think it is a world that has a free opinion, but it passes through the filter of a certain dominant intelligentsia. And this is the one that ultimately makes some things be transcended and others forgotten, to the point that many artists are left on the sidelines. And careers are literally over. Another quite dominant trend is the neo-conceptual one. There is a neo-conceptualism very different to what it was at the outset, which was more political and more related to social upheaval.

Your career and everything that the anthological exhibition encapsulates gives the impression that you have been very aware of this landscape and have decided to eschew trends no matter what happens.

Against this backdrop, there’s a point where, just to move forward, you come up with a strategy that in my case went through isolation. I abandoned the prevailing artistic trends or pigeonholing that would have led me to do things that did not interest me whatsoever. You pay a fairly expensive price, which implies a certain resistance, but with which you stand firm in what you believe. Insistence and, what Miró said, persistence.

It mustn’t have been easy...

For a young artist in the face of the 1970s, it was very frustrating. I was from a town, from a Granollers where everything was very naive. Art was brilliant and we were all a group of fellow artists and we had fun. And then came the clash with the galleries in Barcelona. We came up against invisible barriers, like language for instance. We spoke in a certain way, more country-like. The people in control of Barcelona’s galleries at that time belonged to a certain social class that spoke differently. They were small details, but they were there. Very shy colleagues of mine, when faced with this, backed down. They said, “These people will never get me!” You entered a world that you thought would give you freedom and open up horizons and you found that it wasn’t quite like that. It’s a filter that has caused many generations of artists to fail from the get-go. Just taking a look at the class origin of the people who have made it and those who haven’t, there is already an overwhelming cut-off point.

If the social elevator ever existed, I’d say that it is now totally rickety. It isn’t about getting rich but about having opportunities to travel through new worlds, different to yours, to where you came from.

I saw this quite clearly the first time I went to New York. It must have been 1983 or 1984. I had ten years in my career behind me, but I realised then that you went to a gallery and, even though they didn’t know you from Adam, you left them your portfolio and the head of the gallery spent a whole day looking at what had arrived on their desk. It didn’t matter who it belonged to. Not where it came from or anything. That was unusual here. Either you came with certain references or the hierarchies were very pronounced.

When you spoke of the 1970s, I was thinking of the conceptual art movements that you organised in Granollers, with Jordi Benito and company. It’s what Alexandre Cirici christened the Meridià Granollers [The Granollers Meridien][Lt1] , isn’t that so? Is this also part of the things that have been put aside because they have gone from the centre to the sidelines?

 [Lt1]Explicació afegida per la traductora.

In those years, Barcelona was not the epicentre of what was happening in the conceptual world. It was spread out. There was Granollers, Banyoles, Reus... It’s a story that has hardly been told. In everything that was done during that period in Granollers we did not have any kind of showcase or significance, because things happened in Barcelona. There was also less chance of disseminating work. Barcelona’s centralism steadily hogged everything, even today. And the institutions that are on the periphery or outside Barcelona have not had the dignity to defend and promote it, no longer thinking of Barcelona but of London or New York.

Retrat de Vicenç Viaplana. © Mariona Gil © Mariona Gil

The exhibition at the Espais Volart began with your return to painting in the mid-1980s, with urban landscapes. It’s a pretty frenzied, visceral painting. How is this process going and why these suburban vignettes of burned cities?

I’ll tell you the personal circumstances. Sometimes there are other keys to understanding something. At that time I was working as a designer in Barcelona. And I travelled to and fro from Barcelona to Granollers by train every day. The whole journey was plagued with those no man’s lands, that space that had been agrarian, that gradually deteriorated and turned into industrial estates that dumped shit into the rivers. They steadily turned into spaces divided by roads, motorways, construction works... It was a time, the 1980s, when we experienced the glamour of design, and major image transformations. During the day we would meet to clean up images using design. And when you went home, you saw that we were somehow paying for that progress and at a very high price. We were wasting all the natural heritage we had. And that was not talked about. And I couldn’t get that out of my head. I would go to the studio at night, because I worked all day and I had no choice, my entire career has been self-subsidised, and all those pictures came out spontaneously. Those landscapes came out instinctively, I painted my hands, walked on top of the paintings and burned the cities I saw.

What has your relationship with Barcelona and with the city in general been like?

A love-hate relationship. It’s like seeing the two Barcelonas. In those years Barcelona was a very creative city and especially at night, in the trendy bars. We’re talking about the late 1970s till we got into the 1980s. You witnessed a very interdisciplinary effervescence. Artists, designers, architects... It was powerful. You ended up exhausted, because we stayed up till all hours and the next day it was hard to get up, for those of us who worked, needless to say... The renowned “movida madrileña” [Madrid scene. A countercultural movement that took place mainly in Madrid during the Spanish transition after Francisco Franco’s death in 1975][Lt1]  was actually born in Barcelona. Yes, because before the Madrid scene, everybody, even from Madrid, came to Barcelona. It was the vanguard of everything that was being done in Spain, known by the handful of us who experienced it. It was also a very underground underground. Pujolisme [the political movement that arose around the figure of Jordi Pujol, a prominent Catalan nationalist politician, president of the Generalitat Government of Catalonia between 1980 and 2003][Lt2]  turned its back on us. It only fostered traditional culture, traditionalism. And that powerful modernity was put aside. This created a certain aversion to Catalan nationalist movements.

 [Lt1]Explicació afegida per la traductora.

 [Lt2]Explicació afegida per la traductora.

In these moments that you describe, one may think that another opportunity was lost to make the art world more accessible...

At that time, an international art fair was born in Barcelona, which was then the embryo of ARCO [Spanish international contemporary art fair][Lt1] . Art fairs were in vogue and a powerful one was organised. But it wasn’t valued enough and this initiative was diverted to ARCO. And then Catalan galleries would totally adhere to specific art trends. It largely depended on Madrid or most of the galleries ultimately almost becoming international franchises. They ended up selling art that came from abroad. And even that 1970s’ initiative to promote local art, deemed not to have sufficient value, was lost. What happened in that period was dramatic. I believe it has hardly been studied.

 [Lt1]Explicació afegida per la traductora.

Your path is much more private than public. How do you explain that?

There comes a point where you no longer ask yourself. Now, at this age, you don’t give a damn. Many people wonder what has happened to museums, the city’s institutions... Perhaps we should analyse who has been in charge of these spaces during this time. They should have some accountability. What they have done has had an impact that we now see is very damaging. Even at times when there has been money. But the art world is not critical of itself. Everything remains in a kind of abstraction in which everyone is clueless and nobody wants to stick their neck out.

In the retrospective there was a contrast between the apocalyptic cities at the outset and the green explosion at the end. What do you mean by this?

I have realised that I am doing the same. From those turbulent landscapes manifested as urban landscapes, now these paintings with a plant-related appearance are hiding very similar upheavals. Beneath this appearance lie real tensions. Underneath the most media-related reality, what is always featured in the newspapers, among the big issues, there are these personal things that never transcend, those artists who have been forgotten, the failure, our failure, that of a country subjected to an authoritarian state. I have no choice but to convey all this turmoil that remains below authoritarianisms and hierarchies using my means. Submergències [Submergences, the major piece at Granollers Museum] was just that: this tension between something that may have intrinsic beauty but that can also be terrible.

Before this painting you ended up doing an exercise of trying to recognise what is under the painting, the layers of unreality and reality. It seems that it connects very well with this present, with the feeling of constant unreality, as if we inhabited a dystopia.

In many paintings there are plant references that are taken from reproductions and from reproductions of reproductions of other reproductions. The different strata or layers of reality progressively multiply. Is this real or have I imagined it? Or is it part of an invented reality? We can no longer be sure of what we are saying, of what we are seeing. We have lost it and that unsettles us. But even if we don’t understand it, we have no choice but to live with it. We are perhaps the first generation this has happened to.

Your painting has this mix of photography, painting, cinema... Amid aesthetic limits. Might it be the way you have found to continue painting, somewhat like a tightrope walker, among ambiguities?

There was a time when painting seemed to have lost its contemporary touch. It no longer talked about what was happening to us. I felt great concern. That is why I locked myself in the studio for several years, trying to find a way to reposition what I liked, which was painting, and that would also interest my contemporaries. The landscape is no longer that of the bucolic 18th century, but rather a digital, cinematographic, photographic or scientific landscape. I thought there was a way to put it through painting and bring it back to society properly. We are constantly recycling images that come from elsewhere. And painting had been a little marginalised from this recycling. And if you were a painter, you were no longer in modernity, represented by performances, installations, things that I had done twenty years previously.

What was this end of painting dictated here based on...?

The job insecurity of budding artistic curators. There was something of a coup d’état within the artistic status. Until the 1970s or 80s it was the artist who had their own voice. In the 1990s, a new figure appeared, that of the curator, who appropriated the voice of the artist, who dressed the discourse. From there all art has been built with words and reasoning, which is outlandish. A large percentage of art is incomprehensible, whether we like it or not, but it doesn’t go through rational frameworks, it goes through other stuff.

Retrat de Vicenç Viaplana. © Mariona Gil © Mariona Gil

With this desire to say something to people through painting, for them not to see amorphous material therein, how has your creative process gradually developed?

The process has been quite intuitive. I was recently reading a book by an American neurologist. He explained that something very odd happens with dreams, which is that logical relationships break down. There is a neural process that causes unusual relationships to be established. The connections are not by any means logical, but rather there is a preference for unexpected, unpredictable relationships. When I was reading it I thought, “Ah, that’s exactly what the creation process is!” During the day it is as if I were storing details, ideas, points of light, colours... And I keep it in a compartment of the brain whose name escapes me. It is stored there and at a certain moment an automatic process starts up, which I suppose must be similar to that of dreams, which is progressively developed without going through reason. When I painted Submergències I didn’t have a model nor did I know what I was going to do. I started painting and it gradually emerged.

Your last creative stage is the series “Sota el Sui” [Below El Sui Mountain], which you painted in Cànoves, at the foot of the Montseny, between 2013 and 2020. With the pandemic in between, do you think the relationship with nature will change?

Yes, I think we will be forced to change it. Some people already understand that. But there are also institutions and companies, and especially the world that benefits from all this exploitation, and we will have no choice but to force them to understand it. If not, there is no future. It started with the most basic issues that we said about landscape destruction and it is beginning to be a case of survival for humanity.

Could you state a moment in your career that is “submerged”, that is not seen but that you know marks a course?

You’re doing a certain series. And suddenly, without knowing why, something that is different appears to you. And you leave it there because you are a little perplexed. That happened with the series painted in El Sui. There is a painting that I started in 2013 and that I finished in 2016. Evolution is not a straight line. It is the spiral that is in some of my paintings. I very much imagine evolution with this helical shape. You are here and you need to go backwards to ensure a number of things. There is an unexpected impulse that takes you to another orbit. And so you gradually create this trajectory.

Sometimes we need the longest path to get back home, don’t we? This evolution is perhaps not taken into account when it comes to discussing creation.

When you read art history or a history of biographies of some painter, you don’t see this point. That they are wrong here, that they have to go back, that they have to spend a few years in which it does not emerge and then move on. I suppose that, since it worries us and creates a certain uncertainty and we want to see things clearer, we take away all this part, which I believe is very rich. Failure is part of the whole process.

When we translate something to life, sometimes personal trajectories are told like you have started running, you’ve done a ten-kilometre race, then half a marathon... And it isn’t like that. For many reasons – the pandemic, economic and social crises... – perhaps we are at a time of change that is not being interpreted either?

No. I think what is most interesting is on the sidelines. And reality is also a bit distorted, because people who begin, to write or to paint, are drawn a panorama that is a fantasy. That is not the case whatsoever.

The way you paint leads me to think that you are also going against a very established school of thought, which is to compartmentalise. And in a sense, you’ve been hard to label. Should we not talk so much about genres, styles and schools of thought, and should you deviate therefrom, it can no longer be understood?

I have always run away from myself. Maybe that would explain it a bit. I get the feeling that I have fled from my identity, from my identity as an artist. This denying yourself. When you have consolidated, something, go the other way. Feel that inevitable attraction to say, “Now what happens if I do the exact opposite of what I’ve done.” This prank of let’s break it and start over. That has motivated me. More than personal trajectories, professional consolidation within an artistic brand, the opposite exercise has been more fun for me, breaking down, losing myself, not existing, doing one thing and then doing another. When I was painting these buildings in cities in the late 1980s, it was a time of a certain boom in art, which lasted three or four years, when the paintings were actually being sold. People asked me for more, but I stopped doing them. Because I was no longer that, I was someone else and I was attracted to other things and I was not going to deceive them. And I did something completely different. People didn’t understand a thing. One of those critics or curators told me, “I don’t know how to label you.” You have to do whatever you please at will. If I committed to painting, it was to feel free. I preferred to pay this price and work like a Trojan on other things to pay for my canvases and paintings. That bewildered people. Now, with the Espais Volart exhibition, some of those people who had been lost may have gotten back on track.

How do you think people relate to art now? Has it surprised you to see someone who is amazed by what they see, without the need for nuanced mediation?

In the years in galleries I realised that this connection with people had been severed. People no longer visited galleries, they seemed like an almost hostile environment or a religious realm to them, where they had to tiptoe in. There was a time when I wanted to do a piece that did not need intermediaries, no words added to what was seen. That could reflect that spontaneous, free reaction from any person, from any culture and education... That you would be mesmerised by what you see. And then whoever was more interested would come along. And it seems to me that I have succeeded. Like with the work Submergències, there have been kids who, on seeing it, let out an “oh!”... Or with people who did not see them as regulars at galleries but who noticed a transcendence had come about with what you were doing, transcending in the sense of the transfer of emotions.

You spent the lockdown preparing the anthology. That must have been very odd, because the world had come to a standstill, but you were engaging in incredible momentum.

The strangest year has been the one with the greatest turmoil, like I have never had in my entire life. It is a paradox. The days when we were most confined, I had in mind that I was preparing all the infrastructure and logistics for this major exhibition, with the uncertainty of what was going to happen. This point of unreality added to it. Confined but thinking that you would be more exposed than ever.

It sounds terrible to say so but will this world experience somehow carry over into art?

The scope of what has happened is profound. We will gradually see changes. That sometimes happens with paintings. You gain big momentum, you paint a large-scale work in a relatively short time, but you spend months working on the small details and they turn the whole story upside down. Politics will end up delivering a huge jolt. There are things that cannot be tolerated. There is a deep crisis in large states, which have been seen as obsolete, which do not have a quick response to the problems of the people.

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