Neofeudal, 2016. Oil on canvas. 200 x 200 cm.
I have known Ángel Mateo Charris and watched him evolve as an artist for some twenty years. My vantage point has been always been that of an outsider—from New York, although I have made visits to his studio in Cartagena, seen him work during extended stays in New York, andenjoyed seeing shows of his work in both Valencia and Madrid, having served as curator for two of them. From afar, I have followed his adventure travels, both real and fictive. He paints both actual and imaginary places populated with both authentic and fantastic folk, who appear involved in enigmatic dramas. Charris not only records the drama, he stages the action like a film director.
This cinematic quality in Charris’s work he shares with the American realist painter, Edward Hopper (1882-1967). In fact, it was because I had organized many shows and written extensively on Hopper that Charris first contacted me, pursuing his own passionate engagement with this artist. Committed to representation when much of the art establishment in Spain was promoting abstraction, Charris sought to share his vision that linked Hopper’s Cape Cod scenes to Spain’s Cabo de Palos.
I have also had the occasion to meet Charris’s devoted friends from Cartagena, -- including the painter, Gonzalo Sicre, his colleague on the Hopper venture (and once again on another project about the Belgian artist, Leon Spilliaert), some of his other friends and traveling partners, and his gallerist, Ramon Garcia, once also from this delightful corner of Murcia, now ensconced in Madrid. They all populate Charrilandia-- Charris’s world, an artificial universe characterized by elastic borders and strange encounters in theatrical settings.
During all this time, no other contenders have displaced Charris’s solitary perch surveying his particular imaginary world. He remains tottering like a strange bird alight on a delicate branch above a river teeming with rapids. Meanwhile, fashionable postmodern art styles surround him like so many ravenous cats: conceptual art, minimal art, appropriation, and installation. He feels the burden of art history and its gravitas.
The pursuit of painting, to which Charris is loyal, has finally gained back some of the strength lost when pundits prematurely proclaimed in the late 1960s: “Painting is dead.” He has helped to counter the pessimism about painting that began in 1839, with the French painter Paul Delaroche’s response to Daguerre’s invention of photography. Charris has kept injecting potent streams of imagination into the project of painting. He might make use of photographs as an aide-memoire, but Charris is no photorealist painter. The familiarity of reality is always in exquisite tension with his fantasy.
To feed his insatiable imagination, Charris sometimes chooses to travel. His journeys have included trips to Cape Cod and New York City (1995), Mali (2001), Mexico (2002), Finland (2003), Burma, Thailand, and Cambodia (2004), Cape Verde (2005), Egypt, Syria, and Jordan (2005), Japan (2005), Kenya and Mauritius (2006), California, Hawaii, and Alaska (2008), New York (2009), Ostend, Belgium (2010), Peru (2011), Iceland (2011), Australia and Bali (2012), New York (2012), French Polynesia (2013), India and New Zealand (2014), the Southern USA (2016), as well as many trips around Europe.
So how does all this wanderlust figure in his paintings? With Charris, the particularity of place merges with the needs of his fantasies. Reality joins hands with invention, giving birth to new places and inhabitants. Recently, Charris has produced a series of paintings inspired by his journey across the Pacific to the South Seas. In his Universal (1939), painted in 2015, he uses as a backdrop a mural the Mexican Miguel Covarrubias painted for the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco, with its upbeat theme, “Pageant of the Pacific.” Charris, however, makes an ironic comment on world’s fairs, which though they always claim to celebrate friendship between countries, also show self-promotion and power. Thus, Charris explains that he shows two freemasons, members of an international order established for mutual help and fellowship, shaking hands beneath a concealed bomb on the eve of World War II, a time of complicated international relations. His view is one of pessimism and cynicism.
One can also look back at Charris’s book, Tubabus en Tongorongo of 2001. It was inspired by his trip that year to Mali, when this beleaguered West African country was enjoying a moment of relative calm before the political situation there deteriorated into turmoil, terrorism, and destruction. The map on the book’s endpapers documents towns named Picasso, Léger, Breton, as well as Oz and Tintinville, among other references Charris made to his favorite works of art and literature.
For his imaginary African map, Charris also named an entire region “Raymond Roussel,” after the French poet, novelist, playwright, and musician, whose work influenced the Surrealists, among others. New Impressions of Africa, Roussel’s 1,274-line poem, consisting of four long cantos in rhymed alexandrines, attracted Charris, who shares the poet’s enthusiasm for homonymic puns in some of his titles, as well as, in the painter’s case, visual word play, or double entendre. Charris, who is nothing if not playful, is quick to hint at and exploit multiple meanings-- however that might be possible. He often achieves bold rhetorical effects and sly, reverberating humor.
This current show, dubbed by Charris with the neologism, “Los Cosmolocalistas,” resembles the form of an anthology or a retrospective since he has chosen to revisit themes from his previous exhibitions. But he has created new work to carry out this mission, so it is not a true retrospective-- though he does take a look back in time. We can think of precedents in artists like Giorgio de Chirico (an earlier artist of Mediterranean climate and sensibility), whose later paintings sometimes echoed the metaphysical themes of his own early work.
We might also consider Rene Magritte’s painted paradox of 1928-29, The Treachery of Images (Ceci n’est pas une pipe), which could justify an inquiry about the "truth" of the images in Charris’s pictures. They are decidedly his own version of the “truth”—not at all realism, but poetic metaphor.
It is clear that Charris has also thought about Magritte. In 1999, he created a series of works with military and art world references called Ceci n’est pas une fiesta. Diverse individual images referred to national frontiers and to the international exhibition of contemporary art called Documenta that takes place every five years in Kassel, Germany. Nearly two decades before the recent vote of Britain to withdraw from the European Union, Charris, the inveterate traveler, picked up on the growth of nationalist frenzy and commented on the need to perpetuate international understanding and commerce.
Political allusions are sometimes present in his new pictures, which really do recall some of his earlier works. Painted in the signature style that we have come to expect from Charris, these canvases exemplify his clarity of form, while often expressing a playful ambiguity of meaning. In Banderas (Vendiendo la burra) of 2016, Charris refers to the “Spanish proverb about someone trying to sell you something at any cost,” but his intention is to call attention to “nationalisms,” those divisive patriotic sentiments that encourage the xenophobia and chauvinism that infect so many countries of the world today.
Such works also echo the political sentiments Charris expressed earlier in his Atracciones Franco (1998), Artistas nacionalistas (1999), or Pinocho y Pinochet (1999). Charris spent his childhood in fascist Spain, growing up under Franco, who died only in 1975, when Charris was thirteen. Neither his family nor his community had sympathized with Franco. Thus Charris imbibed and identified with the pain, chagrin, and deprivation that people suffered during Franco’s dictatorship. This perspective has helped to shape his worldview and has sometimes figured in his art.
With Tierra de hielo and El contratiempo, Charris revisited in 2016, his recurring fantasies of frigid Northern climates, which so contrast to the warmth of his native Mediterranean home in Cartagena. Comics like Hergé’s Adventures of Tintin, especially the story of Tintin in Tibet, with its wintery landscapes, nurtured his childhood visions of escape, which also represented freedom from Franco’s dictatorship. Early and lasting attachment to these images eventually compelled Charris to voyage to Iceland. Such exotic vistas represented for Charris the Other. Now they call out to him once again, reflecting nostalgia for both his childhood and his earlier snow paintings, memorialized in his 2003 show, Looking at White.
Jovenes pintores en Truro (Young painters in Truro), 2016, recaptures Gonzalo Sicre and Charris visiting Edward Hopper’s house in South Truro, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod, where they traveled together in 1995. It recalls their show and book, Cape Cod Cabo de Palos Tras las huellas de Hopper of 1997. Also referring to this project of engagement with Hopper’s work, is Noctámbulos (Nighthawks), 2016. Charris, however, has taken the setting for his own disquieting urban night scene-- painted in homage to Edward Hopper’s famous noctural New York diner-- from a place he recently observed on a visit to Tallahassee, Florida.
Tallahassee might stand in for New York in this canvas, but sometimes the place that Charris depicts is not a geographic region at all, not a real place found on any globe or map, but is located instead in the “art world.” La broma infinita (Infinite Jest) of 2016, revisits earlier pictures such as Rareza del siglo (1994) or Retrato del artista adolescente (1998). La broma infinita shows colorful costumed figures that Charris recently observed at Disney World in Florida. This painting repeats the earlier motif of signs at a crossroads from Retrato del artista adolescente. But now instead of artists’ names, the signs say “Contemporary” and “Success,” reflecting the increasing commodification and commerce of today’s art world, which turns some works of art into investment assets before there is even time to recognize or to appreciate their aesthetic value. Charris depicts his balloons as Piggy Banks, calling to mind the mass-produced inflatables that the artist Jeff Koons has had cast in stainless steel, turning them into hard cash in an inflated art market.Such balloons were already populating Charris’s monumental and memorable four-paneled painting of 1999: Parade, inspired by his witnessing monumental inflated floats in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade in New York, the city where Koons first created his mischief.
New York is also the setting Charris has chosen for Neofeudal, 2016. This picture offers a view of lower Manhattan seen from the Brooklyn Bridge, recalled from his last extended visit there in 2012. Charris took the big man smoking a cigar from an old Life magazine and gave him a crown adapted from the Burger King logo, which he equipped with a screen that provides live stock quotes, making allusion to Wall Street greed. This painting is the artist’s social commentary on the type of avaricious real estate magnate who, two years before the housing market collapsed in 2008 and millions of Americans lost their homes, admitted that he was hoping for a crash so that he could go in and buy to advantage. This cruel and powerful rich man looms large; his immense scale dwarfs the three working-class figures visible below, just as his deeds disregard their humanity.
Charris’s paintings continue to reflect the world in which he lives, filtered through the unique universe of his imagination. As global events become less predictable and we appear to teeter on the edge of disaster, it’s not clear which narrative is more difficult to believe—Charris’s fantasies or the next day’s news. In both, meaning refuses to be precise, eventualities often merge into a dense fog of uncertainty. Only Charris’s crisp forms maintain their clarity. His is a potent commentary on the puzzlement of our days and on the futility of trying either to comprehend all that transpires or even to make sense of much of it.