There is a kind of micro-genre in landscape painting that art history books do not usually discuss in detail or merely mention in passing. If anything, it is noted as a nineteenth-century eccentricity and remains forgotten in the basement of some museum, growing old amongst the damp and dust. Not surprisingly, it has captured the attention of Ángel Mateo Charris, who has a unique humanistic curiosity and a fine sensitivity, observant, as he is, of aspects that go unnoticed by the common spectator. Few remember landscape artists such as William Ashcroft or Frederic Church, to name just two, who were drawn to volcanoes and their effects.
When Krakatoa, located on an island between Java and Sumatra, erupted in 1883, the ashes reached the stratosphere and strange and mysterious effects occurred around the world for over a year. The sky became tinged with pink and purple tones and the moon, filtered through the dust, seemed green or blue, depending on the night. On the horizon, it seemed as if spectacular fires could be discerned. It was at that time that, on the outskirts of London, William Ashcroft, influenced by those intense and dramatic evenings, painted some 500 watercolors that endeavored to depict those explosions of light and color. Ashcroft appears to have executed one piece every ten minutes, in a disciplined manner, with the aim of capturing the dance of salmon, violet, vermilion and yellow hues. Ashcroft has sparked interest not in art history, but rather among meteorologists who, in an era in which photography was black and white, have been able to study the effects of Krakatoa on the climate through his watercolors.
Frederic Church, although he enjoyed incredible critical fortune during much of his artistic career, died virtually forgotten in 1900. And today few cite his name among the great landscape artists of the 19th century. His was, indeed, a romantic landscape, sensationalistic and dramatic, which attempted to express the grandeur of American nature and the myth of America as a new Eden. Gigantic icebergs, dizzying waterfalls, spectacular twilights in exotic lands, colorful northern lights–these were his subjects. But some of his most memorable works are about volcanoes: Cayambe, Cotopaxi and Chimborazo, for example. And perhaps the luminous chromaticism of some of his glowing northern lights skies could well be a result of Krakatoa, more than 10,000 km away.
At any rate, while the experts have not shown much interest, the volcano is a pictorial motif. It is, above all, an explosion of color and dramatic effect, although this does not render it void of complex symbolism. It also signifies the underworld, the mystery of the depths, of that which is hidden below the surface, perhaps a treasure, perhaps the entrance to the realm of the dead. And, among its numerous connotations, there is also the hint of adventure, a path of initiation in the search for the secret knowledge that is hidden, encrypted, under the surface of things. In this sense, we might recall Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth, and how the volcano is the axis that connects the outer world to this unattainable center that encompasses all mysteries.
For some time now, one of Ángel Mateo Charris' lines of work has been adventure, and within this geography of adventure, one of the topographies most revisited by the painter has been the volcano. Charris went back to this theme in an exhibition entitled Días en Volcanovia (Days in Volcanovia), back in 2006. People thought it was a whim of the artist, a kind of joke. Few realized that it was actually an encrypted tribute to painting and to adventure. Evidently, our artist's sensitivity is different from that of the landscape artists mentioned above, but his was a modern reading of the theme.
In the exhibition catalog, Charris himself narrated the story of a journey in first person. The text, in a seemingly casual way, noted, as in passing and without much thought, the key to a way of seeing and training one's gaze: "(...) I always–said Charris in his fable–saw paint gushing from craters, pure energy spilling into a world in need of new lifeblood, although sometimes in a violent and compulsive manner". Indeed, this is where the crux of the matter lies, because Charris fused the volcano with the paint, as if they were one and the same.
Charris appears to be a great traveler. And he writes–quite well, at that. But his voyages are not conventional voyages. He bases his travels on artistic references. For him, volcanoes do not give off fire, lava or ash, but rather, they spew out "gushing paint". This is a way of observing the world, as if it were viewed through a lens that transforms things into pictorial terms. Salvador Dalí explained that, by placing a thick, semi-transparent glass before himself, as a kind of glasses, he saw things in Impressionist style. Such was Dalí and such is Charris, who views life through the magnifying glass of great painting. But the world that unfolds in his texts is also laced with cultural references and, in particular, with art history. De Chirico, Morandi, Warhol, Hopper... are his protagonists. They are the ghosts that live and breathe life into his fiction. Charris' world is influenced by painting.
Perhaps an image by an artist that is quite different from Charris, Perejaume, might help us enter his universe. We won't stop to reflect upon the Catalan artist here, but it might be appropriate to explain one of his works, as a kind of metaphor. The piece is literally a topography of a work by Antoni Tàpies. In effect, Perejaume takes a painting by Tàpies and uses it to create an elevation map, similar to those made by topographers with the terrain, showing reliefs and uneven features. In other words, Perejaume creates a scale map–with its valleys, mountains and plateaus–of a work of art. He turns a painting into a territory. But if we accept this proposal, we must agree that the path in the other direction is also possible: turning a map into a work of art. And this is what Charris sets out to do. I imagine Charris' journeys like a route through the folds of painting. He transforms the landscape into art supplies. His journey is none other than the adventure through and in painting. With Charris, adventure, travel and paint merge and become one.
As many experts in literature and analytical psychology have shown, stories about travels and adventures traditionally described paths of initiation. That is, a learning process through which the young person gains maturity at the end or the protagonist reaches his spiritual core. In other words, the hero - whether by force or voluntarily - sets out on a path full of unforeseen incidents, obstacles and temptations and must overcome trials - facing the monster or death itself - in order to find a reward at the end of the road. Triumph represented a rebirth and the appearance of a new awareness. But are these times of epic tales and heroes? And is Charris' work not brimming with a healthy irony that dissolves the myths of modernity and, by extension, all rhetoric about heroism? And yet, we feel certain that his painting is about initiation, in search of a clue to decipher a secret. An initiation adventure whose profound meaning may be concealed precisely under that layer of irony, but an initiation adventure nonetheless.
Charris' work has sometimes been described as collage-painting, in which seemingly disjointed figures and motifs come together. Collage–no need to repeat what is already well-known–entails the introduction of a strange element into the pictorial medium and space, which creates a kind of friction between two worlds, with unforeseeable effects. I believe that the artist himself has, at some time, referred to the notion of an uproar or a paradox, because this confrontation between disparate elements creates a sort of metaphor, an opening-up of meanings that leaves the viewer in suspense, without knowing where to cling to. And yet, this is the logic behind the tale of initiation: the main character is lost–in the forest or in some other unknown land–in a space full of uncertainty and silence. He has, in sum, gone astray, but this deviation is needed for him to find himself. His fate–and his salvation–depend on knowing how to interpret the signs that appear before him and that hold the secret to his destiny. He must be alert and recognize these signs, which are showing him the way, and only thus does he become aware of his true self and is he able to get out of the maze. In this regard, one of the most significant paintings in this exhibition, El arqueólogo (The Archeologist) (2008), perfectly illustrates these features that are characteristic of the tale of initiation: the traveler, the sign (which is even an eye) and the indigenous figure, wearing a turban that mirrors the same pattern as the eye, as if pointing to something. There are many possible interpretations of this painting, but one of its underlying contents undoubtedly refers to the revelation of the secret contained in the book of adventures.
G.K. Chesteron tells a beautiful tale about adventures which I have quoted some time before, but which is particularly relevant here. He explains that in a village in England, some of the locals had started to believe in the existence of a hypothetical new continent. They arranged–Chesterton explains–an exploring expedition and, finally, after years of crossing the planet in a straight line, came back to the same place they started from without having discovered new lands. There was no such continent. And yet, Chesterton claims there is. Perhaps they didn't discover the terra incognita, but they had undoubtedly found something new that would accompany them in life from then on. Substitute the word adventure for painting. This is the world of Charris: the adventure of painting.
Catalogue Una de aventuras. Fundación Cajamurcia, 2014.