At the MFA, Spain's Antonio Lopez Garcia captures an uncannily motionless world
Implicit in the working method of Spain's 72-year-old realist Antonio López García is a kind of moral rhetoric. You look at his paintings and instantly sense integrity, austerity, devotion - even, when needed, glimpses of wit.
Unfortunately, although there may be greatness in the method, the results in his first solo US museum show, at the Museum of Fine Arts, are mixed.
López García is certainly ambitious. He spends years on individual works. His subjects include huge cityscapes, in which his hometown of Madrid is rendered from elevated positions in unflattering, smog-encrusted midday light. They also include empty interiors and still lifes of everyday tableaux (a skinned rabbit on a plate, a bathroom sink, an open refrigerator). He sculpts, too, of which more later.
López García is a realist of the most painstaking, technically fastidious kind. His pictures - both paintings and drawings - are pockmarked with evidence of plotting and measurement. He uses photographs as aids. He is hyper-attentive to spatial relations and shifts in color and tone.
In his best works, he finds ways to lift his subjects out of the banality of slavishly faithful representation. You get a sense of the visible world as an intricate and luminous scrim that might be torn open at any moment; the sensation can be thrilling.
At other times, though, his art is so stiff and desiccated that it threatens to crumble upon touch. A good half of the work in this sizable show felt stultifying and fussy to me. Even as I marveled at López García's keen eye and all the idiosyncrasies of his method, I sensed something vaguely self-congratulatory in the finished product. It was like attending a recital by a technically flawless musician who somehow fails to get you shifting in your seat.
López García is, admittedly, an aficionado of stillness. Forgoing movement, he reduces his world to optics and geometry. His interiors, uncluttered and often derelict, are mostly devoid of people. His cityscapes are surveyed from Olympian heights, freeing the artist from any obligation to render the actual bustle of urban life.
This is strange, indeed, for anyone who knows Madrid, with its snarling vitality beneath its thin veneer of formality. But it is a legitimate artistic decision, one that calls to mind the hauntingly empty cityscapes of the great late 19th-century Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershoi.
Like Hammershoi, López García frequently succeeds in conveying the sense that, for all their contemporary detail, his images exist outside history. There is something uncanny in their stillness, an unsettling vacancy.
Consider, for instance, López García's largest painting, a heroic, 160-inch-wide view of Madrid made from six conjoined canvases, showing the city from a fire tower on its outskirts. Much of the foreground is taken up by the concrete structure of the tower, the texture of which López García has rendered with brilliant subtlety.
Areas to the right and left of the center are artfully smudged, as if in imitation of photography, with its areas of focus and peripheral blur. The buildings of Madrid, meanwhile, recede into the distance, dissolving into a palimpsest of subtly shifting tones.
Amazingly, despite all this visual information, there is no sign of life. The painting is as evocative of human absence as is a sculptural relief elsewhere in the show, "The Clothes Rack," which re-creates a coat and a pair of pants hanging limply beside a door.
Sculpture plays a prominent part in the exhibit - heads and figures, mostly. But most of it is academic in the worst sense. The heads of babies - including the two giant ones parked outside the MFA - seem hardly more interesting than generic dolls' heads.
In López García's recent paintings, what matters more than detailed rendering are tone and relations in space. If he gets these right, the mind's eye will fill in the rest. In the wonderful painting of the open refrigerator, for instance, most of the disparate items inside - bottles, fruit, eggs - are reduced simply to smudges of local color.
López García's touch here is light, whereas in a comparable, but much earlier, image of domesticity - in this case, a sideboard - you notice a stark tension between the heavy accretion of dark, scumbled, gravelly paint and the magically light and delicate interplay of highlights on the silverware inside. It's a bravura painting.
One early work, a 1953 painting called "Boy with Slingshot," excited me even more. A boy stands on a rooftop, slingshot at the ready, while a girl lies awkwardly at his feet, part of her jackknifed body cropped by the frame.
The image has part of the stiffness and peculiarity of Balthus's tableaux. But there is also dynamism in it. Something about the relationship - or lack of relationship - between the boy and the girl piques your interest, and the dense but deftly handled paint suggests a level of personal involvement not always evident in the later paintings.
At some point it appears the process of creating imagery took over in López García's mind from the imagery itself. Something like this happens, no doubt, to every visual artist. But in López García's case, the romance and higher calling of studio creation is given unusual emphasis.
It is not just that his choice of subject is invariably close to home (Madrid, the dining table, the bathroom, the kitchen, the studio). It is that the artist makes no attempt to efface the evidence of his process.
Like the famously dedicated British painters William Coldstream and Euan Uglow, his works are studded with little crosses that help him measure intervals. He also preserves drips, marks, and blobs, which attest to the painting process but also double as trompe l'oeil effects, conjuring the look of dirty walls, the texture of different surfaces, and so on.
The drawings, it has to be said, are remarkable. In López García's shadowless studies of quinces and pumpkins I became fascinated by the interplay between the plotting marks and the lines involved in actual description. Both kinds of mark seem to merge, giving the images a strange, abstract flavor.
The studio interiors are particularly haunting. Their ashen tones call to mind the vacant but perfectly preserved rooms of Pompeii.
Some of the most brilliant works in the show revolve around food and eating. One painting, "The Dinner," was worked on for almost a decade and never actually finished (it remains in the collection of the artist). A compelling picture on its own terms, it also reads like an archive of the working process. Scattered bits of paper (including a cut-out photograph of a steak positioned just so on a plate) have been collaged onto the surface. Meanwhile, the head of the older woman at the right of the picture is blurred and attenuated, attesting to the difficulty the artist had in fixing her position in space. There is plenty about the work that is sensually pleasing, but by making us so conscious of his working method, López García turns the exercise into an almost philosophical meditation on time and transience.
But of the food pictures, "Remains of a Meal" was my favorite: an incredibly exact tonal drawing of bones and gristle on a plate at the center of a white tablecloth. The framing appears arbitrary, but we are teased at the edge of the drawing by the shadow of a fork, the edge of a plate, and the pillowy intrusion of a crumpled napkin.
It is also just so, every detail of the aftermath charged with significance - all of it reminding us, however, of our own ultimate insignificance.