02 Jan Of the Stillness of Things. Josep Vives Campomar
A renowned painter is assumed to have a career lined with exhibitions and awards, a significant presence in art museums and collections, and a more or less evident, if not groundbreaking, stylistic and conceptual evolution. For many painters today visibility and the management of their own professional career are a sine qua non for carving out a place on the local, national and international art scenes.
Pepe Vives is the exception. His exhibitions have been few and far between, he has taken no active part in the social and cultural life of Menorca and the evolution of his work seems imperceptible at first glance. His output has not provided us with fireworks or surprises, just the enjoyment of a leisurely, intimate contemplation. Like the painters of the East he has remained faithful to the essential and to the essence of his being, but never immobile, as some might think.
A large number of distinguished critical voices have helped us appreciate his valuable contribution to the history of Menorcan art. Fortunately, two of them are with us here: Valeriano Bozal, with the text for the catalogue, and Guillem Frontera, present in the exhibition video. Moreover, the latter is the seed of this retrospective, a seed that has happily sprouted and enables us to enjoy the last thirteen years of his painting under the aegis of the Menorca Island Council. But Pepe Vives, as the cult painter he is, also has admirers among his colleagues, especially those who see painting as a way of searching for transcendence, what makes the invisible visible. Josep Serra Llimona, Francesc Artigau, Miquel Vilà, Xavier Serra de Rivera or Matías Quetglas are among them, painters with a long, steady career, recognised everywhere. But for the spectator to be able to grasp Pepe Vives’ importance in painting today we wanted to give some of them a voice through the exhibition video. “I revere his way of understanding the world, his way of life, his delightful gestures,” confesses Emili de Balanzó, a great friend and defender of our painter.
Ramón Gaya said: “Because to be an artist is not to officiate but to believe…great art is never a problem, but a destiny”. Pepe is a painter of deep convictions who lives his art as a destiny. We could say that he was born a painter. But that destiny is also a penitence. For him to paint is to doubt, to suffer, to build in order to destroy, to somatise the pain of a struggle he knows is lost insofar as we shall find it difficult to hear the distant voices of his fruit and objects, as Giorgio de Chirico said in relation to the goal of art. Vives Campomar’s work is always a conversation with death; the still life, in its calm and silence, in its order and stability, refers us to the eternal, to perpetuity. His pomegranates, quinces, prunes and raisins, the old newspapers and books, the battered pewter and copper jars speak to us of the fleetingness of time and a worn out life that the painter seems to have petrified, frozen, in a time and a world which is and is not ours. The life of all of them lies in their density, their weight and the “stubborn presence” of which Valeriano Bozal tells us. A silent presence where each thing occupies the place assigned to it, the one where its existence is revealed to us and calls to us before passing into oblivion. Most appropriately, in English these paintings are called still lifes, whilst the German term is stilleben, which means the same.
In the choice of the objects and their reiteration Vives Campomar shows us a defining feature of his character: humility. Knowing that he is an artist swimming against the tide, aware of the marginal nature of painting on the art scene today, he humbly accepts his destiny and chooses both everyday objects such as fruit and vegetables to defend PAINTING and free himself from the phantom of narrative, which belongs to literature. The bottles, jars and peaches are shown as they are: humble, simple, everyday, familiar with a perennial life, and with them the author expresses his desire and fears, and a reality in which he invites us to take part. Everyone knows that it is not possible to objectivise reality. Reality is not what we see; it is the light that allows us to see. There are as many realities as there are people and infinite perceptions of it. Van Gogh’s wicker chair is the one he saw and painted and that is why it interests us, for its peculiarity. Magritte also warns us of the perils of perception when he writes beneath a painted pipe: “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”. It is in the still life genre that painting has found the most productive field for thinking about matter, perception and the senses, even though until well into the 18th century still life painters were despised. Even Denis Diderot had to justify his admiration for Jean Siméon Chardin! With the 20th century avantgardes, however, that paradoxical humility would become the best pretext for making the still life the most representative genre of the century.
In these decomposing, inert worlds the light has a metaphysical side that links him to the Italian painters Filippo de Pisis, Giorgio Morandi or Giorgio de Chirico. Pepe Vives, who suffers from photophobia, paints every morning in his studio with northern light, a constant, filtered one. It strikes pewter jars, copper chocolate pots, sheets or papers in their natural state, the result of their prolonged exposure to the elements, and therefore dirty. Accustomed as we are in the West to looking for beauty in bright light, our author is closer to the East, where the footprint of time on the surface of things, the blackening of metals and dirt, are ingredients of beauty. And so whilst light bounces off polished metal, on the blackened objects in his pictures it is absorbed, increasing their materiality, their density.
Pepe Vives see it all pictorially, without distinguishing between life and painting. The motifs spring from a coup de foudre (falling in love) that incites him to paint that object, which will then take a central place in the composition – or not. Through a technique inherited from the Venetian painters he so admires (Titian, Veronese, Tintoretto) Vives Campomar paints from nature since, as Caravaggio said, there is no other master than the model. His painting is colour, light and paste, the last applied generously, obsessively. The fingers, the brush, the spatula are used day after day to allow that tone, that brushstroke, to have an existence of its own and function in itself as well as in relation to the rest. In his painting there is a gradual stripping down to show reality substantively, eliminating the adjectives, the painterly, artifice. The outline of the things is irregular and the brushstroke spasmodic, alluding to the motif rather than describing it. His, therefore, is a technical, not a stylistic, evolution and that is why, although there seems to be reiteration in the subject (the same jars, fruit or papers over and over again) the picture is never the same, just as every day we see our world differently. Just as “you cannot step twice into the same river”, as Heraclitus said, you cannot paint the same picture twice.
The exhibition “Of the Stillness of Things. Josep Vives Campomar” is made up of still lifes, still lifes with landscape and seascapes, as well as etchings.
The still lifes refer us to the moral character of the vanitas typical of 17th century Spanish painting as a reflection on death in contrast with the still lifes of game, flowers and fresh fruit that appeared with Juan de Arellano at the end of the same century. The origin of these, closer to the decorative and relating to ostentation and wealth, is to be found in the xenia of classical Greece, offerings of food to the visitors and guests who passed from the real to the painted in the spaces we now call halls. Pepe Vives situates the objects on the surface of the table in a single pictorial plane that eliminates any vanishing point or perspective. By placing them in the foreground he obliges us to focus our attention on them, on their immobility, on their presence and on the relations that are established between one and another. Colours, textures, tones converse, bathed in the northern light that enters through the only window of the studio open to the world outside.
When the author paints a landscape, often Maó harbour, behind the still lifes he sets the immobilism of his “silent lives” (Giorgio de Chirico) against the innate dynamism of the landscape, this as an expression of the ceaseless movement of the sea and nature. The order of what is represented in the foreground contrasts with the life behind and life, as opposed to death, is disorder. A disorder I cannot help relating with Pepe Vives’ habitat, surrounded by battered furniture, cracked parquet and a house in a semi-ruinous state. If life is disorder, Pepe is above all a vitalist who, with his inert objects, reflects on death, which accompanies us on the river of existence.
But Josep Vives Campomar would not be who he is without the etchings. Every evening he scratches, erases and scratches again the metal plate with which he will print a new engraving on the press which his beloved friend and fellow painter Rafel Vidal keeps in the cellar of his house. For Pepe Vives engraving is entering a magical world, full of surprises, where he finds the peace and quiet he does not find in painting, which is struggle, suffering, tragedy. In the engravings, in black and white, the painted still lifes take on a new dimension, slower, more reflective, more atmospheric.
“Of the Stillness of Things. Josep Vives Campomar” presents the work created since 2005. Over those thirteen years he has continued to delve deeper into painting, making it excellent and dignified, as his referents did in their day. Isolated, solitary, battling with his fears and anxieties, among cats, tubes of oil paint, exquisite books, battered furniture, his adored grandchildren nearby and Maó harbour at his feet Pepe Vives gazes at a world of which he does not feel part but which needs him.