PRINT September 1987


A SOLID ACHIEVEMENT IN NEW sculpture is emerging here in Spain. Production is by no means confined to the major centers; as in the past, the outlying regions, including the Atlantic as well as the Mediterranean coasts, have shown enormous vitality. The new sculpture does not reflect a unified movement of conscious departure from what went before: in most cases, its impulse seems specific to the individual artist. In the particular case of Catalonia, the new work is not even that disruptive, for this is an area with a long tradition of avant-garde art, from Joan Miró through Antoni Tapies and on. Catalonia also has a special tie with arte povera, which made an impact there in the ’70s, though its influence is often overshadowed by that of the markedly object- and material-oriented Catalan abstract expressionism of the ’50s.

With the reactive energy of a body of Spanish and international art critics, and the public interest that certain exhibitions have sparked in the country over the past five or six years, this Spanish sculpture of the ’80s is beginning to reach an international audience, notably in the case of the Barcelona artist Susana Solano. Last year, with her compatriots José-Maria Sicilia and Miguel Navarro, Solano exhibited at the Serpentine Gallery in London, and she is currently participating in two exhibitions in West Germany—Documenta 8, in Kassel, and “Skulptur Projekte in Munster 1987.” (At this writing, her contribution to the Münster exhibition has not yet been built.) Though her one-woman shows have been relatively infrequent, Solano’s work has been attracting attention in Madrid and Barcelona since the early ’80s. A group of pieces in brass, wood, and canvas that she showed in 1980, at the Fundació Joan Miró in Barcelona, were undemonstrative, empty of the usual signs of the gestures of the maker, and unyielding to symbolism, the materials only lightly mediated by her touch. It might have been difficult to predict Solano’s future concerns from this sculpture, but actually both the architectural and the material quality of her work was already there in these early pieces, as was the art’s evident internal energy, which would grow and eventually be capable of expressing such a rich range of feelings. Beginning with the receptacle like objects, in iron, that she began to make five years ago, Solano has gone beyond post-Minimalism into works of great intimacy and lyricism. Formally, her sculpture is still quite reductivist, but its architectural quality and the way it applies materials give it a heightened internal energy that belies its apparent crudeness and saturates its wide smooth surfaces and simple structures with poetry.

If Solano had suppressed the associative potential of sculpture in her early objects, she quickly moved to allow it, even to play upon it, so that the receptacles, for example, also become cavities or primitive crucibles, permeated with interacting forces that have allowed Solano to pass from a sculpture in dialogue with itself to one made up of individualist pieces in relationship with the world. From here she has proceeded to juggle the references and assumptions that conventionally define sculpture, subjecting the traditional values of form, scale, space, and material to an imaginative transformation that moves the work into a dynamically ambiguous field wherein her poetic artifacts can also implicate architecture, design, and even engineering. This expansive entrance into additional territories has not interrupted a steady trajectory of development. Controlled ambiguity and a rich and subtle sense of irony are constants, and the symbolic dimension dominates the purely formal one.

As in the earlier pieces, the new works show little trace of the sculptor’s gesture or touch, except in the most coolly intellectual way. Most of them are of iron, the surfaces of the different planes revealing little variation. Sometimes, however, Solano also uses galvanized iron or lead; through different combinations of these materials she sets up contrasts of texture, weight, dullness and brightness, malleability and rigidity. When lead forms part of a piece it is often contained inside one of the symbolic receptacles of Solano’s art, and it often looks dramatically organic. This work can cross right over the traditional borders of sculpture into associations of architecture or design, but it is clearly removed from function by its sculptural volume, use of materials, scale, and simplified form, and above all by our attention to its internal energy. Impluvium, 1987, for example, is a rectangle of galvanized plates laid down flat and framed by an iron rim, the base for a gateless iron fence. The visual reference to a pool strikes both ironically and poignantly against the forbidding fence and the bright hard surface that stands in for the pool’s water.

Among the strengths of Solano’s recent art is its ability to meld matter and image, sensual perception and conceptual grasp. The work’s relationship to representation is complex, varying from the highly associative to the highly meditative. Both cases involve a kind of poetics of transformation. The work Solano plans for Munster, for example, which as yet exists only in maquette, at first recalls a simple round tower; as one looks, though, Solano’s poetics begin to work their changes. From the base of the tower, an articulated tunnel or colonnade winds outward like a marquee. The roof, supported by a double row of rude columns, is a very beautiful elongated awning of irregular iron scales. One could read this trailing structure as an animal’s tail, and the tower as some strange container of vital animal life; or as a string of firecrackers, the fuse for a child’s rocket, like those used in Catalonia to celebrate the coming of summer, which scatter small gifts and trinkets when they explode. The work becomes the symbol for an innocent, pagan game—yet one can be ignorant of its possible symbologies and still be affected by its architectural power.

Elsewhere, Solano passes from the evocation or suggestion of architectural structures and domestic objects to an effect of the sacred. Some pieces have the schematic frontality of an altar and altarpiece, and the evocative force of such conjunctions, but not in the worshipful way demanded by religious structures or icons. There is no narrative here. In Amplio paréntesis (Ample parenthesis, 1986), the curved outline of the work’s upper corners bestows a delicate, affirmative feeling on the rigid iron of which the piece is made, setting up an exquisite balance between symbolism, ornament, objective form, and the humane presence of the work as a whole. The altarlike works generate a strangely powerful symbolic energy, feeling like sacred shells, or perhaps the protective armor, for mysterious, unseen, slowly emerging new forces of life. One is drawn to these big, androgynous shapes and volumes as though their quality of other time, other place, might take us to the new forms we’re searching for to represent, but not to reduce, our complex present.

We look at Solano’s work with such concentration because she never falls for the spectacular gesture, the imposition of superfluous artifice on a form that is already so visually generous. She avoids cheap tricks: the relatively simple structures of her work are animated neither by any overt evocation of sculptural tradition nor by easy figurative references. To experience her work is to enter a space of encounter between associations of images and materials on the one hand and, on the other, the artist’s emptying into the work of her internal energy and sentiment. The process has its major catalyst in subtlety, the active ingredient in Solano’s sculpture that generates the possibility for the intimate experience of works of art, and for the potential transformations that accompany such experiences—transformations both of the viewer and of the work, which can expand from being another object to an enigmatic container of life force. These are Solano’s poetics of transformation.

Gloria Moure contributes regularly to Artforum.

Translated from the Spanish by Hanna Hannah.