Antoni Llena

To have a show devoted to Antoni Llena (b. 1942) at a prestigious Barcelona gallery is significant for a number of reasons. Since the early ’60s Llena has been a very peculiar representative of contemporary Catalan art, in the sense that he has remained in the vanguard but always detached from its noisy celebrations. The quality of his work, not always mentioned or recognized, has been consistently high, even more when more mimetical styles have been dominant. In the early ’60s, only a few years after the violent explosion of Catalan informalism, a new movement began in Barcelona. Progressive architects, poets, art critics, designers, and intellectuals, who in general supported didactic art and institutions, proposed to revitalize contemporary art by linking it with indigenous traditions, thereby encouraging younger artists. Pop art, “Visual Poetry,” neo-Dada, arte povera, and Conceptual art were to coexist freely.

Llena, while remaining quite independent, participated in this move, but in the early ’70s he suddenly severed his contact, burned all of his works at hand, and withdrew from the scene in silence. Perhaps he felt uncomfortable with the cultural context of the ’70s and did not want to be misinterpreted. His small, ephemeral paper sculptures had mocked everyone; these “kits” of cut-paper shapes, ironically packed in plastic bags, had a strong link with the Duchampian “sculpture de voyage.” Llena was accelerating his conceptual investigations at a risky rate, approaching the absolute zero in a way that very few of his contemporaries were willing to emulate. Around 1982, when all positions and messages had been clarified and Catalan artists were freed of any political restraints, he became active again. Now he has been given an exhibition that was due 15 years ago.

The new works are directly related to the sculptures in that they are constructed of paper and seem to arise from some sort of Oriental emanatism which focuses on simple things and forms. Llena has continued to cut shapes out of paper, but they are now defined by color, just like Matissean découpages. The quality of the color is industrial, absolutely flat and without incident. The abstract configurations are even more extreme in their lack of spatial orientation than Jean Arp’s galaxy of organic forms. However, manuality has been emphasized to the point of underlining a lucid message. No persistent compositional structure can be detected: superimposed forms seem to arise quite randomly; the effect of shadows is created by layered cuts and angles, and the work as a whole looks like an isolated case of gestural writing performed with previously selected elements. Their irregular outlines tempt one to associate the works with Frank Stella’s shaped canvases, but the way Llena’s works are presented clarifies his intentions. The complex structures are mounted on a mat-white support in order to isolate the empty forms and holes; the support presses upon the outer edges of the forms with the same power that aggressive color does from within, a symmetry that is fundamental to Llena’s whole approach.

After realizing that Llena’s recent works are closely related to those of ten years ago, it can be asked how his absence could be justified other than at a personal level. After all, he is obviously not an art “voyeur”; he has continued to look for the same values that he did before using an almost identical format. I would say that he dove too deeply, and repeatedly, into unexplored territory, and as a consequence he became exhausted. The late ’70s were a period of reflection for many artists, but for Llena, reflection has meant silence and no action.

Gloria Moure