New York

Miquel Barcelo

Leo Castelli Gallery

Miguel Barcelo displayed a number of sketchbooks and drawings made on an extended trip through Africa in 1988; a dozen paintings, made upon his return to Paris, were also on exhibit. The self-absorption of some of his earlier work has apparently been mitigated by his travels; where once he had tended towards a romanticism that put himself and his work and habits at the center of attention, this body of work contains little evidence of self-reference. Barcelo remains a remarkable draftsman. The sketchbooks and drawings––all gouache on paper––present the spareseness and privation of the North African landscape by means of a few watery strokes that seem to tremble from the heat. Oases and ponds show up in several works, as do the long shadows of trees that appear on the dry ground. These are lovely images. Still, it’s hard not to feel uneasy at the sight of one more European artist trying to escape from the confines of history and from himself by removing himself to some exotic locale. It’s another common romantic impulse, one that tends to result in other cultures being used for personal salvation, rather than explored or allowed to present themselves. Barcelo very nearly escapes this unpleasantness by shying away from the standard stock of tourist images, although tribesmen squatting by ponds and camels trekking across the sands do make a few appearances. He’s better off sticking to more abstract images, showing the elemental volumes of desert life as if they were hallucinations brought on by the climate.

Happily, the paintings are less predetermined. The canvases are quite large and excusably so, since they show, with their vast expanses of white, invented places so devoid of intelligible points of reference and so mercilessly illuminated that one becomes lost in them, as one might in a desert. The size of the paintings threatens to overcome their representational capacities. The illusion of great light forces a sort of wasteland blindness on us; these works might be moonscapes were it not for the occasional presence of puddles, around which outsized mosquitoes and locusts gather, the lines of their spindly bodies reflected in the water. L’horizon chimerique (The chimerical horizon, 1989) has a brief strip of sky blue at the top, but it is more disorienting than comforting; rather than providing any perspective, it seems to increase the vastness of the plain below. In Horizon d’événements (Horizon of events, 1989), the most powerful work in the show, clumps and pebbles are caught in a kind of whirlpool, spiraling inward toward some ineffable center and inspiring a kind of vertigo in the viewer. They are demonstrations of the self’s diminution in the forces which outstrip us — forces that Barcelo seems to have half remembered and half imagined.

––James Lewis