New York

Ferran García Sevilla

Though Ferran García Sevilla is one of Spain’s brightest artistic lights, and his paintings are well known throughout Europe, his work remains relatively obscure in America. This circumstance has less to do with Sevilla’s project than with New York’s well-documented hostility to painting during the latter half of the ’80s. We are not as curious or catholic as we pretend to be, and work which doesn’t fit prescribed agendas tends to be swiftly marginalized.

Sevilla began his career in the ’70s as a Conceptual artist who employed photography to examine the conventions of artistic authorship, and though he turned to painting in 1980, he maintained his critical relationship to art. Unlike Peter Halley or Sherrie Levine, however, Sevilla did not choose to burlesque painting’s diminished capabilities. Instead, in the spirit of Jiři Georg Dokoupil, but less caustically, Sevilla deploys self-contained systems of signs and images, which neither add up to a definitive statement nor implode into incoherent juxtapositions. Sevilla’s paintings defer pictorial conclusions in favor of depicting signs of movement toward an unspecified goal.

Entitled Sama and assigned a number, each painting in Sevilla’s recent series incorporates anthropological and pictographic images we associate with non-industrialized, non-Western cultures. The vocabulary in this body of work consists of footprints (red, yellow, and black), handprints, arrows, a corallike brain, bone-like shapes, circles, spirals, and crosses. Sevilla’s use of non-Western sources is neither nostalgic for primitivist utopias (the nonrational or intuitive) nor does he uphold the signs as absolute values to which the viewer must aspire.

In Sama 47 (all works 1990), Sevilla depicts yellow, brown, and blue arrows pointing in different directions. Floating in this helter-skelter field is a pinkish circle, which functions more as an interruption or point of punctuation than as a goal or source. In Sama 34, there are three rows (each containing three feet) pointing toward either the top or bottom of the painting. Another foot (yellow rather than red or black) is placed alongside this pictographic grid. The grid doesn’t propose an answer to our contemporary dilemma (which way do we go now?) nor does it suggest that there is nowhere left to go, that we’ve reached the end of possibility. These paintings insist that we must keep looking.

The tradition of Western artists attempting to embrace, borrow, and abscond with non-Western cultural images is at least as old as Modernism. To his credit, Sevilla is not another in a long line of colonialists; his primitivism does not appropriate images without regard to their original meaning, instead they record a journey away from all that one knows toward all that one doesn’t and perhaps cannot know. It begins without naming the ultimate destination. There is an openness to Sevilla’s project, a sense that the artist believes in the search even if he does not know what he is searching for or even what can possibly be left to discover. Sevilla has chosen to investigate states of contingency rather than pursue approved-of conclusions.

John Yau