New York

Chema Cobo

Charles Cowles Gallery

Although Chema Cobo has changed strategies several times since he was discussed as a Spanish representative of the Trans-avantgarde, he is still an eclectic painter, and he continues to investigate familiar (European) neo-Expressionist issues such as the collective loss of historical consciousness and national identity. This inquiry is as pertinent now as it was a decade ago, if not more so, considering the imminent unification of Europe, and the fragmentation of the Communist bloc. Yet Cobo has abandoned his previous neo-Expressionist style for an increasingly distanced, conceptual manner that trades in his rich, gestural brushwork for flatter surfaces and introduces poetic language as well. In these 25 paintings, image and text jostle each other to produce allegorical meanings that are never easy to decipher.

One group of paintings evokes sheet music; in each, a white field contains evenly spaced musical staffs. These are inscribed not with notes but with short messages that are also painted white and therefore difficult to make out. Problematizing an easy reading of each message is a meticulously painted image—a clock, a keyhole, or a frog—as well as a date that appears in reverse, as if reflected in a mirror. When History Goes Straight Head Off, 1991, bears the date “1789,” and Tear Off the Center of this Blank and Face Your Own Glance, 1991, bears the date “1968.” Both refer to particular revolutionary moments and, more to the point, evoke the void of consciousness into which they have disappeared. These paintings work together like a musical score, composed of variations on the theme of recovering not only history but also history painting.

If the virtual emptiness of Cobo’s white fields speaks of amnesia, so do the shallow, claustrophobic spaces of yet another series, featuring brick walls that converge at various angles. In The History Blackout Starts Now and So It Goes, 1991, a string of brightly illuminated words (the same as the title) spirals in on itself, disappearing into the corner of two massive walls. Dysfunctional memory is characterized even more pessimistically in Exit, 1991, in which this single word hovers in an oppressive, cell-like space. These paintings are witty, paradoxical calligrams that recall the work of Guillaume Apollinaire, avoiding didacticism in their adherence to the laws of poetry rather than prose.

Maps appear frequently in this body of work, and they become an apt metaphor for both political and psychological dislocation when subjected to the artist’s trademark mirror reversal of words and images. In Borderless Map, 1991, a grid is imposed on a swirling blue background to create a map of nothing, punctuated only by random dots labeled “This.” In Reversible Map, 1991, a similar grid, as well as the word “compass,” appear on a pair of disembodied hands that cling to a north-south arrow. Both paintings suggest that location, direction, and identification with place are relative and unstable. Cobo’s mirror-reversals have the paradoxical effect of creating a distance between painting and viewer by their opacity, while immediately drawing the viewer into a reflexive relationship in which message is mapped onto receiver and vice versa.

Cobo occupies a middle ground in contemporary painting, somewhere between Francesco Clemente’s drama of subjectivity and Peter Halley’s rarified social critique. Unlike the latter, Cobo refrains from self-consciously beating the dead horse of Modernism and instead moves beyond art history to engage history itself. This show achieved an equilibrium between painting and poetry, neutralizing the issue of style in order to rethink temporarily painting’s communicative potential.

Jenifer P. Borum