José María Sicilia

Early in his career José María Sicilia painted several series of monochrome paintings, as well as numerous canvases in which isolated images floated on backgrounds spotted with white. Later he started using wax as well as paint, and he has continued to use both materials, never abandoning traditional pictorial techniques though at times he may seem to want to conceal them, burying oil paint and watercolor beneath layers of wax that act like translucent curtains through which one can only glimpse the underlying imagery.

In this exhibition, four different series of works were grouped together in corresponding spaces of the gallery. At the end of the space 80 small-format pieces formed a large rectangle on the wall. These consisted of photocopied pages of the 16th-century Jaén manuscript of the Cántico espiritual (Spiritual canticle), written by Spain’s mystical poet, Saint John of the Cross. Sicilia drenched the photocopies in hot wax, which imprisoned all manner of insects as it solidified. At first one links the use of wax in this piece with the symbolism commonly associated with bees—labor and by extension the work of the artist—but Sicilia’s use of wax inevitably also summons the transitoriness of this material’s ability to change states.

The series “Vétheuil,” 1994—whose name refers to Claude Monet’s place of residence between 1878 and 1881, as well as the title of a number of his landscapes—is a sequence of framed, at times oddly shaped canvases containing simple red and white geometric forms. The flawless surfaces and clean edges in these pieces contrasted with the ancient, barely decipherable writing and wrinkled surfaces in the “Cántico espiritual” pieces. Here Sicilia poured the wax very carefully, creating sharp divisions between the areas of red and white wax and leaving only small imperfections along the edges. The title of this series perhaps alludes to the way that Monet rendered light synonymous with color, just as the luminous wax serves as both color and material.

Whereas “Vétheuil” uses sections of solidified wax to stand in for carefully composed areas of painted color, “Monttonnerre” (Mount-thunder, 1995), represents a return to a more random working method. In creating these works Sicilia daubed uneven spots of black oil paint onto an iridescent sea of congealed white wax, the dark marks resembling burns that might be left by a flame brushing against the surface. In certain areas the wax drifts off into irregular, relieflike surfaces, and the artist has included a few painted moths, recalling works by the Russian artist Aleksandr Mareev, who has also created monochrome paintings with moths appearing on their surfaces.

Finally, the show included a work from the series entitled “Colmenas” (Beehives), which incorporates fragments of a honeycomb Sicilia found; sketches of bees alternate with real ones on a large, clear wax surface that resembles a large landscape with its various textures and reliefs. Throughout both this show and Sicilia’s years of experimentation with wax and paint, what remains constant is a melancholy investigation of light’s expressive possibilities.

Menene Gras Balaguer

Translated from the Spanish by Vincent Martin.