José Maldonado

The focus of this exhibition, “Desifinado” (Slightly out of tune), was a life-size photograph of the artist, foreshortened—a reminder of Holbein’s The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb. Maldonado isn’t dead, but he pretends to be; meanwhile, he listens to music through a pair of headphones. Maldonado has been playing for some time with this idea of a private, secretive act of listening that occurs “inside the picture” yet remains absent because, in the realm of visual representation, music “appears” only in absence.

It is as if the artist is depicting some ultimate asylum for the world of the spirit—an inner world on which his eyes are fixed, as if in a desperate attempt to hold onto himself: “I listen, therefore I am.” Maldonado’s photograph captures the precarious state of the narcissist (it’s no accident that his recent work includes so many self-portraits) contemplating his own acts of inner reflection. In the midst of an obscenely externalized world produced by the onslaught of media spectaculars, the artist offers the viewer a moment of silence, of private, inscrutable self-listening. This moment of self-production is externalized only as an absence and is thus a “music” we, as spectators, cannot hear. Although in some sense preserved in the photograph, such music surrenders itself exclusively to the subject/artist. Oddly, that contradiction—the photo’s simultaneous success and failure to capture the inner experience—serves to authenticate the life of the spirit, to affirm the existence of the individual soul. Like the recumbent Christ it recalls, this piece speaks to us about the mystery of the spirit as the proper domain of our inner lives.

Something, however, doesn’t quite work. Something impedes this secret, perfect act—occurring in the artist’s inner being—from flourishing outward. Something sounds dissonant, “out of tune,” as if there were an inevitable maladjustment between the subject’s inner life and the very unfolding of the outside world. There is, first, a disparity of codes: music is impossible to transcribe into spatial objects. Other pieces Maldonado has made assert this same notion: recorded “tapes” are dripped over with sealing wax, cut and pasted into pictures, and painted over; music CDs and DAT cassettes lie on the floor in one of his installations. In all of this, music is removed. The content of the objects is lost to the objects’ materiality.

More or less hermetic allegories, Maldonado’s paintings get at the competitive structure of society, which obliges the artist to integrate himself into a system of social hierarchies. Maldonado comes to express his discontent (in the Freudian sense) with the rift between the life of the spirit and the blustering clamor of a world that drowns out any inward experience as soon as it is given voice (the artist’s work) in the public sphere. Surely here an intense “dissonance” emerges, which is precisely what this exhibition seemed to be saying. But that dictum, like the music itself, was absent.

What is most attractive in Maldonado’s work, perhaps, is its appeal to the viewer to look past what can be seen and heard, and to listen, for a moment, to what can’t be heard. If the viewer achieves this, she just may discover that the music the artist is playing (which is precisely the music he’s listening to) isn’t all that dissonant. Or is it?

José Luis Brea

Translated from the Spanish by Vincent Martin.