Madrid

Néstor Sanmiguel Diest, Guerrillero muy enfadado con su hija (A Warrior Infuriated with His Daughter), 1997, acrylic on canvas, 25 5/8 × 18 1/8".

Néstor Sanmiguel Diest, Guerrillero muy enfadado con su hija (A Warrior Infuriated with His Daughter), 1997, acrylic on canvas, 25 5/8 × 18 1/8".

Néstor Sanmiguel Diest

Maisterravalbuena Madrid

Néstor Sanmiguel Diest, Guerrillero muy enfadado con su hija (A Warrior Infuriated with His Daughter), 1997, acrylic on canvas, 25 5/8 × 18 1/8".

Although he has been an active force in the Spanish art world since the late 1970s, Néstor Sanmiguel Diest has only recently begun to garner critical attention outside his home country. His recent paintings and works on paper are dense, palimpsestic constructions, built up of layer upon layer of found photographic and textual materials intermingled with passages of graphite, ink, and paint. In their obsessive detail and complex interplay of text, image, and geometric pattern—often across multiple panels—Sanmiguel Diest’s recent works enforce a temporal or durational experience akin to literature or cinema, as if to say that painting, too, can be understood as a time-based medium. 

For his recent exhibition “Cómo engañar a las tormentas despegando al atardecer sin luces” (How to Fool Storms Taking Off at Sunset Without Lights On), Sanmiguel Diest presented eleven paintings, three works on paper, and three sketchbooks, all created between 1993 and 1997 and most previously unexhibited. During this period, the artist ostensibly stepped away from the radical politics that had marked his previous work and embarked on a process of distillation, a form of research into what he has described as “mother forms.” What emerged, the exhibition made clear, was a highly personal strain of biomorphic abstraction, marked by strong geometric forms and uninflected yet vivid colors deployed judiciously alongside large passages of flat-white acrylic and already featuring some of the formal motifs now familiar from Sanmiguel Diest’s more recent production: vertically stacked, parallel, horizontal lines; oblong, lozenge-, or egg-shaped forms; undulating lines, here seen in abbreviated segments; and nested clusters of tightly interlocking lines. 

Sanmiguel Diest worked as a patternmaker during his early years, and this background in the field of textile design could be discerned in a number of works on view, perhaps most explicitly in El arquero (The Archer), Guerrillero araña (The Warrior Spider), Guerrillero halcón (The Warrior Falcon), and Guerrillero muy enfadado con su hija (A Warrior Infuriated with His Daughter), a quartet of canvases from 1997. In each of these paintings, a single, central figure—a vertical rectangle with two semicircles excised from its lower corners—sits atop a ground of raw, unprimed cotton canvas. With their anthropomorphic titles, these central forms read most readily (and, one assumes, intentionally) as abstracted human heads, or perhaps headless, limbless torsos. At the same time, however, it is impossible to ignore the degree to which they evoke the simplified forms of clothing patterns. 

From the beginning, abstract painting has had to contend with the threat of becoming “mere” decoration, and this specter still haunts artists seeking to combine visual abstraction with progressive politics. The earliest work in the show, the 1993 canvas Un nenúfar en el pulmón derecho o cómo cerrar un laberinto (A Water Lily in the Right Lung, or How to Close the Maze) depicts a rigid yet meandering green line, abruptly turning this way and that as it circumnavigates the surface of the picture, with each angle marked by a white circle. Topographically, Sanmiguel Diest’s composition evokes the singular path of classical labyrinths but rejects the ancient form’s symmetry and unambiguous relationship between interior and exterior, as well as the unpredictable, mazelike structures that emerged in the Renaissance. Instead, it suggests an unpredictable but ultimately linear, even circular, movement. The work’s title refers to the plight of the doomed character Chloé in Boris Vian’s 1947 late-Surrealist novel Froth on the Daydream, thereby invoking that movement’s mobilization of the unconscious mind in an effort to overthrow the constraints of rational thought and, by extension, the repressive conditions of Western society. Following the period of intensive research represented in the exhibition, Sanmiguel Diest has said, he began “polluting” his pristine abstractions, introducing them into more complex systems of visual-textual relations, and in the process reinserting the political into the equation. But then again, perhaps politics were already latent in the “mother forms” after all.

––Jacob Proctor