ENG TEXT Bonet Between tradition

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Between Tradition and The Modern    by Juan Manuel Bonet

(1986)    Juan JosĂ© Barberá, is thirty-two years old and has already been painting for many years.
However, unlike some of his fellow painters, he has been reticent when it comes to exhibiting his work.
Present during a decade in which various prizes and collective exhibitions have marked the renaissance of Valencian art
he has proved very cautious until now about mounting a one-man show.
The time has come, however, and one is delighted because, for Barberá, the years have not passed by in vain and his work has attained a very notable self-confidence and maturity. It was at the 1980 prizegiving of the Premio Senyera that I first saw one of Barberá’s works. It was in a large format, painted in muted colours, and was one of those that received special mention. Its creator proved to be one of the few exhibitors – Sanleón was another – who, coming from San Carlos, had interpreted the education received in its study halls as something more than a combination of conventions and prohibitions.
On the other hand, he was also one of the few ‘modern’ painters there who were not afraid of the ‘old’ and who showed they were capable of subscribing to a tradition that did not succumb to the temptation of the tabula rasa. That work, at the time of the prize-giving, was one of the few where a concensus could easily be reached between the conservative and innovative sectors of the jury. It stood out precisely for its discretion, for its lack of ostentation and for its modest style. Here was a painter. Here was someone who took pleasure in his materials, in the ‘ingredients’ of his art; a connoisseur of his artistic domain.
There was also a lightness, a brushstroke, a delicacy, that recalled certain Spanish painters of the Paris School. Bores, Pancho Cosío, Clavé, were some of the names that came to mind.
Later Barberá studied in Madrid, in the Casa de Velásquez, thanks to a grant from the authorities in his hometown, and explored the above aspects of his work in greater depth. In the collective exhibitions there his small quiet paintings hit the right note: still-lifes, scenes with figures, very fine, very purist paintings in grey, ochre and blue tones, separate yet connected at times by a nimble drawing that had the effect of ‘sgraffiare’. Paradoxically these were paintings more French in tone than the majority of those painted by French students.
Now back in Valencia, it has been quite a time since Barberá has had a one-man show. Thus, the importance of the exhibiton he is now going to mount.
In his studio in the Plaza Redonda just over a year ago – a fascinating place by the way and, even more so when viewed from a vertical perspective - I saw some of the work he was going to exhibit. On some of the sheets of paper and cardboard he had abandoned his traditional constraint somewhat in order to take on jungles, animals and strident colours. Such audacity did not seem part of his style and the change disturbed me at first. The painting medium he was using was so thick that it formed lumps and incorporated strange objects –an unmistakable sign of the influence of Barcelo’s work. Expressed in generic terms one could see that the winds of new European trends had blown his way.
There are moments when these winds have continued to blow in more recent works, which I have only seen from photographs. The great black figure against a yellow background of 1985 makes one think of one of Enzo CucchiÂ’s figures.
Nevertheless, through the work of others the artist was finding himself. It served him well to engage with new ways of approaching his art and, after the first disconcerting moments, one’s eye began to recognise, to pick out, a group of works which escaped the new forms and returned to us the Barberá of old. From the above-mentioned photographs of the more recent works, Barberá gives the impression of having found his own centre, incorporating some of the new approaches but, at the same time, not giving up on those elements that form his own style.
The human figure underpins Barberá’s present work. A symbolic figure, reduced to its minimal expression. A simple pretext, not to tell a story but to explore the seduction, the values and the essence of painting.
In our decade Spanish painting has been more involved with tradition than have other countries; with games of historical memory, with reflections on the past. In this sense Barberá is no exception. I still see him as someone who has absorbed very valuable lessons from the more impressionist side of post-Cubist work or, put in another way, as someone who is a spiritual brother of those painters who, like Braque or Bores, needed, after the minimalism of Cubism, to return to a certain luminous vibrance, to a certain feeling of life, to a certain sensuality.
Moving on from this, his recent work is pointing in a new direction. Contemplating his simple, almost ingenuous figures of fishermen, their bodies in the water, the hand taking a red fish from the ultramarine sea, their comical faces, our memory makes connections with other figures. Yes, they have something of what I would call ‘primal’ painting, which is spread out over the Mediterranean in Crete, Santorini, Etruria, Pompeii, Fayum, and which continues to speak powerfully to our imagination. Above all Santorini with its wonderful murals. A propos murals, we must not forget the course in Roman frescoes that the painter took in San Cougat de Vallés, nor everything that the Romanesque, via Picasso, has brought to the imagery of modern art. An aesthetic definition of modern Valencian art, stemming from the idea of ‘Mediterraneanness’, has sometimes been attempted and, although I have always been sceptical in this respect, it has to be admitted that in the case of Barberá, (and others: the strange Manuel Sáez, the neo- nucentist, Martí Quinto, the baroque opulent Morea) it is in such waters that he immerses himself.
Hieratic double figures, fishermen, still-lifes with fish in the style of Braque, faces like African masks, nude women, with something totemic about them, inscriptions, sprawling signatures that acquire a certain mural-like or ceremonial quality. In these paintings in greys, ochres, blues, reds, Barberá is unmistakably present, mining his own space, examining his own ghosts.His formal stylistic reserve continues to be his principal virtue but to this, his habitual solid classicism, more modern skills have been added – sweeping brushstrokes, gestures, watery white on pink figures that could almost be from Frankenthaler – which further the complexity of his work. With this show Barberá has arrived at a point which is so difficult but so necessary to reach, where creator, tradition and the modern co-exist in a dialogue.

Mesa negra
1986 , mixed technique on canvas, 420 x 200 cm
Colección Klaus Kramer, España
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