José María Sicilia

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The Depth of Light

As the years go by, José María Sicilia’s work has become more and more submerged into the sense of what is spectral, into the phantasmal side of things, the sense of phosphorescence, their last breath or luminous trace. His work does not focus on how well-defined and radiant things are, illuminated by an ideal, abstract and timeless light, but contemplates instead its ominous shadow, the other face that submerges things into the invisible. Sicilia is interested in the light that flickers, the light that is fragile, vulnerable, hidden, pursued, diluted, faint and hardly visible; the light that is almost, we could say, simulated, a trail, lost in the darkness. He is interested not therefore in the light itself, but in its flight; the phenomenon of its dispersion in the shadows. In the poem Sandokai, by Sekito Kisén, born in Southern China at the beginning of the 8th century, we can read, almost at the beginning, “The spiritual fountain shines clearly in the light,/ the streams flow in the dark”, and further on, “There is dark in the light,/ but do not see it only as darkness,/ There is light in the dark,/ but do not see it only as light./ The light and the dark oppose themselves to each other,/ like the right foot and the left foot when they walk”. Light and shadow belong to each other, they penetrate each other, they walk side by side; to separate them, moves us further from reality, it is an abstraction, a formula, a prototype, an idea, a conceptual perspective. It is pure invisibility without a shadow of light. The path along which Sicilia walks is dark and gloomy, strewn with both lights and shadows. He walks hesitantly like a blind man groping about the empty space, guessing what is about to come, scrutinizing the night, without any perspective, without = being able to distinguish for sure between what he thinks he can see and what he imagines. Wandering in the dark night in pursuit of enlightenment that can only be found dispersed,  evasive, simulated, spectral.

The idea of interweaving shadows in an aesthetic sense necessarily transfers us to the oriental world and, in particular to the refined artistic Japanese taste. However, we cannot forget either the original trace of darkness that was marked by the prehistoric emergence of painting, the art of cave painting, born in the depths of natural caves and in the flickering light of torches. Painting gestated, as a cave-dwelling ritual, by pigmenting the irregular walls of the cave with blood. The first human trace that would mark forever the intimate destiny of art cannot be forgotten, that of the symbols and figures engraved in the depths of the earth, underground.  This origin cannot be overlooked simply because it is the first link between art and its root, the subsoil; and, in this way, its nature is stained with radicalness. “In the deep abyss that surrounds the centre and the immediate subsoil, homeland to the roots” –wrote María Zambrano in the chapter entitled “The tree of life. The serpent.1” in her essay The blessed-, “lies the site of water and of suppressed and veiled light”. Later, this same scholar tells us that we have to unravel the light in a process that drags us outside from the cave, from the dramatic process of the development of life, but “the face of the living being corresponds to the darkness of the bowels of the earth; the distinguished face of the mammal and its luminous countenance respond to the living core, a treasure which the earthly cavern cannot hold as its own privilege. The earth’s bowels hold the sparkling, indelible light. The light which is formed from water and fire, from air and salt. The salt of the earth which absorbs and sets the light”.

In a certain way, therefore, the act of painting is trapped inside that contradictory movement of driving into the roots of the earth and, at the same time, in the vertical growth towards the sky, where, through the diversification of its branches, it drives once again, its inverted roots into the luminous celestial atmosphere, into the depths of the air. Life, art that is to say, puts itself under strain in this luminous seizure, in this way of crawling between the shadow and the light, the dark and dense liquor of blood and the lightness of the air. Continuing along this luminous path of the metaphor, Zambrano continues to describe the process to us in a poetical way: “Like the poor entrails of the celestial light, the colour of poverty itself, ash-grey from the stars, the earth imbibes its light and rises, twisting, climbing into the orbit which it has finally reached without knowing or having asked for. To rise and drink from its light was all it had searched and continues to search for. And then to descend, creating a curved rounded form and to exist; to be firm, consistent, and attracting in this way the light by creating a weight, producing gravity that magnetizes and fixes the actual light itself that irresistibly has to descend towards it. And its inclination originates from these two desires, that everything in it slides towards the ground or rises upward, climbing up, ascending towards its orbit”.

Whoever is familiar with José María Sicilia’s artistic career, which goes back about thirty years now, will understand how some of these previous poetic reflections of María Zambrano fit his work. Not only because of his versatile passion towards the organic, but, and above all, because of the special care that he has always shown towards that vertical movement of light, where the real pulsation of light itself is revealed. The light that fades, that is to say: that develops a combat in order to illuminate life. The light that is in fact a shadow, celebrating this way the mystery of its heartbeat, its hesitant coming and going, its trembling brightness. Black entrails of roots and burning chromatic combustions of flowering. In this sense, Sicilia’s progression has successively been dominated by a strong dialectics between the regressive stage of dark blackness and the blazing explosion of colour. Sicilia has progressively painted each moment, so to speak, in black and white or he has given free reign to the brightest of reds.

This dialectics, extreme, or between extremes, has in fact dominated all of Sicilia’s career. His first paintings followed an expressionist outlook, although they represented isolated domestic icons, as if he was trying to superimpose the contradictory styles of abstract expressionism and pop. This first tension between contrasts was shortly followed by another, even more radical than the first: that of the same pictorial technique of rough painting that surrounded Malevich’s white squares and, forcing the tension even further, the construction of several series of boards, in which monochrome images alternated with others pigmented with gestures, stains and material. That is to say Sicilia alternated the geometrical tradition of Mondrian and Malevich with that of abstract expressionism…

But what was the intention behind this force of dynamic contradiction? The process can of course be explained from very different perspectives, including the formalistic one of interpreting it like an increasingly more exigent critical analysis of the pictorial decanting of painting itself. However, from my point of view, this dialectical tension revealed the growing concern of Sicilia to focus the direction of his painting, like the dramatic epiphany of light, like a luminous condensation. In this sense, during the last decade of the past century, Sicilia began a pictorial experiment by using wax, which most likely referred to the ancient mythical technique of oil on dry plaster. Sicilia however did not use it in this plain archaeological sense but rather as a way of condensing thickness, of giving substance, to light, so that its “materialization” gained in this way a transparency of suppressed reflection. On the other hand, the fact that this experience coincided more or less, with the series that he dedicated to the poetical work of Saint John of the Cross, a mystical celebration of the fleeting brightness of the dark night, seems to me very revealing in relation with Sicilia’s last period of work. The artist appears to be more and more immersed in what I would call a profound experience of light, concerned with what it is that makes the miracle of visibility and its artistic expression possible.

In any case, there is a critical luminous depth inside the whiteness, inside the blackness and inside the redness, three colours which correspond in addition with three states of the creative process. Sicilia, as we have already said, has used these colours throughout all of his art, without however forgetting to intrude between their dramatic intervals, provoking in this way a dialectical tension which is introduced through time, -the existential perspective- at the heart of his work. Through this existential dimension, the light turns flickering, trembling, vulnerable; that is to say, it becomes mortal. From the beginning of Sicilia’s series entitled Un despertar sin imagen, (An awakening without image) dated from 2003, the development of a new foray in Sicilia’s work could be appreciated between the spectral lightness of luminosity and the reverse of darkness. It is as if, after the previously mentioned radical attempt of “enclosing” –“enclosing” the light, materialising its thickness as if inside a translucent case - he has now tried to convert it into “dust”, into weightless black particles suspended in the air, deposited at random, in the form of cinders, or even perhaps, in the form of charcoal, generating in this way a necessarily fortuitous cartography of different shades. In this sense, most of the series of this lineage that he is now exhibiting, with their eloquent titles such as El peso de las lágrimas, Quejas, Dar a luz, Laberintos, Colmenas and Una tumba en el aire have all been completed with a mixed technique that combines in essence graphite and watercolour. To me this seems a highly significant aspect, since it transfers us in a material sense to the world of what lies underground, to that of the depths, of roots, that which is, so as to put it, den to the dampened shadows. However, does it not seem paradoxical that these dampened shadows end up drifting in the air like sprinkled ashes scattered around? Is the vertical communication between the underground and the sky not also a paradox? Although the perplexity before these propositions is understandable, is art the place, the home, of perplexity, the genuine guide of the perplexed, its anchorage, or, as Emily Dickinson defined it “the house that pursues the enchanted spell”.
t;br />In all other respects, it is obvious that José María Sicilia, by means of this ascetic ascension from the heart of darkness, carrying with him the seed of the shadows, has made the jump from the traditional scenographic space, that of an occidental perspective, to what John Berger has called a “nomad perspective”, that is based on coexistence more than on distance. This perspective, which is prehistoric, underlying, original, arises, as Berger states, “in the depth of the cave, that is in the depths of the earth, where everything first existed: wind, water, fire, far-away places, the dead, rays, pain, the paths, the animals, the light, things that have not yet been born… All were there in the rock in order to be invoked…The drama of the first painted creatures is not found on the side nor in the front, instead it is always behind the rock. In the same place where they emerged from. In the same way as we did…”

For this reason, when I contemplate those mysterious movements with which Sicilia manages to disorientate the centrality of our gaze, breaking the distances and situating us inside that uncertain threshold in which our vision at the same level as the ground seems, at the same time, to soar up to the deepest height, I feel a shudder towards the sense of what is radical. The same feeling that exists between cave painting and Malevich, a feeling that links you to the depth of light, a space that is hardly discernable, and in which the passing of time transfers you to the sense of what is timeless. Sicilia’s series of graphite and watercolours, highly praise the shadow through interspersed trails of flickering light, doing so in the same way as in the chromatic combustion of Entre las flores and Rosas. It must be underlined that the consubstantial dialectics that form Sicilia’s artistic career have been brought up to date, although never before had the artist gone so far, and with such subtleness, into the depth of light, nor had he handled in such a deep way its interior, from where everything has originated. This fine, flickering, trembling, spectral trace, that of the awakening without image, contains the mystery of all painting, the luminous mortal remains of what is visible, the refulgent trail which goes back to the night of all times, like a small offering to the memorability of human existence. Because, as Berger has written, “what is important is what the changing light can never really reveal: that thing towards which one comes close when having feared to have lost it”.

Francisco Calvo Serraller

(Translated by Lorraine Kerslake)