Great distance separates Moscow from the city that bears the lilting name of Bilbao. María Alonso Páez, an artist who lives there, may appear to a Muscovite an enigmatic stranger from a faraway land. It is hard to see from afar how her unique genius developed. Art historians described many times and in ample details in what age and under what circumstances the boy Pablo Picasso took the pen and pencil to make his first sketches of toreros and bulls–but cultural archives have no recordings of how the Basque artist arrived at her inimitable canvases. Meanwhile, María is at the peak of creativity, and victim to highfalutin and hardly informative mass media accounts.
There is, however, one thing every viewer grasps at once, and each is eager to talk about it the instant he sees her latest paintings–a suite in colours under the name of “Chaos”. It is dedicated to the pivotal theme of all mythologies–the demiurgic creation of matter, the appearance of intelligent forms out of primordial substance. María´s paintings associate with cosmological things in every mind.
“Chaos” comprises more than seventy paintings. Catching the greatest attention among them are those that closely resemble the latest astrophysical achievements–colour photographs of distant galaxies, the birth of supernovas, and other grandiose catastrophes of the Universe. We discern now constellations of luminaries, now nebulae, now sparkling energy clusters radiating fabulous power. In other paintings, we see matter decaying and congealing, energy dying down, and radiation reducing to bring in its wake darkness and immobility.
That is what can come to the mind of the viewer who reads science fiction and sees space odyssey movies. Other viewers, more interested in biologists´ latest breakthroughs, see something different underlying María Alonso Páez´s art. They discern the inception and progress of life, miraculous development of an organism out of pre-cellular molecular structures.
There is not only ontology behind her art. There is psychology, too. There is a third possible interpretation of “Chaos” as recordings of emotions and perceptions, an echo of tenderness and destructive passion, of maternal bliss and the furious attacks of Fates. As we can assume, what the artist is after is not a demonstration of the markings of the world but meditations on the turbulence in the demiurge´s heart and mind.
Imagine an astrophysicist, a biologist and a psychologist arguing about all that at her exhibition. Theirs would be a fruitless dispute. True, Dona María´s art corresponds to archetypal structures we known from modern astrophysics, cosmological ideas, biology, genetics and fundamental physics plus descriptions of subconscious processes. The canvases show luminous clouds, pulsating clots of matter and energy, irradiation of particles, and mysterious shapes that emerge and fall apart–shapes now resembling jellyfish, now corals, and now coagulated albumen. These canvases are full of the checking power of order clashing with uncontrollable elemental passions that smash every obstacle. Whatever interpretation you choose is right, so let us not argue but try to make a synthesis of the analogies coming to our mind.
Made with the brush and sprayer, now with the straight brushstroke, now with sideway dripping, those paintings of magnetic power present the inception and evolution of matter and life. We see organized structures–substances, bodies and creatures–emerge out of the preternatural disorder of particles, molecules, waves and everything else that sciences studies. Space physicists have formulas of their own to describe it, biologists others, and psychologists come with their own theories of the soul–but the artist sees the world as one whole. What we see in María Alonso Páez´s canvases reminds us of what all cultures share. That is the myth of creation.
That is why analogies with contemporary exact sciences are a bit far-fetched. The ancient and the new philosophical cosmogonic myths are more up to the point.
The opening book of the Old Testament, held sacred by Jews, Christians and Muslims, offers a perfectly consistent and systematized story of counteracting chaos to set the world into order. At first, God divides the light from the darkness, then the firmament from the waters, and so on till He makes living creatures–among them, the most enigmatic and problem-laden of all. That is man and woman, the biune creature fated to bring the Maker no end of trouble. We know the book describing Creation by its Greek name of Genesis.
The world progressed from primordial chaos to matter endowed with form, and on to animate beings. It eventually came to the human race, made in God´s image and after His likeness to display amazing obstinacy and hot temper quite soon after its appearance. Such linear arrangement of the Scriptural world is, however, hardly characteristic of “Chaos”. As we know, linear logic belongs to the male mentality, while the female mind treads far more intricate and paradoxical paths. María Alonso Páez is no exception in this respect. As we look at her canvases in their well-ordered arrangement, we feel not being led by the hand to a particular goal but allowed to move at large along winding trajectories, occasionally getting lost in a labyrinth, and wonder just where we are now and what will come next. These winding paths are worth treading–we feel as sightseers in the wondrous gardens of Alhambra, with surprises and precious gems of extraterrestrial reality awaiting us behind every turn.
Certain instants of our journey along “Chaos” give us the awareness of a no ordinary order and harmony.
Then, we think with joy that we have grasped the Spanish artist´s message. At any rate, we guess where the top and the bottom are, how the central power works, and how the periphery responds to it. But–the instant we discern a star born in an explosion, a galaxy shaping out of stardust, an embryo growing from a fertilized ovule Dona María Shatters our illusion. As soon as we happily see an emergent orderly structure, we get into the grip of another cosmic tempest or protoplasmic maelstrom. Again we see flashes and interpenetration of particles, or liquids now mutually clashing in torrents, now dispersing in a neutral environment–all the diverse processes of powers in their emergence, development and struggle.
María Alonso Páez´s myth of Creation opens with a painting that baffles the viewer, leaving him at a loss. The canvas appears to have no centre, no bounds, no movement, no symmetry–nothing at all but bewitching pulsation of cream-coloured nebulae lazily intermingling within the static square of the frame. Inside it is a spreading dark-red droplet–a spot left by a smashed berry? Or is it an active element starting future evolution, an element yet unknown to scientist? The painting preludes stormy developments.
No. 2 makes us witness the birth of a world. Two nuclei emerge against a dove-grey background–a dark and a reddish-orange, a whirlwind inside each. No. 3 shows a unicentric system, a clot of dark matter within which a semblance of an egg yolk grows. So far so good–the evolutionary path has been laid.
That is a tortuous path. Canvas No. 4 again depicts nuclei dividing each in two. No use guessing what fate awaits the two halves– will they merge in a new union or divide on? The next canvas gets the dark cloud round the egg yolk to oust another, vague greenish form into the back ground. An eventful story is taking to start.
Once gathered in a long sequence, these non-figurative paintings tell dramatic stories on a par with Shakespeare´s or Calderon´s. They charm and amaze the viewer. The dark matter with a luminescent nucleus vanquishes the delicate, transparent power cluster in the next canvas. Yet that is a Pyrrhic victory. The jet-black muscles of a creature quite soon to be born–or of a young galaxy–become flabby and get creased and flattened, while the fiery heart turns cold and falls apart, sending forth sparks.
Yet there is far more to Act One of this superb visual drama. It does not know finality in victory and defeat. There is always a continuation. As we pass to the next canvas, No. 7, we see that the former protagonist, that is, the central dark spot against a silvery background, is not beyond cure. It fills with strength to grow bulging muscles as dark dead skin peels off the rapidly extending body as under inner pressure. Pink and yellowish forms emerge within the recently shapeless clot, resembling human body organs.
What we see is a new beginning, an embryonic new life. All trials and tribulations over, a creature awaits birth. We firmly believe it with the artist´s tremendous power of conviction. Will it be a long or short-lived triumph? Will the line of the new life stretch far?
The new creature, fit and dynamic, survives long enough for us to surmise a glorious destiny ahead of it. No. 10 shows the creature acquiring a shape that resembles something we know from books about the emergence and progress of life on Earth. It is most like the embryo of a vertebrate, which waits for its limbs to grow, rolled into a ball in its slumber. Painted red, the embryo appears hot with pulsating blood. Its surface produces the impression of healthy skin, pimpled and criss-crossed with veins.
The canvases that follow tell a story that defies verbal description, let alone interpretation. The central embryo loses it calm. The alarming No. 16 has its entire surface covered in fantastic shapes. Seething, eager to get into the world, the turbulent forms pressing to the upper edge of the painting resemble bones and cartilages. Or is it a spine? Contrasting to them is the bottom, with its slimy forms that look not unlike placenta. Is it an act of birth, exit into a dangerous world from the womb of the universe or an animate mother? If it really is birth, it is a dramatic one, a birth full of shock and injuries. Danger, horror and tragedy lie in store for everyone fated to leave non-being and aspiring to exist.
No. 17 presents a blast as silvery, yellowish and blue waves precipitating from the centre in all directions. The dark something staying in the centre loses a part resembling a leg, and another that looks like a large skin fragment off a creature flayed alive. This is not a stage piece, so we do not know the victim´s name and never see its face, but we never doubt a tragedy is being enacted. To build up the impression, the artist makes No. 18 apocalyptic: conventionalised sky in which black tempests blow from right to left to silhouette a dragon´s maw, small dark drops falling down and to all sides, veiled in fire or sprinkled with blood.
The viewer vaguely guesses what is on in artist´s Universe. It is the history of evolution, true of whatever substance and organism. Evolution is essentially non-linear. Halcyon days finish in disaster, and the recent lucky ones perish. Yet the tragedy is not final. A new start is always possible- just as another tragedy.
No. 19 is mysterious to the utmost. The centre of the canvas is vacant as something like drops of coagulated blood or skin fragments float in the void to the right edge. The rest is taken up by another form of life. Or is it a cosmic nebula? That is hardly so. To all appearances, we have to do with biology not astronomy here, what with jelly-like substance forming flexible semi-transparent animate pipes that rock and toss in liquid.
No. 20 brings us another surprise as new dramatists personae oust the previous. The initial protagonist, hapless victim of merciless powers, and the semi-liquid proto-molusc vanish without a trace. Flat black fragments dash to and fro against a white background–remnants of scorched matter no longer living, nor able to evolve. The world quits its previous state. A new state is coming in.
No. 21 shows the entire system of evolutionary principles changed. The centre of the canvas no longer presents anything that would deserve attention. It is a passive greyish void with small motley coloured semblances of points and commas in it. Life, energy and development recede into the sides of the rectangular canvas, with an intertwining of shapes reminiscent of lianas, cartilages and muscular tissue, which jerk, stretch and contract either in a life-and-death battle or, on the contrary, helping each other to survive.
Good old Don Pedro Calderon ought to see the breathtaking turns the new drama is taking? We were sure the initial protagonist perished in a catastrophe once it vanished from its central place. Now it reappears, a deus ex machine, in No. 22, to regain its place in the centre of the rectangular canvas. The dark misty nebula has not yet taken shape, yet we see hot golden spots in its depth as reddish semblances of grapes surround it, emerging from the silvery space of an eternally cold cosmos.
The action goes on from success to failure, from life to death, from prosperity to disaster. The hero dies again in No. 23, buried under a mystical dark blue purple cloud. The next canvas again presents an abandoned battlefield with tatters of dark vestments, muddy torrents, and no trace of harmony, movement or future.
No. 24 presents one of the most tragic episodes of “Chaos”, life stopping and hope dying. One of the evolutionary alleys is doomed.
Coming in a counterpoint is No. 25, one of the most energetic and spectacular paintings of “Chaos”. A pulsating spot of light emerges amid a jet-black mass. Dazzling, it sends golden and reddish reflections on the huge bulks of inanimate matter all around, and outlines of human faces appear among the vibrating lights–or I it yet another illusion of the viewer in a presentiment of miracle?
The story of creation gets ever more intricate as it makes one bifurcation after another. Some of the branch lines get us nowhere, while some merge with each other. It is ever more difficult to follow the plot of the universal drama–and it does not need detailed analyses, for that matter. It is seldom worthwhile to describe paintings in words, and downright impossible when we have to do with non-figurative art. Let us concentrate on several nodal points of María Alonso Páez´s mythological evolution.
The artist leads us her viewers on an unexpected journey. Several canvases are dedicated to wondrous travel in space–or maybe through animate bodies, or again, through the human psyche. We discover a world of exquisite arabesques bathed in luminous gold and vermilion that once again forecasts the birth of new life in No. 26. No. 29 brings us back to earth in a detailed representation of biological conception: a semitransparent protoplasmic clot sends silvery sparks as it is floating in the bluish void. Dashing round it are dynamic carriers of life–worm-like splashes of paint squeezed by the artist´s hand out of its tube.
Creation seethes in the universal crucible. There is no end of births, deaths, hopes and threats. As the demiurgic drama reaches that point, the artist makes a pronounced accent for a first time since its start to make an explicit visual reference to the organizing element of the infinite chaos–an element that may eventually show an exit from the labyrinth, overcome chaos and offer transition to a new level of universal, material and psychological life. A human face appears in No. 30–something that never occurred before.
That is a very vague piece of portraiture. The eyes alone are clearly discernible in the large oval. There are only hints of the mouth and nose. Those hints are perfectly recognizable, however. A forma humana, the face of the demiurgic Creator, appears in the eternal motion of substances. The artist offers us no information whatsoever about the Supreme Being of her Universe. Further progress of the universal drama throws more light on it.
The face of the divine Creator–or the Universal Mother–vanishes for some time from the tale of Creation. Yet it remains always present in the perceiving mind. No. 31 is the first to introduce a geometrical figure–the semblance of a rectangle amid hovering fragments and substances. A new Power appears in the chaotic world–the Hand that draws not at random or on the will and volition of statistical regularities but according to the laws of geometry.
The artist introduces mathematical symmetry and the idea of order and rational harmony in her world. Chaos still lords it to produce now visions of beauty untold, now morbid fruit of imagination, now radiant hopes, now all-crushing cataclysms. Yet the first geometrical sketch was prophetic. Now, even chaotic scenes resemble mathematically correct forms. Thus, Nos. 32 and 33 portray evidently organized elongated structures along the edges of the canvas to frame it in. The Hand of the Father or rather Mother Creator is a purposeful hand. The Creator knows full well what the centre and the periphery are, and has the idea of the correct rectangle separated from the infinite, structure-less space.
The presence of a reasonable and purposeful element is not always evident. We cannot yet say that chaos has receded before advancing order and harmony – but the trend is clear beyond all doubt. The viewer is not surprised to see the semblance of a human reappear in No. 41. An eye and partly a cheek and the forehead are discernible among cosmic whirlwinds. This hint at the Mother Creator, the lady of the Universe is more transparent than the first sketch of a face. We are growing ever more sure of the Mother not Father endowed with the creative power in that world: the delicate skin and the dreamy glistening eye under the exquisitely arched brow doubtless belong to a woman, and the loving care of her gaze brings us back to babyhood, when our mothers, young then, looked at us just that way.
That is how we, rather assuredly, realize the principle underlying the evolutionary law on which the artist´s Universe rests. She portrays not the chaos to which the manly Lord of the Scripture resolutely put an end in persistent efforts. That is a different kind of chaos, omnipresent and undying. Possibly the feminine demiurge is not at all eager to conquer it. The demiurgic artist evidently enjoys her chaotic maelstroms, rotations, blasts and seemingly disorderly movement of colour spots, lines, sparks and splashes. She does not hurry to progress to the final goal – creation of man. She is more pleased to depict ever-new collisions and combinations of shapes and colours – and never care they may prove futile, in the final analysis. Be all that as it may, her maternal Universe is not proto-rational, neither does it combat Reason. The Mother´s creative power, just as the Father´s, operates mathematical laws, i.e., tools of Reason, yet her conduct is more imaginative and less predictable than the Father´s.
If it were a man who painted “Chaos”, the paintings would be quite different. Man chooses a less tortuous path to his goal, and travels his road in a more assured gait and regular step. There is no striving for a final decision in the feminine demiurgic ecstasy. Again and again, we see seemingly illogical and unexpected turns of the drama in line and colour. Solid substance again tosses and turns in liquid colour splashes, glowing colours again stand out against jet-black. The story of Creation is a labyrinth of many entrances and routes, which offers more than one road to the exit, obligatory for all. What we see is a non-linear theory of cosmogony, translated into the idiom of form. Putting it differently, it is a synergetic mythology of the 21st century.
If the matter statement is correct, “Chaos” necessarily demands a non-linear structure. We have just now attempted to read a narration about the fates of the dramatis personae–all those splashes, fragments, nebulae and semi-liquid substances–in the arrangement made by the artist herself. Yet the non-linear principle does not allow her to tell her viewers: “This is the only way to look at my pictures.” One can start in the mid-series or at its end. Imagine we have mixed the paintings as a pack of cards to put them in a different, chance arrangement. The result will be, anyway, similar to what we have now. We shall see again the stage setting change, and the heroes combating each other in disasters that leave after themselves white nothingness against a charred surface. Yet that will be so only to a certain extent. We have seen the beginning of “Chaos”. Later on, we shall see its final, wise and pathetic.
Before we read the Tale of Creation to the end, we ought to appreciate this trailblazing art in the context of art history. On the one hand, the artist of Bilbao carries on the modernist cause. On the other hand, she seeks to thoroughly reform it.
Abstract art, on whose basis the art of María Alonso Páez appeared, largely and frequently oriented on the Creation Myth. Non-figurative art was outside religion and denomination. It never illustrated the church dogma. Yet it was religious, to an extent–or sacral, in the most general sense, to be precise. Vasily Kandinsky sought a hundred years ago to translate the Creation myth into the idiom of his expressive art. His was a heroic attempt to reduce it to the simplest manual gesture and the elementary form of consciousness. He always stopped on the threshold of humanized order to return to preternatural chaos. Of no smaller courage was Kazimir Malevich, his younger contemporary, who attempted, with his “Black Square”, to cancel visible reality, exchanging it for the primal form and the “zero state of the visual” –that is, imagine the start of all things, the last instants of pre-Creation before the Big Bang.
The Russian artists this stood of the new demiurgic abstraction, a mighty stream the 20th century divided in two. West European artists offered refined taste and culture in form structuring, e.g., Nicolas de Stael and Pierre Soulage, while American abstract expressionists discovered a world of direct action, reckless courage and straightforward energy. Jackson Pollock and other mammoths of American non-figurative art made one branch of neo-modernism. Exquisite French painters stood to the other side.
Western artists have been trying for forty years now to build a bridge between the opposite banks or cancel the contradiction by “discovering art anew”. As it was getting with difficulty out of one historical trap after another, Russia joined their quest belatedly but to great effect. The abstract demiurgic creation of form has become popular in Moscow and St. Petersburg. The Bilbao Artist´s “Chaos” appears part and parcel of Russian artistic life in the early 21st century.
Indicatively, María Alonso Páez arrived at her spontaneous irrationalism after non-figurative art overcame post-modernist temptations to come to elaborate conceptualism. We remember the discoveries of Germany´s Gerhard Richter and Antoni Tapies of Spain. They were after “non-artistic art”, seeking to transform the canvas into a problem for the viewer to ponder over. Is it a painting or something quite different? Does it depict anything or are the traces of the artist´s hand values in themselves, which do not need the mimetic element? Why not try to combine art with trash from a scrapheap or with mass communicative stereotypes, this trash from the virtual scrapheap? Artists sought to put art itself to doubt and ask whether art was at all possible in this muddled time of ours. Such intentions and programmes once were a salient feature of art to shove direct emotional pronouncements, cries of emotion and lyrical meditation into the background. All that could not last long.
María Alonso Páez belongs to the new type of artists, whether Spanish, Italian, British or Russian–artists who no longer believe in conceptual exercises, whether in painting or sculpture. It was no use to pretend for long that art was not essential part of painting–meaning by “art” a canvas covered in paints to carry a meaning and directly influence the viewer´s feelings and subconscious. Was it worthwhile to paint beautiful pictures and, at the same time, prompt the public to doubt the very opportunity of painting? Was it now wiser to set simpler and more fundamental artistic goals?
Representative arts turned younger on the eve of the 21st century–meaning not artists´age but naïve directness and spontaneity of expression, which became attractive once again. We no longer care for ideology, religious denomination and philosophical concepts. The motley crowd of trends and schools appears useless. Try and guess what style will replace post-modernism! Enough is enough; say gifted painters, graphic artists and sculptors in every part of the world.
They want to make on canvas and walls, or of metal, stone and plastic not merely things that would testify to their culture and erudition (which always delves into the depth, doubts and poses haunting questions) but works that would sound as the voice of life itself, works to re-create episodes of their own life and record the workings of their heart and mind. Possibly, that is one of the results of big ambitious theories and imperative world-views going bankrupt as age-long clashes between idealists and materialists, between Rights and Lefts, and others aspiring to possess the ultimate truth finished in a stalemate.
Yet there is a myth that matters most. That is artistic creativity, and hardly any of contemporary artists would give it up. As we see, María Alonso Páez pays tribute to the tradition of the demiurgic myth in her latest paintings. Yet she re-creates the myth to make it feminine, free of discipline and full of fruitful incidents. The artist helps us rid of the highly intelligent masculine penchant for total logic, and teaches us to cherish unexpected flights of imagination and unpredictable turns of the plot. Possibly, she owes her spontaneity to her being part of the sex that makes mothers and sisters.
God was a woman, and creation, the way it should be, is no job for a man. That is one of the mottoes of radical feminists, and target of abuse and ironical parodies. Radicalism and wisdom cannot go together. Through intellect or intuition, the Spanish artist knows that feminine cosmos does not imply total chaos. As we said above, her paintings can be mixed as a pack of cards leaving their message intact as she portrays chaos as such. Her “Chaos” shows an exit from the labyrinth of chaotic multi-linear evolution that leads nowhere. However fantastic the turns of the plot may be, however dramatic the birth, life and death of colour spots, surfaces, torrents and fragments, the process has a final goal and is ruled by mathematics–geometry, to be precise.
The last but one painting of “Chaos” strikingly portrays a perfectly recognizable man´s head with firm, sculptured features standing out in the mist of unorganized
substances. The concluding, No. 72 is dedicated to woman, whose face appears as the artist´s signature on her finished work.
Now that Moscow art lovers see “Chaos” and ponder it over, the lady of faraway Bilbao will no longer be a stranger to us Muscovites. She will be a welcome guest in other great cities of the world, too. María Alonso Páez was destined to appear in Russia. Her paintings are more emotional than those by a majority of Russian artists. Besides, none of Russian artists has ever made anything to match her “Chaos”, with its monumentality and universal scope. Perhaps, it has never even occurred to them to venture on anything of the kind. Yet there is a regained invigorating trend to feel mere mixing of paints as an invincible passion. There is the sublime joy of standing spellbound before fantastic visions, of fiercely attacking the easel or be lost at it in blissful dreamy meditation; of translating matter in its diverse states or the subtle moves of the human psyche into lines and colours–and , with all that, never try to impose on others one´s own truths and doctrines. Art as naïve, spontaneous, inspired and sincere confession about the heart of hearts of our knowledge, culture and entire life is being born to both sides of the Atlantic and on the boundless plains of Central Russia.
Doctor of Arts
Corresponding Member of the Russian Academy of Arts
Chief Editor of the magazine “Sobranie” (“Collection”)