Minima Visibilia
Art Nexus
March 4, 2009
MINIMA VISIBILIA, Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico
Tony Bechara - Grey Paintings

September 25, 2008 – April 5, 2009
By JUAN CARLOS LÓPEZ QUINTERO
I am pursuing the impossible. Other painters paint a bridge, a house, a boat…I want to paint the air in which the bridge, the house, and the boat are to be found – the beauty of the air around them, and that is nothing less than the impossible. –Claude Monet

What presents itself to us as natural, one may suspect, is merely the familiarity of a long-established habit which has forgotten the unfamiliarity from which it arose. And yet this unfamiliar source once struck man as strange and cause him to think and wonder. –Martin Heidegger

Even the more seasoned art lover might be challenged upon entering a gallery where every work is painted in grey tones, even more so if the works are pure geometric abstractions rendered with extreme precision. Yet after a successful career that has spanned more than three decades, this is exactly what Tony Bechara proposes.Why not opt for the colorful spectacle of his earlier exhibitions? Why deal with such apparent opacity? Though the vibrations of his more colorful works are still present here, the grey paintings’ perfectly grided surfaces are somewhat more mysterious and elusive in their sheer austerity. The grey paintings do not represent a major point of departure from the artist’s ongoing visual research but they do offer clues about the primary substratum and conceptual base of his work.

“I started out with figuration… I painted works that were very narrative…scenes that were somewhat surrealist but very cinematic and black-and-white. [After some time] I reached a moment of crisis and one day I asked myself: If what I am painting are scenes from cinema and photographs, why don’t I just take on cinema and photography?”

The doubts that assailed Tony Bechara at the beginning of his career are the same that many painters confronted in the 19th and early 20th century, just as photography and cinema were born. The artist, like those that preceded him, grappled not only with technical matters but also with questions related to representation itself. The questions, in fact, were about the act of painting, understood as a place, topos, of form and color. Historically, this juncture signaled a new and fascinating chapter of the great Western dilemma of representation or mimesis, one that has lingered from the time of Plato to this day.

Fortunately, for Bechara, his crisis coincided with a trip to Northern Italy: “Little by little I started to discover Giotto and the Byzantine mosaics of Ravenna. I was fascinated by the fact that they were telling a Christian tale but that was nit the main thing. The main thing was the brightness, color, and how they changed as you viewed them from different angles. It was there that I became fascinated with the Pointillist painters, the Post-Impressionists, and the work of the Italian Futurists.”

It is precisely that fascination with transcending the descriptive evidence or narrative in search of color- not as a simple complement to form but as a mutating chance event- that lead the artist to choose an extreme form of painting. Out of his time, anachronistic and fully aware of it, Bechara took on what the curator of Latin American art, Luis Enrique Pérez Oramas, considers the “infallible sign of modernity… a support and surface understood as a grid.” Free from the doctrines and radical writings of the avant- garde, he ventured into a practice of painting that deals with the visual and not the visible- following another important strand of modern thought.

Bechara elected a rigorous way to deal with color, one that he has rarely changed. He has taken the risks and acknowledged the consequences that are implicit in kinetic research- that is the use of formulae, series, and repetitions- but his optical trap produces elements that can crate surprise and sometimes bewilderment. A look at the artist’s painting process is key to understanding his experiential or phenomenological intentions.

To create a woven pattern of miniscule squares, the artist uses masking tape in parallel vertical and horizontal lines creating a grid. The resulting spaces measure one quarter inch and are painted by hand, one-by-one. The artist selects a color and paints at regular intervals, repeating the process with each of his pre-selected colors. Once all the squares have been painted, he removes the tape and lays new strips to cover the completed areas. In this way he can access the unpainted spaces of the canvas and fill them with color. He lifts and reapplies the tape four consecutive times to complete a painting. In addition to patience and meticulousness, making these paintings also requires a willingness to involve the element of chance, since not even the artist knows the end result; it is simply impossible to know and remember the color and placement of each and every square.

This unique method of working and its surprising results are intimately related to the conceptual matrix of his work. Bechara’s kinetic work is not circumscribed in the historical proposals that have- through geometry- tried to present the hidden weave of life or its essential structure. Nor is it akin to those that have rejected handmade work in favor of mathematical formulae or mechanical and industrial methods. Bechara, through his handmade and chance-based process, wants his work to be non-preconceived apparitions. His attempt originates in art but wanders firmly into the territories occupied by the theories of perception, psychology, and psychoanalysis. “I have always had great curiosity to know how something looks before it can be defined by experience.”

The minima visibilia that Bechara’s grey paintings present is the extreme attempt to decipher the birth if the gaze in the absence of all visual reference and the heat of color. It is the zero degree of a measured grammar of dislocations and glimpses, of shadows that recognize what the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan saw as constituting the initial process in the construction of gaze. Bechara tries to present the bewilderment caused by an apparition, not of underlying form or structure as in the case of Piet Mondrian- one of the pioneers of geometric abstraction- but something more fragile that is still not constructed: a phantasmagoria that preceded every structure. Thus the absence of visual reference in his paintings paradoxically announces the composition of the gaze.

“When you open your eyes and suddenly you begin to see lines that more in one direction, one here, another there, a shimmer, etc., that’s the first step to visualization… but long before you reach that moment when you absorb visually, there’s another underlying base process- that’s the one that I am fascinated by.”

Bechara speaks of the process that Stefan Beyst defines in referring to Mark Rothko as “the emergence of the visible- the primeval gesture of mimesis,” the occurrence of a phenomenon, or in etymological terms, that which appears. From minima visibilia, Bechara not only admits but also invokes forms and the newborn. Lacan considers this to the search for a reference or a place, a vital condition of human existence.

Tony Bechara’s research may be perceived by the seasoned viewer to be within the parameters that define kinetic art but his deeper intentions complicate what may be seen as the grid of a changing- colored surface or fisicrómica. Although his paintings are devoid of narrative, they do not categorically reject representation. Bechara gives suggestive titles to his works: Snow, Paths, Labyrinth, Grand Canyon, Bonnard, Sombras, Colorado, Geometría, celeste, Vermont, Grises. These titles are the result of a first impression, where the artist is the first viewer of his own work. It is important to stress, however, that the titles do not limit or condition the reading of works in any way. They are simply glimpses or impressions that encourage one to consider wider paths in the field of vision.

Bechara proposes a new trajectory in the arena of visual investigation. His aim is to cover a path already known historically- that of abstraction- with new results. In his work the absence of a recognizable visual reference transforms the painting into an autonomous and independent space that evokes- from the blind grids of modernity- an erasure of visual references. This reminds us of the admonition that Leonardo da Vinci made as a theoretician of painting: “Don’t disregard that opinion that reminds you to look attentively at the stains or at ashes in a fire or at clouds or mud, in them, if you observe carefully, you will find those admirable ideas that wake up ingeniousness for new investigations. The same can be said of battle scenes, of animals and men. As well as landscapes, devils and monstrous things that cause horror. It is through confusing things that genius sharpens its new ideas.”

For Bechara it is not simply about finding figures, forms, or resemblances. His work inspires a sharpening of the concept of new horizons. The inverted kaleidoscope of his compositions invites us to a very special form of visual experience where the act of seeing and constructing is more important than the things we see. Those states that precede any theory of perception are the implicit aim of Bechara’s work. In his paintings the artist tackles phenomological questions that surpass historical problems associated with representation, the visual, and ultimately visibility itself. If “seeing” is understood as the action of recognizing and locating something in space, Bechara’s work intends to transcend that practical and habitual human reflex.

“I am attempting to make the spectator enter into a special form of communication, one that is purely visual.” From this perspective, Bechara’s work induces us to meditative states: “My works are in some way related to Sufi mysticism. The repeated geometries lead us to a contemplative state. It’s not a coincidence that I made several pieces in the shape of a mandala. I am convinced that this optical effect can lead to meditative states.”

We referred at the beginning of this essay to the mystery and elusive quality present in Tony Bechara’s sober suite of grey paintings. What at first glance seems opaque is in fact an invitation and a gift from the artist to engage in a unique visual experience. In his late work at the beginning of the 20th century, Claude Monet eliminated the horizon, often painted in greys, and become obsessed with the reflections on the water in his lily pond.In a similar quest, Tony Bechara wants to paint the air, to paint the impossible, to capture that which is never-ending and above all, to capture the wonder of that very moment that precedes vision.

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