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Under Sentient Skies

The Paintings of Ricardo Valbuena by Angeline Morrison

Origin Gallery, Dublin, Ireland, 1998

Hazlitt once remarked on the paintings of Turner that they harked back to,"…the first chaos of the world, or to that state of things, when the waters were separated from the dry land, and light from darkness, but as yet no living thing was seen on the face of the earth. All was without form and void." Something of this chaos and expectant tension is present in Ricardo Valbuena’s work, particularly in the paintings in this show. Valbuena has long been engaged in a painterly struggle to represent the loneliness of man in his physical and emotional environment. Here, however, his paintings seem to be engaged in a process, a sort of becoming. His surfaces, where dramatic light will bruise a sky or enrage a swelling sea, yield up compositional elements almost grudgingly. It is as though the figurative, narrative parts of the canvas might disappear at any moment.

The Kantian sublime infuses Valbuena’s work, so that it doesn’t come as a surprise to find that comparisons with Turner have been made. Figures or objects seem to appear out of a void, and Valbuena even favors the dynamic circular composition often seen in Turner’s work. Whilst his earlier paintings and drawings all seem to show a fascination with thundering skies (he admits that chiaroscuro has always "disquieted" him, and that he began to paint within the Spanish Baroque tradition of the Seventeenth Century), the marked absence of the human figure in his work is relatively recent.

Born in Bogota, Colombia in 1960, the young Ricardo Valbuena, was expected to follow a career as a doctor. A brief stint at medical school ended abruptly when the eighteen-year - old Valbuena realized that,"…the first few years are about theory, and what I wanted to do was to open bodies". He changed to an equally abortive architecture course, but it was here that he took occasional drawing classes at the atelier of David Manzur. "I was not confident that I could be a painter", he says of that time, "but that was when I decided what I must do". After exhibiting twice in Bogota, he decided in 1982 to try his luck in England.

England proved to be a ’surreal’ experience for him-particularly the bizarre atmosphere on the London underground, which inspired a series of paintings of the isolated human figure. His subjects were the mask-like, expressionless riders on the underground. To the artist this people’s anonymous subterranean passage through London symbolized the individual human’s relationship to the city, which was far from symbiotic or nurturing. He describes the underground as ’…a very strange space…Dante would surely have made it a part of Hell". Valbuena used the painterly language of distortion and monstrosity beloved of his early hero, Francis Bacon, diluting it only slightly. After a while, though, the aggression of the urban theme exhausted him. "I came to a point where the urban milieu and work pressure made me stop painting for a whole year".

This is where his fascination with landscape and open spaces began. The body of work here, with its livid skies and all pervasive other-worldly light, is inspired by his stay at Cill Rialaig, Co. Kerry. Since 1991, when Noelle Campbell-Sharp set out on her project to restore this deserted famine village as a creative retreat for artists, many visitors have commented on the qualities of the air and of the light, edible and seductive by turn. Nature here is fierce, it commands respect.

The oil painting ’Fishermen Returning’ has all the high drama one would expect from a Turner or a Caspar David Friedrich. The location is actually very near the retreat - but this is something you’d need to know beforehand. Drama subsumes location, and you could actually be looking at any seascape, any season, any century. The same is true of ’Celtic Crosses’ another oil which invites a tactile response. Painted in a local graveyard, the brushwork seems to trickle downwards like a soft, persistent rain shower. The crosses look misty or watery, it’s as though he is rendering the solid stone ephemeral.

Such a total seduction by landscape is a logical departure in his work. It’s not that he has abandoned the human figure; it’s just that the protagonist has shifted. His landscapes are protagonists in themselves, places where human activity or presence is only hinted at. Interestingly, Valbuena has also begun to ennoble animals with the same sentience and often sublime significance that one might expect of a human figure from a tragic play. "A Proud Irish Mountain Goat’ is a chalk and charcoal study loaded with symbolic import. The majestic stance of the goat and the roaring backdrop of the sky suggest that this is more than mere portraiture. Perhaps he represents the sacrificial goat which the ancient Israelites would traditionally take once a year and load down with heavy sandbags. The bags acted as tangible symbols for their sins, and the goat would be let into the desert to perish on their behalf. Perhaps the artist was also influenced by his proximity to ’Puck Fair’ in Killorglin, another ’surreal’ situation where a billy goat is crowned and seated in majesty atop a twenty-foot high tower.

The charcoal drawing ’Friendship’ condenses this drama down into a piercingly sweet close-up. The ’friends’ in question - a group of horses gently nuzzling each other’s faces - have greater nobility than many of Valbuena’s humans. With interlocking heads and intelligent eyes, their liveliness and individual characters are almost palpable. Valbuena shows an enormous attraction to the horse, another animal rich with symbolic associations. Many of the oils are concerned with the subject of racehorses, and Valbuena combines brooding skies with incredible sense of dynamism.

The small oil, ’Race Horses at the Curragh - full speed’ is a mass of velocity and light. Relentlessly vertical brushstrokes and the diagonal placing of the figures (horses and riders in full gallop) give an immediately hazy, fleeting effect. A big purple and jade sky with flashes of blue and pale violet gives the backdrop for a much larger oil, ’Race Horses - Land of the Horse’ an exploration of the sheer physical power of the horse. The riders are present, of course - but they are huddled and circumscribed within a strangely calming aura of blue. It is clear that their power depends solely upon their equine mounts.

Valbuena creates a magic world, at once visceral and ethereal. He gives us subtle landmarks to the world we inhabit, but disguises this world with cloaks of intense moodiness. His is a misty netherworld, a world in between states, where true shapes are subsumed by the fugitive effects of light and atmosphere. His skies always remain moody, unfathomable, wild. Reminiscent, in fact, of Nietzsche’s "luminous afterimage which kind nature provides our eyes after a look into the abyss". If the abyss for this artist is the inimical and stifling urban environment, then wide, wild rural skies would indeed seem the perfect antidote. The skies eclipse the land, or the figures, but not fully - it slowly becomes apparent that the changing skies are analogies for that which is fugitive and fleeting in this life. Friendship, for example, speed, a race, a storm, victory. In all their mutability, Valbuena’s skies could be a metaphor for human life itself.

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