“The whole youth can revolve around a single image, a single sentence in a song. It is the whole world concentrated in one complex point, full of doubts, the whole system questioned."
José Luis Brea
The photographic model
Unable to find a subject in his (social, political, cultural) environment to identify with, or let's say worth painting -from an ethical perspective-, Gerhard Richter focused on photografic image. He did not seek the documentary source from which painters since the 19th century have often been obtaining information about the appearance of reality. He looked for a model allowing him to perform a pictorial exercise with no traces of expressivity or unfortunate emotional charge, without having to abandon representation premises (out of interest, as I will soon point out). One of the landmarks in that part of his production that we could in a somewhat difficult way call figurative, is characterised by a gentle out of focus aiming to denounce the mediation of the photographic device. There is no need to previously know each of the photographs he has used to be sure about the fact that what Richter is showing us is the photographic image of something and not the direct, immediate representation of that still identifiable something. Thanks to that visual noise or pollution, alien to our natural perception (out of focus is a term -and a effect- that belongs to photography), the medium becomes visible, reaching a significant connotative charge that originally seems to be directed against the line of flotation of those conventions that have been ruling pictorial representation.
Every photograph, however insubstantial and objective may seem to us, is the result of a combination of different factors, from the sensibility and the criterion of whoever is behind the lens, up to the technical features of the camera taking the picture. It models the image of reality presented to us. No one believes anymore in its neutrality, in its innocence. But now I am not to question its ontological scope, nor to go over an extensive enumeration of the inerminable possibilities of manipulation that it offers (digital technology has spectacularly increase these possibilities, both in qualitative and in quantitative terms, making them accesible to a great number o users, even to not proffesional ones). I am not to denounce for the umpteenth time its conventional, fictitious nature, since it is precisely this feature what is most interesting when dealing somewhat appropiately with the work of juan Francisco Casas.
Contemplating this young artist's work, we soon realise that he is not using as his direct model the individuals, friends, mates, girlfriends and other occasional beings shown in his paintings and drawings -always with a cheerful and cheeky attitude, in funny or hilarious situations, all of them strictly banal-. He is rather using the snapshots he takes of them. He has confessed to always carry a camera around. So he approaches his environment always through some sort of means, through a photographic sensitivity, with an artistic aim, as he acknowledges. He has decided to show in his work this interpretation of everyday reality, but seeking or taking advantage of something else other than the mere punctual information offered by photography. It is not only -or we should rather say it is not even- about rendering analysis and observation easier. It is more about incorporating visual codes which, being easily recognizable, offer him a very relevant iconic medium to the kind of pictures he makes. It is a language model that becomes environmental, which determines the tone of the work and therefore his style, his way of painting and drawing, and even the procedure he uses, as we shall see further on.
The camera obscura
In his last individual exhibition in Fernado Pradilla's gallery, I remember seeing a series of drawings lined up in the corridor leading to the inner room. It consisted of several images of boys and girls holding a camera, apparently taking a picture of someone who was also photographing them. An improbable visual puzzle, which can be seen as a sign of the transaction with his environment established by the artist. A reflecting mirror game in which subject and object merge (besides, through a present spiritual complicity that soon becomes obvious). The observer is tangled up; he is now the one being watched and he virtually gets into the party (from the artist's point of view), into the joke, into the private scene. He ends up feeling he has become the target of the lens pointing at him. Every gesture, every joke, every face seem to be for him. He is now the witness of situations revealing themselves through -most appropriately- flashes in an onomatopoeic way .
A an auxiliary element to capture an image, the flash points to an object (it helps to individualise it) and makes it visible, therefore, ready to be photographed. But in order to take advantage of this, due to the artificial and substitute light, the object definition loses some properties, some nuances, same quality. This, in ontological terms, means that it loses reality. Such data economy, such loss in the chiaroscuro modulation, such basic contrast which reveals and conceals something at the same time, and which levels the different volumes, turns into a true image what we would usually percieve with a higher degree of analogy in natural light conditions, as a true portrait of whatever has been protraited. The image taken with flash reveals the most photographic moment (due to his irrevocable and unmistakable nature). And we speak not only of photographic images (as we learn looking at the work of Juan Francisco Casas, among others, who accomplish a rhetorical transfer through painting ). This means it is also the most fictitious moment, offering high performing possibilities due to its own idiosincrasy. Not because it is used here as a registration or documentary tool, but because it serves as the medium in which the scene takes place. In Casas's paintings and drawings it is obvious that the characters are acting for the camera. Confronted with its appeal and its presence, they come into existence. This and nothing else is the pact sealed between the artist and his friends.
The invisible style
Gerhard Richter chose to use photography as an alibi to banish an unwished subjectivity (thus putting reality aside on the background and turning it into a second hand reflection). Casas, on the contrary, being far more ironic and lighthearted than the german artist, and, of course, less programmatic, makes use of the definition that photography offers him and allow himself to express the whole range of moods at his disposal (or at his wish), as far as treatment is concerned. His realism derives, precisely, from this decision. He does not correct nor changes the photographic offer. His painting is a clear exercise of reproduction, of rethorical camouflage, as stated by his style. A style that is not obvious, which requires invisibility to be effective. Looking at his pictures we notice the minimum, formulaic, flat, succinctly nominative pictorial qualities. There is not pictorial treatment over the mere representative function. Nor is there a print, a gesture, a charge or a material enphasis revealing anything else other than the presistent snapshot perseverance.
We could state that Juan Francisco Casas photographs when he paints, but only if we take into account that he begins his work with his camera. So it is not the work of somone simly copying, as his paintings and his drawings are premeditated. It is a deliberate operation starting at the moment in which he sets out looking for pictures to be made (or to be prompted). Even more definitely, it goes up to that other moment in which he carries out his activity at his studio, transfering the photographs onto canvass or paper. And it is all motivated by a decision that, according to the own artist's words, I no doubt will describe as ironic.
The correspondence to the photographic referent leads us, to begin with, to evaluate the nature of his compositions, as well as the technique he uses. Then, we make the usual question on a work that we definitely would inscribe into hyperrealism: why reproduce what the photograph already shows? or what for?
We know that his style comes from the artist's -let's say- interest on photography. His language is functional, simple and plainly enunciative. He expresses no more -he does not want to- than what is alrealdy shown and expressed in the photographs. In order to do so, the ductility characteristic of oil painting serves very well his purpose, since it offers him the necessary resolution to suggest the fluidity (as the evocation of the appearance of reality) typical of this kind of representations. The use of Bic ballpens to make his drawings is a bit more peculiar and unusual (at least at the beginning, since we soon realize that it is a very relevant decision). It is a tool completely alien to artistic procedures. He uses it with an extraordinary skill and, yet again, it takes us back to the youthful world his work belongs to. A good part of this evocation is down to the fact that the ink is blue - and not black, as we might expect, according to a long standing graphic tradition-. This is the colour we usually associate with writing, and more specifically, with the world of education. This way an implication, a perfect tuning is achieved between the message and the medium, which helps to recall a suggestive connotative charge, in the sense we mentioned before, and which the artist manages to capitalize in his favour.
Creating the mood
It also the case, from a formal point of view, both with the size of his compositions and the fragmentation of the represented scenes -it should also be noticed the corresponding structural and perceptive disorder typical of all sorts of visual losses and modificated proportions-. This are both factors making evident, yet again, the artist's environmental intentions. The size of the work, as we all know, is an enphatic option. In Casas's work, the huge dimensions of many of his works are used to emphasise - or outgrow- the banal nature of what his works show. These are always fragments (yet another reference to the photographic world, this time in terms of framing), close-ups of incompletes scenes. This makes us see them very close, leading the observer to a vivid sense of taking part in them, thus activating the performing dimension of the game he suggets, already pointed out early on.
I would not like to finish this lines without making reference an aspect in Juan Fracisco Casas's work that many people find most attractive - more convincing-: his technical virtuosity. I will not make any distinction between specialised and non specialised opinions, since this time they are the same. This is a quality scarcely valued by art criticism and art theory. As we know, these focus more on conceptual assumptions than on the quality of material resolution (as far as specialisation imposed by the various artistic disciplines is concerned). However, it is one of the main arguments in our artist's discourse. Far from being the final evidence of his ability -and not just simple ablility-, it is the dialectic key of an approach easily following the winding paths of a logic of reality, whose texture we are so familiar with. All that to take us to his world, that is, to confirm how much fun he has with his friends, girls and other people he tags along, while he suceeds in bringing us round, once again, to his point of view: banality (more than the ordinary, what is left form the annihilation of les grands récits) may be the more definite sign of our times, only intelligible through multiple microstories.
Superb, brilliant in his coherence and impeccable in his ease of work, Juan Francisco Casas is no doubt a gifted seducer.