Superstition, ignorance, hypocrisy, gluttony … there was no vice or stupidity that was not mocked in sayings and proverbs, in turn, translated into the visual arts by Flemish painters of the Renaissance. In the villages painted by Pieter Brueghel The Elder sanity would be a misunderstood exoticism while Hieronymus Bosch (devout and imaginative in equal parts) fused the popular saying “the world is a hay-cart” with Isaiah’s warning: “all flesh is grass”.
Martínez Cánovas also transfers sayings to drawing and painting. His characters suffer cruel exorcisms: they throw toads and snakes through the mouth, the crows take out their eyes … If we look with a magnifying glass some old paintings full of characters, frescoes and polyptychs that represented the Last Judgment with the condemned about to fall in the open jaws of Lucifer, perhaps we found some sources of inspiration for this Murcian artist.
I think of the condemned of Van der Weyden’s Beaune Altarpiece, but also of the envy of Giotto personified in an old woman who vomits snakes (Chapel of the Scrovegni in Padua). And I think, of course, in Bosch and Brueghel with their display of faces transfigured by the overflow of passions.
1-Juanjo, in your last solo exhibition, curated by Ricardo Recuero, political leaders of different countries are characterized by the same animals that in Brueghel’s engraving “The Seven Deadly Sins” (1556) symbolized human faults (the pig – gluttony, the toad- greed, the bear – anger …), although you also take some iconographic license. A cocktail of political satire, medieval bestiary and Lowbrow?
There is indeed a good reserve of elements. Before this exhibition, Inferus Vacuus Est, where we can find this series of political leaders representing the deadly sins, I have been working since 2015 with the concepts of “metamorphosis, hybrids and transmutations”, always applied to the animal and human genre. In the art world, it is evident my influences of Brueghel, Bosch or Pieter Huys among others. But I am also influenced by contemporary artists and the science fiction and horror films of the 90s, which are a great visual source.
But it has been in this exhibition and talking with Ricardo Recuero where I wanted to flirt with the “lowbrow”. It is a genre that I have been observing in recent years and I like it more and more, but I could not find the time to experiment with it until this moment in which the meeting between a theme, an iconography and the long conversations with the curator have been channeled in this direction.
What better way to represent a person in a grotesque and comical way than with this style, also using as sources Ripa’s Iconology or the Alciato’s Emblemata in many works, but I have also changed some animal and some color as a personal contribution.
Then there is a series of contemporary elements such as the logo of the famous fast food company in the “gluttony” painting, or the logo of the European Central Bank in the “avarice” piece, to give the characters a symbolism of our time. The set is a Lowbrow style with a medieval support that makes a nod to classic art crossed with contemporary elements.
About the represented characters, I could tell you that has been very difficult to attribute a specific sin to each one since most of them have all types of vices and faults. Let’s take the example of Trump: I have represented him as “anger”, but he would have fit also with “greed”, “lust”, “arrogance”… And the same could be said with the rest.
2- I am struck by works that can be included within the genre of “memento mori”, in which a scared individual is confronted with his own death and his face is merging with a skull, or a lying body is confronted with his own corpse that observes him as in a mirror. It reminds me of a type of funeral sculpture: the “transi tomb” (the deceased person represented in a process of decomposition under his own skeleton). Do you draw inspiration from this medieval typology?
To be honest, I would say yes and no at the same time. My obsession with death began at an early age, arose naturally and without any kind of trauma. My mother keeps a watercolor of a skull that I made with 6 or 7 years old, and I remember that from that time I thought about how my skeleton would look like, if it would be different from the rest, if my skull would be similar to my face and so on. I used to ask myself these type of questions. In fact, it is a really “transi tomb” thought although I did not know the existence of this medieval typology.
I later studied history of art and leafing through a book on these themes I discovered these works, and shortly afterwards in my first solo show in 2009 (“memento mori”), the artist and professor of BBAA Lorena Amorós wrote a very interesting article where she quoted literary fragments of Samuel Beckett and Clement Rosset texts where they approached to this genre.
3- In all cases, either representing infernal creatures that surround us or some kind of transit to eternity (or to nothingness) and also in those proverbs about hybrids of men with birds or batrachians, some kind of metamorphosis always occurs. Is the transformation a way to face the anguish of emptiness, fear the end?
I never thought about it that way, but it makes a lot of sense. Many times I think of the earth seen from afar as a piece of food to where mold flourish and goes through several states and everything is in continuous renewal and evolution. I think it has to be very similar to watching a video of a certain place on our planet that statically registers 200 years, for example, and then we visualize it in fast motion, in 10 minutes. All human beings would be others, vegetation would not be the same, but in the end, everything comes from the same. With this, I want to say yes, that you are right to ask me if the transformation is a way to stop the anguish of an empty and final thought.
4- You are currently participating in the collective show “Retóricas de la carne”, in MUBAM, with which work? To what degree do you identify or share with the other artists included in the exhibition?
For this exhibition I have made two works. I have taken up the theme of death interpreting it in a more academic way. In these two works there is a nude in each painting, one feminine and one masculine. In the feminine I have used a rather fat model that holds a skull in one hand and that invites us to reflect on the idea and the concept “memento mori”, but in this case I have titled it “In Ictu Oculi”, which comes from a Latin expression meaning “In the twinkling of an eye” and that Valdés Leal used in the title of one of his magnificent paintings.
On the other hand, in the picture of the male nude entitled “Family tree” we can see in the foreground the portrayed illuminated in the dark and in the upper part of the picture appear legs as from people hanging (their bodies are completely out-of-plane). So I play with the concept of “family tree” and give it a twist, making a supposed tree where those family members hang.
Most of the artists participating in this exhibition have as leitmotiv the human body and a large part of them do not work from beauty. We can see the work of Enrique Marty, Santiago Ydañez or Jon Ander del Arco, among others, and we observe that the grotesque, the disturbing are characteristic elements of their works. I totally share that vision and I feel quite identified.
Interviewed by Anna Adell
Retóricas de la carne · El cuerpo como experiencia
Museo de Bellas Artes de Murcia (MUBAM)
group show, until 17th June 2018