The lament for the fleetingness of life is rarely expressed in the art before the Baroque, when the Vanitas genre reaches its maximum expression. Perhaps this could be related to the beginning of the human rebellion against death: neither the resignation to the collective destiny of the Middle Ages nor the Renaissance rationalism in whose limpid Euclidean spaces there was no place for the shadows.
Miguel Scheroff, interested in the clair-obscure of human existence, in the tensions between flesh and psyche, starts from reflections that took shape in the XVII century Dutch and Flemish painting, or in the Spanish Golden Age, but which lasted until our time, a time when we not only rebel against death, but we even deny it.
Growing up in a region where hunts and killing of animals are still practiced, as well as ancestral rites and devotional processions, has marked his painting. Savagery was called the first age of man (hunter-gatherer), followed by “barbarism” and this by civilization. This last word is curious to refer to an era in which hunting is no longer motivated by hunger but by the pleasure of killing, the thirst for trophies.
Zurbarán’s mystic lamb, Rembrandt’s ox, Soutine’s stifled scream when as a child witnessed a smiling butcher slitting a goose’s throat, to feel like a meat hanging from a hook (as expressed by Francis Bacon)… all this forms a discontinuous timeline that also include the still lifes and transit flesh of Scheroff paintings, an “animal hecatomb” totally ignored by that hunter who poses satisfied in one of his pictures between two slaughtered oxen.
1 – In the field of portraiture, your paintings may vary between the fleshless face and the excess of flesh, between the shapeless (“Deshechos”) and the epidermal over information (fingerprints printed on the skin), almost like looking for an essentiality that, finally, does not lets itself be caught.
That’s right, the portrait, or rather the face anatomy, has been the main leitmotiv of my painting. From my first works I already thought that the physiognomic representations could help me to approach the human and the collective memory: ritual processes related to death; those battles we wage in the darkness of our thoughts as we face the instability of the world; how we are represented in traditions and rites where pain, anguish or animal sacrifice become protagonists…
My first portraits were more conventional, but in them I introduced some “hyper-information” by means of finger textures. Little by little, I understood that those faces needed to trigger questions to the viewer in a particular way, I wanted them to provoke an intimate reflection. So, the meat begins a tenuous apparition: first, in small paintings where the red ones stained the faces; then, a compassionate feeling impelled me to represent those slaughtered animals that my uncle and my cousin brought home after a day of hunting, until finally, the big heads that appeared in my works appropriated all that vibration turning into gigantic pieces of meat. This is when the portrayed person has not defined race, gender or age, a universal face where anyone can be represented.
During this anthropological process through pictorial reflections, as you mention, these canvases of flesh have been moving towards more baroque and scenographic images. On another series of works, the faces have been totally destroyed, transferring the human to the monstrous. These portraits helped me to externalize a part of myself more visceral and grotesque, temporarily freeing me of the maniacal and compulsive process of painting large meat heads loaded with meticulous and detailed textures. The destroyed faces were constructed from masses of pictorial material on the sketch of a face, without respecting the real volume. I think that in these pieces, among other issues, I see more clearly a kind of disenchantment or loss of hope in human values (although perhaps I never felt any hope).
In essence, all my portraits show that man is a contradictory being, capable of great deeds and great crimes. However, these lengthy creative processes that I have kept in the solitude of my studio have opened my perception to a world full of wealth and sensitivity helping me to survive. Painting is the therapy that can save us from personal sinking.
2- In “Flesh Vanitas” (2010-16), huge skinned faces whose glazed look seems not seeing us, as telling us, as Pavese poem, “death will come and will have your eyes”. However, they have something of imperturbable, a metaphysical overcoming of pain and fear.
My painting is in itself very direct and obvious, I usually don’t digress. When I represented viscera on the face, was risky that the resulting image seemed pretentious, so I thought that the way to counteract all that violence was through luminous eyes and a strange peace or serenity in facial expression. It would have been an easy solution to use expressions of pain and suffering, but I think I would be leaving the reflective exercise proposed by my paintings.
On the other hand, I’ve always been attracted to express contrasting sensations and feelings: anguish and peace, calm and agitation, reality and fantasy, ugliness and beauty … all those contradictions that are inherent to the human and the animal. The destruction of skin reveals the human drama of the flesh, but in the center of all this violence appears a hopeful light, the luminous look and calm expresses that “not everything is lost, we are still in time to be better”, like a child who smiles and plays in the middle of a landscape destroyed by war, like that light that projects an eye between the horrors of Guernica encouraging a certain hope, or as the salvation suggested by sighting land in Gericault’s The Raft of Medusa. The great works of art in history have always displayed a certain optimism despite representing the hardness of the human tragedy.
3 -In Flemish animal paintings from the Baroque period is perceived a certain social status according to the trophies exhibited under dramatic lights (big game for the princes, small game for the aristocrats …) Your still lifes are reminiscent of some of Frans Snyders or Pieter Boel, whose slain swans and the “watchful eyes” of the peacocks’ plumage suggest underlying readings.
I have always felt a deep admiration for Baroque and tenebrist painting, especially for those dramatic images where everything seems to be part of a complex scenography. The characters and the chiaroscuro in Caravaggio are constantly reviewed in my work, but above all, what really interests me about the baroque is to rescue its message from a contemporary perception, and this is where I appropriate the protagonists that appear in the still lifes of artists like Clara Peeters, Frans Snyders, Paul de Vos, Rubens, Pieter Aertsen or Melchior d’Hondecoeter, among many others.
The huge heads I had worked on for years now undergo transformation towards a more baroque image. Where before we only found flesh, guts and eyes, now we also find a turbulent scene full of characters in which the human and the animal are involved in a threatening episode, which aims to reflect the altered and delicate situation of the current world. In this new project, the reflection is more focused on the state of mind produced by being part of a convulsed generation immersed in emotional instability, which derives from the contradictory feelings, where the fascinating beauty is continually opposed by the most threatening of horrors.
Specifically, I am interested in appropriating Baroque compositions in which animals brutally fall or are stacked on top of each other, or tear apart each other in a senseless battle. My intention is not to paint a beautiful, but quite the opposite. I want to highlight the savagery and the lack of sensitivity that is present in traditions such as hunting and killing of animal species, often without any form of control.
4. – In “Hecatombe Animal”, human limbs appear between wild boar and deer heads. Black and white softens the hardness of those images. In your last exhibition, “Víscera animal”, the still lifes alternate with hunting scenes inspired by Rubens, where the fierceness of man is not less than that of the tiger or lion. Horses are blind witnesses of this predatory confusion. Could we interpret the horse as the only trace of sanity?
The piece “Hecatombe Animal” constitutes a turning point in my work, I consider it one of the paintings that best represents me as a human being, in it, I expose my attitude towards the animals without subterfuges. In fact, I am happy to know that the viewer understands the message I propose in this work: just a week ago was awarded at Malaga Crea 2018 visual arts contest, and the fellows there told me that they perceived a positive evolution in this piece, which it convinces me that I must continue working towards this.
“Hecatombe animal” arose from a deep feeling of sadness, like almost all my works, because I had been working for several months with some very hard images of a hunt (where I only go to register what happens there, never as a participant of the event). In this work, the dead animals are stacked and crushed against each other, as happens in these bloody “monterías”, without color, stark, and as if they were thrown brutally on a table. Here I wanted to reflect the terror, the anguish and the foolishness with which we live today. The corpse that shows his arms among the mass of beasts is a self-portrait. It is an anti-speciesist and anti-anthropocentric vision where I position myself in the same place as those dead animals, showing that the material is exactly the same, flesh and bones, and that death mixes organic matter without distinction. Again man is buried by the consequences of his actions.
So far, the figure of the horse in my paintings has symbolized nobility, maintaining a conciliatory role among the species, or perhaps a victim who wishes to escape from the domination of man by being forced to be a participant in violence. I like the idea that it is a free animal, as I have shown in “Meat Horse” or “Holy Horse” where I eliminate the harnesses and other elements that usually were around the head and neck to tame and I give them a human gaze, making it almost a divinity.
Thanks to the exhibition “Víscera Animal” I have had the opportunity to develop these latest ideas about the coexistence of human beings with other species in the contemporary world, obtaining different conclusions.
In my paintings, the animal has been taking the place of the ideal being of the natural order against the model of vileness and destruction embodied by man. As the art critic Reyi Pérez Castillo explains in her text for the exhibition: “Our connection with the natural environment is failing and it will let us know in one way or another before we end up destroying it completely. Nature will reveal itself in a violent way in a desperate act of survival, for that reason lions, tigers and crocodiles violently attack who for centuries has been its main predator, the man. Then begins the battle in which the human being can never overcome, because he faces the full force of nature (…) Clearly, before these paintings we can point out an increasingly historicist Scheroff, who searches and takes models of violence present in our artistic past, endowing them with a fully contemporary spirit”. The words of Reyi summarize perfectly the purpose of my latest works.
Interviewed by Anna Adell