We are pleased to announce the opening of our new gallery in Mallorca and therefore present a solo show by José María Sicilia. An exhibition in which the word paint refers to its origin from the Latin pinctare / pingere: making marks, embroidering fabrics using colorful threads.
Jose María Sicilia and Signs
“Dánae teje el tiempo dorado por el Nilo”
(“Danae weaves the golden time across the Nile”)
José Lezama Lima
"José María Sicilia (Madrid, 1954), one of the great names of Spanish
contemporary art, belongs to the so-called 1980s generation. A period coined by Juan Manuel Bonet as “the painted years” (“Los años pintados”). Like most of the peers of his era, he rejected the dominant minimalist formalism to reassert the importance of meaning and a non-dogmatic vision of things.
His first and prodigious flower series constituted a reflection on the pictorial medium. Gesture, geometry, and mater interwove, and the difference between abstraction and figuration is irrelevant.
Since then, his practice has kept delving into his nature without ever missing confidence in the euphoric power of images. During the 1990s, he works in the white color. A symbol of totality, cleansing his oeuvre, which will then show silhouettes and spots in ambiguous and metric spaces, to extremes both delicate and evanescent.
In the late 1990s, Sicilia carries out other flower series, such as “The light that goes out” (“La luz que se apaga”) (1995-1996); or “L’horabaixa“ (1997), (meaning sunset in Majorcan) the moment when the things we see start becoming non-discernible. Sicilia says that he thinks he was referring to the difficulty of naming the things that we have in our lives. In the paintings from the series “L’horabaixa”, a big central flower, perhaps a poppy, seems to emerge from a dense background of virgin wax, joining the image with the mater. Sicilia’s world is poetic, and his artistic practice is a form of knowledge in and of itself. He has kept painting and drawing, but he rarely shows these pieces.
Sicilia has been displaying works for longer than a decade, made with threads and silk. The images of his new works are embroidered by machines that are designed according to his requirements. The machines obey instructions from software programs.
Though it is not visible, the origin of the images can be related to quantum physics, ornithology, architecture, politics, optics, music, or philosophy. Sicilia reminds us of the polymaths of the past. He is very much like a polyglot Athanasius Kircher. The key figure of the Baroque. Above all, Athanasius was a mathematician, astronomer, musicologist, volcanologist, physicist, and theologist.
We may also compare him to the theosophist Rudolf Steiner. Steiner's activities and interests comprised medicine, agriculture, architecture, pedagogy, economics, and mysticism. Rudolf used a notating system to record bird trilling. This way, Steiner illustrated the harmony between music and the planets.
Sicilia had already used thread in the Spellbound series (1992), which reflected death, inspired by a book of James Ellroy, one of the masters of black fiction.
According to Juan Eduardo Cirlot, the thread symbolizes an essential connection, while knitting is equivalent to creation. In southeast Asia, tribal weavings had sacred significance. Lastly, according to certain mystical intuitions, the universe is nothing but a veil or fabric that suppresses truthfulness and profoundness. The idea that the work of art is an image of the world acknowledged, the threshold is considered to be the world hidden and ineffable.
Viewers require specific knowledge to comprehend Sicilia's latest works. The works represent the translations of unfamiliar "languages" such as the singing of birds.
That is why we need additional information. Sicilia has been doing birdsong sonograms for more than a decade. He has continued the investigations made by British scientists during the Second World War. The scientists translated birdsongs onto graphic diagrams, thinking it would encourage the invention of a new encrypted language that kept from spying.
In diverse cultures, birds symbolize the human soul, thought, imagination, or the most profound spirituality. Let us reminisce, for instance, The Conference of the Birds by the mystic poet Farid al-Din Attar. A beautiful Sufi epic with thirty-thousand birds as protagonists, written in Persian around the XII and XIII centuries.
Let's take Joan Miró’s works. Especially the final decades, full of blackbirds, emblems representing sexual desire and mystical flight.
Sicilia himself became interested in bird singing through French composer Olivier Messiaen’s music. The composer translated the sounds of several birds during the 1940s and 1950s.
Sicilia studied his compositions in 2008, and the following year he realized his first sonograms, a more scientific way of delving into the subject mater, eventually rendering them into 3D objects.
The silence was also transcribed, and from 2011 it gained more importance than sounds. A way of giving silence a shape.
Regarding the birds, I remember visiting Sicilia years ago at his home in Sóller. He had bred pheasants of different kinds. I also recall a famous aphorism by Wallace Stevens, “A poem is a pheasant”.
In 2008 as well, Sicilia experienced a major personal crisis. To describe
it, he refers to a rough and emotional book by Francis Scott-
Fitzgerald: The Crack Up, which was published posthumously in 1945, under the care of Edmund Wilson.
The man collected and recovered various unedited texts, such as letters, essays, and autobiographical notes. These texts were written during a moment of crisis for the American author when he was still young and had an intense hedonistic life caused by his extraordinary literary successes.
This life was full of uncontrolled excesses, and Fitzgerald, suddenly, found himself sunk, drunk, and depressed meanwhile his wife was taken to a sanatorium.
Sicilia experienced something similar that forced him to undertake a radical change in his life. He relates asking himself how he could make destruction become creation. The fissure, or crack, represents a wager for survival.
He then decided to go to Japan shortly after the earthquake that provoked a big radioactive leak in Fukushima, followed by a tsunami.
There, he collaborated with a foundation to carry out several multidisciplinary projects while reflecting on loss and the accident. Sicilia has also created another foundation in Madrid, El Instante (The Instant), founded in 2017, where social, scientific, and cultural projects of different nature are carried out in collaboration with other people and institutions. One of the latest projects has been the creation of a zarzuela (Spanish lyrical-dramatic genre) titled Se vende (For sale) that premiered in 2021.
We present works in three distinct series in the gallery. All are attractive and mysterious, chromatically rich, and can be admired solely by their visual impact, sophistication, and technical precision.
The first group of works visualizes the songs of the Troupial (Icterus icterus), the national bird of Venezuela. The troupial has a black head, wings, and a dark yellow body. It dithers towards orange. The bird is admired for its melodious singing with sequences of varying tonalities. During the breeding season, the singing serves as a mating call and territorial signaling, like in many other winged species.
The allusion to this South American country, on another hand, is not accidental. This country currently suffers the excesses of an authoritarian government immersed in a dictatorial meander and a profound economic crisis despite being rich in resources.
Besides that, adding another layer of significance, some members of Sicilia’s family had been exiled to Venezuela after the Spanish Civil War. The images of the Troupial’s songs resemble flower petals or fallen leaf trees, laid out casually. Their colors are somewhat dark, with reds, orange, and occasional yellows which stand out over their white background. The colors, however, are assigned randomly, so they are not themselves representations of melodic structures.
The second set of works refers to the so-called Young’s experiment, which is also known as the double-slit experiment. Conducted by Thomas Young in 1801, the experiment attempted to discern whether the nature of light was corpuscular or undulatory. It concluded that it had features of both postulates. Its realization contributed notably to the development of quantum physics.
In the experiment, a beam of light is interrupted by a slit that divides it in two, yet only temporarily, as both rays of light will come together again and form interesting visual patterns.
Sicilia translates the experiment to embroidered images in a vertical format where the works are created by superimposing two different fabrics.
They make up an encrypted and hermetic language based on vaguely geometric shapes with a fragmentary appearance which at the same time seem to slowly float, rotate, and shift.
Finally, the third collection of works is dedicated to projects of living spaces where men and animals can cohabit. The relation between the spaces, human, and animal, is a topic that has interested philosophers, as influential as Giorgio Agamben and Michael Foucault. These last works transcribe through software programs, musical compositions, and architectural plans.
They are chromatically rich, showcasing extensive expanses of color instead of graphic characters. Sicilia has said that “the images convey a not-knowing”, and also, that they are fossils because they store energy and information as well as a will to communicate or transmit. The resulting images in his works are at once meaning or ends in themselves, and metaphors of meaning, underlining its existence and inviting the spectator to make interpretations as if he or she was a musician encountering a score.
Sicilia talks about matters as diverse as light and its rhetoric, both spiritual and scientific; cracks; the limits of ponds; rain and snow; the knots of tapestries; the instant as cognizance of death. I think that citing Maurice Blanchot; or silence, is the image of the invisible. Artistic creation is for him, something in which the spiritual and the scientific go alongside, which might not be too far from an idea by Rudolf Steiner: “The physical and the moral do not have separate existences”. Gilles Deleuze in his book about Proust, Proust et les signes (1964), says that material sense is nothing if it does not embody an ideal essence. He also says that in “In search of lost time”, the masterpiece by the French novelist to whom the book is dedicated, he builds an image of his thinking.
Perhaps, if we manage to translate this to a pictorial language, it will help us understand these latest works by Sicilia, that, despite incorporating random, involuntary, and unconscious aspects, respond to an ideal essence that is embodied in their material sense and vice versa, producing their procedures of signification and creating true erotica of language."