The exhibition feels like a charcoal mountaintop just before the rain. I walk in and I can barely make out the never-ending circles. The triangles, spirals and squares are almost invisible because of the dimly lit space. Rebecca Solnit reminds us, there is hope in the dark, and these shapes are hopeful. Their tiny forms make their tinier brushstrokes look as if they are lit from within. The color comes from nature: green, gold, blue and the most unexpected red. They are like light in the storm; like times when the sun shines though a bit of cloud illuminating only what it wants you to see.
Our father who art in heaven let us pay attention to your name.
Before one actually arrives at the door of the Alicante Museum of Contemporary Art, Spain; it is hard to pass by the Santa Maria Cathedral. This Basilica, on Santa Maria Square, is a 16th century gem in the gothic Venetian style. Its baroque entry invites me into the familiar scent of many catholic churches: frankincense and must. Limestone floors offer an echo of the mass in progress and then the gold begins. Each niche features a saint. This church boasts plenty of Mary’s (the patron saint). They are often exquisite and full of suffering. In general, the saints in Spain’s churches are art themselves, unnervingly realistic with skin colored paint and facial expressions that wake up even the sleepiest of visitors.
On the day we visited the museum (AMCA), we stumbled into mass; specifically into the Our Father.
This world is made in your image, with all the beauty and horror of existence.
Pressed right up against the church is the museum. AMCA is housed in a contemporary renovation of Alicante’s oldest civil building, the Casa de Asegurada (1685). It stands in stark contrast to its neighbor, the basilica. The building itself has clean contemporary lines and a worthwhile collection of paintings and sculptures. Some of my favorites include Juan Miro, Antoni Tapies, Jose Guerro Quattro and a big Juan Usle.
To me, the gem of this art house is a chapel on the third floor. It is an exhibition space entirely dedicated to Alicante’s most important artist Eusebio Sempere. Sempere is best known for his contributions to the kinetic sculptural movement of the 1970’s. But my favorite room contained still and quiet gouache paintings mostly executed in the 1950s.
And what happens is the work of the whole; sometimes I am filled with pleasure, other times filled with pain.
The gallery space housing these works is dimly lit and the paintings are executed on mid tone-grey, blue, or brown paper. The paper looks soft, like cotton, felt or the finest wool. Sempere, who had vision in only one eye, draws geometric shapes and fills those shapes with the tiniest colored lines. These lines are applied with a very small brush and perfectly mixed opaque, gouache is the medium.
Both here in the world and in our hearts.
Sempere’s skill with color and pattern creates a mosaic of experience: like Spanish tile, or the light through the leaves of an olive tree. He contains this experience within an inch or two, allowing me as the viewer to take the pattern into my heart, my belly or my mind. I can digest the images like a prayer, or tapas, served on a small plate with an glass of wine. These paintings seem like offerings meant to be savored. Like Thomas Nozkowski and his three rules for art making, Sempere's paintings reject the idea of the grand and instead settle onto humble every day experiences: buttons, water droplets, lichen.
I ask for this day and my food. I make this request with love.
Sempere liked to work alone, in silence. His paintings are a meditation. He has created an entire visual alphabet that he uses precisely and with firm intention. I think, in it’s best application, the catholic prayer is not a vocalization of need but a beautiful practice of intention. A practice to place the lips, the mind, and the body all in one space with a very specific, holy attitude. Thomas Merton in his Thoughts on Solitude, says a prayer is not a wish but a real thing that one places into the world like art or music. Sempere’s small, delicate paintings work like this.
The relationship of one shape to another is important. The way one square sits next to it’s neighbor sets the tone of the piece. The negative space in between the shapes is like the path around the nearby mountains, discoverable but slippery and a bit uneven. Every ounce of attention is required to walk from one foothold to the next. I feel like Sempere’s paintings are inquiries into what he should do? How he should be? And who he is?
Labyrinth, lotus, or sun? I can’t tell you for sure. Sempere uses pure geometric abstraction as his tool but these sweet and moving pieces surely draw me in to the realm of myth, story, and biography. I might imagine stars at night or fish in the sea as I look at the paintings. But their insistence on ambiguity allows inspiration, both yours and mine.
And please, I am so sorry for the times I fail, or forget, or am just too lazy to do my best.
Color is a marvelous quality of this world. Technically, it is a visual perceptual process but its emotional impact should not be missed. Sempere’s color vibrates. It moves forward and back creating harmonies and contrasts. His skill at pairing hues works to calm the mind, like meditation. The same red feels warm and inviting when it is sitting next to yellow but cool and somewhat menacing when it is sitting next to its appointed blue. Sempere uses color like stained glass in the church to elevate, soothe, and give visual delight.
I will try to understand that others also do their best. And others fail too, just like me.
The drawings as a whole are like shadows. Shadows do not exist completely in the dark, but at the edge of the light. The works pull the viewer into a world protected from the harsh light of the sun and tell a story in the shade. They exist in a quiet realm more akin to the whisper than a shout. Eusebio Sempere’s gallery is a space of peace.
I make this prayer to remind myself, who is part of you, that I feel better when I act from a place of love. Mindfulness, consciousness.
Sempere donated most of the art in the museum. If you happen to be in España, the Plaza of Santa Maria is not to be missed. The Museum of Contemporary Art contains treasures that teach us about Spain’s rich contribution to contemporary art. AMCA is a place of freedom: a place to imagine while seeing the prayerful work of Eusebio Sempere.
“I will place myself in places where I can cultivate positive emotions.” Bruce Lee
And reside in the practice of creating habits that encourage positive emotions.
For more reading on a contemporary artist who created his own visual alphabet look to: Codex Seraphinus an imagined world. I found it first shared on Jane Chafin's blog.