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Wednesday, February 8, 2012

ADDICTIONS


Cesar Caballero, an expatriate painter whose cool-blue paintings in the past have astounded or persuaded with their light-handed, expressionistic evocation of Spanish freedom and confidence, presents in this show a series of predominantly red paintings.

Not unlike his previous work, Caballero’s new series of paintings work in a fundamentally similar manner: language shares the pictorial space with a non-volumetric treatment of color, and although layered, overall the painting retains the flatness of Modernist painting—a foregrounding of art as object rather than as illusion.

There are many ways to read (and therefore see) Caballero’s new work. Let’s start with the most basic: red paintings sell. So much, indeed, depends upon the red: the red of beginning--the first color seen by infants, the first color in the spectrum of visibility, and perhaps deplorably, the first painting bought by those who would otherwise never give painting a moment’s thought, were it not for an unimaginative interior designer thrown into a new living room. Yet the decorative effectiveness of a red painting is not untrue: almost always, red works: place a red painting against almost any other color for a background and with enough calibration of lighting, it will work, which is to say that it will awaken, delight and enliven. Rendered in oil, red works even better; remarkably, more than in most other media, oil paintings show color differently in different lights.

And so: the red invites, draws, lures the viewer into the urban grit-and-glamor of Caballero’s brand of addictions. Face painted white, someone stares through a headdress, through a profusion of festive red motifs, beads, and lights, serene and almost smiling. A man tilts his chin up, takes a hit, cool and unaffected. A woman gazes at the viewer through wisps of blond hair and smoke, eyes dark and inviting.

But then, the red is ominous: another intrinsic quality of this color. Red exemplifies the duality inherent in any addiction: the inward pull of it, the danger within it. Lips part and a tongue snakes out between bared teeth as if for greed or wanting. Somber eyes stare through text and texture. A woman with full, red lips mourns love—if not, herself, the object of mourning.

But it is not just color. The paintings, as mentioned, show language: in them, words are legible. Many other painters in painting’s illustrious recent past have done the same, and perhaps the most memorable exemplar of the practice is Francis Bacon. Bacon, however, translated text into the language of his paintings, so that when language appears in his painting, it attains an ontological status in the field of vision. Bacon, in other words, did not ‘quote’ text nor write language; with oil, he evoked the image of text so that nowhere in his work are we asked to read as we do when we read books or papers. In contrast, the invitation to read seems operative in Caballero’s work. But notice how the legible words were painted—as if to say that these paintings are not pages, that the series is not excerpts from a palimpsest or diary. Notice how candidly they recall graphics. Notice how pleasurably, textual language in Caballero’s new work is at once sweet, cheerful, and cold.

Caballero has been painting in the Philippines for some time. One might think that his new series of paintings evokes some aspects of a Southeast Asian ethos, and perhaps, one can see that to a certain extent, his red paintings do succeed in evoking la ciudad. But if Caballero’s series is not a diary, what then are they paintings of? A tentative answer is that they are paintings of the ability of an unstudied impression to evoke the very impulse that generated it. Apart from the red, there is, in the paintings, a certain kind of brown—a brown that seems posed, not poised, to avoid the gaze that would not quite rest on it; a brown whose hue does not quite harmonize with the tone of the red; a brown that seems to lead, separately, its own rigid, lazy life. It seems to me a brown that is almost human in the same way that red is almost human, standing on alert as it does in the spectrum of color.

Caballero’s new paintings could be read as a complex revisitation of colonial themes and tactics, but more preferably, they could be seen as stills from a static dance: an extended pictorial exercise in which two colors become shapes, and through which shapes become colors, all in search of a compositional balance. Note, however, that it is not the balance that Caballero paints. In the series, he has painted the extension and style of his attention.

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