Nuno Júdice Representation in Painting 2010

Written for the exhibition
Stagings / Encenações Sociedade Nacional de Belas Artes, Lisbon, 2010
The title of Jacques Derrida’s essay ‘The Truth in Painting’ will be used as the starting-point in my search for a demonstration of that truth in its representation by Manuel Amado. In the series of paintings shown here, the painter performs a twofold citation: a citation from his series on cities, gardens, beaches and interiors; and a citation from the cut-out figures in his theatrical series. This is neither a collage nor a superposition, but an embedding, as in the mots-valises explored first by Futurism and later by Surrealism, in which two realities interpenetrate without cancelling each other, generating a third reality, more complex because it allows us to reach a level higher than what we are looking at. The truth, to return to the Derrida reference, is not just a statement but also, and mostly, a question, as the one that appears in the Gospel: What is the truth? The answer to this will be, before anything else, that the truth lies in questioning what we believe to be the truth. 

The painting, for Manuel Amado, is the object of that questioning. Its starting-point is the world through which the eye roams; however, when we look at it, we do not see that so-called reality that is known to be short-lived right from the instant in which the eye is cast upon it – and the time of that gaze contains the time of man himself, with his precariousness as an individual, not to mention his civilizations, described as ‘mortal’ by Valéry. This approach comes already from Impressionism, which knew how to adapt that object to the circumstances of a time that moves through the various luminosities of the day, or through the changes brought by the seasons. Manuel Amado, however, neither ignores nor hides the change photography has imposed on our relationship with the image, and on the way it is produced, multiplying and at the same time devaluing that object. What he does, then, is give to the eye that composes the painting the role of someone who interferes with every element in the scene depicted. We have, then, a subversion of the very materials of the painting, which, it is known, in Manuel Amado’s case rarely presents human figures, limiting itself to representing what could be described as sets, still-lives or landscapes. When the cut-out figures are introduced as characters interacting with such backgrounds, a dialogue emerges, taking the painting to the plane of stage ‘representation’.      

If that representation begins in front of us, that is due on the other hand to the active presence of the one who pulls the strings, which, in the case of the painting, are the brush, the colours, the forms, the drawing that is behind what we see. Everything is eclipsed by the image that appears in front of us; but that image is in no way an illusion or phantasm. It moves in its immobility; and these cardboard cut-outs attain the status of a meta-painting, as if they belonged to that sphere of commentary or criticism that brings doubt to the referential plane of realistic, photographic illusion, which is brought to the level of a background, of a perspective-creating device. It is, thus, a dissociation that causes a temporality to emerge within the space of the painting, a before – that background which appears as a citation from the painter’s previous work – and an after, born out of the introduction of the cut-out, which creates the stage scene. And that is the major revolution ushered in by this new series: an art that situates its reading in the future, in that post-picture in which the scenic space will come alive, bringing about the conclusion of what, in the present, can be described as the rising of the curtain.  

We could say that Manuel Amado presents to us an enigma that is not simply connected to the truth, and to the questioning that emerges from it, but also to that succession of temporal and spatial planes which open that narrative space which, in a certain way, reverses the circumstances of modernity’s founding work: Velázquez’s Las Meninas. Unlike that painting, in which everything faces us, right until the final plane, where a man stands before an open door, as if the viewer were the mirror on which Velázquez, who faces us, palette and brush in hand, before the canvas on which he supposedly is painting his self-portrait, is reflected, Manuel Amado takes up again, in most of these paintings, the position of the painter, and replaces the mirror that would allow us to see the cut-out’s front with a background in which we recognize one older painting of his, as Girl at the Window, The Empty Room, On the Beach, The Sentinel and many others show us. He replaces the painter with the painting; and the viewer finds himself on the foreground, right before these figures whose supports he sees, as if it fell to his gaze to ensure their stability and verticality, forcing, in a way, that outside gaze to intervene in order to fill in what is missing from the bottom of the picture, involving the viewer himself in the creative act of painting.  

Manuel Amado removes the gaze’s centre from within the painting, bringing into existence a black-hole-like point, which restores that tension that is generally absent from what could be seen as immutable and eternal – the image in the painting, in its apparently static and definitive beauty. That centre is located at the spot where, in Las Meninas, the painter stands; and if Velázquez’s self-representation in that painting is looking at the backs of the royal figures, the spectator of these paintings, by looking at the backs of the cut-out figures, finds himself projected onto the place of the painter himself, emptying that place. What Manuel Amado brings into play in this manner is precisely the issue of pictorial space as the representation of a creative situation, by moving the painter’s gaze to the viewer, not on a plane of identification but rather on one of reflection, bringing about the interrogative stance that leads us to the truth, not only in painting, as Derrida does, but in the very act of painting.  

Also demonstrated here is the absence of superfluous elements in the way reality is captured. Once the viewer feels himself implied in what is before him, the image will begin interacting with himself, with his fate. The conclusion that one’s eye is not innocent and that there is a consequence to each one of its options, generating a variety of angles to approach and explore reality, and the painting itself, seen as the limit of representation or the delimitation of a space to which it ultimately belongs, are followed by a new beginning that concerns the reason why we are here, our backs turned to these figures that draw our gaze and face, as if we were that man who, in Magritte’s painting, sees his own back in the mirror before him. The notion of looking at reality – this being what is at stake here – finds itself thus projected, in the painting, onto that series of parallel mirrors, repeating itself into an infinity that can be associated to series and variation, in the musical sense of both words. A rupture of harmony, but also a redundancy in which that discovery of the new in the same, observed in Baroque music, occurs.  

At this point, the issue of post-modernity could be brought in, for the simple reason that this painting draws from a history of representation in which resemblance is no longer connected to Aristotelian mimesis. That which sometimes may appear as a spontaneous way of capturing or imitating reality in the painting is belied by an element that can sometimes be described as excessive, but mostly as transcendent, that is to say, evocative of a dimension that concerns a thinking of the image, moving from there to an abstract space that corresponds to the concealed part of the figure, to that other side held up by the supports on its back, which appear to us as the structure that props up the balance of the whole. That is the reason why there is nothing naïve about this painting: each line in it corresponds to an underlying thought, an idea that envelops the fragments of a whole in a search for totality that makes us think of utopia and leads us once more into the future – the time of the picture. 

Representation, reality, utopia: these are the three foundations on which the edifice of looking stands. We are unable to conceive it, in its integrity, without a technique that makes possible what I have already described as the reproducibility of the image, done not in the mechanical way Walter Benjamin associated to photography, but in that sequential form that is connected to light variations or to the projection of shadows. Let us not, however, look there for the kind of logic that could be inferred from the existence of a precise light source. Often, randomness is at play, which once again drives us away from a possible logical approach; and once again the rejection of mimesis is combined with the rejection of that logic that would place us within the classical realm. This other delimitation of a space sends us to a world of light and shade, in which the absurdity of man’s condition in Plato’s cave is written; being indeed a sentence constructed out of that grammar of contrasts – positive/negative, diurnal/nocturnal – that describes the construction of that space, inhabited by vacant areas that receive the depictions of those cut-outs the outlines of which we are able to identify as human or animal, or also of objects, such as boats, suggestive of an unreachable beyond.  

While the presence of the cut-out in the painting generates, on the one hand, a ghost-like effect, associated with death, as in The Three Saints or The Playground, while creating a space onto which the viewer’s gaze is projected, as if the canvas were a screen for a wandering imagination, on the other hand it plays an equally dynamic role in drawing attention to the limits of the picture, defining itself in relation to that frame as a focus for the eye that will determine the way in which the rhetoric dispositio of each element will be carried out. That becomes clear in, for instance, No Entry, where we find a perfectly symmetrical doorway, which creates for us the image of a world order derived from the obvious quotation of Leonardo de Vinci’s Vitruvian man, the embodiment of divine proportion. The image contains a device that conveys both its context and tradition, pointing out that accumulation of referents while at the same time highlighting the affirmation of a classical aesthetics that is at once subverted by small hints in the scenery that disrupt that symmetry.  

It is at this point that Manuel Amado distances himself from hyper-realism, a style in which one might feel tempted to include him. His painting, indeed, does not contain that excess or accumulation of details associated to a sometimes over-loquacious presentation of the image. Should a cultural association be needed, I would suggest the poetry of Friar Agostinho da Cruz, not so much by the natural presence of certain views of the Arrábida Ridge shared by the two as by their revival of the bucolic genre, in its precise definition as something connected to an age in which the four elements stood at the centre of man’s universe. This is a regressive utopia, it could be said; but in the present moment it would be more correct to call it the opposite, given the circumstances of the ecological context in which we live, in a (doubtlessly unnecessary, in aesthetic terms) reading that brings to the present that future to which Manuel Amado leaves the interpretation of his paintings. However, it is not within the scope of some immediate reading that his painting can be defined. The questioning of being, the questioning of the eye and, above all, that examination of truth in painting that evokes the representation of reality as a staging, are the subject and raw materials of these pictures, which ultimately may appear to us as stagings of their own truth.