Juan Antonio Guirado: Journey to the Centre of the Earth
By Laura Revuelta
Art Critic, Curator and Editor-in-Chief of ABC Cultural
Translated by Martha Bátiz and Damian Tarnopolsky
Juan Antonio Guirado left Spain and remains at the margins of Spanish art of the last decades of the 20th Century. This is a rough, merely two-line-long summary of the life of a man who returns like a prodigal son. Margins are for forgetting; that makes them a particularly suggestive space for memory and rediscoveries. From the margins, memory has rescued artists and writers whose position no one questions today. More details can be glimpsed and discerned in the margins than within the frame. It takes a lot of work, however. The path must be weeded further. Ideas must be linked and light shed where perhaps just a few shadows could be seen. We must not let ourselves be carried away either by appearances or by what is merely apparent. What is invisible goes unnoticed. Juan Antonio Guirado is not—and must not be—invisible to Spanish art. We are here to rescue him from being wrapped in himself, trapped in his circumstances—as a philosopher would say. We have come here to recreate him, to draw parallels that might place him in context and show that his affinities are both meaningful and vast.
In embarking on “rescuing” or “reshaping” marginal artists—perhaps marginalized by biography or fate—we should ask ourselves if the figure who is to be redeemed by an exhaustive analysis of his work would really like to come back to life. To rise from the ashes and walk through one of his exhibits again, to face the critics once more, the audience, his own implacable judgement. If I h
ad the chance to ask his opinion, what would Juan Antonio Guirado say to me? Hello and goodbye? Thanks for coming? Would he ask me to leave him alone? Maybe. It seems that in life, in spite of the success he achieved both in Spain and abroad (evident in the plentiful foreign news clippings detailing his numerous exhibits and critical achievements), he preferred discretion and even keeping a certain distance from worldly noise—he found refuge in the humility of art in lower-case-letters. His art rests on spirituality, as we shall ascertain. He combines a genuinely Spanish tradition with what he will capture and make his own in faraway lands that are suffused by other philosophies and sensibilities, such as Buddhist, Zen, and Brahmanic. Why, then, invite him back onto the stage of the living with their empty compliments, of bright lights and awards? Who are we to decide? On what basis can we steal the work of an artist from oblivion simply because, according to our own judgement, it is remarkable for some reason? I’m afraid, if I may joke a bit about it, that Juan Antonio Guirado would have had to burn his entire work to prevent what is about to happen from, in the end, happening. But he didn’t. His legacy is here and so are his heirs. The same correlation between creators and descendants is repeated once more—a sequence that is not any less suggestive merely because it is repeated many times: the latter feel obliged to bring the artist out of the margins. To shine a light—as much as possible and necessarily—on his trajectory. In this case it is a completely legitimate, indeed indispensable effort.
Juan Antonio Guirado left Spain on a journey of initiation, like so many artists who make their way beyond Spain’s borders—which, for many decades were so restrictive (some would say suffocating). This does not only refer to politics. He left his possessions behind in order to find new and seductive paths to explore. In the end, they all converged, past and future, back at square one. As Guirado put it in an interview many years later, speaking in the unadorned language that matched his simple manners
“While I was in Spain, my works were traditional; I had to come to Australia to discover a new style. The influence Australia has on my entire work is very strong.” It is very hard to let go of the past; it always comes back to pay us a visit. It is not just painters who become creative exiles, of course. There have been plenty of writers in identical circumstances who have chosen to make their escape—from novelists, to poets, to intellectuals from every position on the ideological and cultural spectrum. My wild guess is that in Juan Antonio Guirado all of these roles are blended together: poet, thinker, and author. And all of it emerges in his paintings. Just as Tàpies writes in his book Art Against Aesthetic, in a phrase Guirado underlines in red—part of an attentive reading that will return at various points in this essay: “Because an artist (we will never tire of repeating) will always seek affirmation over negation. Artists would sooner find the motives and ideals to take us along new paths towards the future than dwell in the critique on the analysis of the past,”1 or “The mission of artists and poets is to provoke reflection, to awaken, to call to attention, to show and enlighten reality, and, in sum, to exalt all that makes us freer and more human.”2 Juan Antonio Guirado committed himself to all of this.
But before this aside, I want to bring forward the names of other painters who also travelled, who left in search of answers or refuge and brought back a potent legacy that has been well cared-for by their heirs. Esteban Vicente, for example, with his raw-boned abstract expressionism crafted in New York: a Museum and a Foundation in Segovia managed his work after his death. José Guerrero, whose work challenged the great North American proponents of abstraction and who returned to Granada to his own museum and Foundation, thanks to the guardians of his art—protectors who have not ceased to reclaim, defend, reshape, and revise it in [spite of the hindrance of local leadership and politicians]. Now it is Juan Antonio Guirado’s turn. He embarks upon an inner journey in order to reclaim art as a theoretical and practical battlefield: the battlefield of life and death. Many of his paintings present us with a fierce struggle between form and substance. But there is an intermediary in this battle—Guirado.
I have always thought that an artist’s greatest fortune is if his heirs—be they blood-related or chosen by himself as guarantors of his memory—are well matched with the creator and his context. Famous artists have been badly promoted and badly taken care of by their successors. Others, less famous for many reasons, have made up for lost time thanks to a good promoter of their talent. No one should believe, however, that being chosen to receive an artistic legacy is a prize or a blessing from heaven. It can become the greatest responsibility to fall on one’s shoulders. A sweet life sentence to be served by devoting oneself to another’s life and work. We are here thanks to the Guirado Estate, which has set out to find a place for an artist who in his creative freedom traced a very intense path, committed to his art as the absolute response to a time plagued by doubt and by apocalyptic conflict.
(part 2 to follow.)