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ENSOR'S MALAISE
by David Armengol

Text for the exhibition Galería Fúcares. Madrid, April 2014.

"In order to be an artist, you should lead a secluded life.", Ensor

James Ensor (Ostend, 1860-1949) was a Belgian painter of importance in art history as he is regarded as being a precursor of expressionism, and even of surrealism. According to many, he was an artist ahead of his time, able to influence the gestural power of German expressionists and even freeing up the rules of French surrealists. A strange, dark and parodic painter, he was a good connoisseur of tradition (Goya, Bosch, Rembrandt, religious art…), and a master of techniques, but he was a patchy enthusiast who never quite found his style – or, perhaps, was never content with any of them.

Some biographical information allows us to better understand the disparity within his work: his mother's carnival costume shop in Ostend (from which his fascination for masks surfaced), his academic education (hence his technical mastery), his keen interest in religious ritual (despite being an atheist), and his passionate and amateur relationship with music (which led him to devote more time to playing the harmonium than to painting). These are multiple and complementing facts that shaped Ensor's formal eclecticism. An eclecticism that has led Pere Llobera (Barcelona, 1970), in turn, to develop a number of theories, all of which he encompasses under the general vision of Ensor's Malaise [el mal de Ensor]: a chronic curse pitched against one's own talents, as a system of self-control.

Ensor's Malaise is simply a signal, a warning, a fear. A state of alertness which implies being neither a slave to technique, nor conforming to a specific methodology or to what is expected. Ensor's Malaise is an exercise in formal seduction and at the same time an attitude of ideological resistance. A direct rejection of the ability of a virtuoso – whether a painter or a musician: let's think how artificial a guitar solo can sound – and a tireless quest for other expressive possibilities of the creative gesture. Ensor's Malaise is a chronic struggle against one's own technical ability a system of self-control.

Pere Llobera
In spite of the formal precision of his painting, the conceptual weight of Pere Llobera's work has always been one of the chief traits of his painting. A meta-referential analysis of his craft focused as much on the dysfunctionality of the pictorial activity as on its power to liberate. A useless and euphoric power – conveying everything that exists onto canvas is wonderful, but it is of no use – that turns the painter into a survivor who cannot help himself and must go on painting.

After some recent projects by this artist that were a statement of intent about his own understanding of the painter's position –Tired of Being Strong [Cansado de ser fuerte], The Ice Boat [La barca de hielo]…– Ensor's Malaise introduces a clear change of tone in his way of looking at painting. Whereas his work used to be measured by moments of fleeting intensity impossible to maintain for a long time (strength runs out, the boat sinks…), his work now seems to invite us to a more solid and firmer awareness of time. An expanded time that is not as quickly diluted precisely because of the artist's ability to continuously question the validity of that which he is offering us. In other words, the suspicion of suffering from Ensor's Malaise leads Llobera to a constant reinvention of his pictorial discourse.

In this sense, Hal –an intervention on a filing cabinet with 35 drawers containing most of his aesthetic and intellectual concerns, and a direct allusion to the main computer in Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – is the centrepiece of his exhibition at the Fúcares Gallery. An attempt to materialise his thought through isolated, chaotic and disperse fragments: biographical allusions, natural landscapes, hermits, minimal gestures, absurd actions, poetic quotes, underground references, textual approaches… In the end, a full compendium of human figures, places and situations derived from a formal imaginary which, in response to Ensor's Malaise, always finds itself in an on-going stylistic transformation.

Next, two small canvases offer a new parodic reading about the condition of the painter. Dues maneres de treure un set i mig (Dos maneras de sacar un siete y medio: Two ways of getting seven and a half) directly offsets good and bad luck. And while the victor can almost effortlessly get seven and a half with just two cards, he feels close to the opposite possibility: the agonic, tense and tragic possibility of reaching the same outcome, but suffering to the limit.

Pere Llobera
An academic drawing of Llobera's own back is another high point of the exhibition. A dignification of his drawing abilities as a virtuoso – but instead of displaying them as a triumphant self-portrait, this work stands as a personal joke that probably no one else will get. It is almost as uncomfortable, as out of place, as a fit of the giggles at an inappropriate moment.

And if masks and disguises were the elements most often used by Ensor to distance himself from reality, this proves to be an equally useful medium for Llobera as a strategy to expose a split reality in the two next pieces. In the first one, a shiny Michael Jackson conceals his face behind a huge golden thumb in the commonly used thumbs-up gesture. In the second, a red Felix the Cat recalls the first experimental television broadcasts of 1928, when the humdrum and innocent figure of this cat was broadcast daily for over two-hour intervals: two bizarre characters, two grotesque masks, two cultural icons who have faded from the limelight.

Like the symbolism of the mask in Greek drama (the simplest representation of feelings of joy and sadness), Un quadre trist (Un cuadro triste: A Sad Picture) is a small dark-coloured painting featuring a fuet [a long, thin, typical Catalonian cured sausage] shaped like an inverted smile – the picture thus becomes a crudely unhappy face. A strangely humoristic gesture – and at the same time, a pessimistic, naive and troubling piece.

Finally, the exhibition ends with a large-format painting: Ensor's Sepulchre [El sepulcro de Ensor]. A disturbing scene in which Llobera himself, with a dumb face and carrying an enormous camper's backpack, is shown riding the bones of a human skeleton in a woody area illuminated by weird flashes of light. Half buried in the ground are the remains –the face and hands– from the Belgian's burial. In short, a last painting that is likely to close this chapter dedicated to Ensor by Pere Llobera: perhaps the chapter that most compactly consolidated the self-critical nature of his work. For the only antidote for overcoming Ensor's Malaise is to go on painting while steering clear of Ensor.

Fúcares Gallery, Madrid. April 5th to May 17th 2014