BETWEEN THE LINES IN MINOWA

Lily Alexander, Whitewall Magazine. May 2009.

 Roberto Mollá. Barbadillo Ryokan 2. 2009

Roberto Mollá. "Barbadillo Ryokan II". 2010

 

At first glance the drawings in Glowlab’s first solo show of Spanish artist Roberto Mollá appear to be modern imitations of 18th century Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints, although this notion is quickly countered when one sees that the Japanese Koi, Bonsai trees, and Geishas, are accompanied by Japanese Manga (cartoon) characters, elements of daily life such as telephone poles, biomorphic abstractions reminiscent of Joan Miro, geometric abstractions which recall the constructions of Vladimir Tatlin, and copies of the modular designs of Spanish artist Manuel Barbadillo.

All drawn on cream-colored graph paper, these various characters reside in solitary spaces, divided by linear “screens,” or hover in the empty spaces of the grid. The palette is restrained yet potent in its mixture of graphite, blood red gouache, and black ink (Roberto Mollá tells me his minimal use of color originated due to anxiety over being color-blind, although it also brings to mind the palette of El Lissitzky, one of Mollá’s artistic inspirations). In Barbadillo Ryokan II, for example, this screen, folded like an accordion, runs across the horizontal axis of the paper. A delicately arched Koi swims in the open rectangle of the screen to the left, while amongst the crevices of the creased screen a Manga character peeks up, a Geisha reclines, and a Barbadillo abstraction of deep, inked black unfurls from a corner – the abstract forms echoed in the decoration which enfolds the body of the woman. Red triangular shapes radiate from the angles of the screen, and red and black circles embellish the Geisha’s hair.

The subject of Japan has featured in Mollá’s work for many years. His interest in Japanese culture emerged when he discovered Japanese literature and Japanese cinema. Mollá began in a more European vein, working under the influence of Surrealists such as Giorgio de Chirico, Dada artists Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia, as well as Russian Suprematist El Lissitzky, not to Barbadillo (indicated in Barbadillo Ryokan II). These artists were influential in his formative years, and he continues to reference their work clearly. But at a certain point Mollá began to incorporate Japanese culture into his own work. At first this appeared in the form of characters from Manga comics, and now has moved on to include the subjects and style of ukiyo-e. These 18th century prints showed the daily scenes of courtesans and their clients amongst the pleasure retreats in Edo, Japan (what is now the Minowa district of Tokyo – referenced in the title of the exhibition “Between the Lines in Minowa”).

The numerous references to art history and to Japanese culture could easily dominate the attention of the viewer – but as Mollá explains to me, the particular subjects are actually of little importance to him in-and-of themselves. The characters do not act as symbols in some sort of narrative. Instead they are used like chess-pieces, set within the graph which acts as a multi-dimensional space for Mollá’s formal and scientific explorations of time and space. They are chosen as markers because they represent all of the various influences which Mollá has been drawn to throughout his life. And often, if we examine the philosophies which preoccupied the artists attached to each reference, then these may correspond to Mollá’s own preoccupations.

Exhibition at Glowlab Gallery. May 2009, NY. Photo © Lucía Gandía

It is actually the graph which acts as the most important signifier of Mollá’s own thoughts. His drawings emerge out of the depths of the multi-dimensional world of the graph. This support was used in the 1960s and 70s by Barbadillo whose work was influenced by technology and computers. While Mollá describes his use of graph paper as being in some ways related to this – he first used the graph paper when drawing pixilated images, and he likes to see his work as a sort of scientific investigation – the importance of the graph goes beyond this kind of technological meaning. Mollá is captivated by Quantum Mechanics, the fourth dimension, and recent theories of space and time. The fourth dimension, a central subject for science at the turn of the century, was of course an important subject for early 20th century artists such as the Cubists. Mollá takes the artistic torch from his predecessors who were concerned with these theories, and the graph allows him to represent and experiment with these scientific concepts visually. For example, Mollá talks of one theory which describes time having the shape of a pear. He wants to illustrate theories such as this in his work. A literary analogue is Edwin A. Abbott’s book Flatland which uses a device called dimensional analogy to explain the nature of the fourth dimension. This book is referenced for example in Mollá’s screens -Japanese, yes – but also an allusion to Abbot’s character, the 2-D square, who regards 3-D beings as superior because they are able to see everything which from a 2-D perspective is enclosed behind walls.

Aside from scientific concepts of space, Mollá is concerned with aesthetic and philosophical theories of space. By this I refer to the concepts of negative (or positive) space. It is these places in between which often carry more meaning in Mollá’s work than the images themselves (another point which was central to Barbadillo’s experiments – although these were more simple experiments with repetitive, abstract forms). He is driven by a quest for a certain formal balance, sparse and almost spiritual – which can be found in a traditional Japanese house, or a painting by Mondrian. Like each of these influences, Mollá’s work is minimal, deliberate, and evokes a kind of spiritual restfulness. There is no excess – each mark is functional rather than decorative. It is this sparse beauty that attracts Mollá to the Japanese ukiyo-e (floating world) woodcuts that acted as inspiration for this most recent series of works.

Mollá’s work is in fact a development of a tradition of artistic visualization of complex theories of time and space. His characters are used to experiment with the visualization of numerous or overlapping dimensions. Time is flexible in Molla’s work, and different time periods and styles exist simultaneously. We enter the graph as a multi-dimensional world – which allows our minds to grasp what time might look like if it is layered rather than linear, or how space might appear if dimensions existed one upon the other. And above-and-beyond this, Molla merges the formal with the scientific (he believes that art and science have more in common than most people think), as these markers of different time periods and cultures echo each other. The shapes while spatially isolated, find unity as twists and curves are echoed from one to another – despite the seemingly unrelated subject matter. And they merge through the spatial patterns of emptiness which envelop them. For if infinite dimensions exist, or different times exist simultaneously, maybe they echo one another in form?

Opening of the exhibition at Glowlab Gallery. NY, May 2009.

Opening of the exhibition at Glowlab Gallery, NY. May 2009  Photo © Lucía Gandía