A RECENT FLATLAND

Joël Mestre. Catalogue of the exhibition Interlineado en Minowa. Abril, 2009

Roberto Mollá. Albers en Minowa. 2009

Roberto Mollá. "Albers en Minowa". 2009

 
In November 1995, an unusual exhibition took place in Rome entitled Il Giappone prima dell´occidente. Such a title could be interpreted as a provocative statement in this unquestionable center of Western art, but its intention could not be further from proposing a challenge. The exhibition featured a selection of four thousand years of Japanese works of art and worship, all made before the 15th century, from the most mystic to the most playful, from the most refined and sophisticated to the most vulgar and superficial. It was as if opposite worlds came together a nearly perfect entity. Beyond any chronological consideration, each object simultaneously brought together fiction, legend and an absolute fascination for life. Visitors could feel belittled amongst the colossal figures, nearly three meters tall, that guarded the Buddhist monasteries, be carried away by the legend and the disturbing image of the monk Baozhi’s mutating face; or simply enjoy an emaki (1) more than seven meters long, portraying monks engaged in a playful fart competition after consuming a diet of chestnuts, rice soup and other flatulent foods, a depiction of the art of farting from the Muromachi period, dated around the 15th century.

Three hundred years later, Japanese woodblock prints from the city of Edo (present-day Tokyo) continued depicting the customs of the time and conveying everyday life in a unique way. In the 18th century, the pleasure district was located in the Yoshiwara neighborhood, where courtesans and their customers got together in tea houses and game rooms. City life had become an artistic subject and its customs, a document. The cultural testimony of the time is best depicted in the less formal work, probably in the work done on paper. Fortunately, since long ago, the artists capable of making that seemingly insignificant kind of work—in many cases princes and noble knights—had the wisdom not to discriminate or create ranks of interest. Life and work became a compendium of feelings, emotions and essences. The scenes produced by artists such as Torii Kiyonaga, Kitagawa Utamaro, Suzuki Harunobu, etc. were given the name ukiyo-e or the “floating world” (2). Nowadays, that district is known as Minowa and, although it is now invaded by neon lights, it remains one of the most traditional neighborhoods in the city.

Roberto Mollá. "36 Cortesanas de Minowa". 2009

Roberto Mollá. "36 Cortesanas de Minowa". 2009

By now, I think we should not be surprised that an artist like Roberto Mollá makes tremendous leaps across time, space and genres in order to recreate his work. He has been dedicating more and more time to his drawings which, like air-borne spores, are scattering happily throughout the different continents of the planet. His scenes continue to construct a unique, unpredictable context, an environment which, although in some way seems faraway from our own, it invites us to escape so that we can appreciate the environment we actually inhabit and which dominates us.

Since 1996, Roberto Mollá’s drawings have been characterized by the use of grid paper. Those tiny tiles convey a certain sense of objectivity and control to the more technical drawings. In the late seventies this paper was used fairly frequently in Spain by a group of artists who were influenced by technology and computers. I am referring to the Centro de Cálculo (Calculus Center) of Madrid’s Complutense University and its legendary “Automatic Generation of Art Forms Seminar” in which a whole pleiad of artists took part, all with very different concerns but sharing a combative intellectual spirit against Informalism: Manuel Barbadillo, Jose Luis Alexanco, Jose Maria Yturralde, Manolo Quejido, etc.

Indeed, the reference to Barbadillo in Roberto Mollá’s latest work is an unmistakable feature of his recent iconography (3). In his new series, inspired by the entertainment locales in the Minowa district, it is even more meaningful. Much of his current work takes great delight in an aesthetic and modular ornamentation that would have moved the master of geometry and other classics such as Albers and Le Parc or Russian Constructivists such as Lissitzky. Moving within opposite worlds has always been a good creative strategy, an intelligent and vital way of making and knowing the world. Although, naturally, amongst his pieces there are still references to manga, geishas continue to seduce him, as well as a whole cultural framework which goes from memory to the pulse and rhythm of city life, he now takes us to a more sophisticated place, going deeper into the order and color scheme of the Japanese tradition. But the sum of fictions and realities is perhaps the only tracing and mathematical operation we find in Roberto Mollá’s recent flatland (4). This artist, in spite of feeding from so much literature and prowling around the mechanisms of reason, has still not banned from the fiesta the only person who is capable of livening it up: Inspiration. Which, as Juan Benet said, nothing can hide its absence. 
 

 

(1) Emaki is an ancient painting genre, very characteristic of Japanese art, which was already being produced in the 8th century. It is a narrative illustration on paper where text and image are combined in a horizontal format, another forerunner of the comic book, of sequential art and manga.

(2a) "We live only for the moment in which we admire the splendor of moonlight, snow, cherry blossoms and maple leaves. We enjoy the day, aroused by wine, caring not a whit for the pauperism staring us in the face. We let ourselves drift, like a gourd carried along by the river current, refusing to be disheartened even for an instant. This is what is called the floating world, the passing world." (Narrations On the Ephemeral World of Diversions, Asai Ryoi, writer and Buddhist monk from the Edo Age).

(2b) For the last year, Roberto Mollá has written literary reviews under the pseudonym F. Sanfélix for the webpage www.cuaderno10.com. He punctually records his assessments of whatever book he has in his hands, a valuable discipline which also enables us to follow the trail or motivations in his painting. In the entry on 1/8/2008 he discusses the book by Lady Sarashina, the alleged author of the current situation who has gone for a thousand years without saying a word and who is now revealed to us in “As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams: Recollections of a Woman in 11th Century Japan”.

(3) Years ago, a Catalan gallery owner came by my house and wouldn’t stop talking about himself. All of a sudden his gaze became anxious, his monologue stopped and, feeling rattled, he asked if someone could turn off the crazed screensaver that, for quite some time, hadn’t stopped producing endless geometric variations that reminded him very much of the work by the veteran painter Manuel Barbadillo. But, there was nothing to worry about. In a different place within the city, far from being depreciated by a machine, the work by this artist from Seville was being paid tribute in several paintings and drawings by Roberto Mollá.

(4) The novel Flatland, by Edwin A. Abbott, was first published in 1884. It tells the story of a Square and his relationship to other geometric figures in a land with different, ever more complicated, spatial dimensions. It is surprising how something that could have been a mathematical treatise becomes a science fiction story, and how its author fabulates while reviewing the society of his time, applying scientific knowledge.


Roberto Mollá. Galería Nuble. 2009

Wall painting in the Gallery Nuble. Santander. April, 2009. Photo © Lucía Gandía