ELEMENT OF SHADOWS
Charles A. Riley
Insistently through sleep-a tide of voices
They meet you listening midway in your dream,
The long, tired sounds, fog-insulated noises:
Gongs in white surplices, beshrouded wails,
Far strum of fog horns...signals dispersed in veils.
Hart Crane, "The Bridge"
If one word sums up the general movement of Jaime Franco's art and reputation during the past five years, it is Ascension, the title of a recent work. Franco's paintings have a way of allowing subtle and elemental forces-such as color, geometry and light-to rise from their depths to surfaces of deceptive strength. On his own, he has developed a technique for working in oil which baffles many viewers who wonder if he is using a translucent medium, such as encaustic. In addition to brushes, paint knives and spatulas, he uses cloths and his hands to re-work hard surfaces. He often re-stretches the canvas to make it more taut as the work proceeds. In Ascension, as well as Communion and Limit, you can see how the linear figures -the grids and arcs of a deeply embedded geometry- are effaced and scarred by the process. The key to this is the layer-by-Iayer buildup of paint. As Franco explains:
"I just use oil in coat over coat over coat. Some layers are thicker thon others and the lost ones are very, very thin. The whole buildup becomes very thick, and I often keep working on a single piece for a long time, accumulating a lot of paint. Then I begin working over the surface, and I find myself compelled to take off paint, to scrape and erase what I did. The final result is the summation of coats, which a viewer can read as on archoeological object with all the history of its formation present."
At first sight, Franco's steely gray tablets make him seem the antithesis of a colorist, but in fact he is a master of color. These scrims of fine pigment (Franco mixes his own rather than taking them from commercial tubes) conceal a deeper realm of color that he is taking care to develop with the utmost control. He inserts color within levels of more neutral tones, as with the blues and greens of Ratio (which recalls the jade-like greens of earlier paintings in his career), the golds of Communion and Ascension or the reds of Interference and Blood:
The layer of color is set down in the middle, halfway through the process of building up the levels of the work. I take the painting in the direction of yellow or red at that stage, but after a while it becomes totally different chromatically as I cover the whole surface. The color disappears, but I scrape or scratch and it comes out again. I try to work color as if it were matter, as if I were sculpting in it.
Franco's exploration of color in the depth experience of gray places him in a great tradition of Modern chromaticism that goes back to Claude Monet, who could draw his color world out of the gray blur of a London fog, as well as Henri Matisse, Jasper Johns, Mark Tobey, Cy Twombly, Brice Marden, Agnes Martin, Richard Diebenkorn and other poets of gray. The fertile gray fields of Matisse's Piano Lesson, Bathersby the River, Open Window, Collioure and most importantly the View of Notre-Dame have had a demonstrable influence on Franco's chromaticism, and Matisse is also the guide for Franco's brushy lines of varying thickness.
Franco has also been powerfully influenced by literature, including the writings of Camus, Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky and especially Dante, the inspiration for a brilliant series of paintings that have culminated in a vast, nine-panel work in the current exhibition, Dante's Dream. Franco's reading of Dante focuses on the atmospheric aspect of The Divine Comedy, passages that describe the heavy mist or smoke through which Dante must ascend in a confusing realm laced with mysterious, mist-covered rivers. In Dante's Dream, Franco has used a ghostly line to evoke these rivers and their disorienting way of crisscrossing the landscape of the vision, changing color and temperature, slowing to a trickle or swelling into massive and seemingly uncrossable barriers. Franco undermines the geometric basis of both Dante's systematic allegory and the grid of contemporary painting. He uses color and an evanescent line to interrupt and challenge the "rule" of "regularity." As Franco explains, "The grid is still present in my work, and in some cases the two elements are almost fighting over the same surface. But I believe that the kind of work that is purely based on the grid cannot last or prove itself in an evolutionary way because it is constantly approaching a dead end: the grid as the representation of nothing and the pattern of every Utopia."
Franco's understanding of Cartesian mathesis began in early childhood. He was born in Cali, Colombia in 1963 and distinguished himself as a child prodigy in mathematics, later developing a passion for physics, computer science and engineering. He left Colombia to study science in Paris, but drifted to sculpture and spent two years studying sculpture and drawing at the École des Beaux Arts. Indeed, from a distance, Franco's paintings have the look of steel or polished stone. They make the same forceful impression as the powerful walls, gates, cliff faces and rocky steps of Dante's mountainscape. For Franco, as for Dante, the journey through these bewildering mazes (with titles like Compass, Interference and Limit) require humility and strength:
I believe that what really makes a strong painting is a strong experience of life. I have seen strong paintings done with modest elements, like gouache on ordinary paper. A great insight, a great compromise, a great responsibility, a great moment of introspection can make a strong painting without regard to size, color or technique. Goya declared, "Give me a piece of chalk and I´ll make a painting because all art depends on how hard you work and on the sacrifices you make." Few artists today are concerned with real painting. Most are using paint to translate conceptual concerns, but that is not painting to me. I recognize that I take part in the great tradition of painting, the one that started in the 15th century and that I believe has not died yet.