Nature paintings

Nature Paintings


By Adriana Alvarez-Nichol
Co-President, Hong Kong Art Gallery Association
Founder and Director, Puerta Roja Limited

Since 2010 Puerta Roja has strived to build a cultural dialogue and uncover hidden narratives between Hong Kong and its Latin American and Spanish artists. Fernando Prats’ motivations can be traced back to the rugged topography, intense weather and telluric forces of his native Chile. Linking to the profoundly rooted Taoist beliefs in relation to the destructive and creative balance of nature, as well as an understanding of the invisible connections in our universe, Prats’ work comes to life in Hong Kong, where, despite its urban façade, the power of landscape and climate is ever present.

Prats echoes Puerta Roja’s philosophy by marrying a profoundly intellectual and conceptual discourse with a poetic and robust aesthetic. Since representing Chile at the 54th Venice Biennale, Prats has reached international acclaim for devising a brand new and deeply personal pictorial system. Reflecting his focus on the study of environmental conditions, for the Biennale in 2011, he presented three projects documenting his expeditions and ventures, including the Antarctic and areas affected by earthquakes and volcanic eruptions in Chile. In the same year, and in recognition of his daring journeys, Prats would exhibit at the Espace Culturel Louis Vuitton collective exhibition Somewhere Else, pursuing the idea of travel as a powerful mean for “expeditionist” artists. From the practice of creating works outside of a conventional environment, the artist has developed a process far removed from the instruments of the painter, producing unconventional and unpredictable images generated by nature. The artist records natural actions on smoked surfaces, ranging from movements of animals, to powerful waves, seismographic vibrations and even imprints of geysers shooting water from the ground (an intervention possible thanks to the Guggenheim Fellowship).

In his renowned Paintings of Birds series, featured at Puerta Roja’s Nature Paintings exhibition, the artist’s hand gives way to the free and fleeting beating of the bird’s wings making a rhythmic and majestic imprint on the smoked surface. The motion of the bird is frozen in time through a process in-between abstraction and sequence photography, capturing a linear pattern of movement that is both controlled and random. The artist builds a structure around the canvas, allowing the birds to fly freely between a net and the flat surface of the support. While the marks themselves are produced erratically in a matter of minutes, the conditions in which the imprints are created are carefully orchestrated by the artist – a constant motif demonstrated in his many series of works and arduous creative expeditions.

The exhibition also points to the artist’s environmental bearing by including action paintings produced with wild Andean Condors that today are an endangered species. I believe Prats’ body of work is relevant, now more than ever, as we continue to face sombre ecological prospects. Art is an important vehicle to address such issues and Prats’ work unravels a new perspective on the relationship between human society and the ecosystem. To further pursue this perspective and accompanying the exhibition, the artist will be live-painting a new work from the Paintings of Birds series at the Hong Kong Art Gallery Association’s Symposium at Asia Society, Looking Up: Remapping Hong Kong’s Art Scene in the Era of New Connectivity and Ruptures. In the spirit of Puerta Roja’s commitment to its Hong Kong roots and in recognition of Prats’ focus on raising awareness of human connection to the environment, the resulting work will be donated to the fund-raising efforts of The Nature Conservancy in Asia Pacific. I am deeply grateful to the Board of the Hong Kong Art Gallery Association, Ms. Alice Mong, Executive Director of Asia Society Hong Kong Center and to Mr. Moses Tsang, Global Board Member and Co-Chair of the Asia-Pacific Council of Directors of The Nature Conservancy, for making such a performance and resulting contribution possible. I am also grateful to Caroline Ha Thuc, one of the most influential curators in Hong Kong today for her insightful views on Fernando Prats’ deep philosophical, intellectual and spiritual connection to Asia.

Adriana Alvarez-Nichol, Puerta Roja, Nature Paintings2018

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By Caroline Ha Thuc
Curator and Art Critic

“Only bugs can be bugs because only bugs can abide by Heaven.” Only animals know how to act like animals because they know what Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi calls Dao, or the Way: contrary to human beings, they do not struggle against their nature and do not attempt to control or instrumentalize it: they just spontaneously follow their purposeless mode of existence. In that respect, they are superior to human beings.

Embracing their energy, listening to their voices or recording their quivers and flights while withdrawing one’s personal breath and agency might have been perceived by the philosopher as acts of wisdom, at least as a step toward freedom. This is precisely what Fernando Prats attempts to do.

Prats is not a Chinese monk nor a philosopher, but his conception and practice of art are somehow very close to Zhuangzi’s philosophy. The Chilean artist, born in 1967 in Santiago de Chile, draws his inspiration from the nature that has always surrounded him and from a deep feeling that nature makes one with human beings. According to him, this feeling is inherent to Chilean people who are constantly interacting with a telluric and picturesque geography, caught between the Andes mountains, volcanoes, an immense coastline, vast deserts, multiple forests and the polar Antarctica. Prats aptly quotes the Chilean poet Nicanor Parra (1914-2018): “we believe to be a country, but the truth is that we are just but the landscape.”

Visiting the Department of Geology at the University of Chile, Prats noticed on the desk of a geologist a blackened paper featuring thin lines zigzagging and oscillating: it was a seismogram made from smoked paper that had recorded the 1960 earthquake in the Chilean city of Valdivia, the most powerful earthquake ever recorded. From that decisive moment, the artist started to use smoke in a ceaseless quest to capture the multiple forms of living energy as they manifest themselves spontaneously. Smoke, for him, refers to his childhood in Santiago, constantly covered by pollution. Metaphorically, it is also what connects the earth with the sky, an ephemeral and formless sign that would reach the celestial spheres and elevates the human mind. In his early works, Prats engaged himself in many mystical artworks embedded in the Christian tradition, but his sculptural columns have been transformed into smoke as he probably found his own emancipatory path toward spirituality.

Working like an alchemist over a fireplace, Prats blackens papers and canvases with a dark smoke that will later be erased by the chosen elements involved in his paintings. The artist used smoke before, usually combined with graphite, in more formal compositions. This time, from the 2001 series called Affatus, he abandoned the traditional artist’s gesture and experimented with new ways of painting, throwing stones on the smoked paper, painting with a lamb’s heart, human hair or with his own tongue. Progressively, he let go his own agency to open up the act of creation, inviting living creatures to interplay: grasshoppers, worms and birds but also sea water or vapor entered the territory of Prats’ painting and left their own traces on the paper. By opening himself to the world, the artist thus absorbs the manifestations of the superior order of nature and simply reveals them without passing judgement.

In this way, Prats hung his smoked paper above fumaroles in the Tatio geothermal fields in Chile in order to seize sulfuric vapor (2006), along steep cliffs to capture the breaking of the waves in Grand Canary Island (2009) or let them absorb the salt crush from the Atacama Desert (2012). When it comes to recording the traces of a natural catastrophe, the artist reaches out to the elements but remains distant, humbly rubbing remains from an earthquake, applying his paper on the faults, broken windows, rubble, photographing the disasters and keeping marks of the human presence before it disappears. In 2009, for instance, he did a series of 53 interventions in Chaitén, Chile where a severe volcanic eruption took place, provoking ash emissions and seismic activities. The town was coated with ash and Prats engaged himself within the natural elements that devastated the landscape.

His process of work is very similar here to photography as he produces both positive and negative images, turning visible edges, outlines and imprints but also revealing the absence, voids and missing parts. There is no materiality anymore, only traces of a transitory, contingent and sometimes invisible presence. Indeed, each artwork offers a fascinating balance between wholeness and emptiness: the manifestation of nature is fully revealed, yet it retains its part of mystery. The artist does not distort reality, he observes and creates the conditions for its revelation. This process does not attempt to forgo art in favor of a natural and contingent gesture but to include the natural gesture within the process of art itself.

“There were four things from which the Master was entirely free. He had no foregone conclusions, no arbitrary predeterminations, no obstinacy, and no egoism.”(1) For Confucius, the wise man has no idea because he is open to any: he perceives the world without any preconceived idea, without projecting himself. Prats strives to share with him this openness, and humility, accepting and adapting to the world and looking at it without any specific requirement or expectation.

Prats conceives of his painting through the concept of “pictorial geo-logic”, a notion implying an active and mobilized surface, and, indeed, seismograms are the records of ground vibrations and displacements caused by seismic waves but also measurements of the energy generated by the earth. The Chinese have created a term that also could be applied here as it associates the wind, or breath, with the visible: breath-image (qi-xiang). When the wind blows, the herbs bow says Confucius: we are here at the frontier between the visible and the invisible, but also at the source of life. The wind is indeed what bring impetus and what conveys the vital energy or qi. In the Paintings of Birds, the birds’ feathers create that breath, they animate the inanimate and generate, in the painting, an atmosphere of breath-image.

For this series, Prats operates in a more private space, leaving one or several birds flying freely around the canvas: the slightest movement of their feathers removes the smoke from the paper and creates a form that exactly embodies their fugitive impulse. A shape arises, as if an internal organization came to being, yet the composition remains open, abstract, developed in infinite variations. In some parts of the work, one recognises easily the outline of a wingbeat, the friction of a plume, but in other parts lines are creating unfathomable shapes.

Laozi said “the great image has no form”(2) and he probably meant that it contains all possible forms. This variety and un-determination can be seized when comparing the different works from the series, each one bearing a specific rhythm and flow of energy, each one nevertheless so unique and multiple at the same time. Signs of a peaceful wandering or marks from violent bursts: beauty and violence coexist and complete each other. From the overlapped and entwined layers of strokes, one can imagine the outlines of mountains, the contours of rivers or the imprints of a growing vegetation. There are no spatial limits to these landscapes as they seem to constantly exceed their framework. To a certain extent, the form captured by the smoke is an emancipation of the form as it allows it to grow, transform and to embody all possible forms.

The movements of the birds permeate the paper, giving the impression that the work will continue to change by itself, just like a living being. Paradoxically, each work is related to a precise event or a dated action, therefore being strongly rooted in a “here and now”, yet it also emerges as a passage with no beginning and no end.

The act of performance is crucial for Prats as he always physically engages with his work. According to the chosen location, the artist selects relevant species that would best respond to the specificities of the territory: from massive birds such as the Andes condor, fast birds such as racing pigeons to birds like canaries, each one expresses its own impetus and temper. Working as a team, he guides them while respecting their freedom and, somehow, trusting their instinct. Within a short and fragile time-span, the artist and the birds enter in resonance. The wings expand his hand and go beyond it, while a reality emerges. Like the brushstroke of traditional painters, each trace is unique and irreversible: what is done cannot be undone. Prats’ attitude resembles the gesture of the literati artist who was unable to undo what he had executed. Behind the artist’s gesture, one can feel a sense of moral responsibility.

The term Affatus refers to a theory by Ramón Llull (1232–1316), a Catalan poet and mystic from the Middle Ages who invented a sixth sense, located between the palate and the tongue, where air circulates. It is reportedly the means through which animals communicate with each other, and also the potentiality by which human beings articulate their thoughts and connect with each other and with the world. In particular, it allows people to name things and objects around them. This act of naming combined with the marks left on smoked paper and the systematic recording of natural events epitomize an act of writing. Indeed, the entangled white lines and traces resemble an original script.

According to Chinese mythology, writing is not made up of arbitrary signs but composed by natural representations of phenomena and by their expressions. The inventor of writing is Cang Jie, a hero who had four eyes and who worked as a diviner for the Emperor. One text from the Tang dynasty says that he used two of his eyes to observe the sky, and the other two to look at the earth, combining his visions to reflect on the unity of the world.(3) It is actually said that it is by observing the traces made by birds and by wild animals that he had the idea of inventing writing, which means that the animals showed him the way to a language of signs.

In Prat’s Paintings of Birds, the feathers resemble brushes that would dance on the paper, whirling and fluttering around, alternatively combining gentle touches with larger traces, thin or thick circular movements according to the part that touched the surface, from the tip to the bottom of the wing. Each sign is autonomous but seems included in a circulation of movement: there is continuity within the discontinuity. The rhythm and shapes of the brushstrokes expose the intimate nature of the birds, their vital energy and deep essence. The animals are indeed taking possession of the space, imposing their scale and mode of being. They produce both a writing and a landscape. Prats allows this specific language to manifest, turning visible the hitherto hidden sources of their sensations and innate ways of being.

When a man has freed himself from a desire-based existential mode and conventional values, and thus embraces the Way, he stops struggling with deliberate action and becomes one with Nature, following spontaneously its path and responding to its natural flow. He wanders in the world, open and mindless, instinctively enjoying life and melting with the elements. This is often the life of artists who know how to listen to nature and to their inner nature, conscious about the deep unity that connects them and allows them to go beyond their mere human condition. The art of Prats is an art of disclosure: revealing this intimate relationship between things is a way to expose the invisible forces of nature and to let the flow of the world come in. His practice functions like a mirror that would embrace everything without retaining anything but the beating of a wing and the breath of the Earth.

(1) Confucius, Analects 9
(2) Cited by François Jullien, La philosophie inquiétée par la pensée chinoise, Seuil Paris 2003 p.325
(3) Shuduan by Zhang Huaiguan quoted by Jean-François Billeter, Essai sur l’art chinois de l’écriture et ses fondements Allia Paris 2010 p.263

Caroline Ha Thuc, Hong Kong, Wandering with Nature, Fernando Prats, 2018

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KIAF 2018

KIAF 2018 Art Seoul

17th Korea International Fair

Founded in 2010 by Adriana Alvarez-Nichol , PUERTA ROJA pioneers the promotion of established and emerging contemporary Latin American and Spanish artists in Asia-Pacific.

KIAF 2018, 17th Korea International Fair fair catalogue, 2018

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Wayan Novi: Caring For Life – International Artist Profile – Eva Wong Nava

Landscape of Memories

Art Porters Singapore

Catalogue for Wayan Novi’s 2018 solo exhibition at Art Porters in Singapore.

Art Porters Singapore, Landscape of Memories, exhibition catalogue, 2018

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Pe Lang

Pe Lang

Galerie Denise René

Pe Lang 2018

Galerie Denise René, Pe Lang, 2018

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Cruz-Diez Art Foundation 10 Years

Cruz-Diez Art Foundation 10 Years

Cruz-Diez Art Foundation

This book was published on the occassion of the 10th anniversary of the Cruz-Diez Art Foundation, December 2015.

Cruz-Diez Art Foundation, Cruz-Diez Art Foundation 10 Years, December, 2015

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Cruz-Diez: Color Espacial

Color Espacial

Carlos Cruz-Diez

Carlos Cruz-Diez: Color Espacial brings to light the eponymous ephemeral exhibition presented at Centro Cultural Niemeyer in Avilés (Spain) from September 26, 2014 to May 31, 2015.

Carlos Cruz-Diez, Color Espacial, Cruz-Diez Art Foundation, 2015

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Catch on the Fly

Catch on the Fly

Thinking the Outside [Notes on the nomad cartography of Fernando Prats] by Fernando Castro Flórez

“Fernando Prats is the perfect example of an artist who is capable of keeping the marvelous paths of painting open”

Fernando Castro Flórez, Catch on the Fly, essay, 2009

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Ailleurs (“Somewhere Else”)

Paul Ardenne, Gilles A Tiberghien

“Fernando Prats is a secular alchemist. Just as the Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang has renewed painting with his use of gunpowder as pigment, so prats also “paints” in an unprecedented manner, with smoke…Prats then allows Nature to paint for him. He arranges his smoke-blackened papers in a corner of the countryside, and lets the vagaries of the local weather and the specificities of the site- be it a coastal area, a desert or an earthquake zone- do the rest. The paper becomes the record of the natural life of the artist’s chosen location, the imprint of a superhuman activity and the palimpset of dunamis, the constant work and progress of Nature.”

For its 14th exhibition, the Espace culturel Louis Vuitton is offering a new variation on the theme of travel and choosing to reveal the “Somewhere Else” of eighteen so-called “expeditionist” artists.

A growing number of artists are choosing this framework: relocating creation in order to define it differently, setting out, installing the work of art or producing it outside of its conventional environment.

The nature of the expedition to which these artists devote themselves may vary widely. In this movement, in this encounter with new spaces and other humans — sometimes distant, sometimes near, but always “other” — the artist finds the opportunity for a singular creation that is primarily characterised by its offset nature.

Fernando Prats, Ailleurs, 2011

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Gran Sur

Gran Sur

Paul Ardenne, Fernando Castro, Justo Pastor Mellado and Fernando Prats

“Fernando Prats’ project is, in all senses, an epic and poetic journey in which he insists on art as a journey in pursuit of the unknown, in which it is still possible to escape from banality and literalism. Gran Sur was inspired by Ernest Shackleton’s newspaper advert for recruits for his fateful Antarctic expedition: “Men wanted for hazardous journey, low wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, honour and recognition in case of success”. Through a compendium of photographs and archival materials, Prats’ installation, recorded in this volume, draws out the implications of the blackly humorous advert to resonate with larger experiences of migration and dangerous travel. Fernando Prats (Santiago de Chile, 1967) is representing Chile at the 2011 Venice Biennale.”

Paul Ardenne, Fernando Castro, Justo Pastor Mellado and Fernando Prats, Gran Sur, Distributed Art Pub Incorporated, 2011

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Sensorial Geometries

Sensorial Geometries


By Adriana Alvarez-Nichol
Vice President, Hong Kong Art Gallery Association
Founder and Director, Puerta Roja Limited

Last year marked the 50th anniversary of Op Art, the international art movement that used optical illusions and geometric patterns to produce effects that both confuse and stimulate the eye. Op and Kinetic Art were launched with Le Mouvement, a group exhibition at the iconic Galerie Denise René in Paris in 1955, but it was first formally recognised after the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MOMA) presented the seminal show; The Responsive Eye in 1965. The eye-catching, imaginative and vertigo-inducing paintings and sculptures swept the art world and enamoured viewers and the media.

Crucial to the MOMA exhibition was its focus on the international dialogue amongst artists. An unprecedented global roster of 99 artists from 15 countries were presented. This movement reflected the artists’ desire for collective achievement and dialogue. The incorporation of the viewer himself as a key component of the work, and the straightforward unpretentious representations, made the art inclusive, a universal language of optimism that could reach all.

Such ideas brewed deeply in Latin America and since the 1930’s diverse currents of geometric abstraction were developed by artists, particularly from Argentina and Venezuela. Uninterrupted by the horrors of the war in Europe these artistic expressions blossomed. Fuelled by optimism and idealist notions of progress, South American artists looked to change the world through reason and order. Inspired by science and mathematics, artists developed their own visual expression for their vision of the future.

During the 1950’s and 1960’s several Venezuelan and Argentine artists further explored the phenomenon of human perception through colour and motion with extreme rigour and creativity. These included from Argentina Luis Tomasello, Julio Le Parc, Antonio Asís and Eduardo McEntyre. Their intense use of colour and changing patterns gave their creations an almost sonorous vibrancy that could not be ignored.

After an amazing run, the reception of Op Art started to wane and during the 1970s conceptual art became the next “big thing”. Ideas, instead of formal or visual content, became the new fascination, and observers began to belittle the Geometric and Op Art movements as gimmicky and even shallow.

However, it was the strength of the philosophical ideals at the heart of the artists’ intent that would ensure the movement’s lasting legacy and current revival. Over the last two decades, the development of Geometric Abstraction and Op Art, including the importance of South American artists in its development, has been the subject of a myriad of exhibitions around the world. This year, The Illusive Eye reopened at El Museo del Barrio in New York with a celebration, but also a revision, of the original MOMA show. The exhibition re-establishes the enormous influence of the great artists from the 20th century but also opens the door for us to reevaluate the relevance of the movement to young contemporary artists and for society in the 21st century.

Technology as well as modern materials have undoubtedly opened new paths for contemporary artists to explore new variations of colour theory and optical illusion. Most importantly however, I believe, is that the essence and profound undercurrent of optimism and democratisation of art is more important than ever. Amidst our present troubled era, experimenting with illusion is not a sign of denial but one of hope for the future.

The exhibition Sensorial Geometries at Puerta Roja presents the work of four Argentine artists exploring the universal language of geometric and optical expressions, each with a very individual and personal perspective. The exhibition contrasts the work of 20th century master Luis Tomasello, where economised and minimalist structures are filled with the vibrations of light, with the exuberant and colour-saturated paintings by young talent Mariano Ferrante. Antonio Asís works dazzle and almost confuse with psychedelic intensity, despite the inherent simplicity of the execution. Ventoso, furthers Tomasello’s three-dimensionality and Asís’ optimal illusions by presenting a unique language of sculptural and tactile polymer constructions or “assemblages” that tease and defy the perceptions of the viewer.

The works of these endowed four artists, masters and emerging talent, will create a myriad of sensorial emotions and a memorable sense of belonging, of personal relevance in the viewer. Such were the ideals of the artistic movement from the 1960’s that remain as, or more, relevant today.

Adriana Alvarez-Nichol, Puerta Roja, Sensorial Geometries, 2016

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