Vicente Pascual: Paintings From the Exilio

at the Instituto Cervantes Chicago, through August 29

By Fred Camper

They barely look like artwork at first–I thought Vicente Pascual’s 15 new abstract pieces at Instituto Cervantes might be architectural fragments, parts of a wall or floor. Nothing if not restrained, these paintings, drawings, and silk screens are gentle, almost somber, executed in rich, earthen shades. But at some point the works’ symmetrical arrangements of lines, rectangles, triangles, and occasional curves cross over from decorative patterns to fine art, loaded with an almost mystical intentionality. At once sphinxlike and richly suggestive, these are among the most original–and moving–works I’ve seen this year.

The mix of shapes and rough surface in Exilique Reus is too elaborate for a wall design, and Pascual’s signature at the lower right asserts that, yes, this is meant as art. Alternating triangles create zigzags, and there are four bulbous curves near the center. Each area of color–mostly thick, dark greens, browns, and yellows, plus white–is rough and mottled, as if part of a decaying frescoed wall. The design is almost perfectly symmetrical.

This painting whispers rather than shouts to its viewer. At the center two lines form a cross, and a tiny blue rectangle surrounds the point where they meet. Given the painting’s width and near symmetry, this rectangle seems almost anticlimactic–and that’s exactly the point. The single points around which Pascual’s patterns revolve are strangely empty. Furthermore, the painting is actually on two canvases; and the blue box is divided between them (in fact, the vertical line of the cross is formed by their abutment). This implies that the design is independent of the media supporting it, as if Pascual were painting a fragment of a reality larger than any canvas. “Art makes sense,” Pascual has written, “because man has the need to free himself from the ego which restrains him and the world which fragments him.” And indeed his art seems a search for something larger than and other than a picture–for a center or a source not reducible to the visible.

Pascual was born in 1955 in Zaragoza, Spain, where he lived in a house built into the town’s ancient Roman wall. At the age of 18 he left to spend a year in India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Zaragoza was as far north as the Arabs got in Spain, Pascual told me, and the town’s art and architecture is a mix of Roman, Islamic, and medieval Christian buildings. Zaragoza is also “in the middle of a desert,” Pascual says, an environment that still affects the colors and textures of his paintings, although he’s lived in Bloomington, Indiana, since 1992. Influenced early on by pop art, Pascual later painted landscapes, which evolved into these abstract works around the time of his move to Bloomington. Believing in the “universality” of art and religion, he thinks not that all religions are one but that each expresses a “different state of one unity” and that the arts of diverse cultures exhibit “the same symbols, identical references to the archetypes.” He titles his works in Latin–the former lingua franca of Europe–because he thinks of it as the “primordial language” he believes all humans once spoke.

De Revolutionibus refers to circumnavigation, Pascual told me, “like the movement of the stars around the center. I’m very concerned with relationships between the cosmological and spiritual meanings–the same thing in the natural as in the heart.” Exquisitely balancing opposites, the painting is a meditation on change and stasis. A kind of wheel at the center has “spokes” that end inches before a nonexistent “hub,” suggesting movement and stasis at once–or movement in which little changes. Two thin lines crossing in the center divide the canvas into quadrants; the two dark orange quadrants each contain a smaller circle of green, while the dark green ones have a smaller circle of orange–an alternation that recalls the yin-yang symbol.

As in all the paintings, Pascual’s rough, almost random brushwork reveals a multitude of shades, every color seeming to contain every other; here the orange includes some green, for example. And shapes are paired with others unlike them–rectangles contain circles, circles include straight lines. All parts read like equals. There is no climactic universal symbol at the center of Pascual’s symmetrical designs. The crosses may hint at the crucifix and at cruciform church designs, but the empty spaces at Pascual’s centers provide no redeeming altarpiece. There is no “thing” here–only the hint of a “way,” in the Eastern sense.

Among Pascual’s interests is the art of nomadic peoples (he mentions “the Touareg, North American Indians, the Mongols, and others”), whom he admires for their “equilibrium between time and space. They have no roots anywhere, not in a concrete place but in nature.” Pascual’s works too have an equilibrium that depends on displacement. Western painting tends to revolve around focal points, objects or shapes that are given power over others within the composition. Pascual’s works have centers, but paradoxically his nearly symmetrical compositions deflect focus from those centers, just as his rough surfaces balance painterly freedom with precise geometries.

The painting Duo Sunt illustrates critic Juan Dominguez Lasierra’s argument that “each fragment of [Pascual’s] work symbolizes the Whole.” Horizontal and vertical lines and bands divide a bluish field; there are two crosses in the middle and, above and below them, lines that suggest the tops and bottoms of other crosses off the canvas: again we see only a portion of a much larger pattern. The painting’s most prominent shapes are two cusps that include colored triangles. The cusp at the top points downward while the one at the bottom points up, but the “center” they indicate is occupied by nothing special, just one of several yellowish horizontal lines. The cusps look as climactic as Pascual ever gets, hinting at object power. But what one notices most about them is the way their mass trails off into emptiness, the way a mountain meets the sky or a small peninsula vanishes into a lake.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Duo Sunt.