In the mid-1990s, as war was raging through what was soon to become former Yugoslavia, the Spanish painter Simeón Saiz Ruiz began photographing the images of carnage broadcast nightly on news programmes, spurred by a sense of impotent rage at what he was witnessing from the comfort and safety of his living-room sofa in Madrid. Saiz Ruiz later began translating those already doubly filtered images into a series of extraordinary oil paintings titled ‘J’est un je’ (the title is a variant of Arthur Rimbaud’s aphorism, ‘Je est un autre’, or ‘I am an other’, from 1871) – a subject matter he has tenaciously (and somewhat incongruously) clung to for the last 16 years, and which, with this exhibition, he has brought to a close.
The paintings of ‘J’est un je’ are structured on grids of tiny quadrants – thousands in some of the larger paintings – that Saiz Ruiz paints individually and with extraordinary craft. The result is a kind of weave or pixellation – they recall, in purely technical terms, Chuck Close’s work, despite the conceptual differences between the two painters – that in turn achieves a kind of anamorphosis. From a distance, the paintings appear to be abstract and gorgeously shimmering fields of colour; up close, they’re nothing but thousands of multicoloured daubs of paint. But when seen from certain angles and from certain distances, ‘the figure in the carpet’ – to borrow Henry James’s phrase, from his eponymous 1896 short story, and referring to the predicament of a troubled artistic consciousness in search of hidden meanings – begins to emerge.
And what a figure it is. The scenes represented in ‘J’est un je’ are anything but abstract; they are at once mundane and grisly, depicting the aftermath of violence, the lifeless bodies in the silence after the bombing, the victims on the street and on the ground and on the floor of the once-crowded market. One might think here (and more appropriately) of Gerhard Richter’s Baader-Meinhof paintings ‘October 18, 1977’ (1988) or of Andy Warhol’s ‘Death and Disaster Series’ (1962–3) – including, in both cases, the filtering play of images between mass-media and fine art. But what they recall most strongly is Goya’s ‘Disasters of War’ (1810–20): Saiz Ruiz is not taking sides nor preaching (and certainly not staging melodrama or issuing ironic commentary), but rather simply showing, with an unblinking gaze that he has surreptitiously forced on the viewer, the human-scale effects of war – which is, of course, the most powerful way of taking sides.
Some of the most effective paintings in ‘J’est un je’ are quite large. For instance, the 2012 painting Refugiado kosovar víctima del bombardeo del puente de conexión entre Kosovo y Montenegro en Murino (Montenegro), primavera de 1999 (Kosovar Refugee Killed in the Bombing of the Bridge between Kosovo and Montenegro in Murino [Montenegro], Spring 1999) measures nearly three by five metres, while Cadáveres de presos muertos en los bombardeos de la OTAN contra la carcel de Istok (Kosovo), mayo de 1999 (Corpses of Prisoners Killed during the NATO Bombing of the Istok [Kosovo] Prison, May 1999) from 2010 is only slightly smaller. As a result, they achieve a curious combination of monumentality and, via the intricacy of the technique, intimacy. These final paintings are noticeably looser than the earlier works, sketchier and more attenuated, as if they were, like the events they depict, fading into the past.
Their anamorphic effect, however, remains unfaded, as does – and this is the singular potency of these paintings – the conceptual parallel they conjure up. For while ‘J’est un je’ gives rise to a perceptual dislocation between seeing and recognizing, the paintings also provoke a psychic dislocation between seeing and responding to what is right in front of you, yet achingly beyond your reach. This is the psychic dislocation of witness, perhaps of any act of witness, but most acutely of witness at a distance, geographic or otherwise.