AN ART OF REWORKING
“Our task is to imprint upon us this transient and expiring earth, so deeply, painfully and passionately, that its essence will rise again in us.” R. M. Rilke
In unforgettable verses, like all those in his first Duino Elegy (Und das Totsein ist mühsam/ un voller Nachholn) Rainer Maria Rilke described the condition of the one who has died, death itself, as an extremely laborious task.
For Rilke only death provides the fullness that gives full meaning to life; but it is not a fullness given away but laboriously conquered, arrived at only with as much strenuousness as earthly existence required. Or, in other words, the eternity that finally unites the living and the dead demands not only all that has to be learned in a lifetime but also the arduous learning that one is already dead.
Surely I would not be quoting Rilke here or writing about all this, which is not as grim as it seems, were it not for the translation of those verses proposed by José María Valverde in the most popular Spanish version of the Elegies: “Y el estar muerto es laboroso y lleno de repaso” (And being dead is laborious and full of review). Because that word, repaso -which may not be the happiest version of the German Nachholn, but which is already an inseparable part of our Spanish reading of the duinesases the one that, again and again, came to my mind watching María Jesús Rodríguez at work in her secluded workshop in Busloñe. Review, review.
Perhaps I will be able to justify (me the first one) this obsessive association of ideas if I describe the work process shared, in essence, by all the works included in her new solo exhibition at Gema Llamazares. First of all, María Jesús photographs a small portion of territory, a micro-landscape that in all cases is loaded with some biographical or affective resonance. It may be a fragment of some place from her past that still persists or any other minuscule portion of nature that, for one reason or another, leads her through the cornered and often capricious coves of memory towards a certain equally minuscule episode of her life: some acanthus from his childhood, his mother’s gardens, a tangle of undergrowth, a burnt mountain where the vegetation is beginning to sprout again, some dondiegos or the sea acorns floating in a pool on any beach in Western Asturias where he used to go fishing with his father.
Then, in a process that reveals the extent to which new technologies are simply new crafts, he edits the photographic image by digital means, drawing with extreme patience and meticulousness on the unfriendly surface of the graphic tablet down to the smallest detail of each plant, each stone, each corner capable of containing one of his private edens. Then, the traces must be erased, as if stripping the selected motif of all autobiographical or anecdotal adherence to surrender it to the universality of the forms. There disappears the photographic background that has served as documentation and support, now reduced to a tight drawing of virtual lines.
In a third phase, the immaterial returns to the material and the organic takes root in the inorganic: the digital drawing is printed and traced with carbon paper on the aluminum plate, where the lines are carefully engraved by hand. The process ends with the application of some pigment or chemical treatment to enhance the line, nuance effects or protect some pieces that, finally, in many cases, go beyond the two-dimensionality of the pictorial landscape and are reintegrated alone or together with others in space, expanding into the sculptural or regenerating a different form of landscape: a new place.
If I am making this description, it is not, without further ado, to ponder the virtuosity or skill of the artist: as in all truly interesting art, the process is not anecdotal, nor is the result, carefully purified for the eyes of third parties of all the biographical burden that activated them. On the contrary, it is about emphasizing (also here, although through words) the way in which María Jesús operates again and again (and, in fact, the way in which she lives): she observes, remembers, registers a sensitive form of memory and then goes over it again and again; drawing it on the tablet, transferring it to the plate, engraving it on it, reviewing each stroke to refine its imperfections, shading or emphasizing the details. And the idea is to show how this procedure includes all the meanings of the verb that interests me: to review is to go over it again; it is to recover; it is to develop a work with intensity and concentration; it is to learn by insistence and repetition. And it is also to glance over things again; to make explicit to oneself again what one already knew, to review and reconstitute the contents of one’s own memory.
It is, very platonically, to recognize and, in a meaning that María Jesús surely finds very suggestive, to recoser or mend. Without leaving aside that reworking is also correction through the scrupulous revision of what has already been done.
But the most interesting thing is that this reworking is not a symbolic reproduction of nature by artistic means. Not, at least, in the traditional sense of mimesis. Although it is literally a reiterated process of copying, here it is not a matter of figuring nature and at the same time distancing oneself from it, but of repeating it literally, recalling it, recounting it line by line, curve by curve, detail by detail. Nature leads the hand, which repeats its forms with humility and the same absorbed insistence with which a schoolboy repeats the multiplication table, the nursery rhyme or the poem to be engraved in his memory. María Jesús Rodríguez is as meticulous in this as the moss or the ivy, as patient as the lamps that cling to the rock, as precise as the leaves that curl from an artichoke stalk or crowd the forest with ferns. His work is an exercise in slowness like that of nature itself, vegetable or mineral, in configuring the living memory of the landscape and the inert memory of the earth. And it is also a testimonial act of the way in which the hand of man and woman can leave respectful marks in the territory, analogous to those of nature and, sometimes, almost unmistakable with it as it happens in the small orchards or in the tsousas that demarcate the lands of Western Asturias, whose toponymy, alluded to in the titles, demarcates for whoever wants to investigate it all this small personal geography.
Therefore, despite the fact that at first glance the work may evoke some refined fin-de-siécle design or that such a coldly artificial support as aluminum may suggest a certain industrial air, one soon realizes that what in a fabric or in a manufacture would be mechanical and repetitive, here contains the infinite variety and the broken and continuous rhythm of nature itself; And that the aluminum is nothing more than the appropriate support for all that nature to take root and leave its mark, which, on the other hand, is also capable of being imprinted on something as hostile as a rock.
What these imprints transmit is as elegiac as it is celebratory: a paradoxical verification of the transience of things and of our experience of them, and a faithful record of the intensity of the experience itself. In the diptychs, where María Jesús confronts two different images of the same place that are in reality two different moments, the precariousness of experience is especially emphasized in the face of the persistence of things, which, even if they are as fragile as a small plant, survive our passing. In fact, if you think about it, this work is a way of passing and reviewing, again and again, in front of them.
I do not know if María Jesús Rodríguez will be very Rilkean or if she will share with the Prague poet his conception of life and death; I am sure that, at least at this part of the line that separates them, her work proclaims that life, living, being and being truly alive consist in that almost selfless review of the impermanent fullness of things, and that this is also celebration and mission, in the most purely Rilkean sense: To record a memory, to carve a trace, to add it to the world and, through all this, to embellish, save and celebrate it.
J. C. Gea