In Search of Lost Times.

By Daleysi Moya


“Alejandro Campins: In Search of Lost Times”. By Daleysi Moya, in ART OnCuba Magazine. No. 06 March – May 2015.


“But then the memory –and it still was not the
memory of the place where I was, but that of other places where
I had lived and where I could have been– descended to me
as if help were arriving from above to take me out of nothingness,
because I never would had been able to leave by myself.”

Marcel Proust
Swann’s Way

To undertake a search of invariant aesthetics or commonplaces in Alejandro Campins work may guide us to a blind alley. In his work there is no zero point, the famous hard nucleus to clear among the rubbish of brushstrokes, textures and capricious characters as his are. His painting is too spontaneous to detect patterns, symptoms moreover of an exercise of calculation and premeditation that has nothing to do with his habitual practice. For Campins, the work, as the creative moment, emerges from what is circumstantial, what is unforeseen. It will be the temperature of the initial moment what will establish the morphology and definitive spirit of each piece.

This does not mean that the works had not been, in a given way, dreamed by him. The visual repertoire integrating his canvases comes from that mental quadrant in which we store memories, images, everyday life. The disordered juxtaposition of inventions and remembrances besieges the pictorial surface with total lack of inhibition, therefore the arbitrariness and ease inhabiting his proposals. Nothing in them is as stable as not to become something else in the least slip of our look. Perhaps because of this sort of referential lack of definition —we never get to know if the scene we witness is real or merely fantasized— his stories seem familiar, taken from non written legends and places in which all of us, some time, have imagined to have been. His is a creative vocation with an oneiric nature, where stories are articulated on his own and collective experiences, intuited and figurative.

We may say that this type of processes, operating superpositions, uneven confluences and interweaving correspondences between the individual universes and that of the visualities exported by the mass media, is in debt with the thesis by Barthes that points at the author’s grave under the weight of multiple quotes which eventually constitute a work of art. Much of this notion becomes palpable in Campins’ production, in which we guess segment of magazines and stories of somebody else’s lives, together with very intimate evocations. His work is composed by snippets, small pieces of moments that were, or could have been, and that because of an uncertain creative gesture take material nature on his canvases. In this way the work acquires unusual, we may say anthropological, dimensions and becomes a catalyzer of images floating in the air, views of unsuspected (and unknown) spaces and of main characters whose existence the artist knows or invents.

The way in which he drafts the reality of every piece, a mixture of alchemy and lyricism, prevents all specific contextualization of the works, at least in a formal level. The places he presents us, as well as his characters (less frequent as time goes by) take us to interstitial places, implausible lands midway between oblivion and dream. At times the scenes seem to belong to Nordic regions, landscapes lacking tropical light and with chromatic mixtures tarnishing the natural intensity of the tones. In other occasions, color becomes saturated and the image embodies a greater vitality. Nevertheless, whatever the alteration of nuances, the composited treatment of the works, and even the actual origin of the spaces, it is impossible for us to throw the wire to the ground. What places are these? To what geographical segments do they belong? The answer is, it seems, more complex and deeper than the questions themselves. The interrogated topography forms part of another dimension, the one combining the contemporary visual baroque style with the ambiguity and arbitrariness of mental constructions. Paradoxically, it has to do with no-places.

To be born from the “new painting”

“At times I begin to paint a lion
and end up with a butterfly”
Alejandro Campins

It will be impossible to understand Campins’ work, with its inner variations and poetic inflections, without knowing in depth the creative philosophy accompanying his development as an artist. A member of a generation of emergent youngsters interested in painting, towards the middle of 2000 he began an artistic career focused on the experimentation with this genre. For him, as for the rest of his colleagues, the display of creative processes would be fundamental. This element, which seems to repeat itself as a speech in these times, is the cornerstone of his work. Something else would be untrue. That intermediate state, in which forms, together with moving topics and nuances, are not yet defined, will be the ideal situation to dismantle the pictorial language, open to its whims and enjoy the freshness of its results.

For a long time a large number of national art critics saw these essays as mere acts of contents stripping, since they accentuated the technical line of the exercise. Associations between painting and executory pleasure, with severe restrictions in the conceptual level, began to shape an equivocal idea of the interests and purposes of many of these artists. The conceptualist model, suddenly in crisis, did not allow a different look (not even for the most agile scholars). The work of art was understood, in principle, as an idea; the ways in which that idea took corporality were already a minor issue. Under this point of view, severely restrictive for everything implying contingency, actions as those of the “new painters” were understood as a symptom of intellective flippancy. However, as they began to evolve, consolidating with their own right in the Island and the international circuit, the course of action they inaugurated began to be understood from other angles. This type of painting was also interested in thinking, although its first purpose was no other than the pictorial medium itself: once again art thinking on itself. Formalist explorations are not divorced from non-automatizing restlessness, and all the more so if taking into account that in western art many of the great changes in aesthetic conceptions have started from revolutions in the ways of building and understanding the image (I think, in passing, in impressionism, cubism and pop art).

Little by little, interventions inside the genre marked out well differentiated styles among these youngsters and allowed to break the initial communions. Thanks to their work method— which enjoys direct contact with matter, the accidents on the canvas, the consistency of the oils and acrylics—we will see a gradual personalization of their aesthetics. After grasping the technique in the academic manner and incorporating a large part of Art History as a background, they began to pave their own paths, always winding and variable, according to the punctual searches in which they decided to involve themselves. In the case of Campins, this path has displaced, without too much gibberish, from a trend of pop filiation to a markedly introspective and balanced projection. Silent. In his first works, those he made when still a student in the Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA), we can verify a given delight in motifs and topics with a ludic cadence. His pieces from that time had a vital energy that has quieted down as years have gone by, perhaps as a logical consequence of a gradual maturing process. These initial works revealed, in greater or lesser measure, his debts with ISA’s conceptual training. Especially the titles and comments inside the framings, which appeared as a tremendously leading textual support, testified a need of exteriorization of meanings at all cost, a characteristic trait of our higher academy.

At that time, the investigatory phenomenon passing through his production reached a culminating point, not only in terms of variability of the solutions tried out, but in the areas of interest to which he leans out. Thus, works like Lluvia de agosto para un día de enero (August Rain for a Day in January, 2006) exist side by side with El colmo de un revolucionario (The Last Straw of a Revolutionary, 2007), the first one loaded with lyricism while the second would embody a variation of mischievous and caustic speech. Throughout his later work, and even in his more recent series, his desire to poeticize what is real and the permanent scrutiny of his environment would remain constant. Space and time will be an obsession for Campins; in them he will be able to discover essential keys to connect with the History of the nation but also, and above all, with resolute segments of private, instantaneous, fleeting narrations. During the initial period of his work, spatial elements share the canvas with characters of various types. The fusion of this binomial will create distanced works, some of them acid and incisive, others subtle and with a calm body-language. It will be interesting to see the marked contrast between Campins’ two creative lines, since they both bring to light physiognomies by the author that have little to do with each other (or whose connections interweave in non-lineal ways). These works, however, are in any case the result of a very personal way of processing treasured images, always debated between their original ownership and the new locations Campins fits out for them. This element will not change, even when his work may inaugurate hitherto unheard-of routes in pictorial searches and experimentations.

Then, the calm

The last lustrum has witnessed several mutations in Alejandro Campins’ artistic sensitivity. The duality accompanying him during his first steps in the world of art began to lose harshness as he himself, as a person, tries to harmonize a much more fraternal link with nature and the spaces he inhabits. This axiom, which goes through his life and his contacts with what is real, has stripped his work from dissonances and impostures: it has brought calm.

The dynamics delineated by his new displacements reconfigure the former stages of his pieces. Now the artist is attracted by less illuminated areas; he prefers those omitted plots of land where human histories are diluted in time. These regions reproduce and complement (with all the sincerity they have the right to) the topography characteristic of his fantasizing. Campins then stops talking and begins to listen. Each section of the planet embraces a special link with the man behind the artist, and the artist knows how to restore life in those spaces. The artistic gesture becomes a cycle, an uninterrupted succession of give and take which always ends up crystalizing remarkable moments, or impermanent, as Campins himself would call them.

This new phase of his work, intended to conciliate the rituality and logics of what is natural, has exclusively centered on the landscape. The landscape stops being a copartner in his compositions and becomes a central drive. Undoubtedly, such an aesthetic turn keeps a narrow link with the methodology used to dialogue with the pictorial language: to abandon oneself to its inflections without arbitrage. In this sense, Campins has been consistent; he opens to nature deprived from preconceive formulae, knowing that all possible beauty is born from the frank contact with it. This is also the cause of his voice fading little by little—the subjective I of the modern author—and putting it into function on the scene surrounding him. All the prominence will be that of the trapped instant, whether small narrations surfacing as memories, or the capricious staging of his unconscious tales.

If in his early works we already discovered an attachment to some given eastern philosophical trends, in the more recent series this perception becomes a fact. The proximity of his proposals with some central elements of Japanese haiku, for instance, becomes evident not only in the conceptualization of the pictorial image as a fleeting experience, but in the sensitive and brief ways in which reality is questioned. For Campins, every vital segment may become a poetic image; after all, poetry inhabits our existence from beginning to end. Things sensorial and lyric coexist in harmony, just like memories and future projections are constitutive parts of our present.

It is important to point out that, over and above the modifications (some of them crucial) which the pictorial work of this young artist has experienced (whether in drawing and objects), the need of contextual link and human contact are still alive in him. Certainly, the presence of characters and subjects has handed over their place to the landscape and, also, the referenced motives are increasingly distant from the visualities built in contemporary societies. This representational void, however, is compensated by deeper and more committed inquiries on our relationship with the world. Its look continues to have an anthropological leaning. Men occupy an important place, even when only their former or fantasizing stories may be revealed on the canvas.

In this same way, another history of our country is being written on the basis of snippets of modern oblivion saved by Campins. Our homeland, with its multiple faces, is also part of that uncertain region in which every place dreams for an existence different from the one it has. There, in that corner of his mind in which reality harmonically summarizes Soviet stages, small forgotten towns, rivers and woods that he has not retraced, the Cuba of his dreams is placed, a nation that sleeps between the silent atmosphere of ochers and siennas, under the alibi of a not at all tropical panorama.

Campins searches —and occasionally composes— all the times and spaces detached from their early situations. As an archeologist would, he reconstructs the possibilities of being from past moments, from inexistent experiences. His work takes from these misunderstandings, from the illusion that comes from what could have been. With the geniality of an alchemist, he translates to the flat surface some sensations, like the smell and the taste of Proust’s fairy cake, or the melody taking us back to our childhood. At the end, he finds lost times, forgotten spots, lives that only become corporeal when, from photographic quietism, they enter into the vitality of the damp acrylic. And this actioning pleases him, because grabbing hold of the beauty of those times is trapping, although just for an instant, the most pristine bend of human life. Only that matters: “trapping the beauty taking refuge in these places, beauty as synonym of truth.”