Frederic Amat en México... Álvaro Mutis

Of all the arts, it is painting that celebrates the miracle of absolute creation with greatest conviction. A single painting enriches and modifies the plenitude of the universe forever. The imprecise ways of the performer deprives us of the total experience of music. The everyday usage of words in the grey routine of living burdens poetry with indispensable impurities. The painters have no intermediaries, their tool and their subject are the very essence of what they create. Giotto’s work is not only the whole twilight of the middle ages; it is, in addition and above all, an autonomous and extremely vast world, parallel to the one that witnessed the dawn of the Renaissance. Velázquez is more than the dismal chronicle of the astounded twilight of the Habsburgs. Bonnard’s sunlit Mediterranean gardens outlive with irrefutable validity the bastardly deterioration of the world where they were born.

I’m trying to make clear my certainty about the eloquent uselessness of the word when it names or deals with painting. All of Malraux’s monumental verbal architecture, at the service of a supposed meditation on the visual arts, ends up in a treatise on the experience of God, written by a theologian who is ignored. Having said this, I propose a precarious sum of impressions based on the paintings Frederic Amat made in Mexico. The miracle settles in with delirious eloquence. All the motley magic of a secret world, the millenary clamour of presences and forces that, for the majority of Mexicans, are a familiar yet elusive matter which has always been denied, take possession of an artist who had always handled the demons of his painting with Mediterranean dexterity.

Any comparison is in vain and only denounces the limitations of those who resort to them in order to make up for verbal deficiency. But I have not been able to stop thinking about Malcolm Lowry while traversing Amat’s work born of his encounter with Mexico. Perhaps vertigo, identical certainty in the discoveries, the same devotion of man to powers that have always been familiar, but that he had

ruled out ever finding in a world like the one that we suffer, reigned over solely by the monsters of reason which Don Francisco de Goya, another delusional, alluded to.

There is a loving meticulousness in the narrative of Amat’s Mexican oeuvre, and a certainty in the discovery of the signs that indicate that his encounter with Mexico, and more precisely with Oaxaca, belongs to the remarkable order of that which is already written. As happens in such exceptional cases, Amat goes much further, reaching regions more recondite than those explored by some artists born in Mexico.

The use of the “boxes” with which Amat gives greater emphasis and transcendence to his discoveries is a clear and wise choice to me. In effect, a simple frame is no longer enough to define the space in which a painting resides. These boxes, reminiscent of those used by entomologists to store the precious specimens of their collection, give Amat’s creations a presence, and a much more eloquent and substantial validity than that provided by the traditional frame. These birds, these objects held there forever, announce their destiny with an unknown and unsettling permanence that reminds me of the effectiveness of certain moments perpetuated in poems by Rilke or Lubicz Milosz. Something like the underlying meanings of mystery, that other clarity that words can hardly even name precariously.

No one like Amat had ever achieved the hallucinatory discovery of a world of forms, colours and eerie relationships with such intensity and certainty. A world only vaguely perceived until now, as it was dispersed, hidden and elusive to the quotidian routine of our Mexican experience.

Deia Milocz :

On a collaboration… Joan Brossa (July 1979)

We see the branches of a fir tree, in a tender burst of green. Behind a Native Mexican blanket, the painter Frederic Amat piles up remains of columns and stones: taken together it looks like they should be made into a pyramid. Piercing colours provide the contrast. Skulls with top hats and straw hats (the eternal circle of death and birth). Men, immutable, have been the same for a thousand and one years; an identical tick-tack.

What good is courage? All this should have given us the subject for a collaborative project. I had a poetry book in my head, with manipulatable objects, an idea I was supposed to do with Antoni Tàpies years earlier, though it was never revived after that. Amat went back to Mexico and sent the first parts of the book to me. For my purposes, I chose the ones involving an action, all the while musing about how to get a literary start on our fine-tuned adventure.

In the end the initial idea held sway, to compose a sort of pamphlet to assist “readers” in putting the material together and channelling expression. (Later on it seemed unnecessary to me.)

When he my friend got back from Mexico, wearing a black cap and an herbal scarf around his waist, we began to carry the beams through the streets.

Yet the drop of water came from within. The dark mist blew in from the desert. With his rush matt and a cage, there was the painter, leaning over top of parchments. Why are there so many scattered skeletons when even the lambs know how to swim? What is art? We hear whips cracking in the air. An elderly Indian stares at us with oblique eyes. It’s true: the colonising Spaniards marked both the natives and livestock on their foreheads. Here you have a red-hot Yankee iron. A mountain made of craniums and stones. Last night they stole a horse. In this pan they used to wash the gold. Let’s swim towards the shore! The news found in this box is secret. Let’s clear our pockets of old papers. The detailed plan has disappeared into the depths of the sea. Even so, take the clock off and you’ll be able to check the time beneath the moonlight.

Every possibility looks equally attractive. I mean that there is a literary feature running through each one, with or without a lantern: in this way, for whomever might be observing, objects arouse pleasant associations. The very same thing could be said about certain fragments of music.

Theory of offerings... Fernando Savater (San Sebastián, 25-9-83)

And the girl who dances and the one who sleeps in a cardboard box of flowers.

Octavio Paz

There are things that cannot be defeated. Surprises of fire and snow, gestures without response, needles, rubbings, certain coarse expressions, other lights, two verses, that afternoon: gifts. Generosity affirms itself, even when shivering, and knows it amazes us. As it should.

The grave figures of this new tarot come forth, bearing their enigmatic, insolvent gifts. The enormous head pregnant with dreams does not submit, because it is thought that the humility of the giver has nothing to do with the morbid pride of feeling humiliated. Faces are trails.

The traces of forces without a voice but with an image, patient, stunned, clouded by the subtle gathering of so many myths. The fish head rounds off the genuflection of the skeleton and is also the divine triangle from where it observes, almost with resignation, the inconceivable eye of omnipotence. A dead god, kneeling, offering itself upwards. Where there cannot be anyone any longer.

The bull, so laden with booming symbols, welcomes the relief of homely slippers, while the horse that was its archetypal enemy and victim suspends its career to dedicate itself to the contemplation of what it is bearing. Held by the mysterious bond between their presents, like the hypnotised blonde girl who picked up on a tray the now extinguished head that Gustave Moreau saw in flames. Through gifts one learns the meaning of ashes.

In the background, the minotaur’s shadow is hardly in sight, with no bulges and performing presumably amatory rituals. A curtain—theatrical and also the one in the motel shower, through which Janet Leigh glimpsed the ambiguity of her killer—separates those labyrinthine passions forever. Prisoner and victim, curse and hostage, the unfortunate son of Minos has enough reasons to consider himself the patron saint and martyr of offerings. Asterion also ponders over his bovine pastimes in a huge and very complex box, in a deadly sweet tin, he also awaits the restrained delivery of the maidens. The conditions of gift and gifted are also present in him. He lives in the shadows, and no one should gaze upon his impossible face with impunity. He practices the caress with at first tender but then atrocious results, awaiting the liberator who will finally consummate his sacrifice. Reds, greens, pale golds, the mythical and aberrant silhouette pants over an immolated body, and it is probable that she does not dare open her eyes in the process.

Offering, donation, wrapping, casket, that which is kept on velvet, the container and the contained: secret. To live is to surrender and withdraw, to preserve oneself in surrender: thus the envelope that brings the letter of love, the fruit whose exocarp must be broken, the egg or the word. “I give when I take away and take away when giving,” said Dionysus, whose cruel and dizzying generosity merited being called “the gift-giving virtue” by Nietzsche.

And the subtle Georg Simmel points out: “The only people who can give themselves entirely and without risk are those who cannot give themselves entirely, because the richness of their soul consists in a constant renewal, so that after each offering new treasures are born, seeing as they have an inexhaustible spiritual wealth and cannot reveal it or give it away all at once. In the same way that a tree, when giving the entirety of a year’s harvest, does not compromise the next.” Offering is, as we may have always known, a privileged metaphor of life, but above all and more concretely, an unmistakable emblem of artistic endeavour. Because in art there is both gift and secret, we are granted something precious whose complex, naked simplicity we will never fully possess, and we experience through senses and emotions the inexhaustible bond that embraces us with what never ceases to be offered: the lights, the waters, the cortexes, the uncalculated.

Frederic Amat practices the voluptuous asceticism of his coarse materials, of his overlapping metonymic pigments, of his offerings that defy the rigid opposition between “inside” and “outside”, preserving at all times the foolish good faith and tireless determination of a child who plays, just as Stevenson advised his young artist.

This recital of veils and enigmas, that sometimes acquiesces with the baroque, leaves a taste of purity as a final aftertaste. Pure is this different form of painting, as is the offerable severity of the virgin in sacrifice, and the desolation of the minotaur that welcomes her. As the cold line of the lips on the severed head that is brought to us at the end of the feast is pure.

Secret Rituals of the Retina... Rafael Argullol (June 1992)

I recently read about a tribal king in Kenya who had banished the night in order to rid himself of the nightmares that troubled him when darkness fell. It was a lovely story of power and cowardice, with an apparently exotic ring to it. But it wasn’t really exotic at all. Regardless of whether it was actually true or not, I immediately saw that it offered the perfect metaphor of human behaviour. That tribal tyrant could, in fact, be any one of us.

We are used to banishing the night to avoid its scars—even though, in our heart of hearts, we know that the night is more powerful than the cloak of light we don to defend ourselves: it will always return. All we can do is repeat the operation: every day, like little versions of Sisyphus, we drag our shining boulder away from the feared darkness. And it is along this stretch of the path, before the light slips from us once again, that much of our culture and art has arisen. What we call civilisation is the fruit of our fear of the dark, in the same way that the expulsion of darkness—real or simulated—has been civilisation’s best-kept lie. Far from being mysteriously exotic, that Kenyan king revealed himself to be a truly civilised man who had shed any sign of savagery.

And yet we know that there are others—perhaps with a rare touch of the savage—who refuse to exile the night, who are ready and willing to explore its enigmas. Unfulfilled at living on the outer crust of things, they try to dig downwards, certain that treasure lies underground. They want to discover, albeit in fragments, the other side to existence. They are, one might say, potholers of emotions for whom worldly matter encases a wealth of presences to be rescued. They don’t renounce the light—they will have to return to it—but they are eager to venture into the universe of inner forms. The little Sisyphus, in the midst of his endeavour, becomes engrossed with the beckoning half-light, can make out bolder, riskier forms of culture and art. There, awareness has a hidden double that acts as master of ceremonies while the eye, willingly guided by the other retina, enters its secret rituals. Frederic Amat’s painting also lets itself be guided by the other retina, and becomes a reflection of its rituals. His is a painting of visions that come from an open wound in the world’s skin, through which disturbing images burst. Memory has wielded its scalpel, freeing the crouching dreams in the inner space of matter. But memory has also wielded the set square, distilling and arranging. As a result, Amat’s painting suggests raw concision.

I think this is a fair suggestion provided that it is seen as the culmination of a purifying, almost ascetic, process in which the final structure, of remarkable purity, contains a rich variety of testimonies. This conquest is the necessary consequence of reaching full artistic maturity. As a skilled potholer of emotions, Amat has learned how to find his bearings in the shapeless chaos of sensations. He has practised along the paths that crisscross the ground beneath our feet. Then, the treasure in his grasp, he has rigorously polished the precious stones, setting sombre, monstrous things in place as part of a precise constructive organisation: painting as a path to knowledge.

More precisely: the knowledge provided by Amat’s painting is the knowledge of a metamorphosis that marches ever onwards while matter and memory engage in a fertile play of mirrors. And so the rituals of this distinctive gaze slowly build their own mythical redoubt.

All art of any importance ends up creating its own myth, and therein lies its strength and transcendental power. For me, Amat’s towering achievement as a painter is how he has put forward his own myth. An ambitious step, admittedly, but it is precisely that—in a cultural scene where few steps are taken—that makes it such a valuable one.

Frederic Amat’s painting has not banished the night. It binds it in, together with its stigmas. This is not fearful but audacious painting, eager to stretch the tendons of the mind. The result is well worth the experience. Terrible things might be brought out into the light, but to our eyes, as spectators, they possess the mysterious beauty of all true discoveries.

Catalogue accompanying the exhibition at the Galeria Joan Prats / Artgràfic. Barcelona, June 1992.

Post Terrestrial Foods... Félix de Azúa (May 1996)

Catalogue of the exhibition by Frederic Amat at Galeria Cyprus Art (Sant Feliu de Boada, Girona, June-July 1996)

The oldest ceramic pieces we know of are fired clay vessels who had a double use: as funerary urns they would safeguard the ashes and bones of the dead; as domestic containers they held the essential foods of the living, namely grain, oil, wine, flour and salt.

Ceramic utensils are the most archaic remnant of our sedentary culture. Hunters, nomads and lightly-clad peoples used to carry a leather sack tied to their necks or waists, carrying the ashes of their dead ancestors; they did not need anything heftier to keep their memories intact. They did not store, nor did they bury; they only preserved the minimal amount of material goods for their volatile lifestyles. They moved like the very animals they were hunting, which they sought to resemble. They thought of themselves as unusual kin and perhaps decadent versions of them, not quite as powerful but more astute than those beastly beauties.

The sedentary peoples who took over from hunters in dominating the earth, put animals to the side and chose to make up part of another more abstract family, cosmic and immortal. Farmers were no longer the offspring of bison or fallow dear, of the mandrill or the cobra, but of stars, rivers and palm groves, of the moon that makes women’s wombs fruitful, or of seeds sewn like dormant virgins, poised to break through the layer of earth to greet the light.

Ceramics were conceived to gather these terrestrial yields: the kernel from the ear of corn, wine from grapes, oil from olive trees, dates from the palm tree. So if earthen vessels were the storage spaces where terrestrial foods were safeguarded, why would not they receive our ashes as well?

Clay returns to clay, and the body that grew, nourished by wine, kernels of corn and olive oil, returns to be buried in the ground that once fed it. The dead person is kept in a clay urn, like wine, oil or some other seed, whose mysterious rebirth could take place in some cosmic springtime. For the farmer’s plough, carving out deep grooves in the soil, the dead man was also a terrestrial foodstuff.

Six thousand years have gone by. No one could honestly claim we have not regressed, becoming once again a people of hunters. There is no question that we are no longer bound up with the stars and the moon. Now we have the capacity to fertilise female wombs in the laboratory, with frozen sperm.

Terrestrial foods now grow impregnated with chemical products, while the earth is toiled with machinery. You get grapes in December, cities do not know what night is, nutty seagulls follow the tractors, and lions at the zoo are most probably eating fish flour. We keep on burying people, but to continue to fatten up one of the best businesses ever known, funerary rites. We keep on burying people to keep others at work.

Yet we are not truly sedentary. While we hardly move at all, we then take great leaps across the oceans. We fly from Barcelona to Sydney, capture the sought prey and return to our caves, with their walls made of brick. Everything takes less than a week. Sometimes is not even necessary to move the body; we also hunt with an iguana tongue, using electronic circuits reaching out over the entire face of the earth. We hunt for the computer fly on the other end of the world, and we swallow it down. Planetary hunting has lasted all of a few seconds.

Perhaps we are the new predators, yet unlike those of old, we do not belong to any sort of animal family. We have developed a special ability to hunt for human beings, our favourite prey, which is also the prey we make the most money from. In large hunting expeditions, we kill humans in batches of a million. Meanwhile, the memory of the damage done hardly lasts more than a generation.

The ceramics we need today, therefore, cannot look at all like what was invented by those people who spent all their time looking at the sky and reading the stars, at the end of the Neolithic period.

Our ceramics also contain food, but it is our food, or what will be prepared for us in the near future. For this reason, it is rather odd.

Here is the sarcastic menu that Frederic Amat has conceived:

  1. Fifty spoon-extirpated eyes floating in their own juices, surrounded by a ring of dry ink.

  2. The head of Medusa shaking her serpents over a background of old snow. The spasms of the decapitated are referred to as “peristatic”, accompanied by a flux of organic humours.

  3. Twelve pieces of fruit rot over top of a greyish liquid. The sphincter is already showing signs of oncoming necrosis.

  4. Red tongues, swollen with blood, suck each other’s fluids out through black tubes.

  5. Pallid tongues, in contrast, are contemplated over a puddle on a muddy hole, cracked open from drought.

  6. Still-damp brains, dancing on a colour-drained lettuce from Chernobyl. They shiver before being cut into shavings.

  7. Guts swim in their own blood; sliced up a few days earlier, the manicured edges are now blackening. Inside there is the pulse of blue insects laying eggs.

  8. A bunch of gnawed bones pile up in the ecclesiastical cloverleaf of Saint Bavo’s. This is all that is left of the Mystic Lamb.

  9. Charcoaled frogs leap over a grill of steaming sand.

  10. The sterile prickly pear is bursting with air through the holes of non-existent figs. Soon it will pop with a mephitic stench.

  11. Clams and molluscs from the Mediterranean coast cut through the heavy yellow puddle with their mouths, looking for something to breathe, finding nothing.

Frederic Amat’s ceramics wear the halo of the prehistorical atavism that all great ceramic works accentuate, which is also where their authority lies. We are still dealing with fired earth, oxidised metals and polished enamels. Yet these vessels, which he has no problem calling “archaeological”, are suggestive of a perversely inverted archaeology, an archaeology of the future. If ceramics were invented to contain and show terrestrial foods, the ceramics of Frederic Amat are here to hold and display foods that are post-terrestrial.

Frederic Amat: twelve heads, twelve worlds, twelve intuitions... Jorge Wagensberg (2006)

Frederic Amat exhibition at Casa Luis Barragán (Mexico City, 2006)

In the void, where there isn’t even space, the most probable form to emerge is that of the minimum surface necessary to enclose volume: a sphere. Thus materialises the most symmetrical and perfect border that separates an inside from an outside. Then, as reality begins to fill up, the sphere becomes distorted and other forms forge their way towards the reality of the world. In this way, the cylinders of trunks and the crowns of foliage demonstrate how spherical something can be in a reality whose isotropy is broken by the verticality of gravity and the obliquity of sunlight. When there is no voluntary mobility and animals are still or drifting, when eating means simply colliding with food by chance, certain forms still remember the circular symmetry: jellyfish, sea urchins, etc. But feeding by chance is not a brilliant strategy. When uncertainty intensifies and competition increases, movement takes control. But to move by one’s own accord implies a direction of privilege, precisely the direction of movement. And the symmetry is broken. But movement is a highly complex feature. To drift or occupy a fixed position in space, information doesn’t have to be perceived or processed. Voluntary movement, however, requires a centre capable of all this and, in addition, of making decisions. Be it the brain. Be it a head. Without a head there is no movement—movement here being the voluntary and express capacity to generate change. Why movement? Well, to govern the exchange of matter, energy and information with the rest of the world.

A world of heads suggests a world of changes, necessary to persevere in the uncertainty. Frederic Amat has produced twelve heads, twelve movements, twelve changing worlds. Ceramic is ideal, as a material and a technique, to give an account of these worlds. Ceramic allows to mould in human time what natural selection sculpts in geological time. It’s the clay turning on the wheel while the artist’s fingers distort the circular symmetry. Circular symmetry is visible in the twelve pieces, but only as an ancestral relic. Upon the distortions of the turning emerge holes and protuberances whose function is to communicate the interior of the living being through one of its vital parts, its own exterior. It’s the artist’s scientific intuition. Twelve heads, twelve worlds, twelve intuitions.

There are heads of archaic beings that survive despite their simplicity. There are heads of progressive beings that, with their superfluous accessories, are ahead of their time and herald survival in the face of a currently unsuspected stroke of uncertainty. These are heads full of solutions to problems raised. There are heads of prematurely extinguished beings. There are heads of regressive beings that survive thanks to the stability of the world; these are beings that have reduced their elasticity, even their mobility, and who are again searching for isotropy. There are beings who have specialised in reproduction, in seducing and being seduced, in filling their surroundings with irresistible effluvia. There are heads that specialise in being penetrated, and heads designed to penetrate. There are heads that seem to give up everything except wondering about the reality of the world, and heads that seem to give up nothing. There are heads, stuffed with sensors, alert to the slightest vibrations in their surroundings, and heads of over-protected beings, perhaps underground or immersed in populations of many individuals indifferent to the whims of external fluctuation. All these worlds exist not only in the totality of the animal kingdom. They also exist, on another scale, within the whole of human beings. There’s no vital function that isn’t consecrated by a stimulus. Thus hunger in relation to nutrition, thirst in relation to hydration, libido in relation to reproduction, pain in relation to health, curiosity in relation to knowledge, etc. All this, at the limit, with a common underlying layer: pleasure. Perhaps it’s the concept that’s most shared by all the heads that have emerged in the reality of this world, that’s most shared by the heads of humans, and that’s most shared by these twelve pieces by Frederic Amat.

that have not yet been

Frederic Amat, the Art of Signs... Emili Teixidor (winter 2011)

Mètode magazine, no. 72 (University of Valencia, winter 2011)

Everything I have to say about Frederic Amat and his work has two clearly differentiated parts. The first is totally subjective and biased because of the affection I feel for him, as I know him well and I have seen him grow as a person and an artist. I had him at school since when he first began until the end of his secondary studies, as an adolescent. Besides this, he lived in a house right across the street from the school, and at night, from my residence near the school building, I could see his studio or bedroom light on: one day I even asked him what he was doing up so late at night, and he told me he was drawing and painting. Later, when his passion for painting was clear to me, I recommended him to a good friend who was also director of the Teatre Lliure, the renowned artist Fabià Puigserver, so that he could at least learn to prepare theatre sets, since a painter’s career is often long and burdensome. All I can say is that when Frederic decided to part ways and look for new possibilities after years apprenticing with him, Fabià asked me if I could send him “another guy like Frederic Amat”. But that is a different story altogether.

Frederic’s solid artistic calling was confirmed for me by the fact that even when he was doing stage work, spending time near theatre people, he was never tempted to take up the acting profession. He was untouched by the lesser or greater degree of vanity, by the need to feed the ego, that typifies younger adults: he was passionate about forms and colours, nothing more. His was a vocation, a dedication, that he had decided on from day one, from those first moments sitting near a glowing window with the falling of night. On a personal level Frederic is like a close and dear relative, he’s a friend who is always near, however far away he might be physically. Then there is the second part of the story, which is his art, his works. I am not an art critic and his paintings and printmaking, in general terms, have a special effect on me; they are like a kind of glow, like a new path opening up before me, which is something I find with only a few artists, those I particularly like of course. In this regard I try to be objective. The creative work of Amat is unusual, with his signs and symbols, with the way he combines forms and colours. It is “fantastic”, in the sense of fantasy-filled and suggestive; it is the path to a new world, whose secret codes and pending enigmas are offered to us by the artist. Every new work of art is like an entire universe waiting to be discovered, although sometimes it is only present in the marks the mystery has left behind. Truth, goodness and beauty—they are always in hiding, calling out to be discovered. With Frederic Amat’s passing through this world, our eyes have become used to looking at everything in a different way, with an altered perspective. So much life, and so many signs to live it by!