The first images of Mariana Escribano’s work that I saw reminded me of Gerhard Richter’s paintings—there were layers of paint, and tones of greens and greys, laid down over many days, and subtleties of color that made me want to go up and touch the paintings, to look at the brush strokes. There was a raw physicality to the paintings. But this was in Escribano’s pure abstract painting days, before she began to incorporate figures, before she found the path that had always been circling beneath the canvases, an interweaving of abstract and figurative.
Escribano once told me that if a painting is good, every centimeter should seem like it was painted carefully with intentionality. The “background” to her paintings in the series you are looking at, called Home, shows that precision, precisely because the background is slowly layered. Bright colors are painted on first, with the energy of the moment, quickly placed around the canvas, but then they are covered over, again and again, smushed and hidden, until only the faint suggestion of the colors remains, flecks of color which illuminate, sometimes softly in the background, other times more powerfully, but always seeping through, hinted at, to show that the texture of the painting matters—that every centimeter of the canvas matters.
Twenty years ago, Escribano often left her canvases with that subtle feeling—sometimes adding wax to alter the shine of the paint, or sometimes using toilet paper to absorb paint and to create fine textures, such as the interior of a square only slightly less dark than the border. The paintings were strictly abstract, cousins to the work of Sean Scully and sometimes, even, as minimally painted as the work of Rothko. Even in this earliest work of Escribano, she was already playing around with a grid, with squares, repeated. The sense of unexpected depth, through nothing more than layering of paint, rather than a sense of perspective lines, was also present. It took the next series to begin to incorporate the outside world directly into her art.
In a series called AE—Anuncios Espectaculares (or, in English, Spectacular Advertisements), she began to paint the surroundings of the billboards of her native Mexico City. She noticed that the fragments of previous advertisements formed an abstract grid, with strips of colors, but also contained fragments of phone numbers for the people who managed the ads when they were between owners, or small pieces of the original ads, forgotten and unremoved. With realist precision, she painted the abstract qualities of these billboards, occasionally adding a fragment of graffitied text or typography that remained on the forgotten billboard spaces.
Understanding that her work could now be influenced by her surroundings, she saw a truck with metal tubes, one day, and the repeated circles of the ends of the tubes led her to switch from squares to circles, painting a series called Pearl, which radiated with the whites and bright colors of iridescent pearls. Yet her work had moved away from figures, again, as if in a tug of war, between her abstract origins and her recognition that her surroundings were a central part of her work.
I mention this context, because it seems essential for understanding what—to me—is truly original about Escribano’s work. She has fused the world of figurative painting with the world of abstract painting. In her painting of a red cardinal, for example, the presence of a bird is clear, but it is broken up into pieces, repeated and cut so many times that the figure becomes fairly abstract, itself. Escribano refuses to belong to one world or to the other—to the labels of abstract or figurative painter.
The effect on the viewer is to show the way that what is familiar—the shape of a house, for example—may be less familiar when broken up, varied, or repeated multiple times. What is a house? Is it so clearly understood? Can it be understood just by its shape? Or does the very silhouette of a house indicate just how much is hidden behind what we think is home? There is a sense of mystery caused by the breaking down of iconic symbols such as a home. If one of the most basic words we know—home—is somehow opaque, cut off, or mysterious, in its representation, then how can we be sure we know so clearly other essential words such as family, mother, or father? Escribano’s work invites you to look into them to see what hidden meaning might be exposed by basic symbols such as birds or houses, all the while indicating, without sorrow or anger, that it might be impossible to fully understand the symbol or the painting.
It is precisely this feeling of lingering unknowability—which strikes me as being highly present in the engraving of the black silhouette of a house within a house, within a house—that is the power of Escribano’s art. Just as abstract art creates a mood, there is a mood to the silhouettes, to the fragments and to the sensation of being somehow cut off from the figures that gives the feeling of Escribano’s work and that unifies the abstract with the figurative elements.
Matfield Green KS, April 2015