Art: The Truth in the Details

A rare show by the peerless realist Antonio Lopez Garcia

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There are some artists whose work compels assent almost as soon as you see it. Its seriousness announces itself in precision, gravity, lack of obvious fluidity; in a fastidiousness that could be modesty but is in fact the only kind of aesthetic pride that matters and lasts; in a respect for the eye's power to surprise the mind, refracted through an intense engagement with tradition. Everything, in short, that is denied by the tyranny of the neo.

One of the few living painters of whom this seems to be true is Antonio Lopez Garcia, whose paintings, drawings and sculpture are currently on view at the Marlborough Gallery in New York City. At 50, Lopez bears a large reputation in his native Spain and has become (no avoiding the term) a cult figure among younger Madrid painters. In New York, whose sense of current European art can be irritatingly provincial, he is scarcely known at all. The main reason for this--apart from the difficulty some people have in judging serious figurative painting and distinguishing it from common illustration--is that Lopez works with fanatical slowness, so his total oeuvre is small. He has had only nine one-man shows in his life, and the last one in New York was in 1968. It is unlikely that a better chance to see a quantity of his work together will come up soon.

The flavor of Lopez's art is peculiar and difficult to describe in the abstract. A good starting point is his small still life of a rabbit on a plate, dated 1972. It is just that, and no more: a rabbit skinned for roasting by a Spanish butcher, with its head left on; a glass plate with a scalloped edge; a kitchen table of pine covered with old cream paint, now scarred and stained, with bits of dark wood showing through; a band of gray wall with a mauve undercast. The table occupies a little over two-thirds of the depth of the painting, the wall the rest, and the corpse is huddled not quite in the center of the table. These slight departures from absolute regularity give the centered, single image a murmur, no more, of instability. The scheme is one of the most widely known in Spanish painting: the tradition of the bodegon, or kitchen still life, the isolated object against a plain field, brought to its fullest intensity by Zurbaran and Sanchez Cotan in the early 17th century. Echoes of the bodegones continued in Spanish art for hundreds of years; they could still be seen in Picasso's cubist still lifes. But Lopez's skinned rabbit goes straight back to the source, taking in a vivid memory of Goya's still lifes along the way.

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