Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Embodied Meanings: The Haunting Worlds of Joseba Eskubi

Untitled #1, 2016, by Joseba Eskubi. (20 x 29 cm, acrylic).

"He who fights with monsters should be careful. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.” Friedrich Nietzsche, Aphorism 146, Beyond Good and Evil

This artist’s visions are almost indescribable. But not quite. His style used to be known somewhat as biomorphic abstraction. But not quite. The Spaniard Joseba Eskubi works with soft, amorphous and organic forms in a universe of perpetual decay, entropy, erosion and healing. They are exquisitely beautiful as well as terrifying. Perhaps all the most beautiful paintings, when it comes right down to it, are also closely aligned with terror. His paintings appear to occupy a surreal world. And yet they are nonetheless accurate depictions of the realms and domains we all travel to in dreams. His work is often focused on a single organic figure which appears to be filled with dark secrets, low, hidden movements and peculiar metamorphoses, and they are often overflowing with the kind of tension which arises from staring frequently into the abyss. In fact, perhaps, his charming little diagrams are maybe the way the abyss sees us when it stares back.

His works are created with drastically mixed yet harmoniously playful media -- oil painting, acrylics, plasticine, photography -- and often all merged into a single collaborative ballet of sensual abandon.

The hands of Eskubi hold a mysterious object, which could be moldy bread, containing hallucinatory imagery of the sort that the poet William Blake may have encountered while having his breakfast coffee. Such surreal organic materials often seem to yield the surpassingly seductive and strangely beautiful inherent imagery investigated by this talented phenomenologist of the unseen. He is a citizen of an invisible city situated on an invisible landscape. Luckily his passport still permits him to travel freely in our dreams.

Untitled #3.

As I learned one sultry afternoon in 1969, there is a huge difference between the hallucinogenic (that substance which induces imaginary images) and the hallucinatory (the odd sensation that we are in fact witnessing imaginary imagery) simply by virtue of a highly strung sensory apparatus.

While many people find the works of several artists, such as Sylvie Cliché, Remy van den Abeele and Thierry Kuntz (about whom I have also written in Critics At Large), to be surrealist, that term is not exactly accurate when applied to their spooky but elegant compositions, even though they are somewhat surreal in their content and execution. That term, however, which can only technically be applied to works in the approximately post-Dada 1924-1956 period, doesn’t quite fit the strongly evocative and provocative dreams and reveries shared by these artists along with Joseba Eskubi. If I can find a suitable term after more lengthy reflection on their arresting and unnerving subject matter (embodiment) I will be happy to share it. For the time being, I’m toying with calling them organic meditations, in the absence of something more in keeping with their semblance of psychologically charged matter. Abeele in particular seems like an exotic cousin to Eskubi’s own journeys into the immaterial realms of corporal abandonment writ large.

Untitled #4 (left), Untitled #5 (right).
Untitled #6 (left), Untitled #7 (right).
Untitled #8 (left), Untitled #9 (right).

The above sequence of untitled pieces 4-9 by Eskubi gives a good and clear indication of what I’m driving at; the fact is that the only way to adequately describe the impact of such a delirious sensual narrative of sub-atomic bereavement might be to resort of the kind of symbolist poetry practiced by figures such as Rimbaud and Baudelaire. They could also be diagrams for David Lynch’s dark masterpiece Eraserhead. This might still be inadequate, though I would, of course, love to see Joseba’s illustrations for a book such as Arthur’s The Drunken Boat, Illuminations, or A Season in Hell. He might also just as profitably be pressed into service to illustrate Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy or Swift’s "A Modest Proposal" as well, or perhaps even Rabelais’ breathtaking Gargantua and Pantagreul. You get the general idea, I’m sure.

By far the most compelling, or should I say even more captivating, are Eskubi’s unnerving corporate mergers of drawing, painting, photography and sculpture: the evanescent domain of his mixed-media collages which are hand-tinted or painted over photographically derived imagery. These peculiar little creations are even more stunning in their hybrid qualities of interstitial and intermedia improvisations. They rest at the quivering edge of waking up and falling asleep: they are literally oneric poems of immediacy and aleatory visual novels of superbly crafted charm and decadence. Among his most startling, gorgeous, thought-provoking and unnerving works are those that really do bridge a gap he has invented in the traditional media formats (some of which would indeed make for mesmerizing short animated films, come to think of it), and which alert us to a hidden dream world concealed directly in front of our everyday lives and dramas.

Joseba Eskubi, Untitled 10 (mixed media, painting on photo, 2017).

When I’m not referring to them as what they most feel like to me, embodied meanings (even though their meaning in a rational sense may be totally obscure), I’ll often become familiar with them as a family of exotic thingnesses. Sometimes one can also just simply refer to them as formal, if bizarre, objects. Therefore, for instance, Objects 10-14 have a somewhat gothic thingness that might make them feel at home in a Bram Stoker novel, or again, as set designs in a David Lynch film, perhaps. But they don’t have the self-consciously contrived weirdness that Lynch most recently displayed in his (to me) not very successful sequel to Twin Peaks, but rather more like the innocent purity of the great film director Tod Browning, whose astonishing follow-up to his Dracula film, Freaks, was an occupant in a domain without any even remotely comparable inhabitants. Some might even be at home on the sets of the frenzied films of the Brothers Quay.

Untitled #11 (left), Untitled #12 (right).

So it is with Eskubi’s melancholy miniature melodramas: they occupy a special place in the history of painting, as it collides headlong with new and technologically advanced forms of image-making. They are peaceful, if disturbing, dances with the two main romantic partners in art history: the content provider and the delivery system. Except that in the case of the Bilbao-based Eskubi, there is a seamless and harmonious oneness to the relationship between the historical competition of form and content which appears utterly resolved, no matter how disquieting their source imagery may feel.

What amazes me is the fact that he has yet to acquire a North American-based art dealer willing to tackle his remarkably fresh take on biomorphic abstraction and give him the kind of sensitively curated theatre setting they so richly deserve. If possible, I hope to make some small contribution to changing that, however, by curating a selection of his works in a suitable museum of dark dreams. This would require a location befitting the magically enchanting places his embodied meanings allow us to travel towards, even if we never actually arrive on their solid shores and instead remain forever at sea with their trenchant and nuanced vistas.

And it might only be when we see a whole family portrait of Eskubi’s exotic embodiments, as in a studio installation such as this one, that we can get the true fervour of the feeling his work imparts. Not only does the abyss gaze back at us when we gaze into its depths, or even perhaps its heights, but in the case of this unique painter, the abyss also smiles back at us.

Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Cinematheque. His current work in progress is a new book called Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, being released by Backbeat Books in Spring 2018.

1 comment:

  1. Brilliant work, Donald Brackett. Coming to terms of endearment to terror in which to describe Joseba Eskubi's Art is profoundly difficult. You have painted a phenomenal Portrait here. Bravo.
    Archetypal images, roles, the land itself: from which one is raised or razed, being embodied in an Artist's psyche play out their own dreamscapes in Works for us to wander. The depths of Abyss unknown; it is an act of bravery to refract impermanence as it attracts back, indeed.
    Your naming of this impossibly definable energy of Joseba Eskubi's as "Organic Meditations" is blissfully appropriate to me. He is like no other. We may only have context in understanding, if one so chooses to classify, by contrast via comparison. You have illuminated this brilliantly here. May the abyss smile back at you.
    Thank you for bringing much needed attention to his work. Write on!