Painting as a reflection of a life
The preparation of this exhibition, which has enabled us to delve into the pictorial work of Josep Niebla from a general perspective, has confirmed what we have often been able to sense: that his career has been a stubborn endeavour to explain to us, through painting, everything he has struggled with inside him. Niebla is a visceral artist for whom it is not enough to draw well, paint well or produce a work which is pleasing to his audience or the critics. He is more ambitious and always strives to go further in terms of technique and argument, which is why most of his works appear overpowering to us, with a forcefulness reaching the very depths of our sensitivity.
Obsessed by working with images, as a young man he decided to train in fine arts, which he did first in Tetouan (Morocco), where he was born in 1945, and then in Seville, the city where his family settled a few years later and where he lived until 1962, when he moved to Catalonia, continuing to study and further his knowledge. The skills he acquired enabled him to evolve and overcome academic techniques to formulate his own iconographic language which, over the years, has assumed different wordings, without it losing the genuineness of an artist who fights and struggles to be himself, committed to the society he has found himself in, identifying in particular with ideological and social contexts which break down conventions.
It is interesting to note that Niebla has always believed in painting in of itself, in such a way that when deconstructive, conceptual, minimalist or performance movement have arisen, he has not given up; he has further explored the semantic potential of painting, a resource he has always employed and with which he produced the paintings in his first expressionist stage, followed by another we might call critical realism, in which he made engravings considered akin to the social demands made by the 60’s art group Estampa Popular. Later, he began several lines of work, to which he would often return: large-scale seascapes capturing the bravura of the sea, purely abstract paintings with predominant gesture, impulsive brushstrokes, colour and material fields, and a specific development of the letters of the alphabet as modulable, transformable elements. This line of work began with the “Diguem no” in the style of Raimon, which won first prize at the 1st International Biennial of Contemporary Painting held in Barcelona in 1975. This award popularised Niebla on the Catalan arts’ scene and marked the beginning of a style that had multiple variables, what the Americans call a hard edge (with well-defined limits) but also a soft edge (without specific limits), or in other words, pictorial resources which utilise both delimited geometrical elements and blurred colour fields. Perhaps it is in these transitions where Niebla makes the most powerful impact in his painting, whether they be small-format surfaces (1 m²) or very large ones (between 5 m² and 8 m²).
Niebla is a painter who has seen a lot of paintings and reflected on the potential of painting and the work of the great abstract artists (Dubuffet, Matta, Wols, Appel, Clavé, Tàpies, Hartung, Pollock and de Kooning), who he has always admired, condensing them in a very personal Mediterranean spirit, the same spirit which led to him deciding to settle in the Empordà, a region where he painted canvases which would become his crowning achievements, works in which there is always a compositional complexity, a struggle between forces, an evident tension to ensure they are never repetitive, neither in his more abstract pieces nor in his seas, seeking the dynamism of the water, not the static.
This pictorial facet is not the only one he develops, because he also formulates other, equally important, ones, such as that of demanding change and on occasions, clearly protesting against the status quo. He is concerned with social demands, the existentialist thinkers, the theatre of the absurd, critical cinema, social literature and, above all, the oppression of dictatorships. And he rails and protests against them, not with the facile discourse of socialist realism, but by reinforcing his abstract and symbolic language, in which he speaks of Mao, Che Guevara, Pinochet, Trade Unions... and Africa. Because Niebla does not live on the outskirts of this world; he lives immersed in it, as can be seen in the titles of his works and the headlines and captions of newspapers he transforms into paintings of vindication.
However, we cannot reduce Niebla’s painting to painting for painting’s sake and protest painting, because it all has a metaphysical background, responding to a debate between life and death, a rethinking of human suffering, the landscape, the cosmos and the transience of everything we see and experience. In fact, paintings such as D’amor i soledat (1988), Últim record (1991) and Déu no sap, Déu no contesta (2009) are true Kierkegaardian lamentations or questions from Job to God, delving into the very meaning of life.
Daniel Giralt-Miracle, curator