Conceptual Artist Irene Grau on her Spanish Heritage and the Weight of Old Masters

Spanish artist Irene Grau lives and works in Santiago de Compostela, a significant city in Spanish and European history: It’s the end of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route. Fittingly, last year in Madrid, she staged the exhibition “Lo que importaba estaba en la línea, no en el extremo (What mattered was in the line, not in the extreme),” a phrase she borrowed from a work of fiction by Argentine writer César Aira. For the conceptual artist, that line could be history, the personal or cultural journey that leads to now and beyond.

This month, Grau is one of five artists featured in “terreno áspero | rugged terrain,” an exhibition at Beta Pictoris Gallery/Maus Contemporary in Birmingham, Alabama. The show grapples, in part, with the complex relationship between contemporary Spanish artists and Old Masters like Picasso, Goya, and Velázquez. Midway through the show, we caught up with Grau to talk about Spanish cultural identity, color perception, and using Google Earth as a creative tool.

Artsy: Tell me about your own relationship with Spanish classic masters like Picasso, Goya, and Velázquez? To what extent is your Spanish heritage an influence in your practice?

Irene Grau: Without any doubt, Velázquez, Goya, or Picasso are in Spanish artists’ collective memory, but not only Spanish. As a matter of fact, their influence goes beyond any geographical boundary. This is a very broad matter—it is as difficult as asking how Felipe IV [king of Spain from 1605 to 1665] influences the everyday life of Spaniards. I think we just integrate, naturally, that cultural heritage into our personal baggage and build our own reality from there. It is just part of who we are; it is difficult to discern anything clearly.

Artsy: Your doctoral thesis is entitled “The Painter on the Road,” and you live and work in Santiago de Compostela, the terminus of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route. Is there a connection? How does travel factor into your life and work?

Grau: There is always a connection. I was finishing my thesis while moving to Santiago de Compostela, but of course that is not the reason why I decided to move to Santiago. Walking and itineraries have a strong presence in my work. Movement, and how it affects our perception, directly relates to my personal understanding of painting. Painting not as an interruption, but something that establishes a continuous relationship in and with its own context.

Artsy: You’re deeply engaged with the perception of color and the power of color to transform space. What prompted this interest and how do you explore it in your work?

Grau: My methodology focuses on color as a transforming agent of space, and its perception. My visual concern and artistic exploration always stem from a direct relationship with landscape, context, and architectural space. My approach to work is from painting, specifically from monochrome painting, and, in a broad sense, understanding that monochrome painting has a historical relationship with landscape, and how this relation is constantly changing. Even now, there are numerous connections between monochrome painting and everyday life, from markings on parking lots and roads to signs and markers, etc. All these applications of paint (and painting) are essentially monochromatic by function, and they directly relate to the idea of itinerary and orientation: walking, driving, being, and seeing “on the road.”

Artsy: Walk us through Green Stretcher on a Pink Wall (2014/16). What were your inspirations for creating this particular piece?

Grau: In this work, a stretcher (its structural inside elements painted green) was set perpendicularly against the pink wall of an abandoned house in the middle of the forest of La Vallesa, near Valencia, Spain, in February 2014. The placement of the green stretcher was documented using an aerial image from Google Earth. This was my first outdoor experiment of “taking the painting for a walk.” We could see the lime green of the stretcher against the faded purplish-pink as a kind of study in complementary colors, the presence of both chromatic elements being reaffirmed in that contrast. But beyond that, the question revolved around what happens if I introduce real space and specific context in that chromatic relationship. So, for me, that was a first step and a key work from which I started to work with the idea of displacement in painting.

Artsy: You've been described as a conceptual plenairist, stating that your work is “what remains” of a wider experience. What does that mean exactly?

Grau: Throughout the 19th century, the plenairist painters developed a new way of understanding the painting process, in which a landscape is painted from landscape itself—a process which already included walking or displacement. Perhaps my journey is a kind of reverse trip, in which I simply return the painting to the landscape. In all of this, there is a return to the source, a return to that from which landscape emerges. I think about walking in painting and how that, as an experience, can be transmitted to the viewer. Transmitting an experience may well lack concrete information, yet I try to leave enough clues to the viewer to allow access through process, intervention, and a photographic document thereof, in order to visually and conceptually understand the modus operandi and artistic questioning, as well as its artistic concerns.


—Bridget Gleeson


terreno áspero | rugged terrain” is on view at Beta Pictoris Gallery/Maus Contemporary, Birmingham, Alabama, Oct. 21–Dec. 30, 2016.

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