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Some mural installations by Mónica Bengoa, largely collected in this book and retrospective exhibition, respond differently to the challenge of reproducing an image by means of materials that oppose resistance to said task[1]. This resistance is mainly given by the fact these materials cannot be crushed nor reduced during the elaboration process; on the contrary, all of them maintain their unit shape and character, even once the work is concluded. The construction of the image by means of these units and the inevitable formation of interstices between them interrupt the continuity of shapes, but at a more elemental level they make a fluent graduation of colors impossible.

Josef Albers’ course in color was designed and systemized over eighty years ago already[2], despite which the artists who currently teach it at the different Chilean art schools adjust quite closely to the model. We may find, in any case, some variations in the teaching methodology that turn out to be particularly significant. There are those who prefer mixing colors using paint, despite that in the book the use of colored pieces of paper is insisted upon. And, in turn, there are those dedicated to elaborating sophisticated electronic mechanisms in order to confirm attained objectives in determined exercises. And there are those who even opt for excluding the final exam stipulated by Albers himself, consisting in the reproduction or interpretation of a fairly well known painting by means of sticking colored paper to a lined cardboard. An artist and color course teacher incorporated the following obligatory basis: the painting to be reproduced with colored pieces of paper during the final exam had to be made before 1911. “Why do you think it has to be from before 1911?” he asks his students when giving instructions for the exam. “Because that is the year Vasily Kandinsky executed his first abstract watercolor”, he answers his own question.

At the time, that restriction quite made sense to me, I myself have incorporated it in my version of the course. In effect, starting from pictorial abstraction, understood as the artistic avant-garde movement that opened the possibility of dispensing with the representation of a recognizable model, color in painting ceases to be a medium to go on to be an issue in itself. But, students could ask, “What relation does that have with the assignment?” My answer would be that, in more concrete terms, abandoning the representation of a recognizable model may also lead to abandoning the illusory representation of volume and space, which is often obtained through color or tone graduation, the so called “light and shadow”. In abstract painting, therefore, instead of that tonal graduation we usually find plain color surfaces, which is consistent with the prominence said element has been given. Working from an abstract painting or even from figurative painting subsequent to abstraction –as an Alex Katz painting perhaps– hinders students from confronting one of the greater difficulties of the exercise: achieving the effect of a color graduation, the illusion of an uninterrupted change from one determined color to another, but through a procedure completely adverse to said purposes.

Even if Mónica Bengoa’s mural installations are the result of a similar operation, they do not start from a recent painting belonging to the canon of the history of art, like the students in Albers’ color course exam, but from photographs of everyday spaces and objects taken by her. Generally the difficulty of reproducing a photograph is even greater than the difficulty of reproducing a painting, even when it is a painting prior to an aforementioned milestone of abstraction. In photography the variety of tones is far greater than in painting, given the technical possibilities of the medium that amazed people so much at the time of its invention and on which so much theory has been generated since then. To not go any further, in one of Rosalind Krauss’ essays on photography, the theorist points out that the sharpness of the first daguerreotypes taught the painters at the time the poorness of their own visual perception, and consequently, the limitations of their own artistic medium[3]. But perhaps it would be reasonable, at this point, to ask ourselves what makes us suppose that a gigantic mural made out of paper napkins[4] is based on a photograph and not a painting, drawing or even the direct observation of the model. The apparently anodyne theme of this napkin mural installation –a body of toys scattered on the floor under a half unmade bed– remits to a certain already agreed on idea on what everyday life is. But this theme also remits to a certain type of image, which the artist has expressly dedicated to capturing in recent years: amateur or domestic photography, whose history goes back to the invention and commercialization of portable cameras. I used to think that, after initial photographic research on daily activities, the everyday meaning in the work of Mónica Bengoa was mainly aimed at generating a contrast with her methodical and, to a certain degree, impersonal work system. In light of this reflection I now think that, in reality, that which is everyday in her murals fulfills a different function: being a testimony of their photographic origin, and with it the particularities of their elaboration process.

In the Algunas consideraciones sobre los insectos: Abeja de antenas largas (Some considerations on insects: Long-horned Bee (Eucera longicornis), 2010) felt mural, what would seem to be an open encyclopedia is represented. In the bottom left section we find a bee frontally and sideways, as animal and vegetable species have usually been represented in science books since remote times. Its outlines are quite sharply defined, even in the inner portion of its translucent wings. This definition is achieved by means of a clear delimitation of shapes and a contrasted use of dark tones on a light background. The words surrounding the bee –and which we may suppose are referred to it– are also sharp in their closeness, but as they move away they start becoming more diffuse. It is, therefore, about an image as an in-focus zone in which the bee is found (also pointed out in this work’s sub heading), and an out of focus zone corresponding to the rest of the book. Now, beyond the focus and soft focus in this image before its photographic origin –as the everyday motif on the wall of napkins– also states an issue competent to all image reproduction. Not only the motifs but also the procedures of an image medium such as photography can be reproduced in another one. The point is finding out how.

During these murals’ set up, therefore, together with the image, a technical feat making its definition possible is displayed. And I think that display is, in this case, such an appropriate as well as suggestive term: the iridescent peacock feathers are displayed to amaze us, as the cards of a deck are displayed in order to reveal the trick, the game. In this case the display experience –also stunning and revealing– is practically simultaneous for Mónica Bengoa and us. The scale of these works makes it impossible for the artist to gradually contemplate them during the process; she is only capable of observing one of its parts separately. The translation of each of these colors is, therefore, realized in isolation. It could well occur that at the moment of uniting each of the parts that the colors do not interact as expected. I am thinking of a story Raúl Ruiz tells us –which has more than one variant– about two painting schools of an undetermined country, forced to solely represent the head of state. Both schools decide to elaborate their portrait in parts, as if they were an enormous jigsaw puzzle. But, as the painters of the first school keep to the model, the painters from the second school add small lines on the way. Only in the end they realize they have eliminated all trace of the president, instead obtaining a landscape painting[5]. Before beginning, the artist elaborates a kind of guide, due to which the construction of her murals does not suffer the same fait. But, she also makes sure that no concerns that may have appeared on the way intervene in the result; no brush stroke turning a portrait into a landscape. To this end, she analyzes and decomposes the referential image in different zones, according to colors and tones present in it, but also specially according to the color she is about to work with. With the idea of an art that turns the process into the work, Mónica Bengoa exhibited six of those “construction plans” at the Sala Gasco gallery in 2009, one of which is included in this retrospective: musca domestica (fly). Even if another one of exhibited plans was used for the elaboration of an image made out of dyed thistles, musca domestica, however, never fulfilled that function. The other guide the artist sometimes elaborates is a collection of all the color samples available according to the material. I cannot avoid imagining this restricted “color chart” as a body of cards with one or two box and inscription columns, so meticulous and colorful they would also deserve to be exhibited. The interesting thing, though, is that as the artist advances with the work, she no longer needs to consult any guide, being capable of immediately identifying what color corresponds to each zone. In other words, the repeated exercise of translating a color to another, end up turning the artist herself into a translation program. A capability acquired during the process, practically impossible to pass onto another person, and which certainly questions the mechanical character of this type or labor.

It is not easy to reproduce a photographic image with felt, sackcloth, thread or napkins for a fairly evident reason. As opposed to pictorial pigment, these materials cannot be mixed among themselves to obtain other colors. This forces the artist to work only and exclusively with factory default colors or, in the best of cases, obtaining other colors or tones by a strategic disposition in which a visual effect is generated. At the beginning of this text I pointed out there are those who state that the abstraction and autonomy of the art piece that derived from it had had a consideration of color as a problem as a consequence. A consideration of that kind makes it possible, among other things, to value color in itself, deprived of the meaning attributed by spiritual or scientific theories for a long time considered immutable and everlasting. But, to a lesser degree, it also makes it possible to value color as such and, as it is factory standard, as a kind of ready-made[6]. We may find a not so industrial application of this principle in the more recent works of this exhibition. The referent is a photograph of a staggered plantation in northern Portugal. The material used for its representation is sackcloth, a traditional cloth with which monks in the region used to dress. The colors used correspond to the three types of sheep from which wool was obtained: pearled white (branco pérola), ash grey (cinza) and maroon (castanho), together with another two colors obtained by the mix of the already mentioned colors. The piece is, in fact, titled according to them: Cinco cores: branco pérola, cinza claro, sarrubeco claro, sarrubeco, castanho (five colors: pearled white, white ash, natural color, marroon). Now, I would not venture pointing out here if in Mónica Bengoa’s case chromatic restriction is the cause or the result of the choice of materials. What I can say is that it again evokes Perec’s literary operations –who, to not go any further, wrote a novel in French without using the letter e– but above all the aforementioned Albers colored paper exercises, as Bengoa herself points out in an article so lucid any other reflection to that respect is practically unnecessary[7].

Perhaps the chromatic restriction is less evident in the case of the mural made of color pencil drawn napkins. Pencils can certainly be mixed to obtain different colors and graduating their intensity to achieve different tones, as Germán Arestizábal’s awesome drawings evidence. But the artist here radically opts for not mixing them, which confirms that chromatic restriction in her work is absolutely voluntary. Pencils are sold in boxes of six, twelve, twenty-four, forty and forty-eight or more. While some pencils are almost not used, since their colors are not present in the original image, others turn out to be insufficient –as the green shade pencils for the realization of a napkin mural titled, precisely, the color of the garden. The solution devised by the artist was acquiring pencils of different brands, which leads us to a major discovery. The different pencil brands generally have the same variety of colors, but each brand’s colors are different among themselves. This is, a blue Faber pencil, for example, is not the same blue of a Caran d´Ache one. If we compare two pencils of the same color but of a different brand, one usually is more or less saturated, or more or less opaque than the other. Taste functions in somehow the same way. One brand’s pistachio ice cream is not the same than another brand’s pistachio ice cream. And yet, while we are used to those differences in a taste or flavor –without going any further, it is based on them we go on to acquire our preferences– we are surprised that there is more than one variation of a same color, as if colors were not susceptible to the objective conditions in which they manifest, as if they only existed on an ideal plane.

I think the work of Mónica Bengoa charges at that ideal consideration of color when giving it a material identity (the particular color of the pencil, felt, thread or sackcloth), but also a palpable and visible body. The material quality of a pencil lead may be unperceivable, but the napkin itself is expressed in all of its delicacy by a slight inferior right fold through which one manages to see a part of the wall on which it is subtlety adhered onto. On the other side, in the colored felt murals they are not only clearly separated by zones, but are also differentiated among themselves according to their thickness. In Algunas consideraciones sobre los insectos: Abeja de antenas largas (Eucera longicornis), for example, the color specks with which the artist gives account of the hairy texture of the bee’s body vary according to tone: the lighter ones are closer to the surface, while the darker ones are found deeper. This modality allows for the darkness of the darker tones (forgiving the repetition) to be accentuated, since they receive the shadow projected by the surrounding color zones, and the same happens backwards. The work in its totality thus takes on the aspect of “a true photographic treatment”, in the words of María José Delpiano[8], but without its characteristic horizontal disposition. We must also not forget that this work was initially exhibited at the Museo de Artes Visuales (Museum of Visual Arts, MAVI) and that, given the different levels or floors of that space are not separated by walls, the multiple felt layers and cavities could be closely observed, including from above, thus obtaining different, if not opposite, impressions.

“I would like to write a text as fine as her work” is the title of an essay by Adriana Valdés, published in the catalog for the enero, 7:25 (January, 7:25) exhibition in 2004[9]. Despite having read the text at the time, I only now think I understand the truth behind its title. The work of Mónica Bengoa certainly causes a very particular kind of desire: the dominion of techniques and materials –including writing and language– to the point of transforming them into something different to what they initially are. With “the thickness of color” I wanted to, in turn, allude to the tremendous importance of color, but also to its physical and concrete quality. Something Mónica Bengoa’s work incorporates, but also exposes. 

[1] I specifically refer to the color of the garden (2004); enero, 7:25 (2004); W, that’s the way I see it… (2007); Some considerations on insects: Long-horned Bee (Eucera longicornis) (2010); Some Considerations on Wild Flowers: Bee Orchid (Ophrys Apifera) and Chess Flower (2011); and One hundred and sixty three shades of yellow, green, orange, red, purple, brown, grey and blue (so far) (2005-2014).

[2] Albers, Josef. La interacción del color (Interaction of color). Madrid: Alianza Editorial (publisher), 2010. Originally published in 1963.

[3] Krauss, Rosalind. Lo fotográfico (What is photographic). Barcelona: Gustavo Gilli (publisher), 2002, pg. 67.

[4] I specifically refer to enero, 7:25.

[5] Ruiz, Raúl. Poética del cine (Poetics on cinema). Santiago: Editorial Universitaria (publisher), 2000, pg. 55.

[6] Temkin, Ann. Color Shift, in Ann Temkin (publisher) Color Chart: Reinventing Color, 1950 to Today. New York: MOMA, 2008, pgs. 16-17.

[7] Bengoa, Mónica. Sobre restricciones y paletas cromáticas (On restrictions and color palettes), in Diseña magazine no 8. Santiago: Escuela de Diseño. Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, 2015.

[8] Delpiano, María José. Inquisiciones de la mirada: esmero y deleite (Inquisitions of the glance: thoroughness and delight) in Mónica Bengoa, W doble ve. Santiago, Publicaciones Cultura (Publisher), 2014, pg. 23.

[9] The original title is in parentheses.

  1. © 2019 monica bengoa