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Mural de una pieza de fieltro de lana natural calado a mano. MAVI, Santiago, Chile

Inquiries of the gaze: care and delight


go to “Inquisiciones de la mirada: esmero y deleite” in “Letras en Línea”

Adaptation by the author, for the book W doble ve originally published in “Letras en Línea”, on occasion of the solo exhibition Einige Beobachtungen über Insekten joins Wildblumen … , MAVI Museum of Visual Arts. Santiago, Chile., April 2012.


Every time I expose myself to a work by Mónica Bengoa, that which I observe insistently, persists in my retina for a prolonged lapse of time. I ask myself then what makes those images so strong, so provocative to the gaze, so far removed from indifference. The issue of scale is, without a doubt, a gravitating element in many of them, but I believe there is a more consistent issue that provides the solvency for the correct inner working of the numerous elements –technical and conceptual materials– which converge in her production: it is her particular work methodology. It, one could say, is an open and organic system, under continuous construction. On one hand, and because of the magnitude that a good deal of her projects reach, it implies large quota of discipline and preciseness, but on the other, it gives room to a more playful and intuitive dimension. Even if Bengoa has a methodological base on which an artistic issue is outlined and a preliminary plan of action is generated, said base is deliberately destabilized when the artist, in this playful side of hers, decides to undertake a colossal task without knowing the trade. Thus, her method rises as an intense process of production-learning, in which technique is slowly corrected and systemized by who is executing it, reaching a superior degree of skill and prolixity, but, all of this effort and rigor are progressively compensated, in each step, with the delights of play and sensibility.

This work system has brought a great coherence to her body of work –and this mostly shows pieces which have required monumental efforts– but, I think, this is something that reaches a kind of vortex in her most recent project: the various felt murals she has been executing since 2009.

On how to engrave with a felt cloth

Some observations at noon, is an extensive black cloth on which one can recognize the front view of a garden of exuberant vegetation whose image is progressively constructed due to the emptying of certain regions of the piece, in this case the ones corresponding to the lit areas. The intense lighting of the sun rays vertically falling on the surface of the soil seems to eliminate all possibility of half tones, due to which the image thus refined presents a high contrast: the shadow (felt color) and light zones (the slightly curved white wall supporting the felt) are clearly outlined and the weight of both on the plane subtly balanced. And even if the clean outline of the lights allows to make out the outlines of plants, leaves and other objects in the representation, a kind of “dazzling” prevents precisely distinguishing what it is one is looking at.

In this way Some observations at noon turns out to be a work very much related to graphics, its appearance almost inevitably takes one to engraving, as does its technique, one characterized by the cleanliness of the trace and the composition-like interplay between planes of a greater presence and finer and more delicate lines. In this sense, we cannot forget that Mónica Bengoa comes from engraving[1] and in a certain way several of her methodological operations, visual proposals and technical solutions derive from there.

But, when approaching the mural the material character of the work is exposed and we see how certain angles or shapes of the felt cut out –which is affixed to the wall only on strategic points– project faint shadows on the white wall. Thus, the graphic element gives way to the more object-like dimension of the image, which will be more clearly observed in the mural Some considerations on insects: Long-horned Bee (Eucera longicornis) and the dyptich Some considerations on wild flowers: Bee Orchid (Ophrys apifera) and Chess Flower (Fritillaria meleagris).

In order to cut out photographs out of books on wild insect and plants

If in the past it was dyed thistles, colored napkins or embroidery thread, felt is the new support on which Mónica Bengoa exercises the transference or translation of photographs and “domestic” materialities. Her method has, basically, consisted in decomposing the referential image with a computer program –expanding the format and delimiting the different tone zones–, for then manually recomposing it with materials and objects acting as minimal color units. Photography is then assumed as a platform for visual research, including a horizon of issues related with media such as painting, drawing, engraving and objectual nature.

As art historian Victor Stoichita has stated, if the glance behind impressionist painting was a “constructed” one, this is –it let itself be influenced by photography and a whole sensibility for modern times[2]–, as in this particular contemporary glance, on the contrary, it would seem that it is photography that lets itself be influenced or scrutinized by the techniques of traditional art: of painting, of the graphic system, among others. German artist Gerhard Richter –whose work Bengoa knows thoroughly– has already consistently studied these issues; now, the proposal of the Chilean artist introduces another interesting variable in this kind of visual research: the execution of what is handcrafted. In this way, the recent felt mural project picks up the complexity of the previous operations of photographic transference and, from the options the new material progressively reveals, she proposes the continuation of her inquiries on a technical, formal and visual level.

Both Long-horned Bee… and Bee Orchid and Chess Flower… are composed by modular structures on which pieces made of felt of various colors is superimposed on. Here, the photographic image is deconstructed no longer by color zones but by layers of color. The outline of the layer is transferred to the felt cloth, which is then cut out by hand. The pieces, which can cover several centimeters of surface or barely a few millimeters, are mounted one after the other until the image is completely re-articulated. In the case of the work with layers, the stencils do not mark delimited perimeters for the “application of color”, the artist rather goes on to put down or adding fabric according to the construction system she has chosen guided only by what she sees.

a) Inquiries on color: what is austere and what is warm

In this recent project, as in previous ones, Bengoa imposes on herself working with a specific color spectrum (grey or red), and with a limited number of tones, which are also the ones provided by the market offer (some felt cloths were dyed by the artist herself). Thus, while the larger mural, Long-horned Bee is a study on the scale of grey, the diptych Bee Orchid and Chess Flower is a study on red[3].

The former is constituted by ten felt layers displayed from the darkest to the lightest tone. Viewed from afar, the image reminds one of that children’s game –which some of us got to enjoy– in which, when facing the grey screen of some archaic TV set, we tried to guess what the original color of the figure we saw appearing would be. But as opposed to the screen, the tone spectrum on the mural is quite austere, gathering only the essential elements in the task of transmitting the complexity of referential photography. The variety of colors is not shiny either, but rather opaque, dry: this is generated by the particular way in which the texture of the felt absorbs the dye. In this operation, Bengoa demonstrates that despite the asceticism of the color varieties –and thanks to the interactions generated among the different tones and the delicate manufacture to which the material is submitted to– the image can equally acquire an amazing sensuality, irresistible to the glance. And if when we were children we were fascinated by what grey was not, here it fascinates us precisely for what it is.

Now, if in the lesson on insects the layer adding structure it is easy to detect (from dark to light), with the lessons on botany something different happens. In these murals the different layers of color are interspersed under the logic of a glance of the artist who, “at a guess”, tries to rebuild what she sees in a referential photography in felt. The structure of color adding is complex and therefore diffuse to the untrained eye. This becomes evident in Chess Flower, where certain regions of the surface reach an enormous density, both of material, as well as of color. So when we come closer to see –seduced perhaps by that which we do not understand– the shapes of the objects we recognized from afar are blurred, and suddenly we find ourselves in the presence of pure color. Or really of shape and color, they are sinuous particles of dyed felt, arabesques of different tones of red, which, even if they are fragments of a greater image, acquire visual distinction on their own.

b) Studies on shape: focus and out of focus

The photographs acting as referential images in Mónica Bengoa will commonly underline certain points of view, the stances assumed by the glance. In the felt murals the close-up vision of two pages from an open book can be made out. The views of the two pages are always partial, and this is because the book rears itself very near to the spectator, from a foreshortened view. Bengoa studies how to shift the shapes converging on a photograph onto the felt with a minimum depth of field. One can then observe how some areas remain clearly in focus and others not. In the latter ones, the contours of the figures become indeterminate and their shapes are distorted.

At least in the diptych, one of the areas of a lesser clarity is the one in the upper part of the murals, there it becomes quite difficult to certainly detect where the book ends, and the background begins. In painting, that soft focus effect of a plane of the image (in contrast with another one in focus), is obtained by applying stains of color and diffusing the contours of the objects, and the complex thing here is to create the same pictorial effect with pieces of a material that does not allow mixing colors on the surface, and which, when being cut out neatly delimitates the perimeter of the shapes.

c) Inquiries on materials: topographies of the surface

Felt is originally an organic material (as plants and insects), made pressing sheep or other animal wool. But perhaps the most interesting thing is that felt has several and contradictory features: it simultaneously absorbs and insulates, shelters and isolates; it is skin-like, even if it can acquire volume and depth.

On the murals, the felt sediments will carry the two-dimensionality of the referential image to an objectual plane. We see how the figures acquire a corporal presence through adding material, projecting shadows on all of the surface and beyond it, on the walls on which they are exhibited. In this way the layers of material, thanks to their sinuous cut outs, turn the flat and even surface of a photograph (or of the page of a book), into a real topographic surface. From up close, we can overview the mural attending to the differences in height between one zone and the other, as if we were climbing strange hills or walking on the wide shore of a lake.

Of glances and methods: brief notes

A production method sustained on two ways of examining the surroundings has been recognized in Mónica Bengoa; one related with that fresh and intuitive glance of children, who go round the exhibition space guided by the energy of impulse, discovering what is at hand, fascinated by finding the most simple and common objects. It is the way in which the artist explores her own place, finding the things that have (for ever) accompanied her but still manage to provoke in her the astonishment of the first time. On the other hand, there is the inquisitive glance of the scientist who, “thanks to technical clairvoyance”[4] and a rigorous methodology, allows accessing the minimal structures of what she examines. It is the search of botany and entomology, accessing the details of plants and animals, to that which our human eye cannot manage to detect. It is the glance that allows us to see the “invisible”.

As one has been able to see, visual issues are methodological issues (and vice versa) in Mónica Bengoa. Her work method is complex and strengthens itself over time, and it has done so by extension along her artistic career. It is composed by something like sediments of knowledge and experience which are accumulated and classified so they are always available.

But closer to “this side” of the mechanisms of the glance and the production systems, perhaps the great lesson of Mónica Bengoa is that in the end everything is about the joy of learning.

María José Delpiano

[1] She graduates from the Universidad Católica Art School where she obtains this mention.

[2] Stoichita, Victor. Ver y no ver. La tematizacion de la mirada en la pintura impresionista. (See and Not See. The Thematization of the Gaze in Impressionist Painting). Madrid: Siruela publishers, 2005, pg. 12

[3] In this sense there is a continuity with Some aspects of color in general and red and black in particular from 2007 (the Chilean participation at the 52nd Venice Biennial), since, as one can see, Bengoa works around the same colors. But it is precisely the perseverance of color that which is here put to the test, because even if the pigments used in both projects were exactly the same, when varying the material support, a variation of color will inevitably be produced. In other words, it is about observing the effects that external elements cause on color. On subtleness and formal complexities like these the visual poetry of Mónica Bengoa is built on.

[4] Berger, John, Mirar (About looking), Buenos Aires: Ediciones de la Flor publishers, 2008, pg. 27

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