Author: Florencia Bazzano-Nelson
ArtNexus No. 42 – Nov 2002
The protagonist of Witness, Sebastian Spreng’s exhibition in Atlanta, is the tree. Firmly anchored on a horizon that breathes between two infinite and solitary planes, these lonely trees, distilled to their bare minimum, are witnesses to the passage of time. In Spreng’s intensely romantic landscapes, the world can change from a moment of impending darkness announced by agonizing reds to an instant of yellow light resonating with conviction over a field of ominous greens. Sometimes the tree turns into a thick, dark forest blocking the horizon with only a brief interruption to let the weak light of a moon or a sun pass through. Many of Spreng’s compatriots identify the expansiveness of his minimal landscapes with that of the pampas where the artist grew up. However, the fact is that since his childhood, he has been creating imaginary landscapes or, as he calls them, interior or parallel landscapes which have the power to evoke multiple identifications.
Born in 1956, Spreng grew up in Santa Fe, Argentina, and taught himself to be an artist when his mobility was impaired by the early symptoms of multiple sclerosis. By the end of the 1960s, after many years of solitary work, he dominated, among others, the secrets of rendering perspective and architectural details, important aspects of his paintings during those years. Spreng’s first exhibition in 1975, entitled Pueblos blancos, consisted of imaginary depictions of Mediterranean-like villages, full of convincing details but empty of inhabitants. (1)
Around 1983 Spreng went to visit a friend in Miami and decided to stay. The physical freedom he experienced when swimming in the warm Florida waters soon had an impact on his paintings. He became one of the few Latin American artists to make the beaches and the sea of Florida his main subject as swimmers began to appear in his paintings. (2) These small figures, seen from the back and dwarfed by the enormity of the landscape, move in complete solitude through the still waters of rivers, ponds, and especially the sea.
There is a musical quality to Spreng’s work that finds its most evident expression in his landscapes from the 1990s, which he produced in series organized like pieces of chamber music. Spreng, who also writes criticism of classical music, considers music as an important influence. For him, “the act of painting has been like a chase after that special, unique color, the one that sounds right in the right moment, trying to catch it like in an obsessive and passionate game.”(3) Spreng uses color as a musical tonality that makes his images reverberate with a given mood. Thus, his miniature-like paintings of solitary gardens and his images of never-ending seas cradling a lonely swimmer can appeard brooding or infused with light and hope.
Spreng gradually replaced the swimmers by the tree as a symbol for the self immersed in the vastness of nature. The extreme visual condensation and the reduction in size of his recent paintings have intensified their paradoxical qualities rather than neutralize them. At first sight, the expansiveness of the landscape and the resplendent quality of the color seem to go beyond the black boundaries that Spreng paints around his canvases (always to be presented without frames). However, this surrounding darkness also pushes back into the images and renders their luminosity fragile and precarious. For instance, in The Orchard, a lonely tree sits on an empty horizon that hovers over a dark field accented with bright red flowers. The image, in constant struggle with the encroaching dark edges, suggests the fragility of an old photograph that time is evaporating.
Spreng plays with double or even multiple readings that allow for the coexistence in each painting of parallel landscapes. They are at once full of life and marked by doom, peaceful and tense with impending action, full of music and immersed in silence. Even the surface of his works are equivocal, since they appear rough but are sleek to the touch. He achieves this effect by applying up to twenty layers of thin, translucent paint over a thick Russian linen. When the rugged surface of the canvas is left visible, the smoothness of the surface renders it illusory and makes it look like a photographic image of itself.
Spreng believes that the complexity of his images come from trying to depict an interior landscape rather than an exterior one. Perhaps their appeal also lies in the extreme simplification of his motifs which have become archetypes resonating with meaning.
1. Sebastián Spreng, interview with the author, 19 May 2001.
2. Ricardo Pau-Llosa, “Entre dos almas: Agua y tierra,” Sebastián Spreng (Caracas: Centro de Arte Euroamericano, 1994): n. p.
3. Sebastián Spreng, Artist Statement, 2001.