Heliconias, 2013. Lápiz sobre papel, 76 x 56 cm
Heliconia lulius, 2012. Serie Heliconias. Lápiz sobre papel, 76 x 56 cm

Nieves Torralba

From September 17 to December 11, 2020

Poems are the magic ceremonies of language.

Byung-Chul Han: The Disappearance of Rituals

It would seem nigh on impossible that the words of a quotation and the name of the book from which it is taken could sum up, on their own or together, Nieves Torralba’s work. That being said, it strikes me that the above quote by Byung-Chul Han and the book it comes from somehow encapsulate the qualities of each of the individual lines that compose the drawings the artist is presenting at Gabinete de Dibujos under the title Respiración Botánica (Botanical Breathing).

The ways of engaging with artistic representation and communication are many and diverse and, of all the possible manifestations, countless are grounded in drawing.

We recognize primeval drawing as a direct act of expression in which the expressive gesture that effectively conveys the idea is conditioned by immediacy. Similar to the word that unfolds in multiple spellings and forms of grammar, drawing is a powerful tool with abstract characters that we can all miraculously understand by deciphering their codes and keys in order to discover and interpret the language that is addressed to us.

We draw in the sand on a beach. We doodle on the dust of a table with our fingertip. We scrawl messages on the windscreen of a car on which time has built up a layer not washed away by the lack of rain. Whenever we give directions we draw, whether tracing a route on a map or pointing out the path to take with our index finger, but without leaving a mark. We draw to recognize things, to help us develop other languages besides graphics. We draw to organize. We draw to write. After all, what are letters if not drawings?

We draw because, as a form of expression, it is the one that is most closely connected to each one of us. We don’t even need to turn away our head to mix colours on the palette with the tip of a brush before turning back to the support. Our attention is not distracted by intermissions.

The pencil is fused to the hand as if it were an extension of the finger that expresses and describes. We make drawings to convey messages, ideas, feelings, instructions to resolve problems, to leave proof of something we have discovered so it can be shared. In short, we draw to explain ourselves and to transcend.

To draw is precisely that: to transcend. It is to reveal what it is that we have seen, imagined or intuited, first of all to ourselves as the author and, then, at the same time or perhaps later, to others.

Listing the different ways of approaching the artistic activity of drawing is pointless given its sheer breadth and futile for its ineffectiveness. However, at this juncture, it is necessary to expand upon what, to my way of thinking, are the defining features underpinning the works of Nieves Torralba, which is what we are talking about here.

Her drawings can be placed in an undefined and extensive spectrum somewhere between the beauty of descriptive naturalist botany and the magic of the formulations of its essences. Both ends meet in the instrumentality of the representation and in the transcendence of the expression.

Breathe in …, breathe out…, savour the aroma…, breathe…

Heliconia Angélica, 2013. Lápiz sobre papel, 69 x 50 cm
Heliconia Angélica, 2013. Lápiz sobre papel, 69 x 50 cm

For her purposes, Nieves Torralba uses what we might call a kind of synthetic drawing; a cryptographic alphabet reduced to the bare minimum. Lines that change only in length and thickness and operate like riddles that take on meaning when they are combined in different arrays, acquiring a level of decoding independent from the act that produced them. Doing what she does to turn it into something else. Using a recognizable naturalist grounding which she distils in a hypothetical purifying still to extract an intensified liquid condensation.

Earlier we mentioned the beauty contained in essential formulas, just as Physics or Mathematics also contain a certain poetical beauty that shrouds the enlightening wisdom which gave rise to them.

In Nieves Torralba’s drawings these are formulations aligned with the field of poetry, so close to the alchemy of perfect formulas, with exact proportions in each one of their elements: idea, line, stroke, texture, tone, message and the interpretation of the beholder. Formulations (drawings) which are based on the study of nature—specifically of flowers—or of botany, as the artist likes to define her interest. But there is also a lot of thought, reflection on the notion of perception, and only then, an intellectual and physical outpouring on the support of the paper. A pure white that brooks no amendment. A perfect snow-white sheet that will welcome the prints of the graphite and nothing else.

Walls are also another ideal support for drawing. An enormous climbing or hanging plant, depending on which way you look at it, presides over the walls of Respiración botánica, its stem sustaining the leaves which grow from it and, like a germinal invasion, colonize the adjacent walls with its flowers, other flowers, other fruit. An ephemeral gesture that will last as long as some short-lived plants.

Nieves Torralba has drawn on walls before, like in the chapel of St Mary Magdalene and St Blas in Sagunto (Peregrinatio. Arte en las ermitas, 2009), in the Párraga Centre (Arder en mar de hielo, Murcia 2009), in the gardens at Museo Universitario del Chopo (Echar raíces, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Mexico City, 2010), and on large facades in exhibitions in Valencia (Acontraluz, Centre del Carme, 2012), the permanent intervention in the main lobby of Hospital Universitario Puerta de Hierro (Maya chionos, Majadahonda, Madrid, 2014) or in the courtyard of the Wifredo Lam Contemporary Art Centre (Tiempo detenido, Havana, 2014). And this exhibition is no less ambitious because it intentionally brings together the works that surround it while at once fusing the present and the past, following the forced parenthesis of recent months owing to the health crisis. The plant was drawn for the opening group show at the new Gabinete de Dibujos and is now the bond connecting that event with this new solo show. Nature ensures that life goes on.

Drawing plants, or flowers, is a way of defending life. The hope for a better world.

A mention apart is deserved for her silverpoint drawings. The special preparation of the support, a master formula on the surface, a secret device over which the sharpened silver mineral will glide to leave a trace of the drawer and the trace of time, hidden in the earth for thousands of years. Particularly attractive for their gem-like nature, not so much for the size and the signs that make them visible as for the intensity of the underlying respect for the material and for the working process. Admiration and respect for the Mexican masters who passed on their know-how, but also the effect of time that shaped the material and will shape its future mutability, given that the slight oxidation of the lines of silver will have their own discourse of iridescences and tonalities with the passing of the years, turning them into living, nuanced, changing drawings. Again, we are brought back to the passing of time, to poetry: “(…) Everything declines, while darkness rises. Nothing overcomes me—this must be life’s way.” (Hannah Arendt: Weariness).

I have been able to take pleasure in Nieves Torralba’s drawings and appreciate in them her thoughtful observation of the objects of attention, their force, their structure in the architecture of nature’s design. But I have also been able to perceive, or spectrally intuit, the way her body leans over the support to deposit on it, like emptying herself of the pollen and nectar of this observation. Akin to the natural industry of a bee specialized exclusively in gathering the intimacy of the form in order to turn it into something different. “One writes one thing to say something else.” (María Gainza: El nervio óptico).

As such, and like the opening quote, we are speaking about an almost vanished ritual which, ceremonially developed in Nieves Torralba’s hands, transcends a certain mysticism of language to turn the drawing into poetry removed from literalism.

Drawing what we see contains in itself the danger of only capturing its surface. A completely different thing altogether is to be able to absorb the vision, to close your eyes and, on opening them, to draw the sediment of what you have perceived. It is only then that, when seeing her work, we realize the difference there is between drinking water from a glass or from a natural spring using our hands as a cup. The water conditioned by the form has a different quality and greater amplitude.

On the other hand, her drawings call for a multitude of identical sessions. Which turns each work into a set of exercises in rigour bordering on the ceremonial; prior thought, concentration in balance with the previous session, the position of the body, time, continuous pressure of the pencil, systematic and precise sharpening of wood and lead, tension, pulse. Leaning over the paper on the drawing board, breathing in, holding one’s breath which must not be released until finishing the stroke, straightening, breathing out, observing … and once again continuing the ceremony.

A ceremony that borders on meditation, on the sublime, for all those who partake in the ritual.

Nieves Torralba draws flowers. This simple statement is by no means untruthful, but in its perfection the truth is never lacking in complexity. We do indeed see flowers in her drawings, but they are transmuted into geometric forms. Organic structures turned into chalices that hold memories. Some perfectly symmetrical, others slightly lopsided because of the flexibility of a stem under its weight. Botany redolent of the apnea of its gestation.

If we wish to partake in the benefits afforded by contemplating the drawings on view in this suite called Respiración botánica, we would have to address it as if they were, and will be, part of a virtual circle that joins the artist, her work and us as spectators when walking through the space in which they are gathered, where the bustle of the city, of the streets, before we enter recreates another intermediary space that intelligently isolates, creates associations and prepares us.

Maya chionos, 2014. Lápiz grafito sobre papel 99 x 69 cm

Look at the first work facing us as we enter, as one does before a stained glass window. Open the front door. Bathe ourselves in the inner light. Lift our eyes to the flowers that are raised on their stems. See the growth of life, marvel in the details, in the subtle nuances of the perfect, glossy veneer of the graphite, explore the black climber on the wall up and down and then, afterwards, similarly to the artist’s body leaning over the support when making the work, lower our gaze to the transmuted silver, breathe in, hold our breath, breathe out, and try to hang onto the essence, the rhythm of the breathing that emanates from the drawings.

Sebastián Nicolau, curator of the exhibition

Gallery pictures: Raúl Belinchón

CV Nieves Torralba