Joan Pedragosa :: The conjectured space of Joan Pedragosa

The conjectured space of Joan Pedragosa

Ana M. Fernández
Associate Professor of Art History
University of Oviedo

After a long and prestigious career as a designer, Joan Pedragosa has enthusiastically and devotedly begun working in sculpture. His vast experience in interpreting volume, in handling geometric resources and his mastery of what elemental shapes are able to express have enabled him to convey to metal abstraction and formal reduction capabilities, that other artists take years to achieve. It is therefore of no surprise to anyone that after four years’ work in sculpture, he has attained such exquisite and refined forms that are so rich in constant suggestions and ideas.

Although his sculptures are recent works they have, somehow, really been latent and developing in his creative mind for a long time now. In 1983, the artist gave up design commissions to devote himself to making different three-dimensional structures, both mobiles suspended on glass fibre bars and models of clocks and gift objects (Kartolinos), in high-grammage cardboard. In these constantly reworked and experimental works he set about working with volume, achieving given volumes with the assembly of geometric planes, and working with suspended and dynamic forms in space. A sculptor in the making could be discerned even then; a sculptor concerned with volume rather than mass. Also discerned was an unsatisfied creator, eager to improve on his work with each design and without resorting to the hackneyed or the facile.

There is something rather Kantian about him in the way he understands art not as good, useful or pleasant, or as a job, but rather as the free playing of the spirit in search of the “form of finality in an object, so far as perceived in it apart from the representation of an end”.

His long reflection on volume (the result of amassed sensitivity thereabout) was to be discovered, with the quality on display today, on a journey to Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego. On this voyage, accompanied by his inseparable companion, Beta, he discovered some stones on the beach of Bahía Inútil that had been “shaped” by the strong tides of the Magellan Strait. Nature had casually attained perfect and surprisingly modern forms; accidental sculptures to compete with human creation. It was then that Pedragosa felt he needed to express himself artistically in three dimensions and overcame the reduced scale of the Móviles y Rotarys in which he had worked up to that time. Anatomic Packs was exhibited in the Palacio de Revillagigedo in Gijón, together with other works, already of a sculptural type even when it had been made in channel board. Using this open method, he created Perfil afín a un Diletante (1998). This work was important in that it prolonged the aesthetics of Anatomic Packs and significantly opened up the way for a period leading to sculpture in metal. This was the first link in this dense plastic chain that we are now studying. It is a work comprising different geometrical items that define spatial redoubts, investigating what can be done with empty space, with the openings in the planes, with the way they are cut and their sequences.

The style of the work is refined, along the lines of Malevich’s Suprematism in which, despite the spec ific title, there are no figurative allusions nor symbolic or expressive connotations.

Pedragosa aims at pure formality with no references. He achieves this through space and not through surface even when its creative origin is based on flat, bent, broken or joined structures that occupy and vacate the space. Vacating space was studied by Orieze, Pablo Serrano and other great artists of 20th-century Spanish sculpture. It necessarily involves giving inner space more prominence to attain the final volume. It acts dynamically. This involvement of internal volume as dynamic vacuum may be done in two ways; either by opening the solids and creating holes in the mass (as Brancusi or Moore did) or by turning and bending the planes to generate or construct interior movement. Pedragosa skilfully opted for the second method. His works are two-dimensional planes, brought together in a three-dimensional space which they occupy and vacate, giving dynamic expression to the works in themselves and in their relationship with the surrounding space. His works are rather like El Lissitzky’s Proun in that they are not specifically architecturally planned but are studied within the complexity of the dimensions and spatial relationships. Even the work methods of Pedragosa and Lissitzky are the same, “beginning with a surface and going on to the building of a spatial model”. The process starts on paper with the study of the geometric plane which, after three-dimensional manipulation and assembly with other planes, manages to define spaces of high plastic definition. Calvera and Sala mentioned in 1999 that in Pedragosa’s work “it is the processes that are of interest and how the shape unfolds”.

From the steel and bronze Perfil afín a un Diletante onwards, Pedragosa’s work progresses with great determination forwards and with few backward steps. It comprises different structurally and technically similar series.

Study and the perfect combination of these bring about new proposals and new definitions. The sculptor’s progress in just four years has therefore been incredibly complex. It has been the fruit of dedicated work and experience gained over the years in areas associated with working with planes, their balance and imbalance and spatial definition. The series of sculptures reveal an artist who understands creation as a process and not exclusively as an end, in the shape of material, that, to a larger or lesser extent, is the direct result of previous trials. The result of his research is not strictly unique works, but rather an experimental sequence of proposals in which a work on its own does not entirely reflect the whole scope of his work.

One of his larger works on exhibit is that of the columns. These are steel structures raised onto a high, slim podium. At the top they open out like a true bloom of angles. The podiums are not pedestals at all but are part of the definition of each piece. The square sections, equal in size and rigorous in the use of right angles, modify the guided direction of the planes to make them flexible, to sharpen them and to imbue them with other new planes at the top. A kind of space and also time continuum is thus achieved. This gives the works an organic appearance that contrasts with the roughness of the shadows given off and the variety of nuances and angles of vision which they give rise to.

Pedragosa somehow gives the viewer an iconic reference with such suggestive titles as Imago Genitum III, Imago Censum II, Imago Facis I and Imago Atrium IV. This reference is in fact simulate, as neither the design nor definition of each piece is governed by an intention to represent anything visually. It is rather governed by pure form, by the infinite bends of the planes in space, by definition of the empty spaces and solid areas and balances and tension, marked by the use of intuitive geometry. The artist only gives the project a name after finishing it. These are Latin names, associated with certain visual or mental evocations. The term “imago” (image) undoubtedly conveys a suggestively very rich ambiguity in interpretation and contrasts with his work’s non-figurative and non-referential intention. Being the image of something or someone does not mean being the thing itself, but means being like it in appearance. Nearly everything in our life seems like something else and there are critics or experts who wish to see beyond the merely formal definitions given by the artists for even the boldest works of the avant-garde.

The New York critics’ description of the famous “Fountain” by Duchamp suffices by way of an example. They said it was as pure and clean as an ancient Buddha even though they were referring to a male urinal placed at a slight angle. Since the first avant-gardists, titles have not necessarily implied a direct relationship with a physical or mental reality, but rather (as in the case of Joan Pedragosa) have involved creating a hybrid of traditional models (the titles of which explained or qualified the content of the works) and of non-referential, very often absurd irony about the names in modern-day art.

Pedragosa defends the worth, in itself, of a work of art with characteristic complexity far removed from iconic, ethical or narrative interpretation. He thus manages to reassert creative language as a being in itself, using the old premise of “art for art’s sake” which was to be rediscovered by the avant-garde.

This interpretation notwithstanding, the series of columns share common features. The square-section shaft is extremely high and slim, uniform and emphatically right-angled. It breaks up into planes that are not defined horizontally and that therefore do not emphatically cut short the verticality imposed from below. The crests gather up this ascending energy and diverge it into acute angles, into spirals or arrow shapes that carry the column’s uniform tension in different and contrasting directions. There is therefore a dynamic continuity of space and an aperture to the withdrawal of the internal square space towards the surrounding space. A kind of interactivity is attained from the sculpted space, which is moulded by means of apparently minimal but clearly effective resources. The stainless steel Quid Futurum Sit (“What will happen”), is another member of the group of columns. In this work, the high regular seat structure is preserved to define it vertically. The crest, however, reflects very different concerns. The harsh angles of the planes and shadows are relaxed to gather the whole plastic power into a perfect cone, suspended above the vertical line, with the support of a curved cylinder, with holes made in its central section to maintain the continuity of the upper quartering of the shaft. The work is undoubtedly successful in many ways.

The clearest is the way in which it gives the impression of the cone being suspended, like a pointed hood; unstably on a perfectly defined and emphatic structure like that of the square shaft.

Furthermore, an admirable ability to balance masses, opening up the intermediate spaces to relieve the sensation of compactness, makes the pointed hood seem to levitate despite its size and weight. A certain movement (a constant in Pedragosa’s work, even in forms that are not strictly dynamic) is thus insinuated as the cone’s instability seems accidental, ever-changing and gracefully subject to the bending of the curved cylindrical support as if the weight of the pointed hood had flattened its tectonic function. Squantum Sereníssimo is a work that also stands out on its own. It is a middle-sized steel and bronze work and is the only work on exhibit that is somewhat totemic. Its striking front, its prominent head-like crest, the magnificence of its materials and even the important bearing attained with the finishes, give it an idol-like presence. It is the only one of his works associated with the primitivism that has been so appreciated in avant-garde style since the beginning of the twentieth century. However, unlike other contemporary artists such as Jorge Oteiza. Pedragosa neither gives it a religious meaning nor encourages mythical anecdote. Rather, he seeks a space and monumental forms, far removed from primitive art’s nostalgically spiritual values, so visible in other masters of modern-day plastic art.

Its totemic expression is merely formal and expressed in the arrangement in planes, its bearing and materials. In no way however does it refer to the capacity to evoke man’s primitive paradises. Neither is it closely related to the mystical nature of nature. Anecdotes or moral interference should not be sought in his work. Instead there is pure sculpture, harmony of planes, geometry, intuitive calculus and a great deal of spatial mastery.

Another different group is what he himself calls spirals. These are works that follow on from Acerohelicoide A-1 and from Scutum Civis. They are made in steel and mark a transition from the columns and the zinc-coated steel that will be mentioned later. Scutum Civis conveys a type of unfinished, holed spiral that contrasts, by means of its encircling directionality with the lively rhythm of the parallel square in the opposite direction. It is raised upon a right-angled base and thus the work is still indebted to previous projects, although the volume of the base is diminished and is not so worked as in previous sculptures. In Acerohelicoide A-1 the spiral works to perfection and is developed as a plane that rotates on its centre and moves on the axis.

As in all Pedragosa’s work the planes are masterly finished. When it turns, its surface disappears and now becomes a narrow appendix after rotating on the spiral. Its definition is prolonged in the two cuts of the previous plane which continue the line of force produced by the plane. Emptiness and surface thus act in the same way to give the material movement, giving emphasis to the impression of encircling movement and removing immobility from the piece.

It is more difficult to interpret Un sol que sale a las seis. This work is also in steel and has a supporting design that moves in relation to the base. This is done in such a way that the displaced ring-disc, sustained by the vertical structure, is visually counteracted and gives the idea of likewise surrounding movement, set on a central nucleus. As in Quid Futurum Sit, this work has an impression of instability; of items suspended in space with a weight and direction which seem visually incoherent. It works, however, precisely because of this ambiguous tension between volume and apparent weight.

Joan Pedragosa refines earlier experiments in the six pieces of zinc coat-projected steel in which he manages to fuse the parts that sustain and those which are sustained in a whole piece. The four Spirolimen (spiral door) – 11, 22, 33 and 55 – and Spirogradus 44 (spiral stair) each have a steel structure. On the surface of the steel are zinc particles applied by projection, creating a rough skin with different degrees of shininess and a uniform appearance. Artistically, the sculptures’ curious exterior surface works on two levels; the first fades away the shadows thrown by the sharp planes and the other gives an industrialised but non-standard appearance, very different from the craftsman-like finish of normal surfaces. The sculptures' composition shows very clear progress compared to previous works. The bases are fully incorporated into the works’ meaning. The centrifugal direction is stressed with energy going from the centre to the sides and the inner space is incorporated into its creation of movement.

The planes are joined in spiral segments to achieve this movement. Depending on the position of the viewer, the segments change direction as a result of the studied sequence of structures. In Spirogradus 44, the three parallel and distant planes making up the work visually converge in one place only to create a perfect spiral.

Movement (constantly dealt with in Pedragosa’s work) is thus not only real movement (achieved in certain kinetic works) or the expression of internal tension and of continually-defined space among the empty and filled spaces. It also involves the viewer in the adventure of going around the works, looking at them and understanding them. Again the artist shows his refined knowledge of the language of the avant-garde, a lexicon that, in all its forms, has endeavoured to encourage the visitor to think, to see and to collaborate differently from the static way of looking at traditional art. His works require a public alert to nuance and one willing to understand meanings and appreciate their sober and transparent beauty.

The series of spirals is the end to a cycle of studies on planes and energies. As mentioned before, his previous works consisted in divergent sequences of angular tensions, ever in search of the relationship between the works and the environment. Geometric tensions were displaced from the centre, gathered along the lines of the planes and spread, like separate energy, beyond the physical limits of the sculptures. The spirals, on the other hand, gather the forces inwards and move outwards, creating central spaces in which emptiness shelters compositional force and gradation of depth.

This is achieved by different inner cadences; in some cases prolonging the spiral’s circular pattern inwards (Spirolimen 11) and allowing for a concentration of energies similar to that attained in Duchamp-Villon’s horse’s head; in others with a staggered cut of right angles (Spirolimen 22); or by the compartmentalisation of interior diagonal axes (Spirolimen 33) or of lateral diagonal axes (Spirolimen 55).

A separate mention should be given to the sculptures Generatrix Euclídea (“Euclidean origin”) in which circular, square and triangular nuances play very sophisticatedly with space, and Hemisphaerium Decusso (“Divided hemisphere”), a work in which two spirals cross around a sloping axis with interior openings that guide its directionality. As usual in Pedragosa’s sculptural processes, both works require the viewer to move, to make the interior spaces appear and disappear. The spaces are both positive (those on the surface) and negative (those in the empty space). This gives it both external and internal space, making these works seem like architecture in their total-project approach to space.

The reference to Euclid in Generatrix Euclídea is not only poetic license or a cultural reference. Quite the opposite, I think it describes the character of Pedragosa’s work in that it reveals his dedication to geometry. Euclid, a mathematician who taught in Alexandria around 300 BC, systemised Greek geometry using a definition of point, line and elementary forms and devised a way of building figures using the measurements of angles, radiuses, the sides and proportional sizes.

Euclid was thus a forerunner to Newton and Leibniz’s theories on area and volume and proved the relationship between specifically geometrically shaped areas and proportions with others. In any case, the Euclidean geometry suggested by Pedragosa is not literal and neither strictly obeys Euclid’s proposals nor uses the exhaustive method or emptiness of forms as theorised mathematically. It is, instead, based on intuitive geometry, which is certainly studied but not based on algebraic calculation or complicated arithmetic treatises. It is a geometry of proportions and a continuity of shapes using previous shapes, based on measurement of their sides and the size of their angles.

The penultimate chapter in Pedragosa’s sculptural development is the group of concave-convex structures, used both in table-top works and monumental sculpture. In this group, the thickness of the planes is greater, moulding volume is simpler and, most of all, volumetric approach starts from a single plane. Using a starting surface shaped into aligned curves and differently-cut outlines, spatial characteristics as suggestive as those in previous works are co-ordinated. The steel-surfaced Vertex Plurimus (“The highest”), with rust-finished corners to delimit the design, establishes a rhythm of gathering in and expanding the plane like a drawing in space. The stainless steel Acumine Ingenti (“Shining because of the intensity of its spirit”) bends the layout of the space and segments diagonals in its development, joining spatial rhythms from the initial plane.

These minimal resources are wonderfully suggestive spatially. This also occurs in Imaginis a Summo (“Profile from above”) and culminates in Clarissimus Civius (“Illustrious citizens”), a work in zinc with three planes raised in a vertical arrangement on a platform with water. Reflection, implicit in earlier sculptures, is dealt with to perfection as the polished surfaces that reflect the surroundings and reflect themselves work to the full in the layer of still water. This creates an inverted image of each unit and its group, just like a real mirror. Since Plato’s description of the dialectic ascent of knowledge, mirrors have given the object and reality a new dimension, even though the reflected image is a distorted version of the original and it is not reality itself either. Pedragosa deals with reflection by ignoring its poetic and ontological content. Instead he seeks ways of visually dealing with form and making the object of art interact with the light and with the surrounding mirrors. Pedragosa again looks for new ways to perceive and for interesting ways of looking at it to bring out the material to the full sensorially and provide the viewer new ways of interpreting.

Virtutis Laus (“Prize for virtue”) is made in marine aluminium. This material is highly-resistant to environmental erosion and has an equally polished and reflective finish. The plane has been worked to create complete balance as a secluded space in itself but also a space which is open to the outside. This is done by the pointed end to the angles and the aperture of the cuts that segment the simple metal plane and establish a relationship with the background planes.

The work is curiously unstable (as seen before in Pedragosa’s work) as the base is not uniformly straight. This is done to achieve a visual impression of balance that is obviously unreal but sculpturally very effective. His sculptures mainly work in the opposite direction from gravity through the studied arrangement of equilibrium, the unexpected turn of the planes and the apparent fragility of certain supports.

The sculpture entitled Beta (an affectionate homage to the woman he loves) is also made in marine aluminium. In this work he elaborates the concavities and convexities in which the apparently coincidental directional nature of the empty spaces is emphasised. The plane thus opens up into two differently-curved and movingly-elegant planes. It is even more moving when the viewer discovers it is dedicated to his wife. It is like a love poem in which tenderness creates the harmony of unity; unity as manifest in a couple. This is because Beta has a two-fold purpose; it has two separate mouldings that join together; because, in fact, they are one. True love is like this or at least has been said to be so since poetry began.

A certain feminine influence may also be made out in the arrangement of the forms; like the flirtatious flapping of the surfaces in space, the subtlety of which gives the work renewed appeal.

The scale of Pedragosa’s work is impressive because a harmonious whole, easily-perceived from the planes, can only be attained using these sizes. The size of the material also influences how it is put together spatially, in large interior and exterior areas. These sculptures need air around them and work well as public sculpture (both their bases as well as the subsequent ways of making the forms more flexible). They are very suitable for public sculpture because of the dynamic continuity and the plastic interactivity, so characteristic of this artist. The outlines of his works somehow “draw the space” and, as Julio González once said, “draw in the space”.

Depitecus crowns and ends this journey through Pedragosa’s attractive career as a sculptor. The work weighs eighty kilograms and rotates fully every minute. Depitecus is suspended from the ceiling and is designed as an ethereal structure in the surrounding space. It does not annul this space but temporarily modifies it by the insistent rotation of its mass. The streamlined design, powered by a carefully-thought out electrical system, silently penetrates the air like a mobile by Calder.

As mentioned above, Pedragosa’s sculptural development is implicit in his period as a designer. His great experience of optional geometry, with suspended mobiles and cut-out cardboard planes which moved on a slight change of air, were the bases for Depitecus, a primate bird and aerial animal. It is a strictly kinetic work although, as mentioned before, there are constant references to movement in his work.

Depitecus moves with a highly-precise synchronised rhythm, like Tatlin’s monument to the III International. It is undoubtedly seeking a permanent change of space, along the same lines as that championed by Gabo and Pevsner when they stated that kinetic rhythms are “essential forms of our perception in real time”. In this real time, space is still space but the visual and intellectual sensation is altered. This emphatic mechanical-bird figure rotates silently and moves in the air and moves the air, penetrating it with its streamlined design. It is undoubtedly the “star” of the exhibition as it involves the virtuous and meditated exercise of kinetics and suspended volume in which there is an overwhelming impression of instability, so patent in his other work, because of the structure’s size and balance.

It activates time and space, measuring the time sequence and modifying the space. It is thus very similar to works by Theo van Doesburg from 1927, when he explained elementarism in terms of “balance between static and dynamic factors” and of synthesis between “the factors of time and space in a new dimension”. Depitecus is also the only work exhibited here with mass. The planes are solid and thick, have an emphatic presence and their own volume. This is not achieved with the spaces produced by the planes but with real space. It therefore has an elegant presence which, because of its size, verges on the moving.

Movement is also manifest to a greater or lesser extent in other works such as Divatriformis, through the pendular oscillation of the central arrow form, suspended in the central ring; in Ratiofactum, a fish-shaped structure that turns on an axis, and even in Aura Spirat (“A breeze is blowing”) which rotates on an axial rod, enhancing the lightness of the structure, its aerial appearance and the extremely delicate harmony of its balance. The materials used also make it interesting. Pedragosa is concerned with finish and surface and therefore always adapts design characteristics to the qualities of the surfaces and the potential of the materials. He thus uses the roughness and the tonal difference of the bronze finishes to adapt to the motif’s structure. The artist does not work by building up, but develops from a starting point with a specific image of what he wants. He studies the initial proposals of the drawing on paper. These are then translated to cardboard with the skill of someone who masters this material thoroughly. It is only then that he uses material and technique to develop the planned idea, with care for finishes, nuances, and qualities of the surfaces. In finally bringing the works to fruition, an essential role is played by the great technician, Pere Casanovas, a man and team with long experience in sculpture, who guarantees the quality of Pedragosa’s works.

Even though colour is insistently not added, Joan Pedragosa reflects an attitude we could refer to as pictorial insofar as he takes painstaking care of surface texture, colour, details and shine.

The great range of solutions also gives the series coherence because each group of works includes certain common technical characteristics, as mentioned previously. In this regard I would like to mention that he does not work on his pieces as a mere craftsman. He does not make his work progress by repetition and mastery of certain formulae. Rather, each step forward involves a step backwards in that new concerns and new sculptural and therefore technical and material problems arise. These he resolves with ease and ingenuity.

The journey through Pedragosa’s sculpture work ends (in this exhibition, although it all promises a magnificent future in sculpture) with Aerolithes, an aluminium and steel work painted in vermilion red. In this work he intentionally introduces colour for the first time. The chromatic intensity of the red, emphasised by the metallic colour of the aluminium cone shape, manifests a new plastic concern. This concern maintains spatial regulation determined by the plane but this time it is enriched by the colour of the intense red. Colour undoubtedly gives rise to a new interpretation of his work (attentive as always to the quality of the finishes). This is because the intensity of this colour contrasts abruptly with the surroundings, even though up to this time Pedragosa had been extremely respectful of how the figures are worked in the air through dynamism or reflection. It also gives extra plastic value to the surface; a pictorial value in which references and decorative intentions are still avoided. For this reason, he has chosen red, a primary colour; intense and as pure and clean as the volumes set out in his folded, broken and overlapping planes.

Aerolithes thus sets out a new line of investigation for Pedragosa’s perennially unsatisfied creation.

Pedragosa has unquestionably achieved something difficult in this new creative stage of his life: he has extended the fields of art in which he works without changing his initial motives for reflection. In four years of intense work he has plotted out a serious and coherent language of construction in his searches and results. The term constructivist has certainly given rise to polemic and abuse since the Soviet avant-garde, when it was closely linked to politics because of its aspiration to politicise art. Since then, the term has been used for successive groups and tendencies in abstract creation; tendencies in which industrial materials are used and mass is discarded in favour of volume and in which kinetic rhythms are an essential form of modern perception.

The 1920 “Manifiesto Realista” of Naum Gabo and Anton Pevsner was drawn up along these lines. They openly proclaimed that “space and time are the only forms upon which life is built and the only ones upon which art should be built”. This extensive declaration of intentions has meant many artists and tendencies have been branded as constructivists. These range from Moholy-Nagy, the British artists of the 1950s and 1960s up to the individual proposals which today are being put forward everywhere.

As a creative proposal, the bases of constructivism allow for new definitions that have nothing to do with mass (along the lines of Brancusi or Moore) in order to adapt to the infinite possibilities provided by volume through the use of the plane and the interaction between time and space in works. This, of course, is done differently from in minimalism which uses industrial technology in its aseptic interpretation and bases composition on repeatedly adding forms.

Unlike the most solitary figures in Basque sculpture, where the existence of a school of sculpture rooted in the region’s cultural legacy11 may indeed be strictly spoken of, Joan Pedragosa’s work does not originate from Catalan criteria or tradition. It instead aspires to and is inspired by the extensive language of the avant-garde. This universal content, unconnected with regionalism or localism, is enhanced by the titles of the works. By now the reader will have noticed that the works have Latin names. Latin is the only language that historically spread beyond the confines of Latium. It also has pure Mediterranean roots and the artist considers himself to have inherited Mediterranean culture, Latin culture. The use of Latin (a dead language) may also be interpreted as a sign of tradition and even as a type of cultural definition over and above the domination of the English language. These evocative names prompt a reinterpretation of the works, all of which (with the exception of Beta) are a response to basic, intuitive and very often ironic impressions.

Some years ago, Rosa Olivares proclaimed the vitality of modern-day sculpture (in all its sculptural variants including the object and the installation) in the light of what had already been declared as the self-engrossment of painting “tempted to get lost in itself” Pedragosa, returning to the original language of the avant-garde, shows how constructivist experiences still allow for new investigation in three dimensions and for lively, investigative research of calibre in the fourth dimension of time.

His thoughtful work, undertaken with effort and constant dedication, successfully achieves brilliant spatial conjecture.