Muddled about the stones
“He’s all muddled about the stones”, says Leiro contemplating his first “Sísifo Confuso” exhibited at the Marlborough Gallery. There are two people who, while they may not know everything, are able to approach the work of the sculptor Francisco Leiro (Cambados, 1957) with certain guarantees of success, even if it’s based on instinct: one is the author himself and the other is the fan who visits one of his exhibitions and succumbs to the powerful sensorial impact invoked by his work rather than to deeper disquisitions (could any deeper exist?). For the rest of us, the critic, the expert, the one who—like me, coming from other spheres—attempts to ponder reasons, backgrounds and metaphors, it is more complicated, albeit enjoyable complication: Leiro talks little and the little he says is articulated, astutely, around an absence of rhetoric and basic, tactile narrative similar to his work itself and, therefore, deceitfully simple.
Essential, lucid exercises in style, therefore, to help anyone who is pondering, are the two documentaries in which Aser Álvarez has spent more than three years looking at the creative process used by the artist from Cambada while he was building precisely this fundamental, tongue-in-cheek “Purgatorio” (purgatory) of muddled Sisyphuses, Lazaruses sacking tombs, people who carry souls as they change their skins and other magic, as Álvaro Cunqueiro would say; this fascinating, sardonic and unequal cosmogony that parades along under the symbol of weight, just as we do.
If in “Sísifo Confuso. Traballo e días de Francisco Leiro”, in the face of the author’s silence, the focus fell on the work and the rhythm (the music of the man banging against the stone and the wood, the passage of time in its relentless circle, the vision of the artist adapting to that circle as just another inevitability), in “O Purgatorio de Francisco Leiro”, a necessary complement to the former, this loop and this rhythm are the backdrop that lend the focus to a passionate central conversation between Txomin Badiola and Leiro himself, which is worth listening carefully to. As always with the case in point, and with almost any that are of any import, the real theme runs along beneath the surface, at times invisible.
The attempts of other artists to put what Leiro does into words are almost childish, or sweet, in fact, barely managing to scratch the surface of the mystery, to make it more obvious, using more or less apt phrases (however, I will stick with Antón Reixa’s—I am unsure whether hopeful or frightening—idea of Leiro as a “portable Galicia”). Precisely because of the impossibility of that, the patient background position that Álvarez occupies in the documentary and Badiola’s cautious skill, promenading obvious, classic possibilities for identification (Dante, the columns, the weight of empty space) to get an almost-always contradictory reaction from a Leiro that—moderately talkative for the first time before a camera—takes us almost casually to the centre of his perplexities, which are also our own. To that point, at least, where bodies transported by other bodies can begin to become “the snake’s clothing (…) the shell of the body (…) the soul”, or rather—theatrically in Badiola’s opinion—“a photogram”. To that point where, at least, we speak clearly about the conscious attempt to remove prejudice surrounding deformity in an interpretation of the figure, that of Leiro, contemplating superimposed moments of naturalism and brutal, random lack of definition with instinctive and essential wisdom. We also talk about the “brains behind the piece” and the “historicist residue”, and we understand that the artist defines the figure by its function, rooted—ultimately—in proletariat tradition. He works from memory. And we can use all of this as a basis, as an atmosphere to accompany those who believe in that immersion down to ground zero of the myth where Leiro is not too distant from other primitivist, visionary masters, such as Pasolini with his “Medea”. “remexer no faiado”, he calls him.
Other essential things also become clear in this ambitious documentary project. The most important, perhaps, is the importance of drawing in the creative process of a Leiro that has faith in automatic drawing—and has had since the times of his early surrealist education in Santiago—and that this drawing is actually what is most important: “I like clumsy drawing, which suggests rather than defines.”
No less interesting, although it may seem lateral to the journey as a whole, is the weight of apparently less “artistic” elements. First, the support of a prestigious gallery throughout his career. Then, the importance of space for someone who really thinks about an exhibition and it not being just a mere accumulation of figures but a conceptual effort.
“Cambados – the Athens of Galicia” is mentioned at some point during the footage. It is a risky statement, even when the joke is (heavily) implied. It is less risky to concede that Leiro is, if not a portable Galicia, at least a nomad Athenian (“I live in my workshop”). One who is determined to do a full lap of the year’s cycle as the seasons pass and return from the trip with Purgatories, Lazaruses and enjoyable muddles with the stones that one can then spend time feeling. Or deciphering in this documentary.