Vertigo and ecstasy: Ofill Echevarriaʼs work

1

I would like to offer an image of Ofill Echevarriaʼs work. It is paradoxical that I (who am not a painter) try to give an image of something that already is. But words are also carriers of images. I could begin by stating that Ofill as an artist –and perhaps also as a person– has a fascination for the city. But not the city that is the pasture of the astonished gaze of the conventional tourist, but the city that does not rest, the metropolis of perpetual business, the city of unbridled consumption, the capital of the modern worker. In The Aesthetics Of Disappearance, Paul Virilio affirms that the current world can no longer be explained without speed. In Virilioʼs opinion, speed has become the most important attribute of our lives. We no longer demand beauty or comfort but speed. (What is the point of demanding comfort if there is hardly any space for rest, what is the point of demanding beauty if there is no longer room for contemplation). Overwork is more satisfying than rest and free time. We live the sovereignty of alienation; there are no longer lapses of neurosis, the emergence of neurosis is constant. In that world, speed has become an index of prestige. In the opinion of the French urban planner, speed is inseparable from wealth and this in turn from power. We are artifices and witnesses of the twilight of the moment. We sacrifice the minute wealth of the moment for the vague yearning for wealth. Everything is urgency and haste, we abhor slowness and delay. Perhaps before such excess of haste, the time or the instant should be named in another way. Now we only want the fastest Internet, the fastest and most powerful processor and cell phone, the fastest car, the instant food from the microwave, the immediacy of the elevator or the escalator… We long for absolute speed, the speed of the light. By removing lag, speed is presented as a savior, but that is just an illusion. Today’s metropolis lives submerged in vertigo, but not in that of childhood games in which we twisted and unbalanced in search of pleasurable sensations, but rather in the vertigo that subdues and imprisons.

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It is no longer necessary to lock yourself in a room, we are locked in the urgency.

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We go so fast that we forget everything, including ourselves, but things happen so fast that we forget that too.

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That which takes too long rots within us.

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We love vertigo, we identify peace with boredom, serenity makes us nauseous.

2

The streets are the epidermis of the city, the asphalt fabric of our drifts and losses. But in the city of Ofill there is no time to get lost even for banal walks. The figures that populate his canvases are busy subjects in suits who walk the streets with no other company than their cell phone or their executive briefcase. Blurred silhouettes that pass through equally diffuse spaces. Blurred crowds moving through busy streets vying for space. Rushing shadows entering a subway car, walking through the lounges of an airport or passing through a shopping center. The insatiable need for consumption has become a collective ritual, the desire for business and the seductive flashes of advertising are our new gospel. Shopping centers aspire to become cities, not only because of their excessive size and their capacity to house thousands of people, but because of their attempt to offer everything.

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It is curious that the English word mall ends in all, a word that already evokes the absolute.

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Perhaps the streets were not made to take us somewhere, but to get lost in them.

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Getting lost in a city is an undeclared form of art.

3

One of the surprises that Ofillʼs pictorial work has in store for us is its remarkable photographic character. I say surprise because the poetic purpose of photography is to capture light, stop and capture an image clearly. In Ofillʼs painting, however, the opposite occurs: rather than stopping the images, he puts them into circulation, he distorts them, placing them on the edge of expressionism and abstraction. Some even seems to spin within a whirlwind, as if attracted by centrifugal force. In his works, aesthetics and statics are opposed, they denied themselves without being annulled. Its aesthetics is not linked to statics, but to drive and movement. The urgency that animates the silhouettes on his canvases redoubles the speed and drags them into vertigo. More than to vertigo, to ecstasy; more than to ecstasy, to loss; more than to loss, to dissolution. It is clear that the distortion between the subject and its space produces vertigo, but this vertigo is generated by light, an invertebrate light that bathes and emanates from the bodies, a carnal light that dazzles, a luminosity that blurs and erases all identity traits. In his more recent works (series: Moonbeams) there is something that could be called, the effect of manifests camera. Ofill does not try to hide in her painting the presence of a camera that has captured the images before transferring them to the canvas. The photographer’s anxiety becomes a certainty, we are certain that the anguish and vertigo not only overwhelm the blurred subjects that appear on the canvas, but also the artist who has recorded reality.

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Admiring works of art requires from us a certain degree of serenity and parsimony. I remember that in an Ofill show, a man, breaking the slow choreography of the attendees, crossed the gallery at full speed contemplating the paintings as he passed. The gallery was spacious, but his tour took less than a minute. More than a spectator of his work, that subject seemed to be the protagonist of one of his paintings.

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In a canvas by Ofill I have seen the silhouette of a man walking down the street. He seems to be in more of a hurry than his own image.

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Roland Barthes affirms that every author must give shelter to his I. Ofill, to his I, to that I that multiplies in the crowd, more than shelter he gives it shoes so that it can move quickly.

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There are works that transcend the closed framework of the galleries. You can think of Warhol when you discover a can of Campbellʼs soup in the supermarket. You can think of Duchampʼs readymade when you see urinals lined up in a public bathroom. Sometimes, next to the urinal there is a sign that says: “Do not use.” Instead of accepting that it is broken, I find myself looking for a little legend that says: “Marcel Duchamp.” In todayʼs crowded airports, subways and overcrowded streets, you can think of the work of Ofill Echevarria.

4

Ofill does not oppose speed to slowness, but to rest. But not to the pleasant rest of a well-deserved pause, but to the exhaustion of the exhausted subject (Soñar is forbidden, 2003). The protagonist of this work carries with him the unmistakable signs of exhaustion; so exhausting has been his day that he has not even been able to remove his business suit, his shoes, and is still holding his two briefcases. In this work, the painter assumes the role of voyeur (and also makes us the same). As I contemplate it, I wonder if his enormous exhaustion has been worth it, and if he managed at least to close a successful deal. I even wonder what he dreams of, even though he is forbidden to dream.

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In Ofillʼs canvases I distinguish fragments of bodies: the foot of a woman wearing high heels, a thigh, parts of the hands, chins, arms, legs … I imagine a body made of pieces capable of disarming itself to disappear completely or simply to rest.

5

Our life is nothing more than a sum of small solitudes, however, the pandemic and the possibility of contagion have imposed on us a forced and physical solitude. Today more than ever our company is virtual. We are closer to the one who is far away than to the one who is next to us. Likewise, amid the isolation to which the pandemic has condemned us, the streets saturated with Ofillʼs works would be empty. His photographs and canvases would record a deserted city, uninhabited as if it had been abandoned, as if it had suffered a hecatomb. The spectral appearance of his figures is notorious, but today they would not be there, despite their clear status as ghosts.

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In art exhibitions we approach the works always keeping a prudent and respectful distance. Now, beset by the pandemic and the probability of contagion, we should contemplate everything with a certain distance.

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I notice that in a gallery, a man does not look at Ofillʼs paintings, but rather at the white wall space that separates them. Only then he can feel calm, only then he can feel safe from vertigo.

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The word existence seems to be preceded by the prefix ex. That prefix that we use to indicate an old condition as when we refer to an ex-president or an ex-wife. But everything in our existence is vertigo and flight, we do nothing but hurry, always leaving something behind, including what we are. The true condition of existence is the constant exercise of ceasing to be. We stop being children, we stop being teenagers, we stop being vigorous and fresh … until the fatal moment when we stop being forever.

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From New York a businessman maintains a video conference with other entrepreneurs. One is in Tokyo, another in Paris, the rest in Moscow, Sydney, Portugal, Rio de Janeiro, Bombay, Lima, etc. It is in New York, but also in all those other cities. The virtual world dwarfs the real world. Hyper communication has erased the borders, it has struck down the abysmal distances that separate us. Now the world is as big as its image on a tiny postage stamp that we carry in our pocket.

6

Ofill has lived in New York for more than a decade. We have the dazzling Manhattan of luxurious buildings that seem to rival in height, but there is another city, the city of the gloomy facades of Ofill Echevarria canvases (series: The Real World). But the activity of these buildings does not seem to stop, the concrete and steel anthill does not stop even in darkness and silence. On the gloomy facade of a building in the blackest of night, the windows like pixels, like random pieces of a puzzle, give us an image that tells us about the city and its inhabitants. In these checkered exteriors, the lights of the apartments, like the stars in a constellation, create the image of a house, but isnʼt that building already a house? A house within a house, like a Chinese box. A box inside a box inside a box that also invites vertigo. In another work, similar to the screens on which the value of shares is announced on the Stock Market, a sign is drawn: 1%. Does it mean that only 1% have reached their homes and can finally rest? Does it mean that only that small percentage have had a fruitful day? Against the succession of illuminated windows of an office building, where everyone works after hours, stands the dark silhouette of a Buddha meditating in the lotus posture. The Buddha seeks inner peace, however, inside the building there is no rest, but a work frenzy. The Parthenon emerges luminous in another construction, a bold evocation of Greek philosophy and thought. At the gleaming pinnacle of the temple, I imagine Socrates in his apartment at three in the morning, sitting in front of a turned off television, sipping wine as he meditates on the next day’s dialogue with one of his young disciples. Equally revealing are the luminous letters that emerge on the dark facade of a building on which you can read: XES. Ordered in another way it would read: SEX, but that is precisely what this piece alludes to, sexual disorder. Real sex has become an eccentricity or at least something superfluous. Neurosis and frenzy leave no time for sex; in fact, the capital letter X also suggests the outline of an hourglass, but an empty hourglass. It is the absence of time that cancels any possibility of real physical contact, it is vertigo that prevents a true carnal union, the only safe thing is virtual sex, the obscenity of porn.

7

I remember now a piece that I had the opportunity to see some years ago in an exhibition in Mexico City, I mean Todos los días a las 9:00 hrs / Simpleman. The correct thing would be to write Simple man, the irony of the artist is evident when joining both words as if he were naming a superhero. It is not Superman, but Simpleman whose unique and extraordinary power lies in invariably sitting in front of a computer every day at 9:00 in the morning. But is that the portrait of the modern worker, the one who runs unbridled through the streets? Letʼs be a little more reckless. Canʼt it also be a self-portrait of the artist? The portraitist is the same as the portrayed. The painter unfolds himself, but when painting himself something transcendent must emerge from himself. The first thing that strikes you –assuming itʼs a self-portrait– is that it doesnʼt show its face. But if the protagonists of his works lack identity, why would his self-portrait have it? Nor does Johannes Vermeer show us his face in The Art Of Painting. He is sitting on a stool, watching his model as he paints on the canvas, which rests on his easel. Vermeer offers us his back, he is absorbed in his work. Ofill also turns his back to us, and just as Vermeer exhibits a piece of canvas on which he paints, Ofill shows us a computer. It is obvious that the brush is not his only working instrument. Ofill uses the camera and the computer as often as the paintbrush. There he manipulates the images that he later transfers to the canvas. It is a process prior to painting and perhaps more intimate and enigmatic, as if Vermeer had painted the moment he made his pigments. Many times, when contemplating Ofillʼs work, I have wondered what sounds would accompany his paintings. I have no doubt that I would hear the roar of cars, police or ambulance sirens, trodden footsteps, voices, screams, sounds of trains. In that work, however, I eliminate the noise, I am left with only the slight noise of the computer keys, the click of the mouse, the sound of the wind and the vibration of the cell phone.

8

It is impossible for me not to think of Georges Perec and in, Attempt To Exhaust A Parisian Place. To write this book, Perec sat at the Café Tabac in the Place Saint Sulpice to write down, as he himself states: “what is not noticed, what is not important: what happens when nothing happens.” It could be said that Ofill also notes what happens when nothing happens. It is evident that the protagonists of his canvases are going somewhere, but to what place, what is their destination? In his canvases there is a towards, but not a where, as if they were irremissibly revolving around an empty center. Today everyone is obsessed with recording everything. Every inhabitant of the planet is a potential photographer. Armed with the digital cameras of their cell phones, they spend their days inventorying every millimeter of their surroundings, every second of their time, constantly succumbing to the impostures of the selfie. Every time they pose, it is the selfie that creates their face instantly. But that endless collection of photographs is the obstinate reverse of Perecʼs annotations; they do not try to catalog the nothing, they draw their cell phone and take photographs as if they could not accept that nothing is happening, as if they could not surrender to the evidence that everything is boredom and vertigo. Sometimes photography replaces pleasure, displaces and blurs the moment: they do not admire the twilight, they take pictures of it so that it is recorded that they were witnesses of that splendid sunset that they did not see, because they were absorbed in their cameras, and what they end up contemplating It is not the sunset, but the photos that their cell phone stores. Ofillʼs work has features of a nightmare, but it embodies the conquest of subtlety, the triumph of suggestion over evidence, of insinuation over certainty. Ofill Echevarriaʼs photography or painting does not seek the anomalous or infrequent, but rather the anomalous in the frequent, neurosis, vertigo, and the ruin of serenity.

ALEJANDRO ROBLES
ALEJANDRO ROBLES
Alejandro Robles (Halle, Germany, 1962). He studied philosophy at the University of Havana. He lived in Mexico City for a decade and has lived in Miami for several years, where he works as a television scriptwriter for Mega Tv and Univista Tv. In 1994 he obtained the Short Story Award from La Gaceta de Cuba from the Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba (UNEAC). His stories and essays have appeared in La Gaceta de Cuba, Cero (bilingual publication published in Spanish and French), Biblioteca de México and Picnic, among others. He has just finished a novel and a book of short stories.

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